When someone hears the name Paul McGann, they likely think of two different things: for some, it’s the cult classic Withnail and I, and for others, it’s his turn as the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie. For a long time, the TV Movie existed in a kind of canonical limbo – and McGann’s Doctor too, as a result. Today, the TV Movie is recognised for its bridging the classic and revived series, with just a fervent fanbase for the Eighth Doctor as any other.

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Speaking to RadioTimes.com, McGann recalls his own childhood memories of William Hartnell’s First Doctor as he grew up in Liverpool. “In those days, you'd watch things with your family before going to bed. I can always remember going into school the next day, and kids talking about it, acting scenes out from last night’s episode, talking about Bill Hartnell.” Hartnell’s Doctor was a far cry from the emotional romantics of the Russell T Davies era or even the more playful incarnations like Tom Baker’s or Sylvester McCoy’s – there was an ancient stoicism about him, something that felt like an inheritance from the Victorian era. “At that time, we still had people from the Victorian era around - my own grandparents were Victorian. He was emblematic, a serious person that you could look up to, and he had a family!” McGann explains.

McGann’s perception of the Doctor through Hartnell made things all the more confusing when he was invited to audition for the eighth incarnation. “When they got in touch and it was sent through, I remember saying to my agent, ‘Why are they asking us?’ I thought Rowan Atkinson was going to get it.” While Fox, Universal and the BBC all sought larger-than-life actors, it was producer Philip Segal who could envision McGann as the Doctor, and whose passion encouraged him. “Philip was the reason that I did it, Philip had sought me out, it's Philip that kind of wore me down and persuaded me to do it, sold it to me with his unique enthusiasm and love for the show.” As he and Segal began to construct a picture of the Eighth Doctor, McGann drew on some unlikely inspirations to provide the depth to the character he thought it needed. “I said to Philip, there's a kind of melancholy there's this agelessness, like Louis in Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, which I had just read.”

McGann’s singular outing as The Doctor in the 1996 TV Movie debuted to mixed reception, which led to an anxiousness on potentially participating in fan conventions like Gallifrey One in the years to come. “The misgivings I had about doing conventions were pretty general honestly, just like any shy performer - I think Chris [Eccleston] was the same. For years, like me, Chris had resisted. He said the same things as I used to say, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ – I caught up with him during the lunch break on his first day [of a convention], and I asked him, ‘How is it, how do you feel?’ and he just beamed. He said, ‘I love it. What was I scared for?’.”

In new documentary Doctor Who Am I, Paul serves a kind of Whovian Yoda for writer Matthew Jacobs - a guiding light for how Matthew should involve himself in conventions like Gallifrey One. As the pair meet to discuss Matthew’s plans for the film, it’s clear that McGann sees the same anxieties in Jacobs that he once had, making for a touching moment of connection between the pair. McGann goes on to mention that he still attends conventions in moderation, but that’s only to keep that enjoyment of them alive. “The reason why I keep coming back and doing them and what got us over our misgivings was realising that it's a laugh. It's work for sure, but it's a collaborative thing - getting together to talk about the same things!”

After the TV Movie failed to garner a full series order over at FOX, for McGann it seemed that the show was finished for good: “I remember thinking Doctor Who is now finished and I’m probably partly responsible for it.”

Paul McGann by Marc Bryan-Brown
Paul McGann for Radio Times Magazine by Marc Bryan-Brown

He jokes that once Russell T Davies revived the series, he waited by the phone for a possible call to action – but none came. “It’s funny to tell now, but at the time, I really was like ‘It’s me and Peter Cushing. We’re in the naughty room. No one’s going to mention our names when they talk about Doctor Who.’”

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However, just as Davies revived the series, he also definitively solved the TV Movie’s question of canon: the Eighth Doctor was just as important as all others, and the TV Movie is part of it all. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I love you, Russell!’” Upon reflection, McGann believes that perhaps the near-decade rest was essential to its very resurrection. “I think maybe that break needed to happen, in order for the right custodians to find it, and bring it back to its former glory with their passion.”

Many will remember McGann’s surprise return as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations, but the manner in which it all came together was surprisingly last-minute. “We were away, and I got a call from [Steven] Moffat who said, ‘Look, in principle, if I wrote this, would you come back?’ so we had a quick conversation. I said, ‘Well, can I see a script?’ and he said, ‘Well, I haven't written it.’ I said, ‘Well, when are we talking?’ and he said ‘Next week.’ But this is how showbiz works. Even with some of the biggest actors, it just comes down to, ‘Are you around next week?’.”

Paul McGann for Radio Times Magazine by Marc Bryan-Brown
Paul McGann for Radio Times Magazine by Marc Bryan-Brown

In a way, McGann’s return completes a cyclical narrative – just as his TV Movie allowed for Sylvester McCoy to receive a proper goodbye, so Night of the Doctor granted McGann a true send-off of his own – and a new look for the Eighth Doctor. “If I never get to play the Doctor on screen again, then it was good to get back into the costume, not wear the wig, say some different lines and look a little older and hopefully sound a little wiser - it was good to do it again.”

Of course, that is an end to the Eighth Doctor, but McGann agrees that no Doctor reaches ‘The End’ – having recently returned to the TV series for a cameo in centenary special The Power of the Doctor, he's also "about to do some Big Finish stories loosely based but connected to that short [The Night of the Doctor] – it’s one of the beautiful things about Doctor Who’s mythology, nothing is ever wasted.”

McGann radiates a positivity when discussing any aspect of the show’s history and legacy, whether it be his interactions with fans or his own relationship to the show – when we briefly discuss my nighttime excursion to watch the 60th anniversary filming, it’s clear he’s as excited for the specials as I am. It’s undeniable that to Paul McGann, Doctor Who extends far beyond the TV Movie – he’s clearly proud to be a part of the community, and to have contributed to a fundamental British institution like Doctor Who.”“I suppose through my own individual journey, I've become a fan of it in my own way. I admire Doctor Who hugely. What it's managed to do and to keep doing. I was part of that propitious thing – and I’m seriously glad that I was.”

Doctor Who Am I 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.

Check out more of our Sci-Fi coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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