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Tardis Party: Doctor Who episode close-up ~ Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)

October 27, 2013

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The key to time: Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy hands over the reins to eighth incarnation Paul McGann for the curate’s egg that’s the one-off Anglo-American Doctor Who TV movie

Yes, the less-than-a-month countdown is finally underway to ‘The Day of the Doctor’, mes amis – the official day of Doctor Who‘s (1963-present) 50th anniversary when its official 50th anniversary special, er, The Day Of The Doctor will be broadcast. And, with the countdown really ramping-up now, what better episode of the show to celebrate (in George’s Journal‘s ongoing celebration of Who) than this one?

Yep, it’s the Who episode that divides Who fans like no other. For it’s the episode from neither the 1960s-’80s ‘Classic’ series nor the hugely successful ‘NuWho’, the one that’s neither unofficial nor entirely canonical, and the one that’s neither royally cool nor total rollox (although admittedly, in many ways, it’s both). Yup, it is – and could only be – Doctor Who: The Movie

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Doctors: Paul McGann (The Eighth Doctor); Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor)

Companion: Daphne Ashbrook (Dr Grace Holloway)

Villain: Eric Roberts (The Master)

Ally: Yee Jee Tso (Chang Lee)

Writer: Matthew Jacobs

Executive Producers: Philip Segal and Jo Wright

Director: Geoffrey Sax

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Original broadcast dates: May 12 1996 (Canada)/ May 14 1996 (US)/ May 27 1996 (UK)

Total viewers: 5.6 million (US)/ 9.1 million (UK)

Running time: 85 minutes

Previous serial: Survival (Season 26)

Next episode: Rose (New Season 1)

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In the guise of his boggly-eyed, Scot-accented and now somewhat pleasantly plump seventh incarnation, The Doctor is sitting in an armchair of his spacious yet homely TARDIS console room, eating jelly babies, reading HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1898), listening to a record on a gramophone and generally behaving rather absent-mindedly. Big mistake. Not least because he’s transporting the remains of arch nemesis and rebel Time Lord The Master – following the latter’s ‘execution’ at the hands of the Daleks on their home-planet Skaro – to his and The Master’s home-planet Gallifrey.

From past experience, we all know how brilliantly sly that Master can be and, lo and behold, a distracted Doctor doesn’t notice the former’s remains – technically a tube of DNA-rich slime – slither out of the box in which it’s supposed to be sealed, across the floor and into the time console itself. The record on the gramophone skips, sparks fly from the console, its mechanism groans and suddenly The Doc discovers his beloved TARDIS is taking an inexplicable detour to Earth – specifically San Francisco on 30 December 1999. However, we’re left in little doubt that this is all The Master’s doing.

Duly materialising the space- and time-machine in a back alley of San Francisco then, The Doc steps out and closes the door – only immediately to be assailed by machine-gun bullets, having accidentally landed right into the middle of a China Town gang fight (see video clip above). Crumpling to the ground, he’s quickly attended to by a survivor of the attack, a youth named Chang Lee, whom doesn’t notice the dying Doc point aghast to the transparent tube of goo escaping through the TARDIS door’s keyhole. Chang Lee – feeling obliged or just for the hell of it? – calls for an ambulance and rides in it along with The Doctor; not knowing his identity, though, he forges an identity for the patient, filling out the latter’s name on paperwork as the first that comes into his head: ‘John Smith’.

On the operating table, The Doc stuns and bemuses the nurses and the just-returned-from-a-night-at-the-opera ace surgeon Dr Grace Holloway by snapping in and out of consciousness and exclaiming they shouldn’t operate on him, as they’ll ‘kill’ him and ensure he can’t regenerate. Eventually, the medical team manage to subdue him, remove the bullets from his body and inexplicably lose their patient – somehow, a disbelieving Grace realises, she has killed the man. But how?

