Chapter 159. Doctor Who – The TV Movie (2021)

Synopsis: En route to Gallifrey with the remains of his enemy, the Master, the Doctor lands in San Francisco and is promptly shot by a gang of youths. Grace, a talented surgeon, tries to save his life, but is confused by the Doctor’s alien biology and he dies. Put on suspension by her superiors, Grace tries to come to terms with her mistake, only for a strange man to come into her life, a man who claims to be the reincarnation of her lost patient. The Master has also found a way to cheat death and his plans threaten the stability of the entire planet. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1999 – and it’s about time…

Chapter Titles

  • Out with the old
  • … in with the new
  • One for sorrow, two for joy
  • Three for a girl
  • Four for a boy
  • Five for silver
  • Six for gold
  • Seven for a secret never to be told

Background: Gary Russell amends his own novelisation, first published in 1996, based on scripts from the film broadcast the same year. It’s the 2021 version I’m reviewing here.

Notes: Bored from travelling alone,  the Doctor has reconfigured the TARDIS many times in the last few months. The side-rooms around the console room match the specific panels of the console: Opposite the ‘data-bank switches’ is the TARDIS library containing shelves crammed with both antique and modern books; the space/time destination panel faces a wall with ‘every conceivable form of timepiece’; the panel that measures external atmospheric conditions is opposite a garden containing a tiny fish pond full of ‘rainbow gumblejacks’ [see The Two Doctors]; another wall contains a huge a filing cabinet with references in 843 different languages and drawers full  memorabilia collected on his travels. The garden also features a pipe organ that he borrowed at some point from the church in his favourite English village, Cheldon Bonniface [see the New Adventure novel Timewyrm: Revelation]. Although he’s denied his heritage for most of his life, he feels he should at least acknowledge it, which is why the TARDIS now has  seals of Rassilon everywhere

He thinks of Ace, imagining her in various possible scenarios that were depicted in the Virgin novels: Becoming a space mercenary; hanging out in a 19th-Century royal court in France; he remembers offering her the chance to enrol at the Time Lord Academy but instead she returned to her own time to set up an organisation called A Charitable Earth [see The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Death of the Doctor]. He also remembers the Cybermen and the Lobri [from the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip Ground Zero, which offered a further alternative conclusion to Ace’s adventures].

The Time Lord president contacts the Doctor to bring him the Master’s Last Will and Testament and although it’s not spelled out, this is Romana, as established in the Big Finish audios produced by Gary Russell. The Doctor and the Master grew up together and attended the Time Lord Academy at the same time. The Master has prolonged his life by adding ‘alien genes’ to his body. The Master’s execution is overseen by the Dalek Supreme. The Doctor sneaks into the Dalek city on Skaro to retrieve the Master’s ashes. Inside the casket, the Master’s remains are crystalline, the vague suggestion of his eyes preserved. The Doctor realises that his enemy has cheated death by becoming a completely alien lifeform, which buries itself deep in the TARDIS’s systems, and by now the Master must be ‘completely insane’. We’re later told that the Master’s survival is thanks to a ‘Morphic DNA carrier’ that he ingested prior to his extermination and which carries his essence while hunting for an appropriate humanoid form to possess.

Chang Lee first handled a gun eight years ago, when he was nine years old. He lives with his parents, who used to run a shop in the Bay area of San Francisco, and his elder brother, Ho. When the Triads took over their neighbourhood, Chang Ho fell under their influence and began using the shop as a front for money laundering and drug distribution. His parents were killed by a rival gang and Chang Lee found himself drawn into his brother’s activities; Chang Ho was stabbed to death three years ago. A couple of days before the Millennium celebrations, Lee and his two gangmates, a girl called Pik Sim and an older boy called Lin Wang, are being chased by a rival gang.  Chang Lee’s companions are shot dead before the TARDIS arrives [which might be news to anyone who has only ever seen the original, censored UK broadcast]. The new arrival is a ‘Westerner’ wearing a straw hat and ‘checkerboard pants’, with a tweed sports jacket that has leather patches on the elbows, an ‘expensive white silk shirt’ with felt tie, and a ‘burgundy vest’ from which hangs a gold fob-watch; he is carrying a red handled umbrella when he emerges from the TARDIS. The amorphous form of the Master discounts Chang Lee as a potential host as he needs something more ‘mature’ – preferably the Doctor! As a temporary measure, the Master takes control of an ambulance Driver called Bruce Gerhardt.

