Doctor Who Am I - New Releases Review
Director: Matthew Jacobs, Vanessa Yuille
Starring: Matthew Jacobs, Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, Eric Roberts
Written by: Matthew Jacobs
Produced by: Matthew Jacobs, Vanessa Yuille
Cinematography by: Dylan Glockler
Original Score by: Mark Leggett
An infamous 'Doctor Who' screenwriter is reluctantly dragged back into the American Whoniverse, in this funny and moving documentary about finding family in the unlikeliest of places.
I'll start this review by proclaiming *shock horror* that I am not a Whovian at all. In fact I've only ever watched a small handful of 'Doctor Who' episodes (some I enjoyed and some I loathed) and I have never seen the TV film written by Matthew Jacobs, the screenwriter that this documentary is following. However I am fully aware of its existence and its reception and have actually been present at a talk in which Paul McGann, who starred as the newly regenerated Doctor, spoke on the film and its legacy and its importance to his career.
What I am very familiar with is fandom. I've been going to conventions for years now, some expansive and some more intimate, and the one recurring theme at all these shows are the fans who attend. I may not be a Whovian but I have friends who are deeply obsessed with the show and everything it has to offer and most of them show their love by creating their own costumes and props and set-pieces and even screen accurate life sized Daleks..! And I love that.
This particular documentary follows screenwriter Matthew Jacobs as he re-enters the 'Doctor Who' fandom by attending conventions in the US (where he has lived since the early 90s) to meet fans of the show and take part in Q&As about his film.
Although I was unfamiliar with Jacobs before watching this film I was fully aware of how divisive McGann's version of the Doctor was when it was first introduced on US networks back in 1996. The film was supposed to be a new beginning for the Doctor and be the launching pad for a brand new television show in the States, where the Who fandom was somewhat still in its infancy at the time compared to the UK. Unfortunately it got panned and as a result the proposed TV show resurrection never happened. The documentary, which was a project initially pitched to Jacobs by his longtime friend and colleague Vanessa Yuille, does try to explain why the film failed. Jacobs himself admits that they should never have made him half human. The Doctor has always been an alien and this radical revelation did not land well with a large percentage of the target audience. Apparently he doesn't kiss woman either.
'Doctor Who Am I' starts off by introducing us to Matthew Jacobs and delving very briefly into his professional background. He had written a few low budget action movies in the late 80s but by 1990 had moved into the television space. He was a working writer in the UK, mainly paying the bills on shows like 'The Ruth Rendell Mysteries' and 'The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles'. It was around this time that he moved to the States in search of something more. Having written a new adaptation of everybody's favourite canine 'Lassie' and two 'Young Indiana Jones' TV movies, he was hired by Fox to write the script for a brand new film about a shiny new version of the classic Doctor character that would air on their network and hopefully reinvent the iconic IP. We all know that didn't work out the way they had planned. It had been over a decade since the Doctor had appeared on our small screens and America wasn't ready for this new incarnation. Although Jacobs felt like he was shunned in the wake of the film's poor ratings and reaction, he still worked in the business off and on for another twenty years.
As an aspiring screenwriter myself I would've liked to have seen more exploration around Jacobs' hiring and development of the story and screenplay, but this isn't a 'Making Of' type deal here. Instead Jacobs provides very vague details about the initial pitch, which the title of this documentary is based on. Jacobs' idea was that the newly regenerated Doctor would awaken with no memory of who he really was, and that would be the basis of reintroducing him to the US fans and casual audience alike. Sadly not enough time is paid to this subject and we quickly move onto Jacobs deciding to finally get on the convention scene and earn money charging fans for his autograph. Something he comically wishes he had done a lot sooner.
We're then introduced to the 8th Doctor himself, Paul McGann, whose version of the Doctor has actually lived on for years in official BBC audio dramatisations. McGann is honest about his assessment of fan conventions. He admits that he loves them now but that he didn't think he would because he thought they would be weird. His companion for the film was Dr. Grace Holloway, played by Daphne Ashbrook, a Californian who is very familiar with conventions such as Gallifrey One. There's an extended segment dedicated to McGann and Ashbrook's relationship, interspersed with footage of them at the convention, and it's really nice to see Ashbrook's genuineness and love for the fans. Jacobs does give off a skeptical vibe that he isn't entirely comfortable here and that he hasn't fully accepted that now he is out of the industry, this might be his actual living going forward.
Part of this documentary is as much about the zealot fans that travel to these events and the events themselves as it is about Matthew Jacobs and his journey. As always, for people who aren't accustomed to such passionate and emotional connections to films, television shows and comic books, these kind of events can seem hyper excessive and extremely overwhelming. Even in 2022 there's still a large percentage of society that looks down on geeks, deeming the whole experience of dressing up and paying to speak to someone or get a photo with them "creepy" and "desperate". Screw those miserable grumps!
The documentary also visits various cosplayers and propmakers and all sorts of obsessives and its super fun to see how much 'Doctor Who' means to so many people. Through a number of different interviews with fans and even Eric Roberts, who portrayed the infamous villain The Master, there's a suggestion that this kind of fandom is akin to a sort of religion and that fans being around other fans makes them feel welcomed and safe and accepted for who they are. I guess conventions are like church in that regards but at least the attendees actually know this is all made up stuff. Sometimes documentaries that explore fandoms and conventions tend to lean towards the "weird" aspect of it and there's a little of that in here too but for the most part it's a celebration with lots of funny moments.
There's also a lovely segment that digs a bit deeper into Jacobs' childhood and particularly his relationship with his father. He does admit that in writing the screenplay for the TV film that he poured all the love he had growing up for the Doctor into that character. He reminisces over his Mother's book of poetry about the possible side-effects that the show had on his younger life. Even after his initial hesitation at attending these shows he openly speaks of his gratitude for the fans who have loved his version of the Doctor (and maybe even some of the haters too) and also about the team who helped him make this documentary, who he know refers to as family.
You won't have to be a big 'Doctor Who' fan to enjoy this film but it will certainly go some ways in helping. Even if you only have a teeny-weeny affinity for the show, you'll likely appreciate it. Maybe, like me, you just go to conventions and are part of other geeky fandoms. In that case you will definitely relate to a lot of this and who knows, perhaps over the big ball of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff I'll eventually become enamoured with the Doctor and start carrying round a sonic screwdriver. I'm getting old so more than likely I'll just start knitting extra long, colourful scarves instead.
- Gavin Logan
'Doctor Who Am I' will be in UK Cinemas from 27th October and will be available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download from 28th November