Liz Tells Frank What Happened In the 1996 “Doctor Who” Back Door Pilot
As you may be aware, the history of Britain’s classic science fiction series Doctor Who is epic — we’re talking about a show that premiered the day after Kennedy was assassinated and is still on the air. But the show hasn’t been running non-stop since 1963; between the “classic” Who years and the Russell T. Davies relaunch, the franchise experienced a fallow period. A very long fallow period. During which some truly crazy shit happened.
See, in between the show’s initial cancellation in 1989 and the recent reboot, the Fox Broadcasting Company got the idea that maybe Doctor Whowould work for American audiences. This was the year 1996, at which time Fox had established a proud tradition of airing crazy sci-fi shows, including The X-Files, Strange Luck, M.A.N.T.I.S. and VR.5, so the idea of them picking up Who isn’t as bizarre as one might think.
Hedging its bets, Fox pulled a pretty common network move, commissioning a back door pilot to be shot in Canada (another proud ’90s Fox tradition!) and starring a new (younger and presumably hotter) Doctor — if it worked, then Fox would continue the series, and if it didn’t work, all that would happen is an embarrassing memory for all involved. (GUESS WHICH ONE HAPPENED GUESS!!!!)
I count myself as one of those involved, for I fucking LOVED the sci-fi Fox was putting out in the 1990s — all those shows I mentioned before? hell yes I watched them all — and so I made a point to watch the Doctor Who pilot when it premiered (homework was often sacrificed for television when I was a wee lass).
I would not return to the franchise for another ten years.
So let’s talk about what chased me away! Frank, this is a terrible 80 minutes of television. I rewatched it last week with my friend Rudy so that we could make fun of it on our time travel-themed podcast, and it was as terrible as I remembered! (Which was comforting, to be honest.) So let’s get to it.
With the help of every lazy screenwriter’s BFF — voice-over — we’re quickly introduced to the Doctor, who is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time in a ship called the TARDIS, which looks like a blue police box. Oh, and he has a nemesis called the Master, who is a douche, and was just executed for extreme douche-y-ness. (For anyone who’s seen Who, you might find it confusing that the Master is put on trial and executed for his crimes by a pack of DALEKS on the DALEK HOME PLANET, because that makes NO FUCKING SENSE, but it’s best not to think about that too much.)
Apparently the Master’s last request was to make the Doctor take his remains home to Gallifrey, because what could be more douche-y than bumming a ride off a guy who you tortured a bunch of times? But the Doctor is a nice fellow, so he picks him up and settles in for a quiet trip in his TARDIS. Oh, in case you didn’t get that he’s a time-traveling Time Lord, bee tee dubs, the Doctor has helpfully decorated his TARDIS with CLOCKS!
Let’s cut to the chase — things get weird, the box carrying the Master’s remains (which take the shape of a CGI goo-snake because wait no there’s no because because it makes no sense) is destroyed, and for some reason the TARDIS gets pulled from its course towards Gallifrey and crashes on Earth. San Francisco, to be exact. IN THE FUTURE! The future being New Year’s Eve, 1999. Just like the movie Strange Days! I still really like that movie. You ask, Frank, WHY this date? Oh, there’s no reason, except that maybe Strange Days made it look cool? Sigh.
The Master, in goo-snake form, sneaks out of the TARDIS, where he will eventually possess the body of an EMT played by Eric Roberts, which means that for the rest of the movie Eric Roberts has eyes like this:
Oh god it’s dumb.
Meanwhile, the Doctor steps outside the TARDIS and immediately gets shot by a bunch of Asian gang members. Whoops! A less-gang-affiliated young Asian guy whose name is seriously CHANG LEE (because Asian-y McAsian was too on-the-nose?) gets him to the hospital, then splits because he don’t want no trouble, man. Naturally, this kid is doomed to experience some more trouble.
At the hospital, the nurses are freaking out because this guy has TWO HEARTS (it’s said multiple times, in case you get confused, so just to be clear Frank THE DOCTOR HAS TWO HEARTS) so they call in the head cardiologist, a lady I end up referring to a lot as Dr. Grace. Dr. Grace was at the opera, but she’s a serious doctor so she goes into the O.R. still wearing her fancy opera gown. And then in the O.R. she listens to more opera! THE LADY LIKES OPERA, let’s be really clear here.
Let me take a quick moment to say this — I’m sure the lady playing Dr. Grace is a very nice person, but there is just something WEIRD about her face. Like, it was assembled out of a stack of physical features that are objectively considered attractive but put together are WRONG. This makes her seem a bit like a robot. Her performance doesn’t help that any.
Mid-way through the surgery, the Doctor wakes up and is like “stop operating on me, you’re going to kill me” and Dr. Grace is like whatever and then she totally kills him with her so-called “modern medicine”! Double whoops! And the Doctor’s off to the morgue.
This would be a good time to mention that up until this point, the Doctor has been played by the last actor to play him in the BBC series, a fine gentleman named Sylvester McCoy, who was the 7th actor to portray the role (and quite generous, if you ask me, about participating in this malarkey). If you’re new here, the way Doctor Who pulls off these casting shenanigans is that every time the Doctor dies, he “regenerates” as a new duder with the same memories but a different fashion sense.
Reason I mention it? It’s time for the Doctor to regenerate into Paul McGann! In an attempt to be arty, this is intercut with the “It’s alive!” scene from the classic Frankenstein. This attempt is not successful.
So now the Doctor has floppy hair and — thanks to raiding the locker room at the hospital — a fancy velvet coat and ascot (as an ascot enthusiast, I am pleased). He also has amnesia! Oh good. The one person he recognizes, though, is Dr. Grace, since she killed him and all, so when she storms out of the hospital thanks to having just been fired, because she didn’t want the hospital administrator to cover up the fact that she did heart surgery on a guy with two hearts (and killed him!), the Doctor chases after her and asks for her help. The reason I did that all as one big run-on sentence is that I thought if I could get the stupid out all at once, it wouldn’t hurt as much to type it. I was wrong.
