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WHO Comes to the Rescue

CINESCAPE celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Doctor's return to our television screens as the Sci-Fi Channel airs the 1996 DOCTOR WHO TV movie

By Arnold T. Blumberg     July 13, 2001

Paul McGann sets the TARDIS controls as the Eighth Doctor in DOCTOR WHO
© 1996 BBC and Universal
It was about time, and that's how it was promoted when it first aired on FOX television in May 1996. After seven years of waiting and a plethora of failed scripts, discarded treatments and countless near misses on both sides of the Atlantic, the venerable British cult sci-fi series, DOCTOR WHO, was finally about to return in an all-new made-for-TV movie co-financed by the BBC and Universal. Starring Paul McGann as the latest incarnation of the Doctor a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who traveled through time and space in a TARDIS time capsule permanently disguised as a British police call box the movie was a labor of love for all those who fought against the odds to bring their favorite hero back to life.

For fans, it was never really a question of "if" but "when?" After all, DOCTOR WHO had lasted on the BBC for 26 seasons before finally running out of friends in high places. Placed on hiatus (the show has never officially been cancelled) in 1989, the series was shelved despite its worldwide popularity and iconic status in the minds of British viewers who had grown up with the tea-time time and space adventure. The show carried viewers away to the distant past and the far-flung future, and yes, the sets occasionally wobbled and the odd zipper pull showed through on the back of a nasty monster's rubber suit. It was the earnestness of the series, its otherworldly charm its distinctive, 'Who-ish' quality that made it a pop culture phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. The Doctor was (at least at first) a mysterious renegade, on the run from his own people, and he invited his traveling companions to join him in exploring all the wonders of the universe.

Thanks to one of the show's clever twists, in which the lead character could 'regenerate' when near death to account for the periodic recasting of the role, viewers could lay claim to one particular incarnation as 'their' Doctor it was usually the Doctor they had first seen as a child. Unfortunately, the children of the '90s would be deprived of 'their' Doctor as the series stayed away from TV screens. And so the fans waited, knowing in their hearts (both of them) that if the Daleks or the Cybermen couldn't defeat the Doctor, then surely BBC executives would prove equally ineffectual. Wouldn't they?

Rumors of a comeback swirled about like Vortisaurs in the vortex as DOCTOR WHO slowly but surely made a significant transition from television to print. The 1990s saw the Doctor and his many traveling companions take up residence in a series of novels while news items about a possible film version of DOCTOR WHO kept everyone on the edge of their seats or perhaps behind their sofas. It was thanks to the efforts of producer Philip Segal (whose past credits involved SEAQUEST DSV) that the rumors finally became reality. After all the years of speculation and disappointment, the clock was finally ticking down to the debut of brand-new WHO. Segal, eager to entice fans as well as new viewers, attempted to strike a balance between continuity and fresh storytelling, and the resulting script by Matthew Jacobs was a bit threadbare in terms of plot but filled with delightful nods to the original show. The design of the TARDIS interior alone with all its brass and wood Jules Verne touches was worth the two hour investment.

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) at the TARDIS console in DOCTOR WHO

With the last BBC Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, appearing briefly at the beginning of the film to 'regenerate' into McGann, and with Eric Roberts (!) as a new incarnation of the Doctor's oldest and deadliest enemy, the Master, the TV movie was a joyous celebration of DOCTOR WHO and a worthy attempt to jumpstart a new series. Unfortunately, the movie's many plot holes and lack of a strong central theme was a sticking point for even the most diehard WHO fans, and despite the wall-to-wall eye candy, stunning set design, and powerful performance by McGann, the film failed to garner impressive ratings. Had the Doctor rematerialized only to be banished into time and space once more? So it seemed, but there was a magical spark of life in that one-off production, and in McGann's Eighth Doctor in particular, and where there's life...

The TV movie may not have led to a television series revival, but it did serve as the starting point for another literary line based on the series, further cementing DOCTOR WHO as a multimedia phenomenon. The show had always been a solid basis for prose publication, beginning with the famous Target novelizations (the vast majority of which were each based on televised adventures) and continuing into the highly successful and now much sought-after Virgin Publishing NEW ADVENTURES and MISSING ADVENTURES series. The NEW ADVENTURES carried the story of the Seventh Doctor forward from his final appearance in the 1989 TV story, "Survival," while past Doctors were featured in the MISSING books.

