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Bookmark and Share Moments in Time: He's Back, And It's About Time

5/27/2016 04:54:00 pm - Reported by Chuck Foster

Paul McGann as the Doctor in the TV Movie (Credit: BBC)It was twenty years ago today that that viewers in the United Kingdom were to finally get their chance to see what American viewers had already experienced some thirteen days previously: the inauguration of a new Time Lord in the form of Paul McGann.

The regular series might have been allowed to drift into obscurity in its twilight years, but this was certainly not the case for the Television Movie, which received a generous dose of publicity on television and in the media itself, plus a primetime television slot following the popular soap serial Eastenders on BBC1 on a Bank Holiday Monday - though 8:30pm was perhaps a little late for a younger audience, even during a school holiday.

Though the majority of the British public were unaware or didn't care that the United States had already aired the special, thirteen days felt an awfully long time for fans in the United Kingdom to wait to see the latest adventure for the Doctor. This was compounded by a further 'predicament': BBC Worldwide scheduled its release on VHS on a date that turned out to be before its broadcast on television, and even with a week's additional delay it was still available to watch a few days beforehand. Should we wait patiently until after it's been on air before we watch the video, or indulge in the new Doctor's adventure as soon as possible?!! As members of the Doctor Who News team reflect in their memories below, the decision was definitely not unanimous!

One of the longest-serving members of the Doctor Who News team, Marcus Hilton recalls:
Boy it had been a long time coming. By the spring of 1996 we had been starved for new television Doctor Who for over six years. Oh there had been rumours of its return. Many rumours. After all, according to the BBC, it was merely resting, looking for a new format that would take it through the nineties. But most of us didn't really believe we would see it again. We thought the show lost. A memory only shared by a dwindling band of fans whose fond memories of a much-ridiculed show persisted.

We had the books of course. The Virgin New Adventures. And we had the Video releases, old fondly remembered stories viewable for the first time since transmission. We even had a couple of new Radio adventures to entertain us. But new Television Who? A pipe dream surely.

Doctor Who Magazine had fed us the latest, but by 1996 there had been so many false starts, so many spirits raised then dashed, could it really be happening.

It was happening of course. The Spring Bank Holiday was the target date, but for those of us with a WHSmith nearby D Day was sooner. The video was released about a week before the UK transmission, and we rushed out to get it. "Why buy it?" a colleague asked, "it's on TV next Monday." "Err, better quality," I mumbled, unwilling to be outed as a fan. But truth was I had to have it, I couldn't wait a few days. It was new Doctor Who. Unheard of. The Holy Grail.

Time has clouded my initial reactions. I know I enjoyed it. I loved Paul McGann's performance and enjoyed the story. I found it was a great improvement on the previous few seasons, which hadn't been entirely to my taste. But I think I knew it probably wasn't going to get us a new series.

It was a brave experiment, but one ultimately doomed to failure. Doctor Who wasn't American. It's ethos was so British it was never going to work as an American production. We enjoyed it, but knew the dream was over. The chance of resurrection had failed. There would be no new series. In ten years time our favourite show would be a dim memory, an antiquated curiosity remembered with affection by a few, but unheard of children of the new Century.

How wrong we were.

One of the youngest members of the team, BBC radio producer and occasional DWM contributor Paul Hayes takes us back to childhood expectations:
The TV Movie was the first time that a significant number of Doctor Who fans in the UK experienced their first viewing of a story at different times, in different ways; a fractured and fragmented experience, as compared to everyone always seeing when it went out on BBC One.

Many, no doubt, will have chosen to wait for the Bank Holiday Monday broadcast on the 27th of May. I was not one of those. I was 12 years old, and utterly impatient to watch brand new Doctor Who as soon as possible. It had been seven long years since the series was last on the air as a new programme; an eternity when you’re that age, especially when you’re looking back through the far-flung mists of time to when you were just five years old.

Yes, there had been a fairly generous number of repeats on the BBC, and these stories were ‘new’ to me, just as the videos I could buy with saved-up paper round money in Volume One or WH Smith’s in Worthing were. But, however much I enjoyed experiencing a Doctor Who story for the first time, I knew that they were not really new.

Not like the TV Movie was.

