25 Years Later: Fox’s Failed Attempt to Reboot ‘Doctor Who’

Paul McGann Doctor Who TV Movie

The hit sci-fi franchise Doctor Who went dark between 1989 and 2005, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Almost halfway during that fallow period, Fox and the BBC teamed up for the 1996 TV movie Doctor Who with designs on relaunching the TV series. And with the 25th anniversary of the movie’s Fox broadcast coming on May 14, we’re looking back on that glorious effort.

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According to the BBC’s official Doctor Who website, the 85-minute TV movie was a $5 million coproduction between BBC Worldwide, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, and the Fox network, designed as a backdoor pilot for a prospective series.

At the time, the Doctor Who franchise was in limbo. The original series had been off the air for seven years, but the BBC hadn’t formally canceled it either—the network just didn’t order another season after 1989.

Philip Segal, former executive vice president of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and a driving force behind seaQuest DSV and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, spearheaded the reboot effort, according to Digital Spy.

In a SDSU alumni interview, Segal said that the Doctor Who project was one of his proudest moments. “I say this not just because it’s great literature, but because of what Doctor Who stands for—belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions,” he added. “If there’s something you’re passionate about, it will eventually come to fruition.”

Segal took the Doctor Who project to American TV networks, but only Fox showed interest. The network agreed to a TV movie, reserving the right to launch a full-fledged series if the movie was a success. Fox committed $2.5 million to the movie’s budget, while BBC Worldwide and Universal Television each chipped in $1.1 million and BBC Television contributed $300,000.

Future Luther actor Paul McGann landed the Time Lord part, beating out Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor Anthony Head and Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham to win the role, according to Digital Spy.

Meanwhile, actor Eric RobertsJulia’s brother and Emma’s father—took on the role of the franchise’s archenemy, The Master. And Hollywood Heights actress Daphne Ashbrook played the doctor’s companion, Dr. Grace Holloway.

In the movie’s plot, the Seventh Doctor—played by Sylvester McCoy, reprising his part from the original BBC series—makes an emergency landing in his TARDIS in San Francisco and is immediately shot in the crossfire of a gang war. Despite Dr. Holloway’s attempts to save his life, the Seventh Doctor dies and is regenerated as the Eighth Doctor. With Dr. Holloway’s help, he stops The Master from destroying the world at the turn of the millennium.

9.1 million viewers watched the movie in the U.K., but stateside, only 5.1 million viewers tuned in, and Fox opted not to pursue a Doctor Who series.

“Sure, you’re disappointed for a day but only ‘cause maybe you saw pound signs,” McGann told Digital Spy in 2016, reflecting on the failed reboot. “My kids were little and that might’ve taken care of them—it was a nice big contract. But that’s what living in the arts is like. One minute it’s there, the next it’s gone, and you’re doing something else.”

And thus, the franchise went dormant again until BBC successfully revived Doctor Who in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston playing the Ninth Doctor.

That said, McGann and Roberts didn’t say goodbye to their characters forever: They reprised their roles in subsequent Doctor Who audio dramas, and McGann also played the Eighth Doctor onscreen again in the 2013 mini-episode The Night of the Doctor.

And McGann was philosophical about not playing the good doctor longer. “People say it’s a shame that it never went to series and I go, ‘OK, well, let’s just take a minute to imagine that it had. How much do you like Matt Smith and David Tennant? They might never have happened if there’d be some other history!’” he told Digital Spy.

Thanks to those actors, as well as successors Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who continues to live on. But the TV movie will forever live on in the lore of the series (especially since it’s available on DVD).

“Just on a personal level, if I ever had misgivings—just about being in Doctor Who in the first place, or the nature of it—they’ve long since gone,” McGann added. “I really enjoy it. It’s a good family to be part of—and it’s still going places. It’s a lovely thing to be associated with.”