1990-2004 (Dec 26 - Dec 28)

December 26: Dimensions in Time Parts One & Two / Doctor Who [The TV Movie]
December 27: Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death Parts One, Two, Three, & Four / Scream of the Shalka Episodes One & Two
December 28: Scream of the Shalka Episodes Three, Four, Five, & Six



December 26: Dimensions in Time Parts One & Two / Doctor Who [The TV Movie]

And so now we've moved on to 1993.  Doctor Who has been off the air for four years now, but the show's thirtieth anniversary is coming up.  An effort to make a direct-to-video episode failed (for reasons not worth going into -- but there's a nice documentary on the Inferno Special Edition DVD if you're interested), but John Nathan-Turner (still nominally in charge of the show, as he's been responsible for clearing various video releases and putting together some compilations as well) doesn't want to let this anniversary go without some sort of commemoration.  The result was Dimensions in Time: take a two-part mini-episode with as many returning Doctors, companions, and monsters as they could throw in, mix them all up with popular BBC soap EastEnders, and see what comes out -- all under the pretext of charity.  (Indeed, one of the agreements for this special was that everyone would give their time for free so long as this special wasn't exploited commercially -- which is why you'll never see an official video release (though it's not hard to find online, if you're curious).)

Dimensions in Time is notorious in fandom, and if you want to take it seriously as part of Doctor Who (though no one has ever wanted to) then it's an incredibly frustrating piece of nonsense -- one that manages to be silly and rather pointless (the resolution is particularly dumb, as it depends upon the Rani (the main villain) being stupid and grabbing the Doctor's companion (who's also switching between different companions, somehow) when she's Romana and thus another Time Lord, and then allowing some flagrant technobabble to save the day) at the same time.  To the people who were hoping for the show to come back in some form, this must have seemed like a flagrant slap in the face.

The sixth Doctor with the Brigadier. (Dimensions in Time
Part Two) ©BBC
Now, though, with Doctor Who firmly reestablished as one of the BBC's flagship shows, this looks more like a strange curiosity in hindsight.  It looks like a testbed for some new 3-D technology involving how the brain perceives movement -- which means that the camera is constantly spinning around the performers (sometimes inducing a feel of dizziness for the viewer) -- more than a serious effort to bring the show back in any form, but the basic idea (the Rani is messing up the Doctor's time-stream to stop him from interfering with her plans to put him in a time loop forever) actually isn't that bad.  And there is something rather wonderful in seeing all the old Doctors back in some form, along with some companions -- McCoy and Aldred in particular seem like they've never been away, so effortlessly do they slip into their old relationship.  And so the first four minutes or so are generally entertaining -- it only starts to go horribly wrong when the Rani introduces a bunch of enemies of the Doctor (err, including some that shouldn't be enemies -- there's an Argolin, the Dragon from Dragonfire, and a really unhappy-looking Time Lord among all the other costumes they've pulled out of storage), at which point it just turns into a stupid runaround where they just try to match up Doctors and companions in classic and/or interesting ways (perhaps most notably, the sixth Doctor finally gets to share some screen time with the Brigadier) until the episode's over and the Rani is defeated.

It's incredibly silly and it has some atrocious dialogue ("Pickled in time, like gherkins in a jar!"), but at least it's short -- and now that this isn't the BBC's final word on Doctor Who, it's less of a bitter pill to swallow.  It's awkward in many places and daft in many others, but if you can just sit back and accept that this was for charity, as a way to raise some money while seeing some old friends, then there's actually a bit to enjoy about Dimensions in Time.  Seeing Jon Pertwee back in action alone almost (almost) makes this worth it.

But that was all the Doctor Who we got...until 1996, when a brand-new made-for-TV movie graced our screens -- the final product of a long gestation period.159  And not only is this movie explicitly a continuation of the show we last saw in 1989, but it's also designed to be a pilot for a new series -- one that would be made in America.  Obviously that series never materialized, but we did get this -- technically called just Doctor Who but usually referred to by various nicknames (one of my favorites being "Grace: 1999").  I'll just be calling it the TV Movie.