It’s an interesting contrast with what happened nine years later, with Rose. Then, I very deliberately chose not to watch the leaked version online. I wanted to experience the return of Doctor Who ‘properly’, when it was broadcast on television, to be part of that collective viewing experience. At the age of 12, I wasn’t nearly so fussy. Perhaps if I had been online at the time, and could have joined in with the excited chatter, I might have waited to be a part of it all on the night. Or perhaps it just felt different because the TV Movie’s video release before the broadcast date had been an official process, part of BBC Worldwide’s efforts to squeeze as much money from the venture as possible. The online leak in 2005 obviously wasn’t part of anybody’s plan and, to me, just felt a bit grubby.

There was an online Doctor Who world in 1996, but I was a long way from it, and thus had no idea that the video release of the TV Movie had been delayed. All of my Doctor Who news came from the monthly arrival of Doctor Who Magazine – or perhaps, occasionally, from Ceefax or Teletext if something particularly noteworthy was happening – and so I dutifully got mum to drive me down to Worthing on the original release date, Wednesday the 15th.

The man in Volume One was apologetic, but explained that the video had been delayed by a week. The disappointment was crushing, but the man did his best – he gave me a free poster, a promotion for the TV Movie with McGann’s eyes highlighted by that flash of light. I have a vague memory that we also tried in Smith’s, but it was clear it was no good. I had waited what felt like a lifetime for new Doctor Who, and I was now going to have to wait a little longer.

The following Wednesday, the 22nd, was a wet and miserable day, as I remember. As soon as I got home from school, I phoned Volume One to ask if they had the video in stock, and they confirmed that they did. It was there! It was in! New Doctor Who, so very close now!

Mum learned to drive comparatively late, and had only passed her test about eighteen months beforehand. She didn’t like driving in the rain, and as I excitedly got off the phone and explained that we could now go and get the video, she asked if we really had to go and get it today?

Yes. Absolutely. We did.

Mum, bless her, probably knew that it was a forlorn hope to try and persuade me to wait, and dutifully drove me down town so I could go and buy the precious thing.

Do you remember how oddly smooth the plastic covering of the video case was, compared to the more matt feeling of the ordinary Who releases? How shiny the logo? Just how blue the whole thing was?

It’s always hard for me to try and rationally analyse the TV Movie, just because of how exciting it felt at the time to have Doctor Who back. I think even at the age of 12 I was hopeful rather than confident that there would be more to follow after this, but I do remember enjoying it, as mum and I sat and watched it together as soon as we’d returned home.

Of course it isn’t perfect, but there are so many moments in it to enjoy, and the whole thing is wonderfully produced and performed, even if it’s not the best-scripted Doctor Who story ever to grace the series. Oddly, my one overriding memory of what happened when mum and I finished watching it is me rewinding to re-watch the end credits, because I wanted to double-check the fact that they’d missed out a credit for Ron Grainer, which seemed a shame.

“For the music?” mum asked. I was surprised she either knew or guessed that, and I’m still not sure how she did.

I did watch it again the following Monday, of course. I suspect I’d probably watched it again at least once before then, now I had the video and could do so whenever the TV in the lounge was otherwise unoccupied! I remember being pleased on the broadcast that they had a dedication to Jon Pertwee, but somehow, having already seen it, it did have something of an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” feel.

But an exciting time, nonetheless. Not quite as exciting as what was to come nearly a decade later, mind...

Unlike Paul, a slightly older but none-the-wiser Chuck Foster was one who did await the television premiere of the new Doctor, and how familiar it all felt:
1983. November. There's a new feature length episode of Doctor Who to enjoy on television very shortly. But then two events occur for the first time in history for UK fandom: the story could be experienced ahead of broadcast through the medium of print, as Target publish The Five Doctors novelisation a day before its premiere on BBC One; and it had already been seen by another country before its UK audience - yes, the bloody American fans (or Whovians as they were known) had got to see our beloved show first, and on the actual anniversary too!

Jump into the TARDIS thirteen years ...

1996. May. There's a new feature length episode of Doctor Who to enjoy on television very shortly. But then three events occur for UK fandom: the story could be experienced ahead of broadcast through the medium of print, as BBC Books publish the novel of the film on the 16th May; it has already been seen by another two countries before its UK audience (including those Whovians again!); but this time around UK fans also had the opportunity to watch Paul McGann in action ahead of broadcast courtesy of the BBC releasing it on VHS a week beforehand!

