FAN FILM REVIEWS: THE FEMALE DOCTOR 4 – BROKEN DOORS
Synopsis: The Tardis breaks down in mid-flight, stranding the Doctor and Carl in a strange otherwordly realm. They make their way to a forbidding castle, where a bouncing ball leads them into danger…
Review: From what I can tell, looking around, the consensus is that this is the best of the Benedetti stories. Personally, I’m not sure I buy into that. Broken Doors is good. But then, so is Eukor, which is as good, or even better. And Utomo, if not quite a match for the first two, follows closely behind. In the end, the three are so different that I don’t know how I’d rank them against each other. But Broken Doors definitely seems to have won followers.
The good: Ryan Johnson returns to his strengths: We have a small cast, very effective use of location in terms of the creepy old house and the outdoors, and as always, great chemistry between Benedetti and Rogin.
Freed from the requirement of naturalism or realism, there’s a really good ‘room of mirrors’ set, which is very effective, surreal and arresting, altogether unearthly. Sets of any sort are very hard to do, as we saw in Visions of Utomu. And a set consisting of mirrors should be just hellish – hint – mirrors reflect back, which is not good if you want your camera and crew out of sight. But they pull it off, good lighting, good placement, good camera-work, to create an environment which is transdimensional and otherwordly.
There are other things to like – there’s a scene in a quarry, which is accompanied by some rather nice Matte shots. According to the notes by Ryan Johnson, the crew were absolutely thrilled to finally be shooting in a quarry. The interior locations, as I’ve said, are well chosen. They’ve mastered some very effective smoke/pyro effects (compared, say, to Eukor) which adds a lot of production value.
Of course, Barbara Benedetti shines as the Doctor, although in this story she’s looking a bit worn. Actually, Barbara Benedetti looks very worn. In some shots you can see bags under her eyes, she looks physically tired. Her character comes alive though, particularly in her scenes with Rogin, who plays Carl.
But even without Carl… They get separated half way through, she turns in a strong performance. Her scene in the room of the ‘hopscotch of death’ is almost a tour de force. With no one to act off of, and a fairly neutral environment, she still manages to convey the Doctor at full force, fishing through various pockets for different gadgets, fiddling with things and throwing them away, and then finding a bag of jelly babies which she ingeniously uses to solve her problem. Meanwhile, Carl, wherever he is, copes rather more frantically with his own strange events, and this is done engagingly.
The bad: This is the shortest of the Ryan Johnson Doctor Who videos. Eighteen minutes isn’t really enough time to develop a story effectively. It’s the shortest of Johnson/Benedetti stories, and this economy tells on us. It feels like it’s rushed through, hitting all its beats, but you sort of want a bit more, perhaps some plot swerve, perhaps just more of Benedetti being the Doctor, or her Doctor kvetching with Carl, or even a few minutes to see what the Michael Santo Doctor is going to be like.
It could have been worse – Johnson wanted fifteen minutes. It’s pretty clear he was just tired of doing Doctor Who. The plot is linear to a fault, there’s no sub-plots, no side trips, no real swerves. It lacks that ‘twistyness’ that’s a hallmark of good Doctor Who.
Instead, the Doctor and Carl end up in a strange dimension where a godlike being forces them to play a series of lethal games. The godlike being shows up late to the party spends a little too long explaining itself and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Now admittedly, the godlike being showing up late is good storytelling. I always hated it when Q or Trelayne or Apollo or whoever showed up right at the beginning of a Star Trek story and said ‘I’m going to screw you around now.’ There’s rather more mystery and intrigue if the Nemesis shows up later, is a little more coy, you can milk dramatic tension, keep the audience guessing. So I don’t actually mind the late appearance.
But when he does appear… wow, does he talk a lot, and wow, does so little of it make sense. Parsing it out, the entity is saying both “hey, I am my entire dimension, I’m a conscious universe in here, and you’re just talking to my hand.” And “Hey, I’m actually you, the dark side of you.” It says a bunch of other things, including how it likes to play cat and mouse games and kill its visitors.
Then it does an about face, saying the Doctor has won and can go free, but it turns out, that’s just another trap, one in which Carl is tricked into killing the Doctor. It’s final line is “The Game is Never Over, the Prize is Never Won.” Which is pretty dickish, but then, it’s actually fitting for a godlike entity whose hobby is screwing with people.
It seems to me that the basic concept of the confrontation with the entity is good, certainly the surreal setting of the room of mirrors is excellent. It’s hampered by the fact that a lot of key information is the entity monologuing, there should have been more back and forth. Certainly, Benedetti was a strong enough actress that it could have been carried off.
The final trick by which the entity kills the Doctor is also well done, both as a concept, and in execution.
Yes, I gave away the ending. My bad. Michael Santo was an enthusiastic young actor and major Doctor Who fan who desperately wanted to play the Doctor. He was actually the driving force, pushing and possibly funding Ryan Johnson to take one more outing. Johnson himself sat back sticking to the role of producer. The script was written by T. Brian Wagner, and Steve Hauge directed, so you can see Ryan Johnson backing away somewhat.
Ryan Johnson had been making his Doctor Who stories since June of 1984. Broken Doors would be shot in November of 1987 and released in March of 1988. Four years is a long time to be working on this, people simply get tired.
As well, the moment had passed – the crisis of the 18 month hiatus and near cancellation was over, and with it, that strange perfect moment when fans could wildly embrace a fan film. Doctor Who was back, the real Doctor Who, and we were half way through the tenure of a new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. Eukor and Utomu were years ago, Pentagon West had flopped…
Ryan Johnson was tired and ready to move on. He’d spent four years at it. He’d put in a lot of time and money. Eukor had cost somewhere between three and ten thousand dollars out of pocket, the other films had been cheaper for being shot on video, but still, you were looking at thousands of dollars in real money, and tens of thousands in sweat equity. He was done. If not for Michael Santo, there probably wouldn’t have been a Broken Doors.
