Posts Tagged ‘Paul McGann’

Crikey, it’s like a second Christmas. Better than Christmas, really, as it doesn’t involve all the travelling and expense and Christmas proper only features an hour or so of actual Doctor Who content. Now, fair’s fair, being who I am there are frequent intervals in my life when I spend most of my time looking at or thinking about Doctor Who, but for once this is happening without me having to actively pick up a magazine or watch a DVD. This is great. We should have a 50th anniversary every year.

Anyway, I thought I would round up my thoughts on the first tranche of anniversary-related programming laid on by the BBC. I was initially rather dubious about the first intersection of someone named Brian Cox and the celebrations, as I’ve always thought that in terms of titles making sense, The Science of Doctor Who is up there with The Glamour of Railway Station Waiting Rooms or The Wit and Wisdom of David Cameron (i.e. there isn’t any worth mentioning). That said, the actual lecture – though somewhat low on genuine Doctor Who content – was sterling stuff, with one of the best explanations of how relativity operates that I can recall. I’ve been reading attempted explanations of time travel in terms of light-cones and gravity distortion for nearly thirty years – rather more, if you include the bafflegab about TARDISes functioning as ‘time cone inverters’ from Logopolis – but Coxy’s go was as close to intelligible as any of them. Nice one, Coxy.

BBC3’s Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide looked quite grim on paper: a bog-standard C&C production (that’d be clips and, er, contributors), with various people with only a vague idea who Barry Letts is coming on and making rather too big a deal out of how big a fan of the programme they are. However, given this was a production made for a contemporary, mainstream audience, it was actually pretty respectable, and actually included a startling amount of material from the 20th century programme – even some in black and white.

Put together, the previous two offerings add up to about three hours of Doctor Who-related material, and Matt Smith popped up in inserts for them both (none of this was what you’d actually call canon, of course, even if it did feature Jenna Coleman looking even cuter than usual). Nevertheless none of it came close to the shockwave reverberating around  world fandom in the wake of the release of Night of the Doctor, less than seven minutes of actual Doctor Who, but still one of the greatest coups Steven Moffat has ever pulled off.


The actual story was very straightforward and confirmed a lot of what I, for one, already suspected: the final moments of the eighth Doctor and his metamorphosis into the War Doctor with whom we will shortly become much better acquainted. But never mind that: this was the final moments of the eighth Doctor. Or, as I nearly put it in a Facebook status update before I thought better of such obvious spoilers: PAUL MCGANN! PAUL MCGANN! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! IT’S PAUL MCGANN! PAUL MCGANN! Everyone, it seems, already has their own story as to where they were the first time they saw Night of the Doctor, and exactly what noises they emitted when McGann made his unexpected appearance. I had half-anticipated it, but still found myself letting out high-pitched squeaks and bouncing up and down in my seat. (Thank God I had gone into a disused classroom at work to use the PC there, rather than the one in the office.)

There’s something deeply satisfying about the way that this very small story finally starts to link together the 20th century series and the 21st century incarnation of the programme – now that I think of it, Peter Davison beat Paul McGann to the title of First Person to Play the Doctor on Telly in Two Different Centuries by a number of years, but even so. It’s also, of course, somewhat bittersweet – I know he’s done a huge number of audio stories as the Doctor, but the ease with which McGann slipped back into playing him on camera, and doing such a stunning job of it, was breathtaking. Never mind Colin Baker or Christopher Eccleston: it’s the brevity of McGann’s TV appearances as the Doctor which is the single greatest missed opportunity in the history of the programme.

