Directed by Vanessa Yuille and Matthew Jacobs.
History is kind to the winners.
When Doctor Who came back in 2005, helmed by Russell T Davies and with a highly renowned British actor in the leading role, it flew. Even though in its first year, the relationship between the lead actor and the creative team completely fell apart and has yet to heal, 18 years on, and even though it gave us an emotional connection – and kissing – between the Doctor and his companion, the show flew, and the rest is the mostly kind-hearted history we know.
History has been significantly less kind to Matthew Jacobs – and that’s probably not fair.
The Writer of Dreams
Matthew Jacobs, for those who need their memory jogged, wrote the script for the 1996 “TV Movie” of Doctor Who. It was set in the United States – at the time a big event – with two American companions, one of them Asian (Chang Lee, played by Jee Yee Tso). It featured a brand new take on the body-stealing Master, and as such, it gave us our first American incarnation of the role, in the magnificently theatrical Eric Roberts (which, given that he followed more or less directly on from Anthony Ainley’s portrayal, is in no sense the embarrassment people used to pretend it was). And it absolutely gave us a connection to the Classic era show, bringing back Sylvester McCoy to hand over the keys of the Tardis to leading British actor of both that day and this, Paul McGann.
The thing is… it really should have worked. It was made with love, humour, a realistic insight into the day-to-day lives of the companions. It had a magnificently charismatic British actor in the lead role, a central dilemma that was on people’s minds in 1996 – the turning of the Millennium, and what would happen to all the world’s computer clocks when it happened. It had a regeneration like no other, the Tardis interior design was sumptuous on a scale that BBC budgets could never have afforded in the Classic era, and the story itself had lots of the things you need if you’re essentially starting from fresh with a new audience, and yet connecting back to the whole of the show’s history.
And yet, in the most important sense to everyone concerned… it didn’t work. It failed to win over enough of an American audience to secure a series. It really, really should have – but it didn’t.
The Eighth Doctor
And so, fans were left with just the one on-screen appearance of the Eighth Doctor until McGann signed on with Big Finish to produce a whole new swathe of audio adventures with the character that continue to this day, and a joy-inspiring riff on his own experience when he appeared in a mini-episode to mark the show’s 60th, regenerating at the end, thus connecting the universe of his adventures with the 60th anniversary in “canon,” and ultimately with the New version of the show.
Matthew Jacobs has spent over a quarter of a century since the Eighth Doctor’s first appearance on screen being more or less “blamed” for the failure of the TV movie. Even Executive Producer of the movie, Philip Segal, has always traditionally blamed “the Jacobs script” for the failure of the movie to become a series.
A Difficult Watch
Now, in a crowdfunded documentary made across the course of a year (seemingly back when Peter Capaldi was the Doctor), Jacobs takes us for the first time into his unusual relationship with Doctor Who, his early childhood, his missed shot at the security and legendary status that bringing back Doctor Who would have delivered, and – crucially – the fandom for the show in all its extravagant American extremism, as shown at a couple of US conventions.
Truth be told, it’s a slightly difficult watch, all round. We learn that not only did Jacobs’ mother kill herself in 1963, the year Doctor Who was first broadcast, but that his father, Anthony Jacobs – who starred in the William Hartnell story, The Gunfighters, and took young Matthew to the filming, suffered from bipolar disorder, making Matthew’s early childhood significantly challenging.
We learn that Matthew Jacobs no longer comes across as the strong fan and jobbing writer he did back in 1996, and that he regards his shot at writing Doctor Who has his chance to be not only financially secure, but “one of the worshipped,” one of those figures who wring adoration from fans everywhere for their part in the creation of an ongoing TV and cultural legend.
The Messed-Up People
The film is relatively unsentimental about the nature of fandom, too – several fans are filmed explaining how Doctor Who has helped them throughout their lives, shaping them in response to tragedy, difficult personal circumstances, or simply in the way they live their lives. While understanding quite what they get from conventions – a sense of family, of community, of the freedom to be silly and wonderful in a safe space and time – Jacobs nevertheless regards them as “some pretty messed-up people.” And while by the end of the film, he’s shed a tear or two and recognised that perhaps, just possibly, he’s one of those messed-up people too, there’s no particular “road to Damascus” moment on which to swing a traditional, twee “Happily Ever After” third act – because of course, this is real life as documentary, not scripted redemption drama.
There are key meetings dotted throughout the film, though – Jacobs and Segal reunite after 20 years, and concessions are made that the script was not as bad as Segal claimed it was. Jacobs chats for a while to Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, who works to put his mind at rest about the convention circuit simply being where one-time stars and “the worshipped” circle the remains of their careers.
And above all, Jacobs meets the fans. He’s taken to task about the TV movie’s most contentious moments (when the Doctor kisses his companion, and when it’s revealed that he is and always has been “half-human on my mother’s side”) – with the fan exploding, half-humorously, “C’mon, man! The Doctor’s a Time Lord, he comes from Gallifrey!” It’s rather fun imagining what that particular fan has made of the recent on-screen revelations that the Doctor in fact came from Somewhere Else Entirely, and isn’t exactly a Time Lord as such, but the template for their whole society. We rather hope their brain has exploded, or expanded – and we don’t especially care which.
The Redemption of the Writer
But Jacobs also meets fans who share with him the powerful connection of their fandom – their lives will always be slightly better now because he attended their convention. Fans who first got into the show because of the TV movie, and who tell him so without knowing who he is – and when they find out, their minds are blown and their eyes go wide as they enfold him in the number of “the worshipped.”
Doctor Who Am I is never an especially heartwarming watch – it always feels inherently like a filmmaker relentlessly mining one of the moments where he almost made it big, and re-examining his relationship with everyone who did and didn’t respond to his work. It would be pushing it to say that Jacobs comes off as cuddly at any point.
But as a timely examination of fandom, of a cult show, and of the effect it can have on people, it’s extremely poignant, and as an exploration of how an opportunity that doesn’t quite manifest can affect someone for decades, it’s enough to touch the hardest heart.
We’ve all had those What If moments – what if you got that job? What if the person you asked had said yes? What If, what if, what if? Doctor Who Am I is not so much a tantalising glimpse into what could have happened if Jacobs’ script had spawned a series as a realization that all the adulation and the fandom surrounding the show, and particularly the New Who variant, could well have included him if only the series had materialised – but that now at least, there’s a place for him among the fans, and maybe, in particular panels, in particular conventions, and in particular sections of the fandom, he can still be one among the “worshipped,” after all.