- Vancouver, British Columbia -
Doctor Who: The Seventh Regeneration
The Seventh Doctor: Whatever you’re about to do, stop!
Grace: Mr. Smith, you’re going to be all right.
The Seventh Doctor: No, I am not human. I am not like you!
Grace: Nobody’s like you, Mr. Smith…
Story (from “Doctor Who”):
The Master has been caught and placed on trial on Skaro. Before the Dalek’s execute him, he asks that his remains be taken back to Gallifrey by the Doctor. The Daleks (for some odd reason) grant this request.
As the TARDIS heads to Gallifrey, a slimy creature breaks out of the box containing the Master’s remains, and sabotages the TARDIS. The ship loses its bearings and crash-lands in San Francisco in 1999. The Doctor realizes he needs a to realign the TARDIS’ timing mechanism, and the closest approximation on Earth is a Beryllium Atomic Clock. As he steps out of the ship, he is caught in the cross-fire of a gang shooting.
One of the gang members, Chang Lee, attends to the Doctor and has him taken to a hospital. A diagnosis shows two bullets in his leg and one in his shoulder. While treating him, the staff check his heart rate, which is more than double what it should be. Taking an X-ray of his chest reveals two hearts, but the staff assume a double exposure and order another machine.
The resident cardiologist, Dr. Grace Holloway, inserts a probe into his circulatory system to locate the source behind his erratic heart rhythm. Unfortunately, she critically wounds the Doctor while lost in his alien arteries, and he dies on the operating table.
After his body has been wheeled into the morgue, Grace examines the x-rays and determines that it wasn’t a double exposure. She’s astounded by this amazing development, and eagerly awaits the autopsy.
While in the morgue, the Doctor regenerates, a process significantly delayed by the anesthetic in his system. When he regains consciousness, he realizes he has no memory. He beats down the door and stumbles through the hospital trying to get his bearings. Soon he finds Grace and, recognizing her, follows her in an attempt to get his memory back.
Meanwhile, the creature that is the Master has entered the body of Bruce, the paramedic With that body rapidly decaying, the Master begins to enact a plan to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations, even if it means destroying the Earth in the process.
In 1989, BBC1 controller Michael Grade finally got his wish: Doctor Who was taken off the air. The 26th season saw John Nathan-Turner stay on as producer, even though he had tried to get out of it twice. Andrew Cartmel had been script editor for the entire run of McCoy’s Doctor, and was keen to stay on for at least one more season. In fact, scripts were already under consideration.
The last season of Doctor Who was an odd one. There were four stories, and they focused on the “darker” Doctor and a more complex Ace (his companion). Ace was a very suitable replacement for Mel. Where Mel was a walking scream machine, Ace was very three-dimensional, and was even brought to the writers during pre-production to talk about character arcs. The Doctor’s costume became darker, and he alluded to being more than just a Time Lord. He became more manipulative, often aware of events before they happen, and orchestrating them to happen properly.
Unfortunately, many of the plot points that were being developed, including “who the Doctor really was” were dropped when production of the series ceased. The final story of the series, “Survival” depicted the Doctor confronted by the Master once more, whom we hadn’t seen since “The Trial of a Time Lord” back with Colin Baker.
During the 90s, this began the many attempts to bring Doctor Who back. In 1996, Philip David Segal was very interested in being the one to spearhead the project, but it looked like the BBC wasn’t going to play ball, so he began shopping around for anyone else who might be interested. This naturally led him to the US, where he thought the series might do well, especially with the larger budgets that American networks grant their shows.
The only network who was even remotely interested was Fox. But there was a catch; they first had to produce a back-door pilot, a television movie that could serve as a first episode. That way, Fox could assess the ratings and commission a series based on how well the TV movie did.
With a budget of $5 million, Segal was able to get the BBC on board (as the BBC had all the licenses), as well as Universal. $1 million was to be spent on the set of the TARDIS interior alone. This interior became a tremendous improvement over the previous versions, with a steampunk theme and a grandiose cloister bell room, containing the Eye of Harmony (more on that later). Interestingly, some time after production, the set was stolen from storage.