My little jest makes it sound like we in the UK must have been full of righteous indignation at the affrontary of these pre-emptions, but thinking back on those days I don't actually recall it being like that at all. I do remember being a little irritated to find out The Five Doctors had been shown in America first some years after the event, but the fifteen year old sitting there in front of the television on a Friday night had little knowledge of fans outside my group of school friends (I only entered the 'wider world' of fandom through DWAS and DWM the following year), and one of my friends reading the novelisation beforehand and subsequently being disappointed at what was on screen is about as controversial as it got! Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Doctors and companions hopping round the Death Zone during Children in Need (and the future me glad that I recorded it, my first Doctor Who on tape!)

The TV Movie: VHS and Novel releases
Could you resist the temptation to watch/read these before broadcast?
Things had changed a lot by the time I was twenty-seven, of course; I was a firm subscriber of DWM and reader of all manner of fanzines, and thanks to the rise of the Internet I was now helping out with DWAS online and deeply involved with the firmly established online fan community, running websites and mailing lists. This newfound widespread accessibility into the - literal - world of Doctor Who, however, was to present its own set of challenges as I certainly didn't want the TV Movie to be "spoilt" before I got to see it!

It might sound odd to hear that someone active on the news team and an avid follower of filming doesn't like spoilers, but that's me! Post 14th May I had to keep away from my usual online haunts to avoid reading something I'd rather not know. I avoided the novel and the VHS releases like the plague, but boy those thirteen days were hard work, especially with other friends who had succumbed to the allure of early access. But somehow I managed to muddle through (though I confess I did watch for screen clips to record for the video collection, so not totally untainted!).

And then it arrived. Monday 27th May. And I really can't remember what I was doing throughout the whole day any more, the day being overwhelmed by the evening's forthcoming spectacle. I had probably spent the day out with my then girlfriend on a bright sunny Bank Holiday (we did have them, once), but I know I was home, alone, all set up and ready to watch by the late afternoon, potential disturbances such as the telephone and door bell duly dealt with. Unlike 1983 the video was reserved well in advance for this (two, actually, as my parents' was also set up as backup!) I recall a brightly lit front room which needed the curtained firmly drawn to enable optimum viewing at 8:29pm. As JNT would say, the memory cheated somewhat too as I distinctly recall watching Batteries Not Included beforehand, but the BBC Genome project shows that film was actually on three weeks previously! Anyway, regardless of how good the actual night's That's Showbiz, Watchdog Healthcheck and Eastenders might have been in the run-up before the 'event', they have all been lost in the mists of time ... whereas the Doctor's narration over the Master's "execution" and lead into John Debney's strident version of the theme still remain indelibly etched within my mind...

There was an older, more 'regal' seventh Doctor, who then becomes the younger, boistrous eighth incarnation. It's Paul McGann! There was the Master, once again stealing others' lives to hang onto his own survival, corrupting the 'innocent' along the way. A brand new TARDIS interior! Shoes! I know I wanted to enjoy it, I really did. But then there was half human on my mother's side. The Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS? Dressing for the occasion. And of course, that kiss. With hindsight it is far easier to appreciate what it was attempting to achieve with regard to introducing a potential series, but back then I just wanted the Doctor Who I knew back, and this wasn't it, it was too much like other American-produced drama series - and not even American sci-fi (The X Files was well established by then). With the recent loss of the 'current' Doctor Jon Pertwee (and it was nice to see that acknowledged), I think I probably also wanted something to lighten that sadness and unfortunately the TV Movie didn't quite manage it.

Though of course I did watch it again straight afterwards just to make sure I hadn't imagined it had come back!

It is a bit weird to look back, now. I know I was disappointed with it back then, but I don't look back at the period itself in disappointment. We had Virgin, Reeltime and BBV to keep the idea of the show alive in the 1990s, with the mantle later taken up by BBC Books, Big Finish and BBC Online until Russell T Davies arrived to take us into a new age of Who prosperity. But in the middle we had that brief moment when new Who was in production once more, reminding us that the show could (and eventually would) come back.

(I could say we also had Dimensions in Time and The Curse of Fatal Death to enjoy too, but perhaps not!).

Former contributor John Bowman casts his mind back:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

In January 1996, the exciting news had broken that Paul McGann was to play the Doctor in an ambitious attempt to revive the show. At last, the long years of waiting and willing were over, and now here we were just four months later with the new episode about to air in the UK. Fingers were crossed, hopes were high and there was an increasing sense of elation.