The geeky stuff running through my head while watching Night of the Doctor:

  • The concept of the Doctor as some sort of refusenik from the Time War was a curious one and not at all what I would have expected. His arch-enemies are in a battle to the death with his own people – a war he himself may have had a hand in starting – and he chooses to stay on the sidelines? That’s surely a little uncharacteristic. The difference in the Doctor’s appearance from his debut also seems to suggest that rather a long time has elapsed, which is a mark against the theory that the Master’s execution on Skaro formed part of the build-up to the Time War itself.
  • Speaking of which – the War Doctor looks startlingly young in his brief appearance at the end of the episode. This begs the question of how long this incarnation actually persisted for, given he appears to age the equivalent of thirty years for a human. Let’s not forget that, going by what’s said on screen, the Doctor at one point ages 200 years between episodes and doesn’t actually appear any older. Then again Moffat has said in interviews that the Doctor’s clockspeed is a matter of personal choice, and it’s entirely possible that this question will be addressed in the special itself.
  • The Doctor’s salute to his past companions only includes the ones from the audio range – making the Big Finish range canonical, on some level at least. No doubt there will be grumbles from fans of Izzy, Destrii, Fitz, Stacy and the others – and if the tenth Doctor had time to go on an extensive galactic tour just prior to regenerating, it seems a little unfair that the eighth didn’t get the chance to make a properly comprehensive farewell address. But, c’est la guerre.

One thing that struck me about Night of the Doctor was just how eagerly it seemed to engage with the deeper mythology of the programme – references to the Time War, the Sisterhood of Karn, and so on. Even the reappearance of the eighth Doctor really qualifies as very old continuity. I would be surprised if we got quite this level of mythos from the actual special itself, but it would be a pleasant surprise nevertheless.

The sense I’m getting, and this is mostly speculative, is that in The Day of the Doctor the 21st century series is going to have not only its first bona fide Three Doctors moment – one of Patrick Troughton’s more memorable ad libs reappears yet again, of course – but also its War Games moment. I never honestly expected to see the Time War itself, or the actual destruction of Gallifrey, and I don’t think Russell T Davies ever planned on them being depicted. But then Verity Lambert was against the idea of ever revealing any information about the Doctor’s origins. The Time War, as a piece of back story, has underpinned much of what’s happened in the series since its return, and this could be the moment at which it moves on to something radically different and new.

That’s an exciting prospect, but I hope the current version of the series gets the valediction it has earned (and I realise as I type that that I am conveniently forgetting just how cold most of the last two seasons have left me). I know I have criticised Steven Moffat in the past for approaching the show of late with a fanboy mentality, but if ever there was a time to let your inner fanboy rip then it is surely now. Don’t disappoint, Moff.

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Join me now as we crash headlong into the main problem confronting anyone attempting to sample the whole breadth and depth of televised Doctor Who: the sheer lack of available material when it comes to the eighth Doctor, as played by Paul McGann. With only one ninety-minute movie to his credit, surely McGann is the invisible Doctor as far as the world at large is concerned – that’s not to denigrate the numerous comic strips, novels, and CDs that were produced (and continue to appear) about this version of the character, but McGann’s own self-deprecating appraisal of himself as ‘the George Lazenby of the Time Lords’ possibly overstates his importance in terms of the TV incarnation of the programme.

(Even the producer of the McGann movie was apparently pleasantly surprised to discover that the eighth Doctor was considered canonical, although it wasn’t until The Next Doctor that he actually takes his place in the succession of on-screen Doctors. Prior to this I had occasionally mused to myself that there was nothing to say that there hadn’t in fact been any number of unseen interim Doctors between McGann and Eccleston… not that they’d ever use that sort of idea in the actual TV show, of course…)

Then again, the existence of a Doctor who was both official and yet barely delineated was a boon to the makers of those same spin-off properties, and it would foolish to say they had no part in bringing about the programme’s eventual return. In any case, the eighth Doctor’s place in the series’ history is not our topic for today – the movie which constituted both his debut and swan-song is.

Technically there is a problem here, as I did set out only intending to write about stories which I have always really enjoyed: and I recall my initial impression of the movie mainly being one of bemusement, transforming into active dislike within the space of a year or so. But there’s nothing else available for this Doctor, and I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to watch the movie since before the series actually came back. Possibly, I thought, viewing it again now would reveal it to be a natural and organic step in the development of the series – the missing link between Survival and Rose?


