How we made the Doctor Who TV movie: "It really was a magical experience"
Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, Eric Roberts and key creative figures look back on the pilot to a series that never was.
As soon as Doctor Who disappeared from our screens in 1989, rumours of its return spread like wildfire. Despite the BBC's claims of dwindling popularity, the show’s fanbase was quickly growing in the United States, so while the UK was seemingly finished with the Doctor, America was just getting started. By way of the passion of a devoted fanboy producer, the star of a British cult classic and a leading US network, Doctor Who was given one more chance in the form of a TV movie.
For writer Matthew Jacobs, the future of Doctor Who would be non-existent had it not been for the vision of one individual. "To me, Philip Segal is the quintessential Doctor Who fan – I don’t think Doctor Who would be here today without him, because he was determined to keep it alive," he explains. At the time, Segal was Vice President of Amblin Television, working on projects like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles – but Doctor Who was always near and dear to his heart.
"I was a little boy when my grandfather sat me on his knee, and we watched An Unearthly Child. Now I've seen all 760 episodes, even some missing episodes," Segal says. Though some may have dismissed it as a simple cash-grab, it’s clear from how Philip outlines his love for the series that the TV Movie was anything but that. "What mattered to me was that I felt that this character had so much more to give. For the US, it was not this tired franchise, but completely uncharted territory."
Relaunching the show was a bold endeavour for anyone to undertake, let alone a brand-new American re-envisioning – but Segal thought he knew how to honour what had come before. "At the time, to me it was really about trying to break new ground and create something fresh – but we always needed that opening regeneration. I needed to show the audience that hadn’t seen Doctor Who something as fundamentally show-altering as that."
Having your lead regenerate into both an entirely new actor and personality is a quirk unique to Doctor Who to this day and was clearly effective in enticing even the most evergreen newcomers like Daphne Ashbrook, who played Grace Holloway: "The whole regeneration thing got me hook, line and sinker – I thought that was the coolest thing." Above all else, Segal knew the one thing that was needed if Doctor Who was going to survive in the modern era: "We had to figure out how to take this somewhat two-dimensional character and make him three dimensional."
Enter Paul McGann. "We were looking for unique actors who had that glint in their eye – that was Paul." McGann was already a well-known and appreciated actor by the mid-90s, having starred in the cult classic Withnail and I, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and David Fincher’s Alien 3. He’d heard the rumours of who the creative team behind the Doctor Who movie supposedly wanted to cast, making him all the more confused when he was invited to audition. "I never expected it to be me – I kept hearing rumours it was going to be Eric Idle or Rowan Atkinson. I thought, 'I’m not a comedian – why are they asking me anything?''."
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McGann’s potential involvement in the project turned heads, especially Ashbrook’s: "I’m a huge Withnail and I fan, so I couldn’t believe I was going to get the opportunity to potentially work with him." However, McGann was hesitant to take the role, given the possible long-term commitment and how he perceived the Doctor as a character, based on his knowledge of Sylvester McCoy’s initially more comedic take. "It took Phil months to convince me that it was a good idea – he really came up against some serious pushback, but he was determined to make it happen," McGann recalls.
Once McGann was on board, the search for a companion quickly followed, and for Daphne Ashbrook it was initially just "just another audition".
"But Grace was a challenge, which interested me. Their relationship reminded me of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant movies," she explains. Ashbrook’s comparison of the Doctor and her character Dr. Grace Holloway to Russell and Grant is certainly apt – the pair’s chemistry is palpable on screen, with Grace able to keep up and at times even outwit the Doctor when it comes to wordplay and linguistic repartee. Off-screen, McGann and Ashbrook evidently have an incredible level of respect for one another, taking every opportunity to sing the other’s praises."I watched it again recently, and it struck me that it’s Daphne’s film. She steals every scene she’s in – without her performance, none of it works." For Ashbrook, she feels just having McGann opposite her was a gift: "I always felt that Paul made me a better actor – it was a very elevating experience to play opposite him."