Matthew Jacobs was hired to write the script, and Segal dictated quite a few terms. He believed Doctor Who had lost its footing in the 80s, and wanted to return to the mysterious mythology of the Time Lords. With the visuals, he wanted to do away completely with vibrant colours and question marks, and as such the Eighth Doctor would dress in a Victorian manner, reflecting the first few Doctor’s costumes.
For casting, Paul McGann was selected to be the new Doctor, and Segal made it clear that he wanted a regeneration scene. That required pulling Sylvester McCoy back into the role, which he was more than happy to do. In the part of the Master, Segal cast American actor Eric Roberts, who you may recognize as "that guy from a couple of good movies and lots of really bad ones." Daphne Ashbrook was cast as Grace, the Doctor’s companion for the story, and even during production, it was known that she would not continue on if the series was picked up. Interestingly enough, Ashbrook is one of very few actors who has appeared in Star Trek and Doctor Who.
Recognize the font for the title? It’s the same one that was used for Jon Pertwee’s era. There was initially going to be a new theme tune composed as well, hence the credit given to John Debney, but at the last minute a new arrangement of the old theme tune was used.
The movie was shot in Vancouver, BC, and even aired in Edmonton on CityTV first, before the Fox broadcast and the UK broadcast. It flopped in the US, and Fox nixed the idea of financing the series (oddly enough, I am totally unable to find out what the ratings were). However in the UK, it scored over 9 million viewers, thus showing the BBC that there was significant interest in the program…but more on that next time.
As for the regeneration itself, Segal was very interested in showing more of the process. He thought that using a light and a video mix was a cheap way to do it, and wanted to take advantage of the budget to show a genuine morph. Through in some electricity, and some cuts to Will Sasso watching Frankenstein to serve as tongue-in-cheek exposition, and the regeneration was completed.
First off, the regeneration.
What a spectacle. Segal hit the nail on the head when he wanted to show the process, and not just disguise a changeover between the two actors. In terms of explaining it within continuity, we can go for the easy explanation: the anesthetic. Not only did it delay (and almost destroy) the regenerative process, but we can speculate that it hampered the regeneration. Hence why we see and hear bones grinding, and the muscles stretching and morphing. So, I’ll give a hearty bravo to that.
Now for the rest of the story.
On the whole, I think it’s okay. As someone who has a fair bit of knowledge about the mythos of the show, I can get into it. But the terminology and the technology are just kind of thrown at the audience with a half-explanation (more of a “just go with it”), and I can see that as being really confusing. For that matter, it’s too short. At just under 90 minutes, they cram way too much into it. Slap on another 20 minutes, or cut some of the chaff; either way, rewrites were needed.
On to specifics. The casting is pretty good all in all. Paul McGann is captivating as the Doctor; he might even be one of the best (seriously!). He brings a strength and a vulnerability, with just a little wacky thrown in. Daphne Ashbrook as Grace certainly compliments him as an intelligent and resourceful woman, as Lord knows we don’t need another Mel…ever again. I question the cast of Eric Roberts as the Master. He can be a little menacing at times, but on the whole, he’s just a little too over-the-top. Previous incarnations of the Master were at their best when they were calm and in the shadows. Roberts walks around like the Terminator, and then dresses up in Gallifreyan robes at the end. Why??
On the subject of the Master, one thing I did like was his glowing eyes. While casual watchers might assume that it is his “evil essence” or whatever, the last story of the series, Survival, involved a planet that possessed anyone on it and turned them into Cheetah People. One of the first symptoms was to get their eyes, and the longer you stayed on the planet, the more long-term the effects. The Master was on there for quite a while, and we can infer that he is still infected (although for him the infection may be permanent). This may not have been intended by the writers, but it seems too extraordinary a coincidence.
You may be asking why a Time Lord can apparently survive being dematerialized by the Daleks, and take on the form of a slimy snake creature. Well, you can choose the easy answer and say “Because he’s EVIL.” But many writers have tried to explain this in more concise ways. In the novel, "The Eight Doctors," which takes place directly after the movie, there is a flashback which shows the Master contemplating how he can get more regenerations, and visiting a world where such creatures are used to prolong life – they can store neural energy and then they seek out a new host. I find this has the most weight behind it because it is written by Terrence Dicks (remember that guy? Former script editor, writer of many Doctor Who apocrypha, and principle supporter of the season 6B theory with the Second Doctor).