The plot goes as follows (oh boy): the Master has been executed by the Daleks on Skaro, and the Doctor has been charged with transporting his remains back to Gallifrey. However the Master is not as dead as he appears, having transformed himself into a blobby snake thing, and manages to force the TARDIS to crash land on Earth at the end of the 20th century*. Walking out of the TARDIS, the Doctor is caught in the middle of a gang fight and gunned down.

Taken to a hospital, the cardiologist (Daphne Ashbrook) who attempts to make sense of the Doctor’s alien biology hashes it quite badly and he dies on the operating table, only to regenerate on the slab in the morgue. Meanwhile the Master possesses the body of one of the paramedics involved (Eric Roberts) – but this is only an intermediate step, his ultimate goal being to take over the body of the Doctor, no matter the dangers involved for the rest of the planet…

So, as I say, it’s a very long time since I have been able to muster anything approaching genuine affection for the TV movie as a whole – has this latest return to it done anything to change that?

Well, no. I still think that, in a unconscious moment of devastating candour, the movie reviews itself quite early on. The Doctor, who is not in good shape, finds himself in the hands of some well-meaning rich Americans, who promise to do their best to make him better than ever. However, they fundamentally misunderstand what makes him work and end up practically killing him instead. Substitute the TV show for the character and you have the movie in a nutshell.

This has never really felt like ‘proper’ Doctor Who to me – which is not to say that there aren’t some lovely isolated moments along the way, most of them connected with the performances of the two leads – after a surprisingly grim first act, most of it has a playful, intentionally romantic quality to it which even the 21st century series at its most sentimental has hardly ever tried to emulate. The focus of the plot solely on the Doctor and the Master – with a climax set entirely in the TARDIS – is arguably a misstep too. This is before we even get to the fact that the resolution of the plot is, by any conventional standard, incomprehensible gibberish, which even some of the characters don’t seem to understand (God knows what American viewers new to the series would have made of it all – the programme makes virtually no concessions to anyone unfamiliar with the set-up of it all).

And as for it being the missing link between Survival and Rose – the weird thing is that those two stories don’t actually need an additional link, in narrative terms they are remarkably close together in many ways. This story is just a weird detour off into some very peculiar territory, incorporating a heritage Doctor (all crazy hair and frock coat), a peculiar religious subtext, one of Eric Roberts’ less distinguished performances (surely one of the most erratic big-name performers currently operating – one minute he’ll be perfectly fine in a classy film like The Dark Knight, the next he’ll be easily the worst thing in a piece of trash like DOA), and a strange obsession with honouring past continuity while wildly innovating upon it.

Which brings us to a few key issues connected with the TV movie, which I shall conclude by briefly looking at:

The Kissing Thing: it’s strange to recall just what a big fuss got made about the Doctor kissing Grace back in 1996. I suppose the one and only way in which the movie anticipates the modern series is in its conception of the Doctor as, potentially, a romantic hero, as it’s become pretty much de rigeur for each new incarnation to have his own little osculatory interlude. In retrospect, it hardly seems worth going on about it.

The Eye of Harmony Thing: not long after the movie broadcast I was asked by a somewhat puffed-up acquaintance if I’d spotted the continuity error. ‘Which one?’ I enquired, rather drily. ‘The one where the Eye of Harmony used to be on Gallifrey but now it’s in the TARDIS,’ came the reply (where, according to Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, it has remained). Well, personally, given that the Eye is supposed to be a singularity and thus have a rather tenuous relationship with the standard laws of physics, I have no issue with it being in two places at the same time (or even many places, assuming the Eye is the power source of every TARDIS), or indeed looking radically different.