It's a really strange beast though, the TV Movie.  It wants to be a brand-new, fresh start for the show -- but it also wants to acknowledge the past.  No, more than that; it explicitly wants to wallow in in-jokes, in references and little "kisses to the past" (as producer Philip Segal called them).   This is sort of fine when it's just sonic screwdrivers, jelly babies, and Seals of Rassilon (although one wonders what that fresh American audience made of those things), but whenever they want to do something a little further it seems to go wrong.  It's perhaps most obvious in the utterly bizarre opening, where high-pitched Daleks sentence the Master to death by extermination (complete with a shot of cat eyes, which might be foreshadowing his "goo snake" form but is probably intended to be a reference to Survival) and then invite the seventh Doctor to come get him (and let's set aside the problem of how Skaro can exist when it blew up in Remembrance of the Daleks, as life is too short).  And he does!  Without any problems, it seems!

Sylvester McCoy regenerates into Paul McGann. (Doctor Who)
©BBC Worldwide/Universal
It's also really strange how they introduce an old Scottish gentleman as the apparent hero but then only keep him around for about fifteen minutes before they kill him and turn him into Paul McGann.  It's nice to see Sylvester McCoy back (and no longer in that damn question mark pullover!), but it does give things a disjointed feel -- just as that American audience were starting to get the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under them and cast some new guy in the same role.  This is because the production team have decided that they need to have a regeneration sequence (so, a lot like Time and the Rani there), no matter what it might mean for the storyline.

To be fair, they do try to make a virtue of this.  Director Geoffrey Sax cleverly juxtaposes the changeover in Doctors with the Master-worm taking over the body of Bruce the ambulance driver, suggesting that these two are linked in some way (even beyond the "they're both Time Lords" connection).  Not only that, but the use of Frankenstein (from Universal Pictures, so they had the rights) to show what's happening to the Doctor's body is also nicely done.  It's just questionable whether this should have been there in the first place.

So we've got things included to make this more palatable for the fan audience.  But then they've also thrown in things to make this more palatable to an American audience -- or rather what network executives think will be more palatable for an American audience.  And so the Doctor is half-human, just like Spock from Star Trek (although this actually seems to be an artifact from an earlier draft, where the Doctor and the Master are brothers, their grandfather is Cardinal Barusa [sic], and their father was Ulysses, who came to Earth and married a human woman -- see, things could have been much worse160); the TARDIS is disguised with a "cloaking device"; the world's most accurate clock is located in San Francisco (with banners that proclaim the beginning of San Francisco Mean Time -- let's hope this is a slogan rather than a genuine scientific move)... and the whole thing looks a lot like any other SF or drama show on Fox in 1996, and it's scored in a straightforward orchestral style -- the works of Tristram Cary and Delia Derbyshire are a long way from John Debney's Jerry Goldsmith-esque score.

It's not all bad, though, and in fact for the first half it's frequently enjoyable.  Minus the reservations about some of the decisions at the script level, this has moments that sparkle -- having Paul McGann pull the surgical wiring out of his chest to prove he's the same person as Sylvester McCoy is a good move, the way the Master gets Chang Lee to trust him is really nicely done, and the Doctor grabbing the police officer's gun and threatening to shoot himself is an incredibly Doctor-ish moment.  It's also well-directed by Sax -- no, scratch that; it's directed surprisingly well, with lots of interesting angles and shots to make this as dynamic a production as they can.  And Sax has gotten some good performances out of people: Paul McGann is pretty much on form from the get-go, with a sense of breathless energy that serves the character well; Eric Roberts has decided to play the Master as flamboyantly OTT, which makes him incredibly watchable (and threatens to steal the show from the hero when they're both on screen together); and while Daphne Ashbrook has decided to play Grace with a slightly kooky sense, as if she knows she's on Doctor Who, Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee surprises by being incredibly charming, even when he's aiding the Master -- and so although he's ostensibly a villain it doesn't really feel that way.