It had already been shown earlier in the month in Canada and the USA, of course, but between those transmissions and its broadcast here, fate meted out a cruel blow and brought us crashing down when suddenly, exactly a week before its UK transmission, Jon Pertwee died. Such sadness, such a sense of loss – and, awfully and unbelievably, we’d now consecutively lost each of the first three Doctors just as we were in the process of welcoming a new one.

But as 8.30pm on that Bank Holiday Monday approached and as I pressed record and play on my VHS recorder then settled back to watch (with phone unplugged and doorbell disconnected – just to be on the safe side), excitement was still high. “He’s back. And it’s about time,” the BBC continuity announcer said dramatically. ”Yes, and it’s about bloody time, too,” (or words to that effect) chorused countless fans in return, I’m sure.

I desperately wanted this to be good and for it to succeed. So much was riding on it. After such shoddy treatment by previous incumbents at senior level at the BBC, our beloved programme was being given a new chance of life. And initial impressions were certainly good. It was different – it had to be, of course – but it still retained the vital core elements. McGann was superb, the result of the bigger budget was equally a joy to behold and the script delivered some real gems – while the Doctor and Grace kissing was pretty much only to be expected, uncomfortable viewing though it may have made for some.

But hang on... Just as I was really getting into it... What was all this nonsense about the Doctor being half-human? How did the Eye of Harmony manage to end up being transplanted from Gallifrey into the TARDIS? And putting things right by going back in time to just before they happened? Oh dear me no. What a cop-out. So much for the Blinovitch Limitation Effect!

As it finished, I was left with the uneasy feeling that what had started out with great promise had somehow not quite hit the mark. Perhaps my own expectations had been too high, but in my heart of hearts I just didn’t enjoy it in total as much as I’d hoped I would.

Nevertheless, it was a vibrant, valiant effort that had shown much promise and had much to commend it. It certainly deserved to continue to series, especially given the strong British ratings. It’s just a shame that ultimately those healthy numbers would be ignored in favour of the lacklustre US viewing figures and we would be plunged back into more wilderness years – possibly forever. Fortunately, braver souls with sparkling vision and a genuine belief in the show would eventually take up positions at executive level at the Beeb. And although the Eighth Doctor was only back on our screens for one night (until his next Night), the spirit of the TV movie would certainly live on when the series was properly revived, with Russell T Davies’ continuation owing so much to it in terms of style and presentation.

And at least they paid tribute to Pertwee at the end...

Regardless of how many fans did succumb to the temptation of VHS, come the evening of 27th May 9.08 million viewers tuned in to see the new Doctor - some 36% of the viewing audience!

Radio Times (25-31 May 1996) (Credit: Radio Times)
Radio Times (25-31 May 1996) - Doctor Who article (Credit: Radio Times)

The Radio Times covering 27th May 1996.
See the Radio Times website for full details of their coverage.
Extract from the Sun, 28th May 1996:
I preferred Dr Who when the props looked as if they had been made on Blue Peter and the actors sounded as if they were making it up as they went along. But this big budget adventure did have some snazzy special effects which gave it a glossy appeal. ... No doubt fanatical Dr Who followers will hate the new version for some nerdy, nit-picking reason or other. But, to me, Paul McGann seemed every bit as twittish as the seven previous doctors. A happy return for a TV hero.

Extract from the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries, 28th May 1996:
With Paul McGann at the helm of the Tardis, this isn't so much Doctor Who as Doctor Phworr! - the sexiest Time Lord in light years. But that seems one of the many mistakes that beset the conception and execution of the feature length Doctor Who (BBC1!) ... That's the chief problem with Doctor Who - it is stranded somwhere in the mid-Atlantic and about as interesting as Rockall. Director Geoffrey Sax has had to attempt the impossible - to make the Doctor's eighth incarnation engaging for those non-American viewers who've grown up during his 33 years of life on Earth, and for Americans who've joined the story two-thirds of the way through. ... The film, despite the big budget and accomplished special effects, couldn't scare or much divert a little child; the only people it is going to frighten are the suits who lavishly bankrolled this doomed project. Exterminate! Exterminate!