Moving to the TARDIS, I’m pretty happy with the change. The steampunk look is a good one, and very appropriate for the ship. It is interesting to note that there are some novels that implicitly state that only Time Lords can truly understand the complexity of the TARDIS, and any other race would go insane even looking at it. As such, TARDISes generate telepathic fields to alter perception of the craft. As much of a stretch as this may seem, remember that it stated explicitly in the series (both old and new) that the TARDIS translates language for anyone who travels in it by telepathy. So it’s not too much of a jump of logic. More on this next time.
A lot of fans were puzzled by the appearance of the Eye of Harmony within the TARDIS. Whenever it has been seen or mentioned, it has been on Gallifrey. Which makes sense, given it contains a singularity. As such, it has been dismissed as a link to the Eye, which makes sense since all TARDISes draw their energy from the Eye. And this isn’t even the first time the Master has tried to use the Eye to grant him more life (see the Fourth Doctor story, “The Deadly Assassin”). But why on Earth does it need a human eye to open? I’m going to wage a bet that it doesn’t actually; it just won’t open for the Master.
Also…what’s this about the Doctor being half human?? Many writers have tried to explain this, with excuses being that he used the chameleon arch right before his regeneration (see the Tenth Doctor story, “Human Nature”), to only that regeneration being half human (as Romana seemed to be able to change her species while trying on regenerations), to him having a human mother from the Victorian era (and we just didn’t know this whole time). Given that in the Tenth Doctor story, “Journey’s End” results in a duplicate Doctor being made that’s half human, from his companion Donna’s genome. And no one is more shocked at being half human than he is! On that note, if you go to the BBC’s official Doctor Who website, if you read the FAQ, it confirms that the Doctor is human. BUT if you read the trivia for the aforementioned episode, it states explicitly that this episode lays that issue to rest, as the Doctor can’t be half human. So, if even the BBC website is divided on the issue, I doubt we’ll see any closure anytime soon. Personally…can’t we treat it like Highlander 2 (ie. it never happened)?
Now, another thing I liked was how the Master couldn’t stay in a human body for long; he was burning it out. We don’t see this again until “Journey’s End”, when Donna has the knowledge of a Time Lord stored in her head (a Time Lord – Human Metacrisis). It begins to burn her out and will kill her, but the Doctor wipes her memory to prevent that from happening.
How does the Master intend to use the Eye to take the Doctor’s remaining regenerations (or his “body”)? Well, I’m not too sure, but I would place a wager that he’s attempting to absorb the energy of the Time Vortex, and while in the process of doing that he’s swapping places with the Doctor. We see the full power of the Time Vortex in the Ninth Doctor story, “The Parting of the Ways”, when Rose has absorbed the power of the Vortex. It allows her to bring Captain Jack back to life, and sure enough in this story, the Vortex brings Grace and Chang Lee back to life as well (although it is the TARDIS that controls it). It even uses the same gold dust effect.
One last thing: the newly regenerated Doctor pulls the lost probe out of his chest while sitting in Grace’s car. A gaping wound like that should slow someone down, but we can again safely assume that the regeneration effect has lingered long enough to quickly heal such an injury (a la the Tenth Doctor story, “The Christmas Invasion”). In fact, he seems to have enough energy built up that he was able to batter down a sealed steel door in the morgue.
Man…there’s a lot to this story. Again, although it is interesting to fans of the series, it is a detriment to the accessibility of the story for new viewers. So it’s a good watch if you have a few stories under your belt, and it’s a shame we didn’t see more of McGann in the role.
Or did we? Stay tuned for next time.
And Another Thing…
Yee Jee Tso, who played Chang Lee, can’t act to save his life.
Grace: Two hearts. You were right... who are you?
The Eighth Doctor: I was dead too long this time. The anesthetic almost destroyed the regenerative process.
Grace: Oh, yeah. Right... Look, I'm going to take some of your blood and find out what's going on here.
The Eighth Doctor: No, Grace. Don't you see? I have thirteen lives...
Grace: Please! Don't try and tell me that you came back from the dead. Sorry, the dead stay dead. You can't turn back time.
The Eighth Doctor: Yes, you can.