The Doctor thumps the TARDIS console. (Doctor Who) ©BBC
Worldwide/Universal
But ultimately this story falls well short of the mark.  The problems it faces are rooted in the script, and while writer Matthew Jacobs does his best with the material he's given (with lots of quotable lines: "I love humans.  Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there"; "These shoes!  They fit perfectly!"; "This. Is. An ambulance!"; "I always drezzz for the occasion"; and many more), when it comes to working with all the nonsense inflicted upon him from earlier drafts he simply can't come up with a reason to make this work, either for the first-time audience (who presumably were confused by the technobabble and massive infodumps -- including, infamously, the speech to Grace in the park that starts with "He's planning to take my body" and ends with "...and he will take my body!") or for long-time fans (who just wondered what had happened to the show).  It's a script that has to satisfy so many different masters that the end result frequently lacks heart -- it's full of set-pieces without any understanding as to why those set-pieces should be there.

It's a lot better than it could have been (seriously, check out the Leekley Bible in the book Doctor Who: Regeneration if you want to know about some of the horrors that could have been inflicted), and there are some good performances here -- Paul McGann was a great choice of Doctor (as anyone who's listened to his Big Finish audios can easily attest) and it's sad he didn't get another real shot at the role on-screen (other than a quick episode that manages to be better in 7 minutes than the 86 minutes they aired in 1996).  It looks really good, thanks to Sax and his crew, and there's nothing it does that's horrifically vile or offensive.  Of course, it needed to be a lot more than that, and both as a pilot and as an episode of Doctor Who it's frustrating -- you can see that many of the right pieces were there, but they can't make them cohere into something worthwhile.  More than anything, the TV Movie suffers a death by committee -- no one singular authorial vision shines through (despite Sax's best efforts), and the result is a leaden mishmash.



December 27: Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death Parts One, Two, Three, & Four / Scream of the Shalka Episodes One & Two

North American VHS
release (from the
Amazon product page)
So after the TV Movie came to nothing161, Doctor Who started to fade from the public consciousness -- not completely, as sales of the video versions had always been healthy and you might find some of the novels in a bookstore, but without a continuing programme the show started to become a memory.  And it was largely as a bit of nostalgia that the show returned for a comedy sketch in 1999, this time for a different charitable cause from Dimensions in Time.  That had been for Children in Need; this was for something called Comic Relief.

But unlike some of the spoofs that had gone before, with lame jokes about wobbly sets and Daleks that can't climb stairs (because no one saw Remembrance of the Daleks), Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death (to give it its original broadcast title) is an affectionate parody from a fellow fan and professional television sitcom writer named Steven Moffat.  And you can sense the love Moffat has for the show.

It's set after the TV Movie -- Rowan Atkinson is explicitly the ninth Doctor -- and in twenty minutes it both makes some pointed jokes and reminds you why the show was so popular in the first place.  Atkinson looks like he's playing out a dream role; his Doctor is played with serious intent and he comes across as a very credible choice for the Doctor -- which makes all his deadpan jokes even funnier.  Julia Sawalha is fun and charming as the Doctor's companion Emma, and Jonathan Pryce steals the screen by playing the Master incredibly OTT, trying to retain his dignity every time the Doctor punctures his self-inflated ego.

It's full of jokes (including a time travel one that in hindsight looks like Moffat flexing his muscles) and some fabulous performances -- including some wonderful cameos as the Doctor keeps regenerating.  So we get Richard E. Grant as the tenth Doctor, Jim Broadbent as the eleventh Doctor, Hugh Grant as the twelfth, and Joanna Lumley as the thirteenth (in a nod to the suggestions that the Doctor could be a woman), and each of them make their mark in only a relatively short time, establishing each as different but the same.  It's really wonderful to see.  And then we get Daleks too!  (Probably because Terry Nation's agent at the time he created the Daleks, Beryl Vertue, is Steven Moffat's mother-in-law.)