Overnight, however, the Doc does manage to regenerate and takes on the appearance of a handsome, shaggy haired chap, albeit one that, when he escapes from the morgue, has a severe case of amnesia and has no idea who he is. Meanwhile, in the morning, Grace argues with her senior the incident must be investigated, but he’s having none of it and declares the matter will be covered up, forcing the principled surgeon to resign and walk out – not before she’s checked the Doc’s x-ray, though, and discovered that impossibly, yet beyond doubt, he possesses two hearts.

Having stolen from an orderly’s locker and dressed himself in a ‘Wild’ Bill Hicock-style fancy dress outfit (intended for a New Year’s Eve party that night), a still dazed and confused Doc spies Grace leaving and, remembering her as his surgeon, follows her and confronts her in the hospital car-park. Still in a state of disbelief, Grace won’t allow herself to be convinced that this new man is the patient she ‘killed’ the night before, even when he pulls tubes from the operation out of his abdomen and confirms he has two hearts. Driven back to her house, he talks his way in and discovers Grace’s live-in boyfriend has left and taken all his possessions (owing to her over-dedication to her career); all his possessions, that is, apart from a pair of shoes that the Doc tries on and appropriates.

As all this has been going on, The Master’s slippery, slimy, temporary state has entered the body of ambulance driver Bruce, whom immediately returns to the hospital in search of The Doctor (curiously dressed in a leather jacket and shades very reminiscent of Arnie in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day). Fortunately, he misses his fellow Gallifreyan, but does discover Chang Lee, who’s spent the night there waiting on news of the Doc and snatches the latter’s bag of possessions when informed he’s ‘died’. Following the youth back to the TARDIS, The Master gains entry to the machine when Chang Lee takes the TARDIS key from the bag, unlocks the door and walks in.

The Doctor: I know who I am…!
[He kisses Grace]
The Doctor: … I am The Doctor!
Grace: Good. Now, do that again

Inside, Chang Lee is quickly convinced of the awesome time-travelling and alien nature of the man he accompanied to the hospital and is easily convinced by The Master that the Doc is the evil one of the two; indeed, he claims that the latter stole not only the TARDIS from him but also his body, which is why he ‘had to’ steal the ambulance driver’s body – and, this body being human, won’t last him long, meaning he needs Chang Lee’s help to ‘steal back’ his ‘own’ body.

Back at Grace’s house, the Doc has an instant surge of recollection and realises he is indeed The Doctor, (uncharacteristically?) kissing her in delight. He then swiftly informs her what he believes has happened – The Master has somehow found his way back into the TARDIS and opened the machine’s source of power, the cloister room’s Eye of Harmony (which may or may not be linked to the original Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey) in order to take the Doc’s own body. However, keeping the Eye open for too long will destroy the Earth. Our hero tries to prove this by showing the fabric of Earth’s reality is already starting to destabilise: he steps through a window as if slipping through a thickly-coated bubble.

In order to thwart The Master and close the Eye, the Doc claims he will need an atomic-related device; fortuitously, he and Grace discover via a TV broadcast that an atomic clock will be unveiled at San Francisco’s Institute of Technological Advancement and Research that night as part of the city’s official celebration of the turning-of-the-millennium. This clock, the Doc exclaims, will contain such a device, so as Grace happens to be on the Institute’s board and so should be able to gate-crash the party (and now mostly convinced by the Doc’s protestations), she agrees to take him there.

Unaware of its driver’s true identity (The Master), the pair accept a lift to the Institute in an ambulance – which had turned up at Grace’s house owing to her calling for one earlier to hospitalise the ‘crazy’ Doctor. However, as the Doc twigs their driver is, in fact, his foe, they abandon the ambulance and steal a police motorbike to make it their location in time. Arriving there, they manage to foil the security and steal the gadget from the clock – an integrated circuit chip – and return to the TARDIS.

