"I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there."
— The Doctor
The long-running "classic" Doctor Who series ended in 1989, with the Seventh Doctor and Ace heading off to combat danger, fear and (most frighteningly of all) cold tea. When the revived show hit the airwaves in 2005, the Ninth Doctor (apparently the lone survivor of the The Last Great Time War) was ready for a new slate of adventures with Rose.
The missing link was the Eighth Doctor. In spite of winding up a highly prolific Doctor — once written adaptations and audio dramas are factored in — this incarnation got exactly one TV outing, a made-for-TV movie officially known as Doctor Who but sometimes called "The Enemy Within."
Doctor Who was released in 1996 and stars Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, Daphne Ashbrook as one-off companion Grace Holloway, Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee and Eric Roberts as Bruce, an ambulance driver whose body is taken over by the Master. Sylvester McCoy appears briefly as the Seventh Doctor, who is travelling alone as the film begins. (It would seem that Ace has since moved on.)
The movie runs 89 minutes and was filmed in Vancouver. The hope was that it would lead to a U.S.-made revived series, but it fared poorly stateside. It was better received in the United Kingdom, and McGann continued to portray the Eighth Doctor in audio dramas.
The Master, the roguest of rogue Time Lords, has been put on trial by the Daleks and sentenced to death. While a Time Lord can cheat death by regenerating, this can only be done a finite number of times, "and the Master had used up all of his." He has one request prior to his execution: that the Doctor transport his mortal remains to their home planet. This doesn't strike anyone as odd enough to shut it down, and the Seventh Doctor takes off for Gallifrey in the TARDIS with the Master's ashes in tow.
Naturally, the Master isn't completely dead. Equally naturally, he has no intention of becoming completely dead or even staying partially dead. Despite the notable handicap of not having a body, he is able to sabotage the flight and force the Doctor to make an emergency landing in San Francisco on December 31, 1999. Upon exiting the TARDIS, he is caught in the crossfire of a gang fight and fatally shot. The bodiless Master, now a sentient ooze, escapes.
Chang Lee, the youth the aforementioned gang had been chasing, calls 911 and accompanies the Doctor to the hospital. Having somehow gotten onto the ambulance, the Master overtakes the body of Bruce, the ambulance driver, assuming his form.
Dr. Grace Holloway is summoned from a night at the opera back to work to perform surgery on the hospital's latest emergency patient. Despite his seemingly nonsensical protests that surgery would do him more harm than good, she proceeds. He has a seizure, apparently dies and is brought to the hospital morgue. It's there that the Doctor regenerates, scaring the hell out of a hospital attendant when he emerges from the storage area clad only in a sheet. To further confuse matters, the Doctor now has no idea who he is.
Not wanting to reveal too much about the gang fight, Chang Lee pretends to know the Doctor. Hospital staff seem confused when he shows no discernable emotion following the Doctor's death, but let him leave with his personal effects anyhow. Among those personal effects is the key to the TARDIS; after encountering Chang Lee, the Master is able to enter the time machine with his help.
Grace is distraught at having lost a patient, and infuriated when her superiors choose to cover up the patient's x-ray, which clearly shows him to have had two hearts. She resigns in disgust. In the meantime, the Doctor returns to the hopsital waiting room in an attempt to get his bearings and maybe figure out who he is. He recognizes Grace from the night before and follows her out of the hospital, claiming to be the patient she'd operated on. Naturally, she thinks he's out of his mind; that patient died, and besides, this guy doesn't look anything like him.
He finally convinces her otherwise when he removes the medical instrument she'd embedded in his body the night before (parlour-trick style). She brings him to her home to examine him further, confirming that he really does have two hearts. This is all very confusing, contradicting the most basic tenets of medicine and all, and they go for a walk to clear their heads.
Meanwhile, the Master uses Chang Lee to open the Eye of Harmony inside the TARDIS. He can't do it himself because it can only be opened with a retinal pattern scan relating to the owner of the TARDIS, and, apparently (controversial plot point ho!) the Doctor is half-human.
The opening of the Eye of Harmony triggers something inside the Doctor's head, causing him to remember who he is (and kiss Grace in the resulting glee) but also figure out that the Master's using the Eye of Harmony to try to steal the Doctor's remaining lives for himself. This is troublesome enough, but left open, the Eye of Harmony can draw the entire planet into it. Grace starts to think he's just a crazy person, but when structural things start to go weird she agrees to help him find an atomic clock so he can close the Eye of Harmony before midnight. It's a race against time! Can they do it?