Grace Holloway has to explain the plot of Madame Butterfly to Brian. She’s said to resemble the actress Grace Kelly, has a ‘luscious cascade of strawberry-blonde hair’ and a figure that ‘most modern actresses would have had to pay a small fortune to have implanted’:

… her face might well have been carved from a marble statue of a Greek goddess. Although not in any way harsh, she had a defined bone structure along with a generous mouth and piercing blue eyes which appeared to be laughing, no matter how serious she was being.

Grace recognises the Scottish accent of her patient and guesses that he might not have insurance – but the presence of the hospital administrator with potential investors drives her to push on with the exploratory procedure that ends up killing the Doctor. On the TV in the mortuary is a ‘cheesy’ Frankenstein movie (but as the scene is told from the point of view of Pete, this is less a damning review of the 1931 James Whale version than a critique of Pete).

Bruce and Miranda Gerhardt have been married for five years. Bruce had been recovering from a recent divorce when he first met Miranda, who he’d accompanied to hospital after a car accident. After her recovery, they struck up a friendship and Miranda discovered he was ‘kind, sincere and attentive… the perfect man’. The new Doctor is ‘much taller’ than his predecessor [continuing a suggestion that ran in the New Adventures that the Eighth Doctor is tall, even if the actor who played him is not]. He finds his old clothes (recognising that they’ll no longer fit him) and experiences a sensation of memory when he picks up the straw hat. He steals items from various lockers to create his new outfit, comprising a wing-collared shirt and grey velvet cravat with a gold pin, a silvery vest, grey trousers and a long tailed ‘forest green’ frock coat that comes from the ‘Wild Bill Hickock’ costume that Pete’s colleague Ted has hired for the New Year’s Eve fancy dress party.

Grace looked at him. He was in his mid-thirties, at a guess. He had rather sad-looking eyes, yet they were bright blue and quite attractive – she was sure the left eye was a darker shade than the right. He had a nice bone structure and a wonderful smile, showing a full set of good teeth. He was about her height, but with swept back hair that looked as if he’d licked his fingers and jammed them into a light socket.

Grace thinks he looks like he’s stepped out of a ‘Victorian movie’. This volume’s mild swear-count includes Grace saying ‘damn’ and ‘crap’. Grace decided to become a doctor when she was a child, after her mother died from ALS and she experiences a flashback to that day thanks to the Doctor. After showering, she changes into blue Levi jeans, a ‘cerise Versace Profuni blouse’ and a pair of Doc Martens shoes. The Doctor remembers spending a ‘warm Gallifreyan night’; with his father; they lived on the south side of Gallifrey (a place that sounds Celtic to Grace, and later to Dr Sullivan, who both assume it’s in Ireland), near a mountain that was ‘covered with the most beautiful daisies’ and ‘the sky was burnt orange, rich and beautiful and the moonlight made all the leaves glow silver’. [referencing details from The Sensorites, The Time Monster and a recurring joke that spans from The Hand of Fear through to the Irish illusions in The Timeless Children’]. Chang Lee notices that the Master is ‘over six feet tall and quite muscular’ (Chang Li is ‘five foot eight and wiry’). The Master tells Chang Lee that the bearded old man whose face is carved into various decorations around the cloister room is ‘Rassilon’, the founder of the Time Lords and (he claims) his ‘mentor’; he also spells out that the ornate decoration around the TARDIS is ‘the seal of Rassilon’ and explains that the TARDIS is powered by ‘artron energy’ [see The Deadly Assassin]. The Eye of Harmony shows Chang Lee images of all the past Doctors with descriptions that might be familiar to fans of the Target books: ‘Long silver hair’, ‘a mop of black hair’, a ‘shock of white hair’, ‘beaky nose’, ‘brown curls and a toothy grin’, ‘a pleasant, open countenance’, and eyes that are ‘cat-like’ with an ‘insatiable curiosity’. 

