He Was Back… and It Was About Time

As mentioned in a previous article, passion sometimes can be the lifeblood of a television series.  From the people who create the program, to the fans who remember it long after its demise, passion can be the one thing that keeps a show from disappearing into television history.  And in the case of one particular gentleman, it’s that passion that allowed him the chance to bring his favorite show back to the small screen for one night… and maybe ultimately more….

Philip Segal had grown up in England, before his family moved to the US when he was 12.  One of the shows that he watched as a child, and apparently had left a lasting impression on his mind, was the British TV series Doctor Who.  Still in its infancy at the time, the long-running program about the Doctor’s adventures in time and space stayed in young Philip’s mind as he emigrated to the States.  It  would still be with him years later… and he wasn’t the only one.

“Yeah, (Steven Spielberg) was aware of it.  He liked the notion, he was intrigued and he loved to hear of these wonderful, iconic characters…”
–Philip Segal

Paul McGann as The Doctor

Flash-forward to the early 1990s.  Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC after a quarter-century run, its last episode airing in 1989.  Although the series about the renegade Time Lord and his (mostly) earthly companions had been long-running, the BBC regime at the time felt the show had run its course, and ended the Doctor’s travels.  Meanwhile, producer Philip Segal had grown up to become a fairly big name in Hollywood, working for Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment.  He had made himself noticed with his work on SeaQuest DSV, Earth 2, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Seeking a new challenge, Segal asked to look into the possibility of bringing his favorite childhood show back to the small screen.

FOX had been airing made-for-TV movies in its Tuesday night timeslot, many of them made as pilots for potential series pickup.  In Segal’s mind, Doctor Who was ideal for this same format.  After a fairly long and drawn out affair, Philip was able to get the go-ahead on production of Doctor Who – the first such production for a program which many had considered past its prime, and a “dead show” for six years.

As with certain programs (Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5, to name a few), once they have been canceled they live on in the hearts and minds of fans.  Doctor Who was no different in this respect.  After it left the airwaves, there were still conventions around the world devoted to the show.  Appearances by series actors and actresses, video rooms showing 30-year-old episodes, dealers’ rooms full of books, videos, shirts, and more could be found in places from Chicago and Los Angeles to London, Sydney, and everywhere in between.  Virgin Books began publishing a line of Doctor Who fiction novels, continuing on from where the TV series left off.  They were written by young writers who (like Segal) had grown up watching the program, and they were getting their break in the publishing world by writing about their favorite Time Lord.  The passion for the show was worldwide, which helped Philip Segal get his proposal off the ground.

“When you do this role, you can’t win, you can’t lose either.  Some people are going to love you – some people are going to hate you.  It’s as simple as that.”
–Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, to his successor, Eighth Doctor Paul McGann

Casting for the movie came from around the world.  Many well-known actors such as Colin Firth, Michael Palin, Jason Connery and Anthony Stewart Head were asked about playing the Doctor.  However, it was British actor Paul McGann who was picked for the role (the eighth actor to portray the character on television.)  American Daphne Ashbrook was cast as Dr. Grace Holloway – surgeon, opera fan and potential companion on board the Doctor’s time-traveling craft, the TARDIS.  Young Canadian Yee Jee Tso would be Chang Lee – brash gang member and other companion-to-be.  Rounding out the cast was Eric Roberts, who would portray the Master, the maniacal villain and Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes.

The Doctor, Chang, and Grace in the TARDIS

Script in hand, work began earnestly in 1995.  Filming in Vancouver, extravagant sets of the interior of the TARDIS were built.  What once was the ship’s “bridge” – a small white room with roundels set into the walls and a 1980s styled console with lights and buttons – was now a large and ornate room full of wood and copper.  Arches, pillars, a library, and a hexagonal console that looked as if it had been designed to pilot a futuristic Jules Verne ship would show the viewers that this was not your father’s Doctor Who!

Doctor Who was going to return to TV screens, with the possibility of a new series right around the corner.  Cameras rolled on what fans hoped would be what they had longed for for years, the return of their beloved Doctor.  Of course, while long-time fans knew the universe of Doctor Who very well, the new TV-movie/pilot had to introduce the British-flavoured hero to American audiences.  This included the most novel idea of all, and the one that had kept the series running through twenty-six seasons, with seven different actors playing the lead role!

Sylvester McCoy, reprising the Seventh Doctor

Although human in form, the Doctor is actually an alien Time Lord, able to “regenerate” when his body becomes old, frail or severely injured.  Wanting to capitalize on this unique feature (which had always been a fan-favorite the other six times it had occurred), Sylvester McCoy, the previous Doctor Who lead, was brought in to film his final hurrah as the character.  Segal had the Seventh Doctor begin the show and after 20 or so minutes had him become Paul McGann, the new Eighth Doctor!