Yet, on arriving there, installing the chip and closing the Eye, The Doctor realises the Eye has been open too long, thus they somehow must turn back time to prevent Earth’s impending destruction – which, he calculates, will coincide with midnight and the turn-of-the-millenium. However, before he can rewire the TARDIS’s damaged console to do this, The Master appears and, taking control of Grace and Chang Lee’s mind, manages to chain The Doc above the now reopened Eye, with the latter’s own eyes forced open, so he might steal all The Doctor’s remaining lives (having used up all his own).

Owing to Chang Lee finally seeing the light and disobeying The Master, the latter kills him and relinquishes control of Grace (she having now served her purpose for him of helping disable The Doctor). Grace, though, leaps to the task she knows needs doing – she rushes back to the console and rewires it, succeeding in sending the TARDIS into a time-holding pattern just seconds after midnight has struck. She then returns to the cloister room where her attempt to challenge The Master results in him killing her too, but does just enough to help free the Doc and give him the chance to grapple with his nemesis, which sees the latter fall into the Eye and seemingly to his doom. This causes the Eye to close and thus time reverts back to before its reopening (moments before midnight struck), ensuring Grace and Chang Lee are brought back to life.

The trio depart the TARDIS into the now safe San Francisco night. Returning all the Doc’s possessions, Chang Lee bids them farewell, the former’s friendly warning not to be in the city in exactly a year’s time ringing in his ears. Having shared a final kiss with Grace, The Doctor turns down her offer to remain with her; her having already turned down his offer to be his travelling companion. They say goodbye and the Time Lord returns to the TARDIS, dematerialises it and sends it on its travels through time and space once more. Yet, just as he switches on the gramophone and settles in his armchair with The Time Machine once more, the record skips at the exact same point it did at the start of the adventure, forcing him to cry: ‘Oh no, not again…’

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The reason why Doctor Who: The Movie is one of the show’s ‘essential’ episodes is because it’s arguably its most unique – and the reason for that is twofold. First, it’s the only on-screen – genuinely canonical – story to have been made in the show’s more-than-a-decade-and-a-half-long ‘wilderness years’ (between the end of the ‘Classic’ Series in 1989 and the start of ‘NuWho’ in 2005) and, second, it’s the only on-screen story ever to properly feature Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.

Make no mistake, The Movie is an utter curiosity and controversy among Who fans – derided by some, admired by others; loathed by many, loved by few. It splits opinion surely more than any other episode/ story/ serial – not least because some of its plot-points are so out-there for Who (which non-fans may see as something of an irony in itself) they’re no longer deemed canon. However, without The Movie, there may never have been a new series in 2005; like it or not then and clearly or sometimes merely by default, it very much serves as a bridge between ‘Classic’ Who and ‘NuWho’.

The good things about The Movie are undoubtedly good – and there’s a fair number of them. Top of the list has to be McGann’s interpretation of the several centuries-old Time Lord. Starting off an amnesiac (and, thus, in the eyes of nearest human contact Grace, a highly eccentric charlie whose delusions of grandeur should see him committed), as the plot develops and the action ramps0up, this Doc realises who he is and becomes a finely realised, very likeable protagonist. His boyish good looks, hairy mane, Old West/ Victorian-esque togs, flirtatious nature and propensity for wide-eyed wonder and excitement all make him more than reminiscent of the literary romantic hero. He’s rather Byron-esque is The Eighth Doctor (without all the booze-fuelled shagging and capering, of course).

One may argue then he’s the most ‘human’ Doctor to date (not least because of his lip-locking tendencies – more on that below), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it arguably foreshadows the hugely popular 21st Century Docs that would be David Tennant‘s Tenth (whom falls for his first companion Rose, of course) and Matt Smith‘s Eleventh (whom develops an incurable, familial bond for companions Amy and Rory and even marries his love interest River Song).