Extract from the Telegraph, Stephen Pile, 1st June 1996:
And so, finally, to that very odd one-off Americanised feature length instalment of Dr Who (BBC1, Mon). It looked as if he had landed the Tardis in an American daytime series. In fairness, it was well done, and gripping stuff, but the car chases and the morgue scenes and the master's spirit turning into green X-Files type plasma were a tour of genre cliches that made this programme no different to any other. Only the excellence of Paul McGann in the title role made it recognisable. His air of Victorian eccentricity was 100 per cent authentic and shows that, under other happier, more indigenous circumstances, he would be a worthy addition to the roll call of honour.

Extract from the News of the World, Charlie Catchpole, 2nd June 1996:
Why Doctor Who crashed spectacularly to earth was because next to nothing was spent on the script. All the old show's tongue-in-cheek, child-like charm was squeezed out by biff-bang action and tyre-squealing chases. Is there a bigger sci-fi cliche than Good battling Evil while a clock ticks away towards Doomsday? "This can't be how it ends!" gasped McGann, as the world faced oblivion. It wasn't, of course. But I wish it was.

You can find a variety of reviews from the period via the Cuttings Archive.

In spite of the media serving up its usual array of reviews ranging from the lovely to the ludicrous, The TV Movie was generally felt by the BBC to be a success in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, as a co-production it also needed the approval of the powers-that-be in the United States, but after its perceived performance on television there Doctor Who's fate had already been sealed... Whilst it was clear that audiences in the United Kingdom could be wowed by all-new adventures of the Gallifreyan time-traveller, it would some nine years before the BBC would be in the position to provide its viewers with such a chance to be so again...

Without McGann's single soirée as the Doctor re-invigorating public imagination, the series may never have come back, so it was perhaps fitting that in 2013 a now firmly established and much loved show around the world would re-embrace the Eighth Doctor, who - some seventeen years after his 'birth' - had the honour to set the 50th anniversary celebrations in motion as he returned to face his 'death' in The Night of the Doctor!

It was to be a couple of months later before the TV Movie made its way across to the other side of the world. But would it have the same impact as in the United States and United Kingdom?

Our Australian reporter Adam Kirk recalls:
Alas I recall the TV Movie as coming and going very quickly without much notice in Australia. (A very marked contrast to 2005!) By the time it broadcast in early July I think we already knew there would be no further series and so it was already a bit of a damp squib for local fans by the time it had arrived. I remember watching it by myself on VHS tape a couple of days after its ABC TV broadcast on a very cold Canberra evening. I was in my final year of university or ‘uni’ (as we Aussies call it) and I remember being taken aback at how very American and very different it seemed from the show of my childhood. I think the few remaining local fans damned it with faint praise too which probably did it no favours either! Unlike today, Doctor Who remained a little unfashionable at the time so I probably didn’t tell many of my mates that they should watch either! Shame on me! Mea culpa Doctor No. 8!

Still looking at it again recently, I think McGann & Ashbrook are great and I was struck by how much the action, romance and higher production values were a sign of things to come. Happy 20th birthday TV Movie! You helped keep the flame burning for fandom in the dark days of the mid 1990s! Forgive me for being too resistant to your charms as a pretentious twenty something!
Occassional Doctor Who News correspondent Tim Hunter also reflected:
Gosh, I can't quite remember. I do know I bought it on VHS before it was broadcast, and was excited about seeing it. I watched it with my wife at the time, but I remember feeling quite detached from any hype. Doctor Who was still very daggy, and not many people in Australia even knew about the TVM! It felt like it came and went with a whimper, to be honest. And my only real interaction with it was through DWM and the Virgin NA and PA novels, especially given the Internet was really only just kicking in. I was working at the Melbourne International Film Festival at the time, and we were connected to the Internet; I remember looking up some very early Doctor Who webpages and forums, but they didn't inspire me much. Opinion from other Who enthusiast friends was damning with faint praise with a sneer towards the co-production. I did think that McGann was great!

It would be another three months before New Zealand had its television debut. However, an impatient fandom had long since caught up with the new adventure, as Paul Scoones summarised:
The TV Movie first screened in New Zealand on 30 October 1996. I first saw it as an off-air VHS copy from either the US or Canadian broadcast. I watched it on the evening of Friday 24 May, the day before it was shown at a pre-arranged New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club video day in Auckland.