RTD’s plans: How the Doctor Who TV movie inspired revival

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Not all shows are lucky enough to get two hits on a revival. Again, not all shows are Doctor Who. The beloved British science fiction programme, which premiered on November 23, 1963, ran for 695 episodes across 26 series before it was canceled in 1989. The BBC will claim it was axed due to dwindling numbers and behind-the-scenes trouble while fans will tell you that Michael Grade (the BBC’s head of programming at the time) had it out for the show. Grade himself has been open about how he thinks the show got too violent and the sets felt too cheap, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Ratings had fell and the top brass of the BBC were debating the future of the series between them, but Michael Grade was also laser-focused on bringing the Whoniverses to their knees. Despite attempts to launch a new series in the United States with a backdoor pilot dubbed The TV movie in 1996, he will not return to the small screen until 2005. He did so under the watchful eye of the writer (and Who fan) Russell T. Davies who was clearly inspired by The TV movie…even though he never said he was.

Out with the old

Doctor Who: the TV movie saw a newly regenerated Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) struggle with amnesia and old enemy The Master (Eric Roberts) in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1999. The trip is accompanied by romantic interest Doctor Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) and streetwise teenager Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso). At five million dollars, it remains the highest budget Doctor Who story never produced and it is noticeable compared to the original series of the series. The “cheaply made” sets were replaced with on-location filming in the Big Apple, the most complex TARDIS control room ever put on screen, and standard Hollywood CGI. This change was also reflected in the score, composed by John Debney, which had a more orchestral sound than the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was capable of at the time. It gave the story a scale that Studio B couldn’t provide.

The movie failed to land with audiences, meaning a McGann-led series never materialized. However, Russell T. Davies’ vision for the series would bring some of that energy to the big screen. The sets were larger, with less green screens and CGI to flesh out the show’s environment, while the cinematography used the new widescreen ratio and wide shots that fully demonstrated that environment. The score was also bigger with composer Murray Gold providing music via the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their composer Ben Foster delivering the energy and emotion that made this era so beloved.

Ben Foster meets a Dalek at the BBC Proms, 2013

love and monsters

The most controversial change made would be in the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, which until 1996 had been mostly platonic (with the exception of the Fourth Doctor and Romana). Doctor Grace Holloway would provide a base for the companions to follow. She was young, pretty, and blonde, falling in love with the Doctor seemingly within hours. It worked, to some extent, for the film which aimed to appeal to an American market whose media typically features a romance between the main protagonists. While the show’s companions tended to be younger, there was still a decent mix of male and female voices in the TARDIS, but Doctor Holloway’s influence paved the way for the companions to seek deeper intimacy with the Lord of Time.

Rose Tyler came closest, even getting the Doctor to admit he reciprocated, but her successor Martha Jones would like her affections unrequited. Good old Donna Noble refused to entertain the notion of a handkerchief in the TARDIS (as the tabloids dubbed it) but Amy Pond has made some progress despite being engaged to Rory Williams, including the day before their wedding. Clara Oswald might have had the most interesting of these relationships, falling in love with the Doctor when he looked young before regenerating into an older-looking body. There were several companions who didn’t fit this mold either because they were gay (Bill Potts) or because they were of the same sex (Mickey Smith), but there is a noticeable aberration in Captain Jack Harkness, the series’ first openly bisexual character. Her kiss with the Ninth Doctor in the Series 1 finale was a standout moment, airing before “the turning point” (9 p.m., when such acts were permitted) and being the first-ever male-to-male kiss that many young viewers of Who had ever seen. .

Says who?

The main question fans had in 2005 was whether or not the TV movie would be considered canon, given that it was a movie and was produced in America. 2003 almost answered that question with an animated story The cry of the Shalka, starring Richard E. Grant as the Ninth Doctor, but it stemmed from the original unmade film script whose canon was also in question. Both of these questions were answered when Christopher Eccleston was announced as the Ninth Doctor in 2004. In one of his earliest appearances, he made reference to being half-human on his mother’s side, which was a controversial element of tradition introduced into the TV movie. However, the first official, in-universe confirmation of canon that McGann’s Doctor was Number Eight wouldn’t come until Series 3 where his face is sketched alongside other incarnations in the Journal of Impossible Things. The man himself would return in 2013 during a prequel minisode for the 50th anniversary special, where he referenced Doctor Holloway, ultimately ending any doubt as to the film’s canonicity… 17 years after it aired. It matters because they could have chosen to ignore it. Eccleston could have been the Eighth Doctor and the TV movie could have been skipped but showrunner Russell T. Davies and the BBC decided to keep it.

The Doctor Regenerates (Night of the Doctor, 2013)
The Eight Doctor begins his regeneration

Like the good old times

Doctor Who has been less cinematic lately. When RTD left in 2010, writer Stephen Moffat took over showrunning duties. His vision included ongoing romances but more complex and ambitious stories as opposed to character-driven ones. He kept Murray Gold, Ben Foster and the BBC Orchestra of Wales, but they would leave with Moffat in 2017. At this point there was a major changing of the guard with Chris Chibnall as showrunner and Segun Akinola as composer. Since then, the score has felt more current, with more bass sound, and the show itself hasn’t felt as cinematic. Many of the shots are flat, and the lighting tends to be studio-esque, meaning the show looks and sounds like any other drama on television. This era was not well lived by many. However, there is light at the end of the time vortex. On September 24, 2021, it was announced that Russell T. Davies would return as showrunner for the 60th anniversary, series 14, and beyond. This time, he brings with him the support of his own production company, Bad Wolf Productions, which will later be majority acquired by Sony. Hopefully he brings that energy from the big screen with him, but if he needs some inspiration, there’s at least one movie he should revisit.


doctor who am ia documentary on the TV moviehits theaters later this month, while Jodie Whittaker’s latest episode “The Power of the Doctor” will air soon on BBC One.

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