Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Continuing our seemingly never-ending retrospective person history of Doctor Who . . .uh, thing, we look at what happened during the 1990s.

When last we passed by, the show had been canceled and that, obviously, would have been that. But there's something so right about the idea that the Doctor Who timeline is just as confused in real life as it is in its fiction. It would be fairly tempting to say that up until the movie hit in 1996 "for a long time, nothing happened." (We'll just pretend Dimensions in Time never happened, shall we?) Suffice it to say Doctor Who continued on with a few fan films (marketed under "The Stranger") and a whole lot of novels (some of which were written by people who would get their chance to write for the show proper a few years down the road) which, depending on who you ask are either "wonderful" or "utterly diabolical."

Meanwhile, the BBC tried mightily to get a Who movie mooted, and in 1996, they finally got a TV movie for their trouble (as an unwieldy three-studio collaboration that's probably far too much of a legal headache to ever see an official release in America, sad to say) that was a backdoor pilot for a relaunch of the series on American TV.

And, well . . .when I first saw it in 1996, I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt. Honestly, I did. There was plenty to like--they had Sylvester McCoy along to transition to the new Doctor, they spent more on it than the last three seasons of the television show combined, I bet, Paul McGann made an excellent Eighth Doctor, and . . .well . . .

Uhm . . .

. . .no, that's pretty much it, I'm afraid. It's not very good. The main plot is an utterly confusing mess, there's a lot of puddering about before the real plot starts up, character behave in ways that no person ever would even after consuming several peyote buttons, and Eric Roberts was so damn bad as the Master, Batman dropped him off a fire escape.

For a long time, I could never quite twig on to why it didn't work for me. And then I saw a documentary on the various regenerations in Doctor Who on the DVD of "The War Games" (Bless you, BBC, for all these little extra goodies you put on Who DVDs) and they articulated it--because the story is so obsessed with the prospect of regenerating from Seventh to Eighth, we never get much of a sense of the new Doctor because he's either some other guy or wandering around confused and by the time he finally becomes the Doctor, one hardly gives a damn. One of the things the 2005 revival does right is that there's a new Doctor at the start of the story, full stop. This seems to say--"We're doing something new now, and while we acknowledge the history before us, we're not going to look back until we've got a good running start."

It's really kind of a shame that McGann doesn't get more screen time as the Doctor, and it's always a lingering hope of mine that he gets to come back for a Doctor team-up before it's too late, because he's very good as the Doctor--he's less cerebral and more of a dashing and romantic figure (this was mildly controversial at the time--after all, the Doctor never has romantic intentions towards his companions, and this was considered an immutable rule) and really makes it his own, once the regeneration stuff is out of the way.

But it's not enough to save the movie, and the proposed series never makes it out of the gate (Remember the Generation X movie? The other alleged success story of 1996? Yeah, seems like they ran over that summer and failed with an intensity and tenacity ordinarily only seen in successes) and the Eighth Doctor had to be content with novels and, starting near the turn of the century, audio dramas from Big Finish, who has damn near become the Doctor Who Actors' Welfare Program at this point.

For the rest of the 90's Doctor Who remained for the most part a fondly-remembered footnote, not least by one Steven Moffat, who pens "The Curse of the Fatal Death" as a comedy special in 1999. It's absolutely hilarious (and available on Youtube on DVD) and features the most obvious and simultaneously convoluted use of time-travel ever, the true explanation of what "Dalek bumps" are, forever paints the Master as camp caricature, and features Rowan Atkinson regenerating (eventually) into Joanna Lumley. No, really.

It also makes reference at the climax about why it's worth keeping Doctor Who alive, which I will paraphrase here--The Doctor is too brave, wonderful, and altogether too silly to ever completely die.

Good advice, that--and bless him for it. That Moffat fellow was pretty clever. Wonder whatever became of him?

What become of Who, however, is something we'll take up next time. Join us next time for the Ninth Doctor's brief tenure, which features the show returning in force, with most all the problems that strangled previous revivals of the show in the crib . . .not to say we won't find newer ones along the way. It's the long-awaited return to glory next time--join us, won't you?

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