With Doctor and companion in place, all that remained was to find someone with the confidence to fill Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley’s shoes as iconic villain The Master – that someone was Eric Roberts. "Well, they just called and offered it to me," he recalls. Similar to McGann, Roberts’ hesitance came as he had no desire to play a goofy, theatrical embodiment of the Master – he wanted to make people hide behind the sofa. "And I said, 'Well, the only way I play this part is if you let him play it real where I can scare the kids.' And they said, "Sure, you can do that.'"
There remained, however, a touch of the flamboyant about Roberts' Master, particularly in a climactic sequence which saw him dressed in elaborate Gallifreyan robes. "That’s my favourite costume I’ve ever been dressed in, and it weighed 40 pounds," he remembers. "You would kind of have to be physically placed inside it."
Like McGann, Roberts also rejoices in Ashbrook’s stellar casting, noting her elevation of Grace Holloway as a character as integral to the humanity of the TV Movie. "She’s fantastic and plays that role that could have been totally thankless, totally silly, totally nondescript – but Daphne makes it real."
With the cast in place, Segal attempted to pitch the idea of the series around to different networks, but to no avail. "The reason why we ended up at FOX as a TV Movie is because I couldn’t sell it anywhere else as a television show – FOX loved it, but they wanted it as a TV Movie." Segal eventually struck a deal with Bob Greenblatt, who oversaw the network at the time: the TV Movie would serve as a backdoor pilot, with the option for six additional episodes if it proved fruitful.
While many fans have since discovered the "John Leekley Bible", an outline for the series ostensibly penned by writer Leekley, Segal now insists this was mostly his own creation, with Writers’ Guild rules requiring Leekley’s name be attached to it. "John Leekley was a talented writer, but sci-fi was not his genre. I originally developed the series bible with Richard Lewis and Peter Wagg, from Max Headroom."
Production on the film finally got underway in Vancouver, British Colombia after 5 years of development. For McGann, it seemed like the future of the show rested on their shoulders. "Even when we went over to shoot it, it felt like touching gold. It felt like Doctor Who’s last shot – if this didn’t work, it was finished."
Despite the limitations of the 1990s in relation to visual effects, Ashbrook remembers the sets as having a jaw-dropping quality both in-person as well as on film: "You walked on the set, and it looked as amazing in real life as it did on film which is pretty rare." For McGann, one of his favorite moments was that of the bonding of Ashbrook and his predecessor McCoy over the first few nights of shooting: "I remember the first or second night we were out, Daphne turned to asked McCoy at 1’o’clock in the morning, 'What is this all? What even is it?' – McCoy then spent the next two or three nights filling her in on 40 years of mythology."
Of course, you can’t talk about the TV Movie without addressing the kiss. For writer Matthew Jacobs, the romantic facet of the Doctor was something that had been there from the beginning. "There was always a romantic element with The Doctor, especially [Fifth Doctor actor] Davison – so it felt natural to bring that out." Ashbrook had no idea that the kiss shared by the Doctor and Grace would ultimately be breaking new ground for this 40-year-old show. "When I found out that had never happened in Doctor Who, I got a little nervous. I thought 'Oh, my God, these people are going to hate me!'."
Of course, no one hated Ashbrook for the kiss – but this whole new Doctor was a shock to fans, and Eliza Roberts, who played Miranda, has a theory as to why. "I think fans didn't want The Doctor to become pedestrian. They wanted to feel he was immortal, and invulnerable, then suddenly, it's a romantic drama, and then he gets heartbroken." It’s certainly a convincing theory, given that initially the Doctor was introduced as a wise, old grandfather – a progressive compass of morals and wisdom, rather than someone just as human and susceptible to love as the rest of us.