Also in the credit column is the fact that despite this being a TV movie made as much for a North American audience as for a genned-up British one (and thus a bit of a Who re-boot), it observes the show’s tradition of inviting back the existing Doctor actor to pass on the reins to the next via a regeneration scene. And, although feeling very much old news by the mid-’90s, it’s comforting then that things kick-off with Sylvester McCoy’s comfy Seventh Doctor before we segue into McGann’s all-new ’90s-friendly ‘New Man’ version. Moreover, the regeneration sequence itself is a real doozy (see video clip below); interspersed, as it is, not only with The Master’s occupying a human’s body (and thus being reborn himself), but also nattily with a morgue orderly watching Frankenstein’s monster come to life in James Whale’s classic 1931 film version of the story.

Credit for that scene and for the The Movie as a whole then should also go to helmer Geoffrey Sax, a Brit TV veteran who was at the time plying his trade in the States. His direction is smart, imaginative, witty and pacy (often just about papering over the cracks in the plot) – and again then a foreshadowing of the sort of modern cinematic-friendly direction ‘NuWho’ would enjoy. Additionally, The Movie‘s production values impress. Always a victim of relatively low budgets, the ‘Classic’ series forever had to make do with wobbly cardboard-esque sets and charming if not the most credible-looking monsters, but thanks to American money there’s none of that in sight here.

Doctor Who: The TV Movie won the 1996 Saturn (Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films) Award for Best Television Presentation

The location shooting in Vancouver (standing in for San Francisco; albeit not that convincingly if you’ve visited either city) gives the thing an American sheen and dynamism, while the extravagant motorbike chase on the highway really packs an action punch (again a sign of things to come in the show’s future) and most eye-catching of all is the TARDIS set; the console room alone seems to fill an entire studio and contains more archaic props than you can shake a stick at – even if, because of all that, it maybe doesn’t really feel very Who.

That inevitably then leads us on to some of The Movie‘s glaringly unusual and more disagreeable aspects. As mentioned, the plot isn’t all that tight (exactly why the Doc must purloin a small part from the atomic clock is glossed over and seems a bit of an excuse for the motorbike chase and an impromptu heist by the leads, while Chang Lee’s motivations for believing, let alone following, the clearly devious Master instead of believing in the Doc aren’t convincing, as is The Master’s cheery befriending/ pseudo-adoption of the boy – why doesn’t he just kill him once he’s used him to get inside the TARDIS?). Eric Roberts’ casting as the classic nemesis/ negative of the Gallifreyan hero is questionable too (but there’s an understandable reason why it happened – see below); although Julia’s brother and Emma’s dad clearly enjoys hamming it up like a good ‘un – and who can blame him?

But most precarious of all, of course, are those controversial ‘changes’ that the story throws into the Who mix. First, we have The Doctor kissing (not just once, but twice) his otherwise very fitting, amusing and refreshingly age-appropriate companion Grace. At the time, this was a huge curve-ball for ‘Whovians’; the Doc had always seemed to be an asexual being. Yet this is a new incarnation and with his youthful, romantic demeanour it does rather fit and, as mentioned, it maybe helped make amorous future Docs more palatable for die-hard fans.

Elsewhere, the portrayal of the body-less Master as a CGI-ed Abyss-like water snake and then full-on Voldermort-esque cobra is a little peculiar to my mind (why would he choose the form of a creature from a planet he despises for his non-humanoid state?). Yet the most contentious and, yes, dodgy thing of all has to be the revelation two-thirds of the way through that The Doc himself is half-human. Frankly, the idea smacks of the US backers wanting to make the character more accessible to a US audience (‘Why should the hero be entirely alien? Make him snog the girl so the viewers and advertisers like him more’, you can imagine them clamouring). It feels all wrong and, given The Movie was a one-off and the idea utterly ignored in ‘NuWho’, has been proved to be pretty much pointless. An awkward mis-step.

Still, accepting its less than successful elements, there’s much to admire and enjoy about The Movie. In an era of slick, US dominated sci-fi TV – in particular The X-Files (1993-2002) and all those Star Trek series – it proved not only could a pacier, more expensive-looking version of the show work, but that it was still relevant. And, thus, of course, it – maybe unwittingly, but hey – paved the way for the Doctor Who we know and love today.