On the other hand, I am somewhat bemused as to what the Eye of Harmony actually does in the TARDIS these days – if it is still a source of infinite power, and the ultimate motive force of the vehicle, then why have there been a couple of stories kicking off with the TARDIS needing to be refuelled? But I digress.

The Half-Human Thing: Here we go. If the Doctor kissing has now become much more acceptable to an informed audience, the idea of his being half-human remains beyond the pale. A stony silence has descended with respect to the whole concept, almost as if it has been stricken from the collective consciousness of fandom.

Well, I think a sort of a fix is possible, if you go with the theory – which had some currency at the time – that it’s only the eighth Doctor who’s half-human, due to there being human DNA in his body at the moment he regenerates, the duffers at the hospital having pumped him full of human blood. (While we’re on the subject, the fact that Grace’s probe remains in the Doctor’s body post-regeneration is interesting: does this mean that if you kill the Doctor by stabbing him through one of his hearts, and leave the knife in, every time he regenerates the new incarnation will instantly die for the same reason? Thoughts about the usefulness of a stake through the heart as a method of killing, not to mention the ancient and obscure in-universe connections between Time Lords and Vampires, instantly occur to me. But I am digressing again.)

This does mean dismissing the Doctor’s line about being ‘half-human on [his] mother’s side’ as a joke, which may not have been the makers’ intent, and is a slightly odd coincidence. It leaves us with only the Master’s comment that ‘The Doctor is half-human. No wonder…!‘ It’s the ‘No wonder…!‘ part of the line which invites speculation. It could be the Master is assuming the Doctor has always been half-human, and the meaning is ‘No wonder he keeps visiting Earth,’ or just ‘No wonder he’s so weird.’

None of this explains the business about the Eye of Harmony not opening for Time Lords, only for humans. The audios had a valiant stab at retconning this, but I think it’s really one of those things best left as a mystery of time (i.e. swept under the carpet of awkward continuity issues).

The Doctor’s Precognitive Powers Thing: this is just cobblers (it’s been even more fiercely ignored than the half-human plot point). God knows what they were thinking of.


*The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

I’m going to stick my neck out on this one and suggest the story happens on the last two days of December, 1999. Controversial, I know.

What is perhaps more interesting, and less facetious, is the issue of when the Master’s ‘execution’ at the start of the movie takes place, given it occurs on the planet Skaro. Skaro was destroyed on-screen in Remembrance of the Daleks, but the date at which this occurs is not given.

Now, going solely from what we see on screen: given the Doctor’s meetings with the Daleks occur out-of-sequence, there’s no reason why the trial and execution couldn’t occur at any point in Dalek history, long before the planet’s destruction – the Master’s history with the Daleks is much less extensive than the Doctor’s (as far as we know), but given the manner in which he arguably lets them down at the end of Frontier in Space, I would suggest that from the Daleks’ point of view the trial occurs post-2540 (which is when that story is set).

This still doesn’t explain the oddity of the Daleks actually putting someone on trial at all, given they are normally quite happy to kill people out of hand whenever it suits them: they  certainly don’t respect any outside authority in moral matters. Nevertheless, they do the same to Davros at the end of Revelation of the Daleks, which perhaps gives us a clue – both the Master and Davros have a history of potential utility to the Daleks, so it may be that the ‘trial’, rather than a legal proceeding, is more a sort of assessment as to whether it’s worth keeping him alive as a potential ally.

Complicating all this is the fact that an abandoned Skaro appears on-screen again at the beginning of Asylum of the Daleks. Given the Daleks apparently ‘withdrew from history’ prior to the Time War, it would be odd for the history of their homeworld to remain accessible to time travellers, but on the other hand, it seems entirely reasonable for the apparently-cataclysmic temporal upheavals of the Time War to have somehow restored the planet (which is in ruins anyway) – so I would suggest the Asylum scene is set in the post-Time War history.