Oddly, for all Santo’s enthusiasm to be the Doctor, this single minute or so of footage was the only time he would play the Doctor. He never got to play the role again. By this time, Johnson had done four films in four years, this last one had been done reluctantly, he just wasn’t up to doing it one more time. T. Brian Johnson did write a script for a Santo Doctor story, but it took so long that whatever impulse or energy to do it dissipated. Santo ended up doing Shakespeare, which made it harder to find the time to work on Johnson’s projects. It just never happened.
Frankly, I don’t mind. Benedetti was something special, the whole concept of the female Doctor was groundbreaking. For all his enthusiasm I’m not sure that Santo was going to bring anything more, or that Johnson had any new places to take him. Is it really worth it to be known as ‘the guy who came after…’ I dunno.
In one of life’s ironic twists, Santo found his big fame in fandom making ‘Star Trek: The Pepsi Generation’ where he parodied Picard. Ironic because he hated Star Trek as much as he disliked Doctor Who.
So what’s the bottom line for Broken Doors? It fits into the surreal genre of Doctor Who, it’s of a piece with stories like the Mind Robber, the Celestial Toymaker, Warriors Gate or Timbase’s Paradise in Chains. If you like those, you’ll like this, and as I’ve said, some fans see this as, hands down, the best of the Benedetti stories.
Ryan Johnson would go on to do one more Doctor Who story, Death Takes a Holiday, roughly sixteen years later. That seventeen minute short would actually feature Colin Baker (yes, him), Frazier Hines, Wendy Padbury, and Nicholas Courtney with some of the cast actually froliking around genuine Mayan ruins. No Michael Santo in that one though. It is online, I’ll review it a bit further down the road.
Barbara Benedetti passed away in November, 1991, at the age of 38, only three years after Broken Doors, I am sad to say. Although an active and talented actress, most of her work was on stage. In mainstream film, she had small parts in Shredder Orpheus, Bomb’s Away, Dogfight and Waiting for the Light, all shot in the Seattle area. Her last film role was with Ryan Johnson once again, called the Wolfe Project, where she played the title role as a psychic investigator.
Barbara Benedetti, for my money, is one of the finest fan film Doctors ever, one of the few that deserves a place with the real Doctors. She took the role and she was The Doctor. Only Rupert Booth was overall better (I’ll talk about him eventually), and Benedetti had a much better rapport with her companion. I miss her.
It’s ironic, given that although she was a terrific Doctor, she wasn’t a Doctor Who fan at all, and until Johnson approached her, hadn’t even seemed to have heard of it at all. She didn’t seem terribly engaged with the role. She enjoyed playing the part, but she was equally willing to let it go to Michael Santo. That said, she captured the spirit of the Doctor almost perfectly from get go. Her Doctor was witty, unconventional, eccentric and unflappable, smarter than anyone around her and ready to do the unexpected.
So how do the four Benedetti/Johnson stories stack up? Well, it’s an actual body of work. Four stories, 108 minutes. I would say one brilliant episode, two very good ones, and one mostly embarrassing misstep. One of the things I like is that there’s a range to the female Doctor – she goes from adventure, to light comedy, to experiment to surrealism. It doesn’t sit still and just do the one thing, tell the same kind of story. Rather, it chose to tell not just different stories, but different kinds of stories.
A lot of it looks and aspires to professional quality, in both the story, the acting, the shots and settings. There’s the usual glitches and hiccups, and some things definitely need to be forgiven.
I think that one of the strengths that Ryan Johnson brought to his Doctor Who stories was that he was a film-maker first, rather than a fan. An amateur film maker, but still a film maker, that’s no small thing.
No question, he is a huge Doctor Who fan. You don’t do five fan films, and put on live shows (‘The Tardis Home Companion’) and put the sort of money and work in without love. But that wasn’t the limits of his interests. His most popular film probably Star Trek: The Pepsi Generation, and he did his own MSTR3K movies riffing on Star Trek V and Highlander II. His body of work includes more than a dozen other shorts.
He has a broad appreciation, both of fandom and pop culture, as well as film making, and that allows him both to make better films, and to be willing to experiment more. In this sense of being willing to experiment, I’d rank Utomu as his best – not even the Timebase Production people dreamt of crossing Doctor Who with a Crosby/Hope yarn.
Of course, the downside of being willing to experiment means that you have to be willing to fail, which gives us Pentagon West, but at least it was a failure with an interesting idea. Johnson also seemed willing to share the load, which both helped and hurt. I think his most polished scripts were Eukor and Broken Doors, both credited to other people. Being willing to solicit help, and respecting that help gave him Benedetti and Rogel. Then again, it also gave him some fairly bad results elsewhere.
The Doctor Who stories are definitely a body of work, although the individual stories don’t really fit into a greater narrative, rather, their strength is their diversity. It’s held together by the continuing characters in the Doctor and Carl who together bring a consistent identiy and sensibility to the productions. But each story is unique. Nevertheless, as a body of work, the whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts, particularly for being diverse.
18 minutes. Betacam video. Filmed November 1987, released March 1988.
Cast. . . Barbara Benedetti as The Doctor, Michael Santo as The Doctor and the Manager, Randy Rogel as Carl Evans, Gareth Davis as the Soldier.
Written by T. Brian Wagner. Produced by Ryan K. Johnson. Directed by Steven Hauge
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