The TV movie may be the black sheep of the Doctor Who canon, but that doesn't make it bad. McGann, in particular, was very good and it's a shame he only got the one televised appearance.
Its flaw is trying to be too much to too many people — newbies and longtime fans of the series — in such a short period of time. At an-hour-and-a-half, it's shorter than some of the classic serials and yet it tries to posit itself as a crash course in all things Who. We get Daleks, the Master and a mention of Time Lords and Gallifrey all before the opening credits. In the ensuing minutes, we're told how the regeneration process works.
With that essential background information out of the way, we get into the main plot, which is itself sprinkled with old-school Who references such as the Eye of Harmony (which was originally on Gallifrey, not inside the TARDIS) and scenes in which the Doctor offers people jelly babies, Fourth Doctor-style. Those references will make sense to someone familiar with the original series, but to anyone using the film as an entry point (the intented purpose for an American audience), it just seems random.
Among the departures from the original characterization is the Doctor's demonstrated detailed knowledge of random people he encounters. The ability to travel through time and space means he might know things about various people, but knowing the specific reason why Grace decided to become a doctor and the life story of a guard at a museum seems a bit much. The guy's not supposed to be omniscient, nor has he supposed to have travelled through time enough to have memorized the lives of every person ever.
There was some controversy over the fact that this film depicts the Doctor kissing a lady (and twice, at that), but that element was brought forward into the revived BBC series so people seem to have mostly gotten over it. At the time, though, it was a substantial departure from the asexual portrayal of the previous Doctors. (The Fourth Doctor even once says "You're a beautiful woman, probably.") It's probable that the creators might have been looking to give the brand a bit of an edge, or at least rid it of some of the alleged stuffiness of the original.
The biggest problematic factor deserves its own subheading, so let's move on to...
The film's single most controversial element was the bombshell that the Doctor is only half-Time Lord. The series had never hinted at such a plot twist before, and it's since been largely consigned to the dustbin of Who history. There's been no shortage of theories as to why this plot point was introduced, with some thinking that the creators hoped to draw something of a parallel to Star Trek, a show the American audience would be more familiar with. Others have suggested that the point might have been to, well, humanize an otherwise humanoid alien character (and maybe make it less 'interspecies' when he smooches his one-time lady companion).
There have also been fan attempts to retcon reasons why the Eighth Doctor might have been half-human while the previous Doctors never brought this up; a popular fabricated theory suggests that the attempt to save the Seventh Doctor with human medical techniques somehow caused the Eighth Doctor to have some human DNA. This doesn't explain the line in which he describes himself as "half-human on my mother's side," but whatever.
Anyway, with the revived series only referencing the issue once (and delightfully cheekily, might I add — the Tenth Doctor once notes that he was half-human for a time in the 1990s), everyone seems to have forgotten about this and moved on. As you were!
In a documentary during the early days of the revived series, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat each noted that McGann's Doctor was the one who brought "snogging" into the canon. For better or for worse, that's the case.
The premiere of the revived series suggests that the Ninth Doctor has recently regenerated in the wake of the Time War. The original theory was that the Eighth Doctor fought the Time War, though a short prequel episode leading up to the 50th anniversary special showed that after staying out of the war, he was persuaded to become the War Doctor (played by John Hurt) who then presumably regenerated into the Ninth Doctor.
The film's largest impact on the canon may be its modifications to the interior of the TARDIS. Gone is the sterile white control room of yore, replaced with a wood-paneled look the Wikipedia article describes as being "steampunk." The revived series adopted that, with the two distinct interiors seen since 2005 equally as elaborate, if not moreso.
While the Doctor defeats the Master in the end, even that element of the plot is wiped out in the revived series when we learn that the Time Lords somehow resurrect the Master for their use in the Time War. We also haven't seen Grace or Chang Lee again.
All in all, it's best suited to completist fans of the series. McGann deserved better than some of the more hackneyed plot points and definitely deserved more than one on-screen appearance. The Eighth Doctor audio dramas, to which he lends his voice, are well-received among fans of the series (though the canonicity of non-TV serials is the subject of some debate).