Rusty Davies has made an apocryphal contribution in this area, suggesting that the TV movie occurs in the very final days before the Time War begins in earnest, with the Master having been handed over for execution in an attempt to appease the Daleks (the ‘Act of Master Restitution’) – presumably their getting the remains back afterwards was part of the deal. (This presumably gives the eighth Doctor quite a short tenure before the war catches up with him!) Nevertheless this still places the TV movie as pre-War, and so Skaro can only be there if the Daleks have already been engaging in a little surreptitious rewriting of the timelines (a little-known side effect of this sort of behaviour is a sudden rise in the pitch of the voice).

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 1st 2004:

Hello again everyone. You might be interested to know (but, let’s face it, probably aren’t) that as I write Timmy Henman is still in Wimbledon and England are still in Euro 2004 – which, barring some fairly unlikely results, is a dead giveaway of the fact that this column was written some time ago. This is because I rather unexpectedly find myself on holiday in the wilds of Hampshire this week, and thus unable to perform my usual reviewerly duties.

However, rather than selfishly deprive you all whilst I whoop it up in Winchester, I thought this would be a nice opportunity for one of our irregular quasi-topical golden oldie features. The British film industry has a long tradition of making comedy films about holidays – Carry On Camping and the big-screen Are You Being Served? to name but two of them. Relax, though, as an in-depth examination of Mrs Slocumbe and her famous pet is not imminent. The only British comedy to truly capture the genuine misery and despair of a country holiday is, of course, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I.

It’s a bit of a shocker for those of us who revere this film to realise that more years separate the present day from the year it was made, than separate the film itself from the year it is set. (Hmm, that was a bit confusing, so just to elucidate: Withnail was made eighteen years ago, in 1986, but it’s set seventeen years before that, in 1969.) This is traditionally the point at which I try to summarise the plot, but the thing about Withnail & I is that it only has the barest rudiments of one. It’s a bit like Lost in Translation in that respect – albeit set in the Lake District, lacking a single significant female character, and with a lot more effing and drinking and attempted homosexual rape. It’s basically just a week in the lives of (ahem) resting actors Withnail (Swaziland’s leading pantomime dame, Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann). Tiring of their squalid Camden Town flat, and running very low on alcohol, they decide to go to the countryside to rejuvenate. Appropriating the key of a country cottage belonging to Withnail’s demented Uncle Monty (grotesque-uncle specialist Richard Griffiths), off they go to the Lake District, where Withnail’s remarkable ability to hack off virtually everyone they meet is even less welcome than usual. And this is before Uncle Monty pops up to join them, having taken something of a shine to Marwood…

On the face of it Withnail & I is a fairly strange candidate for beloved cult-movie status, given that not a huge amount happens, it was clearly made on a very tiny budget, and the script, locations and atmosphere conspire to give it one of the grimmest atmospheres imaginable, evoking the hangover after the excesses of the first summer of love. The sun barely seems to shine, filth and squalor abound, Marwood is the only even vaguely sympathetic character for most of the film (probably because he’s Bruce Robinson’s version of himself), and if the story has a theme it’s one of desperation and refusal to engage with reality.

But what makes the film the work of brilliance that it is is the way that the characters respond to their dreadful surroundings – mainly by getting drunk a lot, but more importantly by coming out with scabrously witty and very quotable dialogue. (It should also be pointed out that, even by modern standards, this is startlingly foul-mouthed for a British comedy.) It’s the kind of stuff that on paper doesn’t look all that impressive, but is made irresistible by the performances. (The drinking is very popular too in certain circles, inspiring – of course – the Withnail & I drinking game, where the contestants attempt to match the intake of our heroes while watching the movie. The purist’s version of this game involves swigging half a can of lighter fluid quite early on, which we at the Post obviously don’t recommend. Stick to meths, it gets you trolleyed quicker.)