"Sometimes the fans can be strict, because they’ve boned up on their knowledge – some of them practically have a PhD in Doctor Who mythology!" McGann mentions, chuckling. Though the cast can laugh about it now, for a long time the TV Movie was shunned by a cluster of fans who believed it betrayed much of what classic Doctor Who stood for – Ashbrook recalls a particular memory at one of her first conventions with Chang Lee actor Yee Jee Tso. "For a long time, Yee Jee Tso and I would go to these conventions and look at each other feeling like we’re the odd man out – we don’t know how everyone else here feels about us. It took some getting used to."
The consensus seemed to be that those involved couldn’t possibly be fans of Doctor Who – in actuality, some of the show’s biggest fans helped to make it. "I think a lot of the crew would’ve cleaned floors on set just to be working on it – you rarely ever get to be on a show that makes you go, 'Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here!'." Eliza says. The production of the TV Movie even transformed series novices into huge fans thereafter, including Ashbrook herself: "People have asked me in the past 'What’s your favourite part [to have played]?' and honestly it’s this – it really was a magical experience."
In retrospect, the TV Movie had an enormous challenge to overcome, as Ashbrook puts it concisely: "We were being asked to do quite a huge thing: in an hour and a half, introduce the show to a whole new audience that had never heard of Doctor Who and didn't know a thing about it, while also tipping the hat to the classic series that the BBC had created beforehand." Drumming up interest in a new show is difficult enough, let alone reinventing a iconic universe like Doctor Who’s whilst still paying homage to it – as a result, for a long, long time the Eighth Doctor himself was cast into obscurity, joining the ranks of Peter Cushing in a Medusa Cascade of canon uncertainty. "The Eighth became both the longest and the shortest-lived Doctor ever – he exists in a dimension of his own," says Jacobs.
For McGann, when the show was revived by the BBC in 2005, he hoped he would receive a call to reprise his part, even only to pass the mantle to a successor – but nothing came. "I remember thinking at the time, 'So that thing we did in Vancouver means we’re sort of persona non grata.'" However, Russell T. Davies would ultimately prove to be the TV Movie’s saviour, finally solidifying its place in the canon with his support of McGann’s Doctor and the existence of the movie itself as integral to Doctor Who’s history.
Since the TV Movie, Doctor Who has re-emerged onto our screens and is perhaps bigger than it's ever been, with no signs of slowing down as it approaches its 60th anniversary. Watching the TV Movie with hindsight, it's easy to draw parallels between the Movie’s progressive innovations in the Doctor’s character and its more playful nature and Russell T. Davies' own reinvention of the show – the TV Movie bridged the gap between classic and modern Doctor Who, with moments once considered controversial now regular occurrences in the revival.
With that in mind, why do the cast believe that Doctor Who has prevailed? For Eric Roberts, it’s reminiscent of a classic English tale. "It’s its own Alice in Wonderland tale – those kinds of tales will always open our imagination and our hope." Eliza believes that its drive to address modern society and push the limits of the sci-fi genre is what grips Whovians. "it really engages our minds in that idea of anything is possible – it’s timeless." For Ashbrook, now cited by McGann as the most well-versed Whovian of them all, it’s the simple feeling of being part of a welcoming collective. "To me, the Doctor Who fandom and the network of actors who’ve been in it are genuinely like a family – you don’t quite find that with other fandoms."
McGann's answer is simple – Doctor Who prevails because of those who grew up watching William Hartnell, Tom Baker or Paul McGann, dreaming of being a part of the Doctor’s world, are now those manning the ship, chartering its course with a loving devotion. "There are scores of bright people I’ve worked with and see in charge of Doctor Who that are fans – clever, heartfelt, long-held fans of it. It feels right, but even more so, it feels lucky to have such custodians today looking after it."
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Doctor Who Am I – a new documentary exploring the legacy of the Doctor Who TV movie – is released in UK cinemas on 27th October, and on Blu-ray, DVD & digital download from 28th November.
Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.
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