It's a cheeky but loving poke at a nostalgic favorite, pitched at just the right level, with jokes for both casual viewers and hardcore fans.  Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death is wonderful.

But obviously that wasn't meant to start a series up, and nothing seemed forthcoming for the next couple years.  There had apparently been a proposal or two in the meantime (a rising television writer named Russell T Davies pitched a low-budget version of the show around 2000 or so, and a producer named Dan Freedman had created an online audio story called Death Comes to Time in 2001-2002 and was clearly angling to start making real Who in the near future), but nothing had really come of any of it.  So, with the show continuing to fade, the BBC website (called BBCi at that time) decided to create the official ongoing adventures of the Doctor as a webcast.  Their debut story, scheduled to take advantage of the 40th anniversary in 2003, was called Scream of the Shalka.  But unlike the previous webcasts (Death Comes to Time, Real Time, and Shada with Paul McGann), which had been audio stories with still pictures, Scream of the Shalka was a fully animated story (from Cosgrove Hall, who you may remember from the animated episodes of The Invasion).

In some ways Scream of the Shalka seems to be avoiding mistakes made by the TV Movie -- we get a brand-new Doctor (this time played by Richard E. Grant -- yes, the same one as in The Curse of Fatal Death -- but sounding an awful lot like Paul McGann for some reason) but no time is wasted with regeneration sequences or anything like that; instead new elements (like the TARDIS mobile and the new look of the console room) are introduced as they come up, tantalizing the viewer rather than clubbing them over the head with it.

They're also really trying to make this Doctor seem as different as possible from any others.  He seems incredibly sarcastic and extremely unwilling to help -- he repeatedly rails at the sky about being forced to assist the humans and tries to only do the bare minimum.  It's something of an off-putting characterization, but deliberately so -- one wonders if they'll soften this at all in the subsequent episodes.

The actual storyline feels generic (alien invasion) but with interesting bits (the Shalka are a special type of "goo" that live in volcanic rock and can control people with sound -- the eponymous scream), but with two short episodes it's hard to get a good grip on it yet.  Still, there are tantalizing bits and enough unanswered questions (such as, most obviously, why are the Doctor and the Master now friends and traveling together?) to keep you intrigued.  I'm curious to see where they go from here.



December 28: Scream of the Shalka Episodes Three, Four, Five, & Six

It's interesting to see the parallels between what writer Paul Cornell and the rest of the production team do in Scream of the Shalka and what Russell T Davies is about to do in the revived BBC Wales version of the series.  Both teams want to shake the Doctor up, give him some dark past to brood about; the Shalka team go about it with references to some unseen story where the Doctor lost someone, BBC Wales gives him the Last Great Time War and everything that entails.

The Master and the Doctor in the TARDIS. (Scream of the
Shalka
Episode Four) ©BBC
But what's curious is that both want to start the Doctor from a damaged place and then have him slowly warm up over time.  It's not quite clear why they're both starting from this point (and certainly they weren't influenced by each other) -- they must have both wanted an element of mystery to the character and come up with similar ways of achieving it.  Obviously they're not identical (there's no robot Master in the TARDIS in "Rose", for instance), but the similarities are intriguing.

One of the differences is that Richard E. Grant's Doctor comes to his epiphany quite quickly.  He's not completely there by the end of the story, but he's certainly made some progress -- the thought of losing someone else as he falls into a black hole (it makes sense in context) seems to lead him to reconsider some of his recent choices, and he's no longer completely unwilling to help humanity out.  This does help in thawing his character out over the course of the story, which is good -- even though he's still sarcastic and acerbic at times, he's recognizably the same character.  But Richard E. Grant still manages to make his mark on the character -- it's hard to imagine any of the previous Doctors resolving the story by singing showtunes and hitting the right pitch to incapacitate the villains, but Grant makes it seem like a natural part of his Doctor.

