Halfway out of the Dark by John Connors

It’s easier to watch the TV movie now. Free of the weight of expectation placed on it originally, it remains a curio, a sort of mid range Doctor Who story neither disaster nor classic, a cul-de-sac, a route for a journey never taken. In 1996 however it meant a lot more. For audiences starved of new TV Doctor Who, the movie was supposed to be the dawn of a new era, a pilot for a series that would be more expensive looking and popular than ever before. Its unique status meant it was under the critical microscope for longer than any individual episode of the show has ever been. It would be the `latest` episode for a whopping nine years before we saw Rose. We tend to forget in the UK it received very similar viewing figures (just over 9 million) and had it been solely up to the BBC would probably have gone to a series. However it was expected to perform the impossible in the States where the show had never been more than a minor cult so was deemed a failure. Perhaps it’s re-release as part of the first Revalidations box set will allow a proper re-basement of the production. There’s an excellent documentary included that details the complex journey it took to arrive on our screens and the affection the players have for the series.  Of course, we should never upgrade a story just because of the love and effort that went into it, nor because of its significant place in the canon.

The TV movie is home to some elementary mistakes that a fresh show (or even a revived one) should never make. The first minute is jammed with continuity, references to things a stateside audience would know nothing of. The stunning new TARDIS set is thrown away with a cursory shot, whereas it should have been kept back like it was in The Eleventh Hour` until the right moment to make us go `wow. Great though Sylvester McCoy’s more sombre rendering of the Doctor is, this is not the place for it- a later episode could easily find a reason to have him there, maybe even to show the regeneration.
What we didn’t know then- but do now- is that the next time the show was revived, it was handled in the right way. `Rose` takes us into the Doctor’s world with a human character we can identify with. Grace could have been that character – and is actually the best written character in the TVM- but instead we open with shiny sci-fi and waffle about The Master’s remains. As for that jackanapes himself, a more tedious initial enemy for the Doctor it would be hard to find unless a posse of redesigned Quarks ambled along. To relaunch the show you need an old enemy that works in a very simple way- again `Rose` got it right with the Autons- or else something amazingly clever that will make people pay attention. The script does attempt to parallel the Doctor and Master’s regenerations but this is really a second season conceit- here you need a clean line of explanation about the Doctor in just a few sentences. This desire to explain everything in dry gobbledygook renders the production as cold as the climate clearly was when it was shot. Moments of character warmth- most involving Grace- are quickly shunted aside for bursts of melodramatic action that lead nowhere. Even the threat is nebulous and random- why midnight? It’s hard to say, really. The production lacks the narrative drive you’d expect for a new show. Every moment Paul McGann is off screen- which adds up in total to almost half the running time- everything sags.

Eric Roberts drezzed for dinner as usual
 The comedic scenes between the Doctor and Grace and also, early on, between the Master and Chang Lee promise much but ultimately never deliver, partly because everyone has to yell their way through the climax. Neither script nor director place any restraint on matters- the Doctor / Master confrontation is poorly scripted failing to show the enmity between the two and hardly helped by Eric Roberts’ camp portrayal. Having the Doctor stuck in the stupid eye opening device robs Paul McGann of the chance to really stake a dramatic claim for his Doctor; we enjoy his lightness of touch and enthusiasm earlier but stuck in the device with noise and wind all around he is lost. Chang Lee’s complicity in helping the Master is never properly dealt with, his motivation altering twice, while Grace’s sudden ability to faff about with wires and make the TARDIS work makes no sense at all. Perhaps the cardinal sin for fans is that the previously mentioned vague threat is solved by seemingly turning back time (though people didn’t seem to have as much of an issue with the concept in the 2010 season...).  Actually the logic of this does make some sense though only if you accept the Eye of Harmony would be in the TARDIS, but it is a denouement that just begs the question of why every threat isn’t solved this way. Nonetheless the TV movie does have an incredible watchability factor and back in 96 it looked more sumptuous than the series ever had before with colour tones and some directorial choices adding an extra level that, frankly, the script barely deserves. 

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