It’s plain that Bruce Robinson is first and foremost a writer, as his direction is not really anything special, doing just enough to support the script. Withnail started life as a semi-autobiographical novel about Robinson’s own flat-sharing experiences in the sixties – quite how closely based on reality the film is is a bit unclear, but it was obviously a personal project for the director, who paid the music clearance fees for the two Jimi Hendrix tracks used in the film himself. Robinson’s career beyond Withnail has always been a bit erratic, and the film itself probably owes its existence to George Harrison’s desire to make interesting films rather than profitable ones (Harrison’s company HandMade Films produced Withnail). Rather appropriately for a film so rooted in the 1960s, Harrison’s old colleague Ringo also got involved in the production – but the credits are rather coy about what exactly his contribution was, simply listing him (under his real name) as a ‘Special Production Consultant’.

Robinson either showed great discernment or enormous good fortune in snagging a cast just starting out on the road to fame and fortune. Both Richard E Grant and Paul McGann have had their brushes with greatness in the course of their careers, but this still must rank amongst their best work (I would say that Grant’s never since been as good as he is here, but then I am famously immune to his rather limited charms). Richard Griffiths is alarmingly credible as Uncle Monty – a rather more nuanced and flamboyant performance than his work as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films, but then this is a rather different character (luckily for Daniel Radcliffe). The only other character with more than a couple of lines is Danny, our heroes’ rather frazzled dealer, played by Ralph Brown in the style of a demonic Keith Richards.

It’s been suggested that you have to be British in order to really ‘get’ Withnail & I. I would go further and say you have to be a rather particular type of Brit: young, male, educated, ever-so-slightly-posh, and a little bit of a poseur. This is a film you watch over and over again just so you can recite the choicest bits of dialogue with fellow aficionados while getting wellied. And of course there’s nothing really wrong with that. In many way this is probably the cinematic equivalent of an album by Morrissey – as specialised a taste, as heartfelt, witty, and as transcendently miserable. It may not be terribly big, but it is quite clever.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 18th 2002:

[Originally following a review of…]

The One may not be terribly good, but it looks like Citizen Kane compared to Michael Rymer’s Queen of the Damned. This is loosely based on two books in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the first of which was filmed in 1995’s Interview with the Vampire. None of the same creative personnel are involved in this very loose sequel, and I’ll bet they’re counting their blessings.

Undead poseur Lestat (Ronnie O’Sullivan lookalike Stuart Townsend, who seems famous these days mainly for not being in Lord of the Rings) is roused from a century’s kip by the sound of an unsigned nu-metal band tuning up. Rather than instantly gaining the audience’s sympathy by murdering the lot of them, he decides to join the band and starts writing songs revealing untold vampire lore (as you would, obviously). All this is handled in a rushed and perfunctory pre-credits sequence, after which what I laughingly refer to as the plot goes all over the place for a bit. But eventually the bloody awful racket of Lestat’s band wakes the ancient vampire queen Akasha (yet another Romeo Must Die veteran, in the form of the late Aaliyah), who – God knows why – takes a fancy to the leather-trewed prat. Blade’s never about when you need him…

I find it hard to believe such a comprehensively bad film could be made by accident. Probably due to the fact it’s an amalgam of the plots of two separate novels, the script varies between the silly and the utterly incoherent. We’re into a rolling expanse of silly accents, paper-thin characterisation, and rampantly illogical plot developments. For instance: the other vampires take exception to Lestat revealing their existence via his songs, so they decide to silence him – by mounting a full-on supernatural onslaught against him while he’s performing live on stage in front of a million fans. The film contains only tired old cliches about vampires and their society: the usual melodramatic goth posturings. Poor old Paul McGann wanders around in the midst of it all playing a totally superfluous character who’s a spectacularly blatant knock-off of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The film has the odd visual flourish to its credit, and there’s one quite impressive set-piece when Akasha first rises. But in the end Queen of the Damned has no focus, nothing to involve the viewer and ultimately nothing new to say. For connoisseurs of the execrable only.

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