REVIEW: “Doctor Who: The TV Movie” by Gary Russell (Target Novelization)

Most movie novelizations end up being a not-quite-final draft of the film’s script converted into prose. There’s the occasional deleted scene or expanded character backstory, but it’s mostly just a book version of the film, as you’d have seen it. Doctor Who: The TV Movie is precisely that kind of novelization. It’s well written, sure, and Russell’s prose adds a fair amount of depth to the story that a ninety-minute TV film simply can’t have. But it’s still a very safe, very standard novelization. It’s a little disappointing compared to how different some of the other recent Target novelizations are to their original stories, but I’m kind of okay with Russell’s adaptation being as faithful and safe as it is. I have quite the soft spot for the TV film, and Russell’s novel does a great job of capturing what works about the film. (4 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: This review features mild spoilers for Doctor Who: The TV Movie and its novelization. Read at your own risk.

Doctor Who: The TV Movie
(written by Gary Russell)
It’s December 1999, and strange things are happening as the new millennium nears. A British police box appears from nowhere in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the mysterious man inside it is shot down in the street. Despite the best efforts of Dr Grace Holloway, the man dies and another stranger appears, claiming to be the same person in a different body: a wanderer in time and space known only as the Doctor.

But the Doctor is not the only alien in San Francisco. His deadly adversary the Master is murdering his way through the city and has taken control of the TARDIS. The Master is desperate to take the Doctor’s newly regenerated body for himself, and if the Doctor does not capitulate, it will literally cost him the Earth… and every last life on it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1996 Doctor Who TV film, it’s Paul McGann’s only televised outing as the Eighth Doctor. It was a co-production between the BBC and the American-based TV network, Fox. As such, it’s a weird mixture of reboot and Classic Who continuation. It strikes an immediately different, more Americanized tone when compared to the classic Doctor Who series, while also somehow feeling as though it’s in the same world. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor opens the film, with a prologue that sees him regenerate into McGann’s Eighth Doctor, and the Master returns as the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, but the film is hesitant to acknowledge much else about the show’s wider canon. The bulk of the story takes place in San Francisco on December 31st, 1999. The Doctor is suffering a nasty bout of amnesia after his regeneration and the Master is on the hunt for the Doctor, looking to steal his remaining regenerations. So, the Doctor teams up with Grace, the woman who accidentally killed him, to defeat the Master and save the Earth from certain doom. And that’s kind of it. It’s a very talky film, with not a lot of stuff that actually happens. It’s one of those films where you can totally see how it was intended to be a pilot for an ongoing series, as opposed to a truly stand-alone story. There’s a lot of groundwork that gets built but the story, itself, is kind of lacking. It’s a fun film, but not because of an outstanding narrative.

What Gary Russell’s adaptation of the TV film gets right is the spirit of the film. As you’re reading his novelization, it’s so easy to visualize the scenes from the film and hear the characters saying the dialogue (most of which has been lifted directly from the script). For all its pros and cons, the novelization feels like the film. A lot has been said over the years about the quality of the TV film’s narrative, and while this novelization is technically a republication of the novelization that was published alongside the film’s initial release, Russell has subtly updated it some (mostly to make it adhere with subsequent Doctor Who lore, or to correct mistakes that weren’t caught in the original publication). So, there must have been the temptation to make significant revisions to his original text. But he doesn’t. And, to be honest, I’m pretty glad he didn’t. Yes, I feel like the novelization suffers a bit from just being the film put to prose. And yes, there’s probably a more compelling way to tell this narrative than the way Russell (or the TV film) does. But, I think there’s something so fun about the Doctor Who TV film and it’s nice to see it so faithfully captured with this novelization. It’s such a unique slice of 1990s American sci-fi television, with all of the pros and cons that come with that, and it’s lovely to have it forever immortalized in novel form.

That being said, Russell’s novelization does differ from the TV movie in a few ways. It’s based on an earlier draft of the screenplay, so some of the descriptions and scenes don’t quite match what ended up in the film. The changes found in the film are fairly minor and are probably better than what was in this earlier draft of the script (aside from the Master’s pretty gnarly-sounding appearance in the novelization’s climax), but it’s definitely something you notice. Russell’s novelization also leans a little bit more into Doctor Who’s past. There’s an extended prologue that recaps much of the Doctor’s life to this point, explaining his connection to Gallifrey, the Daleks, and the Master. It’s the kind of thing that might have been useful to have in the film, though would have resulted in a significantly slower opening. Additionally, several of the characters receive far more attention in the novelization than they do in the film—most notably Chang Lee and the Master. If you’re not familiar with the Master, I feel like the TV film doesn’t do such a great job of explaining who he is and why he’s at odds with the Doctor. Russell’s novelization doesn’t go into a lot more detail, but it goes into just enough that it helps sell the relationship for people who aren’t already intimately familiar with it. Chang Lee, on the other hand, gets a lot of much-needed development here. In the film, his character arc is a bit hard to track. He’s fairly thinly sketched, so as his allegiances change, it’s hard to fully understand what’s causing them to change. Russell spends a lot of time in the novelization focusing on Chang Lee—his motivations, his backstory, and his personality. We understand why he chooses to work for the Master, we understand what makes him start questioning the Master. He just comes across as a much more layered character here than he does in the film, and that’s nice.

Unfortunately, these additions come at the cost of the story’s pacing. The TV film is already a pretty slow story. It takes nearly half an hour for Paul McGann’s Doctor to even appear, then it takes another half an hour for him to get his memories back and for the actual plot to start, and then it’s over half an hour later. This is a story that probably could’ve been told in half the screen time. So, the very act of slotting more stuff into this story is gonna result in some questionable pacing decisions. The extended prologue means it takes even longer for the Eighth Doctor to enter the scene, though Russell tries to make up for this with his prose cluing the reader into what’s going on and implicitly promising that things are gonna get more exciting. We see this problem again towards the climax as Russell spends a great deal of time exploring the motivations of certain characters while jumping back and forth between what’s happening in the TARDIS and what’s happening throughout San Francisco. It’s the kind of thing that works better on film, when you can rapidly cut back and forth between scenes, but doing it in a novel tends to slow everything down. To be fair, it’s not like the novelization is a slow read; it’s quite a fast one. And the pacing is mostly good—or, at least, similar to the film’s pacing. It’s just that, in the context of the narrative, some of these additions do end up slowing things down more than you might like.

Overall, if you’ve seen the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, then there’s not a whole lot on Russell’s novelization that’ll wow you much. It’s a very faithful, very well-written retelling of the film. It doesn’t take many risks or make many alterations to the story, but it does flesh out a few of the characters a bit more. Russell’s prose is lovely, managing to be that perfect amount of descriptive without over describing, and excelling at diving into the emotions of whichever character is being focused on. The characters’ voices are captured authentically, with the Eighth Doctor sounding exactly like Paul McGann, and the rest of the characters feeling like their on-screen counterparts. But ultimately, it’s just kind of standard. And while I do like how perfectly it captures the film, I wouldn’t have minded some kind of small twist to the story, some little thing that could have added a new dimension to this familiar tale. Nothing particularly big, but something that could’ve just… expanded it ever so slightly beyond a few deleted scenes and extra character beats. Still, it’s a fun read, especially if you’re eager to know what happens in the film but don’t have easy access to it.

4 out of 5 wands.

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