The spring of 1996 had Doctor Who fans buzzing, as May 14th was set as the debut of the new TV-Movie.  Very unique for its time, this new Doctor Who was a co-production of Universal, Fox Television and the BBC (Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment had backed out at this point).  Also of interest was the fact that it would be aired in both North America and the United Kingdom at basically the same time.  Both the BBC and Universal had a stake in the success of this movie, with hope that it would be a hit.

However, hope doesn’t necessarily bring good ratings.  The Doctor Who TV-Movie fared well in the UK, where fans of the classic series tuned in to see how their childhood hero had been updated for the ’90s.  In the US, Doctor Who faced ratings-period competition with Roseanne Barr’s hit comedy, which on this night was featuring the season’s penultimate episode, a followup to the previous week in which her TV-husband Dan suffered a surprising heart attack.  As far as Fox TV-movies went, Doctor Who did fairly well… but in terms of a pilot movie, it didn’t have the numbers needed to warrant a series.

“I could be the George Lazenby of Time Lords.”
Paul McGann, interviewed in The Sunday Times

Reviews of the Doctor Who TV-Movie were fairly positive, particularly in regards to Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor.  He captured the quirkiness and “unearthliness” fans had come to expect.  Overall, however, most people felt it lacked the British nuance that had made the original BBC series so special for fans in England and abroad.  Segal had “Americanized” the show with a car chase, included too many references to the classic series (leaving new viewers confused), changed established continuity by making the Doctor half-human, and put the TARDIS’s power source inside the ship.

Most damaging of all to the traditionalists, Segal had the Doctor kiss companion Grace Holloway – a display of affection which was taboo for both the original series and the character.  Admittedly, the kiss was played as a relatively chaste one, and not a full-on romantic scene for the Doctor (although Grace might have argued, had she not been rather surprised at the time).  But, a kiss is still a kiss… and this kiss is what got the most notice, no matter what the context.

The infamous Kiss

“I kept my lips closed during the kiss.  I felt I had to do it.   And the directors were on a long lens, so they didn’t notice until it was too late.  I know it is 30 years down the line, but the Doctor has always been a very child-like character.  If they had asked me to do a bedroom scene, I would have said no.  What would be the point?”
–Paul McGann, interviewed in The Daily Mail

Following the TV movie, Doctor Who went back into fandom obscurity.  Occasionally, British tabloids would report rumors about a potential new series returning to the airwaves.  But it was eight more years before the BBC announced, in 2004, that Doctor Who would be returning to television, with longtime fan Russell T. Davies at the helm.  Fans knew their voices had finally been heard, and the program was assured of a return.

Even as the New Series went on the air, there was not much mention of its 1996 predecessor.  Fans of the Classic Series would rave about the original’s wobbly sets, mediocre to amazing stories, and wonderful characters.  But if talk would turn to the Paul McGann TV-movie, most people would roll their eyes and say, “Ah yes, the one with the kiss and the Doctor being half-human?  It’s crap.”

However, when the Tenth Doctor suddenly seemed to be developing feelings for his companion in the New Series, neither modern nor classic Doctor Who fans were repulsed by the idea.  This new twist on the character, this idea that was informally introduced nearly a decade earlier when the Eighth Doctor snogged Grace in a moment of pure exhilaration, had become a welcome addition to the show.  And now, looking back, the TV-movie didn’t seem so bad.

Note the center picture!

With the relationship issue out of the way, the only remaining question was:  How did the TV-Movie fit into Doctor Who continuity?  For some fans it was a continuation of the Classic Series, the next episode after the original series’ finale Survival aired seven years earlier.  But for others (primarily the ones who didn’t like it), it didn’t count.  Whether it wasn’t a true BBC production, was an American take on Doctor Who, or was just plain awful, negative fans could always find a way to “prove” that it wasn’t “official” Doctor Who.  It wasn’t until the New Series (with several well-placed pictures of Paul McGann in a lineup of the Doctor’s incarnations), and the producer saying on record that he considered the TV-Movie canonical, that the vast majority of fans relinquished their soapboxes.

“We definitely got across the fun and potential of this franchise.  I think there was enough there, in my opinion, to warrant going forward with a series.  Where we failed, I think, is we sadly were in a time where we weren’t allowed to make the script as fantastic as it could have been.”
–Philip Segal

However you want to look at it, Fox’s TV-movie was successful.  It brought Doctor Who back into the spotlight for fans who hadn’t seen their hero on TV for years.  To a lesser degree and a smaller spotlight, it allowed a small portion of television viewers to get their first exposure to a quarter-century’s worth of TV history.  And although it didn’t lead to an immediate revival and an American run for the show, it did leave its mark on the long-running franchise.