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Whenever it comes to this final section of these close-ups/ reviews, I always seem to be saying such-and-such an episode had a  torturous journey to the screen – but truly none had it rougher than The Movie. Not least because its journey was seven eccerin’ years long. The Movie was the brainchild of ex-pat Who-nut Philip Segal, whom by the end of the ’80s had established himself as a mover and shaker in the LA world of US network TV. Realising  the ‘Classic’ series was on its last legs and there was no appetite within the Beeb to carry on with it in the near future, he began to plague the corporation’s newly established commercial wing BBC Enterprises (nowadays known as BBC Worldwide) with constant transatlantic phone calls over the possibility of reviving it as an Anglo-American, but US-based one-off TV movie-cum-pilot or (if he could secure a deal) a fully-fledged series.

For a long time, it all came to naught. A fly in the ointment was a rival US project to get Who back on the big screen (following the Peter Cushing-headlined Doctor Who And The Daleks and Dalek Invasion Earth: 2150 AD of the mid-’60s), which loftily aimed to land Donald Sutherland for the lead role. Until this project’s lease on the commodity that is Who dwindled in the early ’90s, Segal’s efforts proved to be fruitless; indeed, he eventually scuppered his rivals entirely by informing Sutherland that the project’s backers only planned to film the bare minimum necessary – instead of actually start a filming shoot proper – right before the date their lease was up in order to extend the lease. Another problem for Segal was the BBC’s umming-and-ahhing over a potential The Five Doctors-style (1983) special for the show’s 30th anniversary in the autumn of ’93. Plans were drawn up and ideas tossed about, but despite the hoohah, nothing happened apart from the Dimensions In Time (1993) effort for that November’s Children In Need appeal, which saw four previous Docs and many companions interact with characters from EastEnders (1985-present) in a witless, execrable 3D embarrassment.

Eventually though, once he’d moved on from the TV arm of Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin Entertainment (where he’d made a name for himself working on 1993-96’s seaQuest DSV and 1993-96’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), Segal managed to broker a deal to get a TV movie up and running which, the agreement was, would be jointly back-rolled by Universal Television and the BBC and broadcast on the Fox network in the States. It would be a one-off, but also effectively serve as a pilot for a brand new US-produced series should it prove successful enough. Positioning himself as a centrepiece between all the project’s interested parties – Universal, Fox and co-executive producer at the BBC Jo Wright – Segal forever found himself being pulled in opposing directions as he tried to please everyone, whom inevitably all wanted different things out of the project. In which case, it’s a wonder The Movie turned out the (generally) satisfying slice of entertainment it did; moreover, it’s obvious too then why it contains so many Who-centric aberrations and things that plain don’t work.

Script-wise, Segal initially (back in his Amblin days) enlisted Universal-contracted scribe John Leekley. Viewing hours upon hours of Doctor Who episodes, Leekley became enamoured with both Gallifrey’s Time Lord society and the WWII-echoing tone of The Third Doctor/ UNIT stories. Thus, his stab featured the notion of the Doc learning that he deserves to inherit Gallifrey’s Lord President role, as well as the fact that his mother was human and The Master is his half-brother, plus the second-half of the adventure would have been set in the war-torn Blighty of the 1940s (indeed, check out Paul McGann’s fascinating audition for the role – it’s clearly taken from this script). In the end, Amblin chief Spielberg both nixed this screenplay and the entire project, declaring rightly that the whole thing had become too much like his own Indiana Jones (and with, to my mind, strong Star Wars undertones too).

