Film Reviews

Doctor Who Am I review: Dir. Vanessa Yuille and Matthew Jacobs (2022)

To say that Doctor Who‘s 1996 TV Movie was divisive upon its release would be something of an understatement. The BBC/Universal-produced film has suffered complaints ranging from the “Americanisation” of the classic British series, the Doctor being proclaimed as half-human, and worse still, kissing his companion Grace. “I thought the fans would kill me” explains screenwriter Matthew Jacobs, as to why he hadn’t attended a Doctor Who fan convention before making this documentary. Doctor Who Am I – directed by Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille – follows the writer’s journey into Doctor Who fan culture, after 20 years of avoiding it, as he is “dragged” to possibly the biggest Who convention in the world: Gallifrey One, in Los Angeles. Jacobs’ dry wit and deadpan sense of humour add a lot of character to this film (his on-screen credit is as a “mid-level screenwriter”).

Along the way, he speaks to some of his collaborators on the Doctor Who movie: the Eighth Doctor himself, Paul McGann discusses his own initial hesitation to getting involved in conventions, while co-star Daphne Ashbrook (companion Grace Holloway) discusses her own experiences with fans – even if they don’t always want to pay $15 for an autograph. There are some entertaining interactions between the ‘stars’ and their fans: some very friendly, some quite funny (Jacobs is cornered by a fan who, admittedly in good humour, voices his frustrations with the half-human and romantic aspects of his script).

While some audiences may find the enthusiasm for some Who fans more than a little eccentric (even UK fans might find the American approach a bit much), one of the greatest strengths of this documentary is its appreciation for the artistry of fans, particularly in their “cosplays”, or costumes of Doctors, companions and monsters. A montage showcasing the “Masquerade of Mandragora” (an amusing pun on the title of a 70’s episode) showcases some truly incredible costumes, from Elizabeth I to a Minotaur. One fan explains that their elaborate outfit is modelled on a Time Fairy: their own creation weaved into the Whoniverse. There’s also some discussion about the psychology of fandom: Eric Roberts (the Master) compares Doctor Who to a religion with its devotees, while some interviewees explain what a relief the escapism of something like Doctor Who can be amidst real-life tragedy. This aspect leads to some truly touching moments throughout, reminding us why we need escapism in our lives.

In arguably the film’s more affecting strand, Matthew Jacobs discusses his own relationship to Doctor Who: his father Anthony Jacobs guest-starred in the William Hartnell serial The Gunfighters, and brought a young Jacobs to the set in 1966. At the culmination of this documentary, Jacobs revisits the story as part of a special panel at Long Island Who Convention, watching snippets on huge screens of his late father in a show that – for better or for worse – is a part of his life.

Doctor Who Am I is a frequently amusing and surprisingly emotional journey into the world of American Doctor Who fan culture through the eyes of one of the show’s most “controversial” writers. There is perhaps a “responsibility” to storytelling, as Paul McGann notes in one scene, given audiences’ needs to escape from the real world. Perhaps some fans take this escape too seriously – producer Philip Segal remarks how one fan in 1996 “physically assaulted” him over the film – but there is a sense of community to this culture that can be infectious. As to whether Matthew Jacobs manages to invest in this world – well, you’ll have to watch Doctor Who Am I to find out. All in all, this is a great documentary that’s well worth watching for Doctor Who fans, and perhaps even to those “non-fans” who put up with the show because of obsessed friends or family members.

Doctor Who Am I is in UK Cinemas now and will be available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download from 28 November: https://amzn.to/3VnaU2T

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