He's aided by a good cast -- Sophie Okonedo is really charming as Alison, giving us a brave and determined performance, and Sir Derek Jacobi is obviously wonderful as the robot Master, who seems to be friendly but with a suggestion of more nefarious motives.  And there's a quick cameo in episode five from David Tennant, who literally begged his way onto the production when he learned that Doctor Who was recording in the studio next to where he was.

It's a decent script -- a tad traditional in its approach to Doctor Who, but as it's giving us a different Doctor you can see why they went this direction -- and a good cast.  In a way it's unfortunate that real-world events overshadowed Scream of the Shalka; the webcast was announced in July 2003 for November, but by the time November rolled around, the news had already been circulating for two months that live-action Doctor Who would be returning to BBC1 in 2005, and thus Shalka was doomed before it began, relegated to non-canonical status.  This is sad; as I said, there are some interesting ideas here and it would have been nice to have seen more.  But Richard E. Grant's Doctor would become little more than a footnote in the history of the show, a curious might-have-been rather than the definite article.162  Far and away the most influential thing about Scream of the Shalka is that their efforts in untangling the rights issues in the wake of the TV Movie (where ownership was shared between the BBC, Universal, and Fox -- this is one of the things that delayed a region 1 release for so long) so that they could pave the way for their webcast was key in the approval of the BBC Wales version.

So we've spent the last three days seeing some of the ways in which Doctor Who lived on (or attempted to) after its indefinite hiatus in 1989.  But (with the qualified exception of the TV Movie, which really did try to spark something even if it followed the patterns of the others), these have all either been efforts to recapture a feeling of nostalgia or targeted at a smaller, more dedicated fan audience.  Fortunately, this approach would be discarded in 2005 in favor of an all-inclusive effort to gain as wide an audience as possible...









Footnotes

159 The TV Movie spent an incredibly long time in gestation -- its roots actually predate the end of the series.  Entire books have been written on the subject, but here's a brief synopsis of events (and this is putting it very crudely):
     There were a number of companies competing to make a feature film version of Doctor Who.  One of the ones that actually got some traction was Amblin Entertainment (yes, the Spielberg company), although this appears to have at various points been both a movie and a full-fledged series.  One of the biggest proponents of a deal on the American side was Philip Segal.  An agreement was reached, and while the production changed companies (Spielberg apparently gave the project to Segal when he got a new job elsewhere) the show was still a go -- only this time it would air on the American Fox network.  All of the negotiations and moves and script drafts dragged on such that it took until 1996 before they finally had something to show for it.  But in the meantime, rather than commit to a full series, Fox decided to just go with a pilot and see what the reaction was.  That reaction was strong in Britain but weak in America, and so the series was a no-go.
160 And if this had been the case, you'd think it would have come up during The Myth Makers.
161 Well, nothing in TV terms.  In the world of merchandise the TV Movie led to the establishment of the eighth Doctor as the current one, which meant that he was now the Doctor featured in Doctor Who Magazine's comic strip and was also the star of his own line of novels published by BBC Books (having taken the licence away from Virgin Publishing right around the time the McGann film came out).  But those weren't the sort of things the general public were really aware of.
162 One of the advantages of Russell T Davies' "no previous knowledge required" approach to Doctor Who was that owing to the lack of any definitive evidence to the contrary (even something as simple as Eccleston mentioning he's the ninth Doctor, which doesn't happen), you could wind fans up online by arguing that Richard E. Grant belonged between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston and that Scream of the Shalka was in fact canon.  It was an entertaining argument that you could make for a surprisingly long time (it wasn't really until "The Name of the Doctor" et seq., that this door was definitively closed).