Grace agrees to give him a ride back to her place (why? not sure) where she discovers that she is now single, because her opera-going companion got pissed off about her ditching him at the opera to do her job and so moved all of his shit out of their swank house in the middle of the night. Sure, okay. At this point, I’m just gonna go with it.
Oh, right, there’s all this shit with the Master. Here’s all you need to know — the Master is trying to find the Doctor because he wants to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations (there’s a limit of 13, and the Doctor’s on number 8, so if you ask me the Master could probably find a younger Time Lord and get a better deal out of it, but whatever). Helping him is Chang Lee through the magic of coincidental meetings and the Master convincing Chang Lee that the DOCTOR is the douche, not him! Given that the Master has the power to hypnotize people, this seems like an unnecessary bit of trickery, but as we’ve already established in this paragraph the Master is a shitty strategist. So shitty, in fact, that his primary means of locating the Doctor is to strut around like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.
For the record, Frank, there is probably not a single original idea or line of dialog in this entire movie. The ol’ Cliche-o-tron 5000 was working overtime when they wrote this one.
There’s a lot of flailing around in this middle section, as the Master opened up the Eye of Harmony to steal the Doctor’s extra lives (too bad it’ll lead to the destruction of reality at midnight), the Doctor slowly regains his memories, and also kisses Dr. Grace! When I watched this originally, I remember liking the kissing bits, and then I read about how the kissing bits were NOT TRUE TO THE SPIRIT OF DOCTOR WHO BECAUSE THE DOCTOR IS ASEXUAL AND HOW DARE THEY. Suffice it to say, when Russell T. Davies took over the show and it became the Every Companion Gets A Smooch series, I became much more invested.
Dr. Grace likes the kissing but gets freaked out by the whole this-guy-is-a-time-traveling-alien thing (in exactly that order). Grace’s freakout leads her to call for an ambulance to take the Doctor to the psychiatric ward, and lo and behold the Master shows up to take the call! (This is because the Master hacked the Eye of Harmony to spy on the Doctor. Sigh.) The Doctor asks instead to be taken to the big fancy science institute, because their fancy atomic clock will help him save humanity, so they all ride in the ambulance together.
This is possibly the best scene in the entire fucking movie, Frank, as Dr. Grace is bitching about how she doesn’t believe that the Doctor is a Time Lord and she asks him if Marie Curie kissed “as good as me” and the Master interjects “as well as you.” There is something about Eric Roberts correcting Dr. Grace’s grammar that is really funny to me. Or maybe at this point I’ve just been beaten into submission.
Sadly, this scene and the ambulance ride are over abruptly when the Master’s sunglasses get knocked off and the Doctor sees the aforementioned SNAKE EYES BECAUSE THAT’S SERIOUSLY A THING IN THIS MOVIE. So the Doctor and Dr. Grace flee from the ambulance and acquire a police motorcycle. This is accomplished after the Doctor distracts a cop with jelly babies and then steals his gun and threatens to shoot himself in the head. I wrote all that out because it’s one of the few moments in this movie that almost feels like Doctor Who. Except for the gun thing, of course (the Doctor, Frank, hates guns), but you can’t have everything.
Dr. Grace and the Doctor do whatever they needed to do with the clock (and somehow this convinces Dr. Grace that he’s a Time Lord, in case you were invested in Dr. Grace’s emotional journey or anything) and then vamoose back to the TARDIS for some timey-wimey gobblygook. The primary problem is that the TARDIS is out of power because the Eye of Harmony has been open for too long, but just when the Doctor figures out how to jump start it, Dr. Grace gets possessed by the Master and knocks out the Doctor with a hammer. Man Dr. Grace is the worst. The only thing worse than Dr. Grace is the Master’s new outfit.
Ugh this climax is stupid. Lemme summarize: Blah blah blah shouting rip-off of A Clockwork Orange the Doctor tricks the Master somehow and humanity is saved and the Master gets swallowed up by the Eye of Harmony what does that mean I honestly don’t give a shit.
Dr. Grace and Chang Lee both get killed during all that fun, but a little nip back in time and EVERYTHING IS OKAY. That’s right, it’s like the ending of the first Superman movie. It might actually be more stupid and cheap than the first Superman movie. Which anyone will tell you is an ACCOMPLISHMENT.
So the Master’s gone, the Doctor goes ahead and gives Chang Lee a bunch of gold dust and some savvy tips about the future, and then he blows off Dr. Grace to go back to sitting in his TARDIS reading The Time Machine. And then the TARDIS goes screwy again and I guess we’re off to a new adventure! That we, the home audience, will never ever see.
Not that other adventures featuring Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor don’t exist! Between 1996 and 2005, McGann actually did a number of audio adventures as the character, and those plus a series of novels are actually liked by people who enjoy Doctor Who novels and audio plays. (I say this with no judgement. I am one of those people from time to time.)
That said, my favorite comment on Paul McGann’s time is this scene from the original British version of Queer as Folk. What happens is as follows: Aiden Gillen (otherwise known as Littlefinger/the Mayor of Baltimore to HBO fans) is trying to tell his Who-loving best friend that he loves him. He does so by flawlessly reciting the names of every actor who had played the Doctor up until that point (the year 2000).
“What about Paul McGann?” Vince asks. And they say in unison: “Paul McGann doesn’t count.”
The notable thing about that exchange? It was written by soon-to-be Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies. Paul McGann does of course officially count according to Doctor Who canon. But Frank, maybe Rusty had a point.