The Eighth Doctor dwells in THE YEAR OF INTELLIGENT TIGERS, another in a series of BBC Books DOCTOR WHO novels

When the TV-movie was about to premiere, the BBC pulled the plug on the Virgin novels and planned to begin a new series of original novels under their own imprint. Debuting in 1997, the BBC Books line of DOCTOR WHO novels kicked off with THE EIGHT DOCTORS and built a complex continuity of their own as Paul McGann's vivid characterization of the Eighth Doctor was captured in print and evolved through a series of new travels and authors. As with the Virgin lines before them, the DOCTOR WHO books from the BBC also have a 'past Doctor' line, and to date, some eighty-plus novels have been released under the BBC Books imprint. For many fans, they are without doubt the 'official' continuation of the series and feature an Eighth Doctor who has faced the loss of his TARDIS, amnesia, the destruction of his homeworld, and much more. As guided by editors Justin Richards and Jacqueline Rayner, the Eighth Doctor (and his seven past incarnations) will continue to travel through space and time and generally interfere in the affairs of history, keeping the character as portrayed by Paul McGann alive and well...somewhere.

For those who find it hard to keep up with an average of two novels a month, there is yet another way to enjoy new adventures with the Doctor. Big Finish Productions has been producing DOCTOR WHO audio dramas on CD since 1998, and they have been fortunate enough to secure the services of all the surviving actors who have played the Doctor (apart from the eldest surviving Doctor and well-known eccentric, the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker) as well as many of his original companions. Besides featuring a number of exciting escapades with the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors, Big Finish had its biggest coup when it produced a series of four audio plays starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, returning to the role for the first time since the 1996 TV movie. Joined by India Fisher as a new companion, Charley Pollard, the first-ever full 'season' of Eighth Doctor stories released in 2001 was well-received by fans, and will be followed by another 'season' of six adventures in 2002.

The Seventh Doctor and Ace return in Big Finish Productions' DOCTOR WHO: DUST BREEDING

Even that isn't quite all the new WHO out there today. July 13 saw the broadcast of a BBC radio pilot entitled DOCTOR WHO: DEATH COMES TO TIME, with Sylvester McCoy back as the Seventh Doctor. If the episode does well, Who knows what might happen next? With the Sci-Fi Channel re-airing the '96 TV movie on July 15, this may be the beginning of another WHO renaissance.

For years, the most important question burned into the minds of all WHO fans was a simple one: when will the Doctor return to television? Today, with two (soon to be three) distinct novel lines chronicling the Doctor's adventures in the past, present, and future, a growing series of marvelously produced audio dramas, an Eighth Doctor comic strip in the monthly DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE, several extremely popular charity short story anthologies like MISSING PIECES, and so much more, the question has regenerated into one even more philosophical: Do we want the Doctor back on television?

In many ways, the series has long ago transcended the medium in which it was born. It may be the first and only science fiction franchise whose future has now passed entirely into the hands of those who once thrilled to the Doctor's adventures while peeking around that clichéd sofa. With such a wealth of new and original material featuring the Doctor and his many friends and adversaries, would a new television series even live up to the vast universe that has evolved since 1989?

Some fans think it likely that a new TV production would never survive today's television industry, where even critically acclaimed shows can vanish after a handful of episodes due to a myriad of business or financial considerations. Perhaps a new incarnation of DOCTOR WHO could never hope to match the original show's impressive 26 seasons. Perhaps it would be merely a shadow of the classic series that won the hearts of fans as much for its bargain basement effects as for its vivid characterization. But in the end, perhaps that doesn't matter. The Doctor lives, and with every (re)generation, he wins new followers in his crusade against the forces of evil.

The TV-movie advertising proclaimed "He's Back. And It's About Time," but the promotional tagline proved to be somewhat inaccurate. The Doctor isn't back at all; in fact, he never left.

For the full story behind the history of DOCTOR WHO, you can find no better resources than David J. Howe's superb "Decades" books, DOCTOR WHO: THE SIXTIES, DOCTOR WHO: THE SEVENTIES, and DOCTOR WHO: THE EIGHTIES. For the definitive chronicle of the transitional period that was the 1990s, and the drama behind the planning and production of the 1996 TV movie, see Philip Segal & Gary Russell's REGENERATION.

Stay tuned to CINESCAPE for more extensive features on the state of DOCTOR WHO in novels and audio, along with a few surprises!


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