There’s a lot of negative things that can be said about the controversial 1996 attempt to reboot Doctor Who but I don’t think anyone can dispute that Paul McGann gave it his best. Released during the period between the end of the original series and the 2005 revival, the 1996 version of Doctor Who features Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor getting gunned down by a San Francisco street gang and regenerating into Paul McGann. McGann was a youthful Doctor, in the spirit of Peter Davison’s take on the character. He played the role with a lot of enthusiasm and optimism. If the 1996 film had led to the series getting revived, it’s easy to imagine Paul McGann making the role his own and becoming as identified with the Doctor as David Tennant and Matt Smith.
The presence of Sylvester McCoy was another praiseworthy aspect of the television film. Though the TV movie is rightfully criticized for rewriting a good deal of the show’s continuity, it was still smart enough to bring back both McCoy and the TARDIS. I wish McCoy had gotten a a more heroic death, though getting gunned down by a street gang is still more exciting than the bump on the head that led to Colin Baker turning into Sylvester McCoy in the first place.
The film features the newly regenerated Doctor trying to stop The Master (Eric Roberts) from using an artificial black hole known as the Eye of Harmony to destroy the Earth. For some reason, the Eye of Harmony is located inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS and the Master needs to access the TARDIS so he can access the eye. Meanwhile, the Doctor has just regenerated and doesn’t have all of his memories yet so he’s only fighting at half-strength. Actually, the less said about the plot, the better. The plot doesn’t make much sense. Though Eric Roberts might seem like the perfect choice to play The Master, he doesn’t bring much to the role. Roberts plays The Master as just being another generic villain, with none of the wit that Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainsley, or even Derek Jacobi brought to the role.
The most controversial part of the movie comes when the Master discovers that the Doctor is half-human, which is something that feels like it was forced on the production by an American television executive. They probably thought that the audience wouldn’t be able to relate to the Doctor unless he has some human blood but it actually robs the character of the mystery that made him so popular. Part of the Doctor’s appeal is that he’s an enigma but the television movie gives him an origin that seems like it was lifted from a comic book. I guess we should just be happy that the people who made the film understood that Doctor Who wasn’t actually the character’s name.
Doctor Who was meant to be a pilot for a revival of the show, one that would have been an American/British co-production. It didn’t lead to a reboot and I guess we should be happy about that because the weakest moments of the movie are the moments that were obviously designed to appeal to an American television audience, like the Doctor dealing with a very 90s street gang or sharing a kiss with an ER doctor. It’s easy to imagine that the film would have led to a series that would have had more in common with The X-Files than the original Doctor Who. With the film not leading to a series, Doctor Who would have to wait another 9 years before finally getting rebooted.
Still, it’s hard not to regret that Paul McGann didn’t get more opportunities to play the Doctor. With a better script, he could have been one of the great ones.