When he impulsively kisses Grace, the Doctor feels a little embarrassed while Grace feels confused and, caught up in the moment, suggests they do it again but (as in the original novel) the Doctor tells her they don’t have time and Grace is left wondering what prompted her to kiss a man who she doesn’t know. Returning to Grace’s apartment, the Doctor meets one of her neighbours, a cat-owner called Mrs Trattorio. Bruce’s paramedic partner is called ‘Joey Sneller’. One of the reporters for San Francisco’s KKBE news station is ‘Sean Ley’ (a tribute to ‘Shaun Ley’, who acted in the fan-produced audio dramas that Gary Russell used to make, but later became a journalist and news anchor on BBC News). One of the security guards at the New Year’s Eve party is David Bailey – named after the Big Finish author, not the famous photographer. The officers called to investigate Miranda Gerhardt’s death are named after Rona Selby and Nuala Buffini from BBC Books.

The Doctor tells Grace that he has a granddaughter who he intends to get back to one day [see The Dalek Invasion of Earth and then The Five Doctors for how that played out]. The Master explains that the Time Lords added a security element to the Eye of Harmony, requiring it to be unlocked by a human retina to prevent it from being opened, as they assumed none of their number would ever travel with a human. The Doctor points out that the Master cannot use Grace to open the Eye of Harmony when her own eyes are in a possessed state

During the climax, throughout the TARDIS, Grace can hear the peeling of a bell, which is identified as the Cloister Bell [see Logopolis]. The violent lurching of the TARDIS results in one significant casualty – the eagle on the lectern that has been a feature of the TARDIS since before An Unearthly Child, is snapped off.

As the Master begins to absorb the Doctor’s life energy, both his clothes and the body of Bruce fall away from him, leaving him in the form of a silhouette glowing with the energy of the universe, ‘a brilliant white figure of a man, but with no defined edges within its shape’. The face is ‘lumpy, unmade’ with ‘half-closed eyes and a snarling mouth’. 

Having kept his old straw hat rolled up in his pocket since he escaped from the hospital, he presents the hat to Grace as a gift. 

Cover: Anthony Dry’s cover brings together the Doctor, the Master and the TARDIS.

Final Analysis: As he explains in his forward, Gary’s original novel, released to tie in with the movie’s broadcast, was written solely from the scripts and before Gary had either seen the movie or visited San Francisco. Many details were removed from his manuscript for space, or because they referenced the Doctor’s past lives (earlier drafts of the script had included a sequence where all of the past Doctors were shown in the Eye of Harmony, not just the Seventh). Rewritten and published under the Target banner 25 years later, we can enjoy those many ‘kisses to the past’, including acknowledgements of the Virgin Books, which came to an end soon after the TV Movie was broadcast, after which the original novels were brought in house to BBC Books. In the Terrance Dicks tradition, Gary tidies up a few lose strands, such as making it explicit that Chang Lee was ‘mesmerised’, working under the Master’s hypnosis. Most importantly though, he fixes that ending, which was always a little unsatisfying and a bit of a cheat on TV.

There’s one extra detail that’s of a personal interest. Although she knows she’s made the right decision at the end, Grace wonders if she’s now the founder member of the ‘Grace Holloway is Stupid Club’; she’s not – that would be novelist Jacqueline Rayner, who founded that particular group soon after the TV Movie first aired. A good-natured and light-hearted affair, Its members (who all had actual membership cards) included Gary Russell and er… me!