“Paul McGann doesn’t count!”

The Doctor Who TV Movie (titled just Doctor Who, and variously referred to in Who fandom as “The One With Paul McGann In”, “The TV Movie”, “Time Waits For No Man”, “Grace: 1999”, “That Piece Of Crap” and “The Sensational TV Movie Starring Paul McGann”) is possibly one of the most over-analysed pieces of media ever created. As the only new Doctor Who to be shown on TV between 1989 and 2005, as the pilot for a revamped version of the show that never existed, as the first high-profile piece of Doctor Who created since the internet became a mass medium for discussion, and as the sole basis of several incompatible lines of spinoffery, this rather unimpressive ninety-minute TV show has been the subject of tens of millions of words’ commentary, direct and indirect.

Very roughly, there have been two critical consensuses among ‘established’ fandom about this story. I say ‘established’ fandom, because once we get to the post-2005 series there is a parallel fandom, mostly female-dominated, and revolving around LiveJournal and Tumblr, and their views will become increasingly important as our story continues. But here I’m talking about the older, more insular fan community who, due to their having written most of the books on the subject, have become the de facto consensus which one is either agreeing with or challenging when writing anything about the programme.

The consensus right up until the broadcast of Rose in 2005 was “the TV Movie was crap, a terrible attempt to remake Doctor Who as an American ‘Cult TV’ programme; its only saving grace was that Paul McGann was absolutely wonderful in it.”

Pretty much straight after the broadcast of Rose, there was a more-or-less unanimous revision of this opinion, first stated by Lawrence Miles in his review of that episode:

McGann, despite being a decent actor and I’m sure a decent human being etcetera etcetera, was not a good Doctor; he was the predictable Doctor. Given the job of reintroducing the character / concept for a new and mainly American audience, the decision was made to turn him into a gross mean average of all the Doctors who’d gone before, except with extra sex appeal… It could only have been worse if they’d hired Hugh Grant. Watch the story again, and he barely even has a personality… The managers of all the world’s boy-bands couldn’t have come up with a Doctor more demographically-correct than this, and the true horror of it is that most of us fell for it, myself included.

One suspects, though, that after David Tennant and Matt Smith, Miles may want to reassess his opinion of whether a “more demographically-correct” Doctor could be created.

The crucial point about both of these assessments, though, is that they are both agreed that there is absolutely no resemblance between the 1996 TV Movie and the post-2005 series.

Except…except that’s clearly nonsense, isn’t it?

I don’t want to jump ahead, but the 1996 TV Movie is, to an unbiased eye, quite clearly closer to the post-2005 TV series than any other piece of Doctor Who to that point.

The TV Movie introduces the Doctor in a TARDIS that is a vast steampunk-Gothic contraption in brown, rather than having a small white console room.

In the TV Movie, while the Doctor’s TARDIS works, he still arrives on contemporary Earth and the entire story is set there.

There’s a horrid orchestral rendition of the theme tune.

The Doctor gets a one-off companion — a contemporary human with whom he has a romantic subplot.

It’s shot single-camera film, rather than multi-camera video, and largely on location. (If you don’t think this is important, it affects every single aspect of the production’s look and feel.)

We’re meant to care deeply about the Doctor’s mysterious background.

The emotional relationship between the various main characters is of vastly greater importance to the story than the actual plot, which is wrapped up with a bit of handwavium and some turning back of time. (Almost no Doctor Who prior to this actually dealt with time travel as a theme, rather than as a means of getting the Doctor from place to place. A significant chunk of the post-2005 series, especially those stories written by Stephen Moffat, does just that.)

TVs on screen comment on or parallel the main action.

These all sound like they’re only minor things — and many of them are — but the fact is that if you showed this and a random episode of the Moffat series to the casual viewer, they’d recognise them as the same kind of thing, in a way they wouldn’t recognise even Survival, let alone anything earlier than it, as being the same. They might think it was significantly worse than either the “classic” or “modern” shows, but they would recognise it as the same kind of thing as the modern one.

Despite Russell T. Davies’ widely-known antipathy for Grace: 1999 (an antipathy that Stephen Moffat appears not to share), the TV Movie seems to have, if not influenced the new series (and the makers of the show have argued convincingly that the biggest influence it had was in showing them what not to do — it’s made as a piece of “cult TV” in a way that the post-2005 series never has been) then at least been an example of convergent evolution.

The problems with it are, of course, self-evident — the Doctor is shoe-horned into a Campbellian Hero’s Journey for which he is almost uniquely ill-suited, it begins with a huge unnecessary infodump about Skaro, Daleks and Time Lords which has nothing to do with the actual story that follows, it spends the first twenty minutes having Sylvester McCoy as the star, and most egregiously (as was recently pointed out to me by someone who has never watched any other Who than this) it sets up what has the potential to be a much more interesting story — Doctor Who and the Gangs of San Francisco — before turning into a pointless runaround with the least interesting version of the Master to date. And that’s not even getting into the “half-human” revelation.

So why does this look so much like the new series, which at least doesn’t make those mistakes?

Because it’s American.

The American and British TV traditions are so different as to essentially be two different media which happen to have the same name. The British tradition comes, as I’ve said before, from a theatrical background. We had teleplays, and Play For Today and The Wednesday Play.

The American tradition, on the other hand, is a filmic one (unsurprisingly given that their film industry dominated the world even before TV came along). They have “TV movies”. They use a single camera taking specifically set-up shots, rather than multiple cameras filming the scene from all angles to be edited together later.

But the British televisual tradition has, since around the time Doctor Who originally went off the air, essentially ended — only soap operas are made in the multi-camera way which encourages the theatrical style, now. Our directors are now all making films for the small screen, which is a totally different set of techniques from the old techniques. Nothing now looks the way that, say, David Maloney made it look.

I suspect this is to do with the choices made at the end of the Thatcher era, when public service broadcasters got weaker requirements at the same time that the ITV franchises got sold off to newer, more ruthless companies.

This difference can be seen most clearly if one watches Red Dwarf , the only BBC science fiction series to be broadcast consistently over the time Doctor Who was off the air (though Red Dwarf is an unusual show in that it’s an SF sitcom). The first two series, in the late 80s, were filmed purely multi-camera, with very few effects. Series three through six, in the early 90s, were still multi-camera, but with far more model shots and effects. Then series seven, filmed in 1996 and broadcast in 1997, was single camera. Watching it, you can see the old way of making TV dying.

That’s not a value judgement, but a judgement of fact. And when it comes to TV, now all TV follows the American model. And this affects the choice of shots, which affects the type of acting that works, which affects the type of writing that works.

The things about Grace: 1999 that are different from the rest of TV at that time are the things that Davies and co avoided when they came, seven years later, to start their new series of Doctor Who. But the underlying assumptions about the way TV is made that it embodies continue to this day.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.