Once away from Amblin, Segal looked to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles writer – and fellow Brit – Matthew Jacobs as a scribe. The latter’s first attempt dumped practically everything in Leekley’s effort apart from the half-human Doc element (which seemed a necessary inclusion for the US backers). Jacobs wasn’t just familiar with Doctor Who, but had fond memories of the show, as his father Anthony Jacobs had played Doc Holliday in William Hartnell-era serial The Gunfighters (1965); indeed, during the shoot of which the actor had brought the young Jacobs to the set as a birthday treat. With a good feel for the material then, the writer not only brought in the character of the Seventh Doctor for a hand-over regeneration, but also grounded the story in modern-day America with the notion of The Master attempting to steal the Doc’s body for his own. From this, the eventual plot of The Movie slowly and eventually formed…

As Jon Pertwee, the hugely popular Third Doctor, sadly passed away in the days between Doctor Who: The Movie‘s US and UK broadcasts, the titles of the UK broadcast included an epitaph to the legendary thesp

Apparently, the notion to cast McGann as the new Doc was first suggested – perhaps unsurprisingly – by the Beeb, with Jo Wright being a champion. Once he auditioned, first around ’93-’94, McGann became a favourite for Segal, but given his lack of name recognition in the States, the US backers were far from sure. They favoured much more familiar names, including Michael Crawford (Segal’s first favourite), Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Billy Connolly, Jonathan Pryce, Trevor Eve, Tim Curry and Rowan Atkinson (whom would go on to portray one of the Doctors in the Steven Moffat-penned, 1999 Comic Relief spoof The Curse Of The Fatal Death).

By coincidence, as well as John Sessions, Tim McInnery, Anthony Head, Robert Lindsay, Liam Cunningham and Nathaniel Parker, an early auditionee was another of the McGann acting clan, Paul’s brother Mark. Later on, of course, Head would appear as chief villain in the Tennant-era story School Reunion (2006) and Cunningham as a Soviet sub captain in the latest series’ Cold War (2013). As for the casting of just-about-medium-weight Hollywood star Eric Roberts as The Master, it was a stipulation of the US backers that an actor genuinely recognisable to US audiences filled out the antagonist role opposite the lesser known (and, eventually in the case of McGann, actually practically unknown) Brit thesp in the protagonist role.

Contrary to popular belief, The Movie was a ratings hit in both the UK (where it was broadcast on the evening of 1996’s Spring Bank Holiday Monday, capturing a mightily impressive 9.1 million viewers – the largest audience for a TV drama in its week) and the land of of its filming Canada (where it debuted on Edmonton, Alberta’s CITV-TV channel two days ahead of its US screening). However, as is widely known, it was far from a success when broadcast in the States, drawing a disappointing 5.6 million viewers. Yet blame can perhaps be apportioned to the fact it was up against the (then expected) last ever episode of monstrously successful sitcom Roseanne (1988-97) – it seems the gallivanting Gallifreyan has always found negotiating female Earthlings tricky.

Ultimately then, Segal and the Beeb’s gamble didn’t pay off; the regenerated, revitalised Doctor Who hadn’t ‘found an audience’ in the States (as per its requirement) and remained stillborn, ensuring no new series followed and McGann’s one, solid crack at playing the Doc was his last… well, at least on TV. For in the realms of audio adventures, novels and comic strips (not least the much-loved strip in the official Doctor Who Magazine), McGann’s Eighth Doctor became a bona fide hit with fans, happily and undoubtedly fulfilling the potential his incarnation had shown in its single on-screen appearance.

Moreover, as mentioned many times here, in the long-run Who itself gained greatly from The Movie; Russell T Davies clearly having noted that in the faster, more sci-fi fashionable turn-of-the-millennium-era the appetite for Who at least in Blighty was back, thus his decision to properly bring the show back to the BBC could well pay off. But what of the man who’d tried – and somewhat succeeded – in bringing the Doc back in The Movie? Well, in recent years Philip Segal has found great success as the man behind culty shows such as Ice Road Truckers (2007-present). For which channel? That’s right… the History Channel. The Doctor would be so proud…

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Next time: Rose (New Season 1/ 2005)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The Caves Of Androzani (Season 21/ 1984/ Doctor: Peter Davison)

The Five Doctors (Special/ 1983/ Main Doctor: Peter Davison)

City Of Death (Season 17/ 1979/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Season 15/ 1977/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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