Planet Earth, 1996. He was back, and it was about time. But not a long time.
Seven years after having been unceremoniously shunted off of our TV screens and into the realms of posterity by the BBC, Doctor Who returned with a feature length backdoor pilot. It was a transatlantic co-production with Universal and Fox as partners, and with its glossy Hollywood sheen, it was hoped this TV movie would lead to a new, big budget series starring Paul McGann as the eighth incarnation of the Time Lord, and a new dawn for the show.
While it was a veritable ratings smash on home territory, as more than 9 million Brits tuned in to see the Doctor’s return, the success was sadly not repeated Stateside, as it was aired opposite an episode of Roseanne which saw the wedding of Darlene and David taking place, something which was sure to draw in a huge audience. So, for that one glorious night in May 1996, the Doctor reappeared, regenerated, and popped off again into the Vortex, awaiting the possible future call to action.
The TV movie was to prove contentious amongst the series’ longstanding fans, as it was the first time that their hero was seen to be locking lips with somebody. Nowadays, it almost feels as though they snog with relatively casual abandon in comparison, but back then it was a cause of some ire, as the Doctor was felt to be asexual, and above any such romantic dabblings of lesser beings. How silly such quibblings seem now, but back then – and for many years after – that was a huge sticking point.
Another major source of controversy was the way in which the character’s origins had been tinkered with, by making the Doctor suddenly half-human (on his mother’s side). Cue yet more angry, anguished howlings of aficionados on early internet message boards. However, that fuss seems rather quaint, as showrunner Chris Chibnall has eclipsed all of this with even greater outrage, by suggesting that the Doctor is a refugee from another universe, and started off as a little girl, who gave the Gallifreyans the power of regeneration. Being allegedly half-human now seems like small beer.
The man who wrote the script was British ex-pat Matthew Jacobs, who had been a fan of the programme since he was a small boy. In fact, his father Anthony was an actor, and had played Doc Holliday in the 1966 William Hartnell story ‘The Gunfighters’, with a young Matthew being taken along for a recording, and watching from off-set. Jacobs’ teleplay was to attract its fair share of brickbats, and very little in the way of bouquets, which seems particularly unfair, as the gift of hindsight has shown us how much groundwork it laid down for Doctor Who’s eventual revival in 2005.
Jacobs’ association with the show was to be short-lived, and with the critical mauling which his story received from some quarters, he perhaps understandably distanced himself from appearing on the fan circuit. However, now over 25 years on from its original broadcast, and with plenty of water having flowed under many bridges, Jacobs takes his first tentative steps into encountering Doctor Who fans, by attending his first ever conventions. Co-directed by Jacobs and his friend Vanessa Yuille, Doctor Who Am I charts his reluctant journey into engaging with fandom.
It would be fair to say that, in general, the ardent devotees of sci-fi TV and movies tend to get a bum rap, often being used as something of a punchline, or the butt of jokes. Just look at how they have been portrayed in fiction, from The Big Bang Theory, to television film Cruise Of The Gods, and comedy Fanboys, to name but a few examples. Thankfully, the reality is chiefly far removed from the stereotypical depictions that tend to be presented to the public at large, but those kinds of impressions live long in the memory, and have the ultimate result of shaping the perception of fan culture.
The 1997 documentary Trekkies was an exploration of Star Trek fandom, and sought to shake up how this subculture was viewed, showing that there are real people behind the cosplay and memorabilia. Doctor Who Am I takes a similar kind of approach, showing us how Jacobs’ preconceptions are challenged as he engages with followers of Doctor Who, and comes to terms not only with his own latent fan tendencies, but also re-examines his own association with the show from a distance of a quarter of a century, by talking to some of the key players.
In his script for the 1996 TV movie, Jacobs wrote the Doctor as suffering from post-regenerative amnesia, spending the hour-and-a-half runtime learning about himself, finding out who he really is, after wondering “Who am I?”. Doctor Who Am I takes that one line of dialogue and puts a spin on it, and as the documentary progresses, we see that the title is not simply a self-interrogative enquiry, but it also becomes a proud affirmation, not only for the Whovians (for the want of a better word) who adore Doctor Who and see it as a part of their identity, but also for Jacobs himself, as he comes to terms with precisely what he means to the programme, and vice versa.
This documentary is a film not only of discovery, as we see fan life through Jacobs’ eyes, but also of self-discovery, as Jacobs opens up about his troubled childhood, and how in some bleak and difficult times, Doctor Who became a form of escape for him from the woes of everyday life. As Jacobs reveals so much intimate and private detail, you can hardly fail to be moved, with these moments packing a powerful emotional punch. It gives the film a real depth and gravitas, showing it as the furthest possible thing from being a dig at geeks and nerds, with Jacobs realising how much he actually has in common with them.
The passion of the fanbase is clear to all, and getting to see so many of them talking with conviction about exactly what Doctor Who means to them, as well as how it has managed to help them through some particularly difficult periods of their lives, is particularly thought-provoking and touching, helping you to see them as real people, not cliches. Jacobs also talks to some of his cohorts from the TV movie, such as Eric Roberts (the Master), Daphne Ashbrook (Doctor Grace Holloway), and the Eighth Doctor himself, Paul McGann. As McGann openly admits, he was originally hesitant to attend conventions and the like, so he can relate to just how Jacobs is feeling about taking that first step.
Jacobs wrote the Doctor as referring to himself as “the guy with two hearts”, which presumably means that he can love twice as much as everybody else. Doctor Who Am I is chock full of that same love, and it demonstrates with aplomb that the very spirit of fandom is – much like this movie – bigger on the inside.
Doctor Who Am I is in cinemas from 27th October, and out on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD on 28th November.