Looking towards the future

PAUL McGANN (The Doctor) is fairly well-known to UK audiences for assorted TV roles in shows such as Withnail and I, Fish and the Horatio Hornblower TV-movies.  To worldwide movie-goers he is known for the films Alien3 and 1993’s The Three Musketeers.  Paul McGann has also returned to the role of the Eighth Doctor in numerous (and highly recommended) Big Finish audio dramas, many of which were aired on BBC Radio.

DAPHNE ASHBROOK (Grace Holloway) has been seen in many shows, from regular roles in Falcon Crest, JAG and The O.C. to guest appearances on C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, Judging Amy, Cold Case, and others.  Last year she set her sights on music and released her first album.

ERIC ROBERTS (The Master) is probably the most well-known unknown actor in Hollywood.  The brother of Julia Roberts, Eric has been in everything from movies and soap operas to reality shows and music videos.  With an acting resumé that would be as long as this article, we will let you research his career yourself.  Hint:  According to his listing on the iMDB.com website he will be appearing in no less than 15 movies or shows between now and 2012.

YEE JEE TSO (Chang Lee) got his acting career off the ground in a TV series called Madison.  Following brief appearances on sci-fi series Sliders and Highlander, Tso got his big break by being cast in Doctor Who.  Since then, he has had roles in other genre series like Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, Blade: The Series, and Stargate:  Atlantis.

Almost more well-known than the TV-Movie is the story behind its release (or lack thereof) on video and DVD.  Shortly after the movie aired in the UK, it was released on video through the BBC.  However, in the US, it was a different story.  Being a co-production of three different companies, it was never determined when the contracts were created who would get the rights to release the movie on video in the States.  Tied up in a legal limbo, Doctor Who fans who wanted the TV-Movie on video had to resort to buying a PAL-format VHS tape and a multi-speed VCR in order to watch it.  Upon reaching the DVD era, the TV-Movie became one of the first discs to be released in the UK, leaving US fans hoping that perhaps finally they would see a release as well.  This was not the case, at least until early this year.  After 15 years of waiting, North America finally saw the release of Doctor Who: The Movie – Special Edition in April 2011.

Ready for another adventure

The true sign of success for the Eighth Doctor’s adventure came from a small conversation at a Doctor Who convention in California in 2009.  Co-producer of the current series Phil Collinson was having drinks with two of the stars of the TV-Movie.  Conversation revolved back to the Philip Segal project, and one of the actors remarked how they were under the impression that fans considered their movie to be the “red-headed stepchild” of Doctor Who.  Collinson was aghast at this assumption, and uttered a resounding no, that wasn’t so – at least from his perspective, and his involvement with the New Series was concerned.  Without the TV-Movie and what it had done, from its elaborate sets to the car chase, its fast-paced script to, yes, the kiss, the new Doctor Who would not have been able to create the hit show that it is today.  What was considered taboo and almost perverse to Doctor Who fans back in 1996 was groundbreaking to the people who would go on to bring the Doctor back to television in 2005.

Two hours of television that was watched with bated breath in the mid-nineties by fans worldwide may not have achieved what Philip Segal had intended.  Low ratings kept Doctor Who from making its American return a triumphant one.  But who would have predicted that the impact made then by Philip Segal, Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, and others in the grand scheme of the world’s longest-running science-fiction TV series would have been so powerful?  No one… except perhaps a time-traveler who could have seen what the future held.

(I’d like to thank dear friend Jeremy B. for authoring this particular article.  We’ve both shared a love of Doctor Who for a very long time, and it was a great surprise to see the initial draft of this article show up in my mailbox unannounced.  I look forward to some more similar articles in the future… but only the Doctor knows, now doesn’t he?)

Vital Stats

One aired pilot (based on a series that started in 1963 and ran for twenty-six years!)
FOX Network
Initial Airdate:  May 12, 1996
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX was running their movie/pilot features on Tuesday nights, 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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2 comments
  1. Triv said:

    Ah, my first ever episode. I saw this one when I was too young to understand it, on what I believe was the original Australian airing (we still have the TV guide from that time, from which this article seems to have borrowed the headline), and didn’t make the connection until about a decade later, when I read the novelisation and recognised some of the scenes.

    In my opinion, the failure of the TVM was the best thing that could’ve happened. Had it not been made, the series as a whole would most likely have faded from the public conciousness. Had it succeeded in its aim as a backdoor pilot, and an American version of the series been made, I believe fan backlash would’ve killed the whole thing stone dead. But the TVM’s solitary existence in the desert of sixteen years paved the way for the successful 21st century revival.

    Alright, I’ll put my soapbox away now.

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