Movie reflection: Doctor Who: The TV Movie/The Enemy Within

Trapped on Earth and newly regenerated, the Doctor (Paul McGann) sets out to close the Eye of Harmony before it swallows the whole planet. Meanwhile, the Master (Eric Roberts), also on Earth, goes on the hunt, seeking to steal his old rival’s body and all his remaining regenerations.

Fifteen years after its initial broadcast, the Doctor Who TV movie—also know as The Enemy Within—was finally made available on DVD in the United States a couple years ago. Needless to say, I lost little time in ordering it from the library and watching it with my mother, KorraWP, and Noria, (ptolemaeus wasn’t interested).

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations. I’d read the synopsis and some analysis of the movie some time ago, and it sounded pretty bad. Then I sat down to watch it and it wasn’t that bad. Not great, but fairly good.

The plot is uninspired, illogical, silly, and dependent on massive coincidences. (For example: the Doctor needs an atomic clock—oh look, the local TV news just happened to announce that the city he just happened to land his TARDIS in just happens to be hosting the world’s most advanced atomic clock which just happens to have its grand opening today. And to top it off, the Doctor’s companion for this outing just happens to be on the Board of Trustees for the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research where the atomic clock is being unveiled). The TV movie is stupid fun, no doubt, but a lot of Doctor Who is stupid fun. Heck, I sat through four years of Russell T Davies—compared to that, the TV movie is nothing special.

In fact, let’s dwell on that comparison a moment, shall we? Both the new show and the TV movie often take themselves too seriously, and both are melodramatic, but the new show delivers melodrama by trying to pass off ludicrous and emotionally manipulative material as Serious Drama, whereas the movie delivers melodrama because over-the-top hijinks are fun. Only twice does the movie go for Serious Drama—and admittedly, the results in the first scene are about as tedious as most of the Serious Drama in the new show, while the second is so contrived and unsubtle in its symbolism as to attain new heights of Narm.

A lot of this comes down to a matter of personal taste, but for me a fun, pulpy adventure story without all the extraneous angst Davies and Moffat have stuffed into the new show comes as a breath of fresh air. Which is not to say that angst and real drama have no place in Doctor Who, just that for my money, it does better without those elements than when they’re overemphasized (see, for example: “Last of the Time Lords,” “The End of Time,” “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and McGann’s TV mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor”).

Maybe it’s the vantage of fifteen years and seven seasons of the new show (plus the fact that I’d read the spoilers), but I also wasn’t bothered by all the continuity issues which threw fans into a rage way back when. Oh, the Doctor is half-human, that’s pretty stupid but ehn, life goes on. Oh, the Daleks are letting the Doctor on Skaro now? Oh well, they’ll be sorting each other out again soon enough. Oh, the console room’s all different? Well, it changes again between Eight and Nine, and again between Ten and Eleven*. Oh, the Doctor’s snogging his companion now—honestly, I doubt this would’ve bothered me even before the innumerable romance arcs of the Eccleston-Tennant-Smith era.

*And incidentally, the Victorian-themed console room—complete with working fireplace if I recall correctly? Pretty fly.

And I really like the way all this material comes up off-handedly—in keeping with the general trend of the movie not wallowing in Serious Drama. If this were the new show, there would be dark hints and ridiculously cryptic clues about the Doctor’s “true nature” for one-to-three seasons, and the revelation would come with a great narrative crescendo. Whereas in the movie, the Master opens the Eye of Harmony and basically says “The Doctor is half human, how interesting,” within the first half hour.

Then there’s the scene at the San Francisco Institute, where the Doctor and Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) have been ambushed by the atomic clock’s creator just as they are plotting to steal it. The creator insistently asks the Doctor to reveal his “big secret,” so the Doctor pulls him aside and confides: “I’m half human. On my mother’s side.” F*** you, that’s hilarious.

Like I said, the TV movie is stupid fun, but it is quite fun. Paul McGann plays a suitably eccentric Doctor—I knew I was in good hands when he interrupted a line of exposition on the impending death of the Earth to exclaim, “Grace! These shoes fit perfectly!”

As far as the Master goes, I have to disagree with Nash of Radio Dead Air. Eric Roberts’ acting may be bad, but he’s still entertaining as hell, especially when he has one of the other three main characters—The Doctor, Grace, or Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso)—to play off of.

Grace Holloway and Chang Lee are not the most memorable or inventive of Doctor Who guest stars, but they’re sufficiently active and likable to help carry the story. Likable enough to provoke some sense of sorrow when they die*; and happiness when they’re resurrected. Nash scoffed at this—and it’s the sort of thing the Nostalgia Critic regularly mocks as well—but personally, I’m good with it. I had a safe and happy childhood, and even I don’t need TV to tell me that in real life, when people die they stay dead. Besides, despite the best efforts of Davies and Moffat and the like, Doctor Who is not the right medium for making profound statements about death, and it hasn’t been for a very long time, if ever. It’s a medium for fun, silly adventures, it’s what Doctor Who does best, and that spirit is undermined when sympathetic characters get Killed Off For Reals**. Again, campy adventure wins over foolhardy attempts at Serious Drama.

*And without all the tedious emotional manipulation and general angst the new show trots out whenever it kills off a character—or pretends it’s going to.
**Also known as the Vector Prime-Star by Star-Legacy of the Force Syndrome.

It’s fun just to sit back and watch as the Doctor dashes madcap about San Francisco with his astonished companion in tow; while the Master bods about deceiving Chang, menacing the Doctor, and sounding remarkably like George Clooney. (Yes, George Clooney.) It’s all so endearingly silly, and you’ve got to love the gag with the motorcycle cop accidentally driving through the TARDIS door, and you can hear the cop drive a very long way before turning around and driving right back out again. Heck, even Nash appreciated that one. (It was probably the inspiration for Clara riding a motorcycle right into the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”)

So yeah, to sum up: cute film, definitely worth a look.

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