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Original audition video proves Doctor Who's 1996 comeback could have been way worse

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The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie was not the series' finest hour, by any stretch of the imagination. But it could have been way worse — just watch these brief snippets from the original audition tapes, back when the show was following a way cheesier storyline. Prepare to be overwhelmed with schlockiness.

The newly released (in the U.S.) DVD of Doctor Who: The Movie includes a wealth of extra material that helps put this 90-minute story in context, but the pre-production footage is probably the most fascinating part. The stuff above is just a small part of what's on the DVD, and it's well worth watching the whole thing.

The clip above includes just a glimpse of the VFX tests made by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment in the early 1990s, before Spielberg washed his hands of the project. (That's the mock-up of the Doctor Who opening credits.) Also included in the VFX tests (but not in the clip above): the early renderings of the CG "Spider Daleks" that would have reinvented the Doctor's most famous enemies once and for all — and they look hideous.


Then there's the glimpse of McGann's first audition for the role, in which he was reading what seem to be pages from the original, rejected script for the new Doctor Who. In case you're having trouble following the labyrinthine storyline, the Doctor is talking to Cardinal Borusa, a leading member of his own race, the Time Lords. Borusa is also secretly the Doctor's grandfather. And the Doctor's father is a lost legendary explorer, Ulysses — who's also the father of the Doctor's arch-enemy, the Master. The Doctor vows to go looking for Ulysses and confront the Master. Oh, and the Doctor's mom was a human woman Ulysses met while on Earth. And somehow Ulysses managed to send the Doctor home to the Time Lords before being lost forever. No wonder Spielberg demanded his name be removed from this project.

At least they had already gotten one thing right back then — casting Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor was an inspired decision, and one the BBC apparently insisted on in the midst of the creative chaos.


Once you've sat through more of that drivel, you start to look quite fondly at the actual TV movie that resulted, in 1996. It's not great — and in fact, it makes Russell T. Davies' 2005 reinvention of the show seem even more genius than it already did. But at least the mythos is somewhat less cluttered, and there's an easy-to-grasp story arc in the TV movie.

The Doctor is transporting the remains of his arch-enemy, the Master, to Gallifrey, when the Master somehow seizes control over the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS and forces it to crash on Earth. There, the Doctor gets shot by hooligans, while the Master turns into a ghost-snake and escapes. The Master and the Doctor each get new bodies — the Doctor regenerates, and the Master occupies the body of Eric Roberts. The Doctor works through a bit of an identity crisis, regaining his sense of self just in time to stop the Master seizing control over the TARDIS and using it to renew himself, destroying the Earth in the process. It's not going to be in anybody's list of the top 100 Doctor Who stories of all time, but it's serviceable. And there are a few cute moments, mostly involving McGann acting his heart out. It's stylishly directed, and the new TARDIS set looks beautiful. Sylvester McCoy is charming in his brief moments as the "old Doctor."


There are really two reasons to get Doctor Who: The Movie on DVD — first, if you're curious to watch (or re-watch) the first, failed attempt to resurrect the show, and see how different Who could have looked if this version had managed to become a series. And second, to watch the absolute wealth of bonus materials, which is brilliant and indispensible for Who fans.

There are glimpses at the making of the TV movie which are frequently hilarious and a bit sad — there's some great making-of footage showing just how complicated the job of chicken-wrangling on set turned out to be. There are alternate versions of some scenes, and a tour of the TARDIS sets. There's also a massive, 54-minute documentary about the long struggle to get the 1996 TV movie made, starting with the show's cancellation in 1989 and going up to its final airing — it turns out the producers of this TV movie had a pretty active role in getting the competing 1993 anniversary special, "The Dark Dimension," canceled. (And yes, "The Dark Dimension" did survive in massively reduced form, as the eye-bleeding "Dimensions In Time.")


But the other featurettes on the TV Movie DVD set are also great, including a look at all the different forms in which Doctor Who survived during its long absence from television (1989 to 2005, apart from that one TV movie.) There's a nice look at how the TV movie was received in the British press, and a number of other odds and ends. If you're a fan who lived through the "wilderness years" in the 1990s and early 2000s, or if you only discovered the show in 2005, you'll learn a lot about how many versions of the show came into being during its absence — and how many versions could have existed, if things had been different.

All in all, the 2-DVD set of the TV movie is surprisingly essential, and much more entertaining than anybody would have predicted.

Meanwhile, the other DVD that just came out in the United States is the 1972 Jon Pertwee story, "The Mutants." That story, for whatever reason, is one of my favorite Pertwee adventures — I just have a soft spot for it. And it still holds up quite well nowadays on DVD — in fact, you can't help but think of "The Mutants" as a precursor of both Avatar and District 9.


In "The Mutants," it's the 30th century, and humanity has built a vast empire — exactly like the British empire in every respect. And the humans are finally shutting down their interstellar empire, just as the British were in the 1960s and early 1970s. But one evil colonial administrator is determined to keep control over his little fiefdom, a planet called Solos. The administrator, known as the Marshall, goes so far as to try and re-engineer the atmosphere of the planet to make it hospitable to humans and not to the native life forms. But meanwhile, the natives of the planet are mutating into weird insectoid creatures — and nobody's quite sure whether this mutation is due to the Marshall's horrific experiments, or just a natural part of the native life-cycle.

As blatant allegories go, it's actually not that bad — and it's clear, after watching the bonus features, that everybody was conceiving of it partly as a commentary on Apartheid in South Africa. There are huge signs on board the human space station that divide facilities between humans ("Overlords") and the natives of the planet. (And at the same time, the mutated natives look remarkably similar to the original concept art for District 9's "prawns.") I quite like the fact that the mutations at the center of the story become sort of a rorschach test that mean whatever people want them to — are they proof the natives are dirty and horrible? Are they a result of ecological destruction at the hands of the humans? Or are they actually a good thing?


To be sure, "The Mutants" drags a fair bit, and contains its fair share of cheesiness and melodrama, like many other stories of the era. But it's still a fun watch. And the special features, including a documentary about the show's creation and another documentary about race on Doctor Who and British television generally, add a lot to the experience.

The absolute best thing on the "Mutants" set, though, is a featurette about Academy Award-winning costume designer James Acheson, who worked on Doctor Who in the mid-1970s. Acheson laughingly recounts some of his most hideous costume fails — including a weird body-painted wrestler dude and the weird blobby creatures from "The Three Doctors." It's side-splitting and weird, and even more candid than the usual features on these discs.