Heroic Time Lord The Doctor is transporting the remains of his recently exterminated nemesis The Master to their home world of Gallifrey. But even in death The Master cannot be trusted and when his evil essence escapes, causing a malfunction in the TARDIS which sends it hurtling towards Earth on New Years Eve 1999, the future existence of humanity is threatened.
The long running television show Dr Who – the butt of countless jokes with its unconvincing monsters, wobbly sets and alien planets that look suspiciously like old quarries – is now the geeky sci-fi show it's cool to watch thanks to a 21st century makeover by acclaimed television writer Russell T. Davies. Almost a decade previously there was another attempt to resurrect the programme with this joint venture between American and British television.
After a scene setting prologue a reassuringly familiar phonebox arrives in San Francisco and the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy maintaining continuity) meets a rather ignominious end; gunned down by young ne'er-do-well's and rushed to hospital only to die on the operating table presided over by Dr Grace Holloway. Some time later ambulance driver Bruce has an alien encounter of his own. The Master chooses him as host which, in one of director Geoffrey Sax's neat editorial choices, is intercut with The Doctor's latest regeneration in this much-anticipated small screen return for Doctor Who.
For hardcore whovians there are doubtless some troublesome elements in this oft-mooted movie, the revelation that The Doctor is half-human being the most obvious. But attempting to juggle the demands of long-term fans, introduce the character to new viewers and tell an exciting adventure is no easy task. For the most part Geoffrey Sax and scriptwriter Matthew Jacobs pull it off in a briskly directed adventure with an action packed finale that pits the rival Time Lords against each other, the fate of mankind in the balance. But the drama of the potential destruction of Earth, a by-product of The Master's attempt to acquire the body of The Doctor, is never convincingly realised and a couple of plot threads aren't satisfactorily explained - such as a fudged search for an atomic clock. But proceedings have a glossy sheen with some more action orientated moments giving it wider appeal without feeling out of place. The TARDIS in particular is wonderfully presented with its brass fixtures and fittings recalling the machines imagined by the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Successfully papering over the narrative cracks is Paul McGann's performance. From his first scene of amnesia-induced confusion to his heroic determination he makes for an immediately accessible Doctor, both amiable and eccentric balancing otherworldliness with a genuine likeability. Driving the plot forward his relationship with Grace, a thoroughly contemporary if not thoroughly memorable companion, is convincing. Alas the same cannot be said of Eric Roberts. Obviously cast to appeal to an American audience he delivers an embarrassingly hammy performance that sits uneasily against McGann's engaging portrayal. Although giving him a companion of his own adds a new dynamic, another parallel between hero and villain, the script doesn't do him any favours saddling him with chunks of expositional dialogue.
Although it lacks the charm and sense of fun that made the Peter Cushing feature films so memorable this attempted revival is still entertaining with a scene stealing central performance and the show finally getting the production values it deserves. In fact it will probably find a more positive response in light of the current revamp and will certainly appeal to newer fans, providing a neat stylistic bridge between old and new. What's most disappointing is that this confident debut by McGann was never followed up by a series. As the end credits role audiences will want to travel with him through time and space on more thrilling adventures but will have to be content with this memorable one off escapade.