The great fan hope during that time was the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor, which was a co-production among the BBC, Fox and Universal and which aired on Fox exactly 20 years ago today as a backdoor pilot for a potential new series. Say what you like about the movie’s flaws, but there was no question that McGann made his mark as the Doctor with less than an hour onscreen in the role.
When the film did not turn into a series, many fans (myself included) were quite disappointed. It seemed like Doctor Who was finally dead – and, worse still, we thought we’d never see the potential of the eighth Doctor fulfilled. Then Big Finish Productions got a license from the BBC to produce official Doctor Who audio plays. At first, it didn’t seem like McGann wanted to take part – so when it was announced that he’d return to the role for “Storm Warning” along side new companion Charley Pollard (India Fisher), I was very thrilled with the result.No offense to the other Doctors making audios at the time (fifth Doctor Peter Davison, “Old Sixie” Colin Baker and seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy), but because the eighth Doctor’s tenure remained open-ended, the stories felt more like “proper” Doctor Who. It also helped a lot that McGann is a stellar audio actor with an expressive, unforgettable voice that added new dimensions to the Doctor’s character – many of which, I’m sure, were picked up for later Doctors when the series returned in 2005.
McGann has gone from strength to strength thanks to Big Finish, with the launch of the Eighth Doctor Adventures (which mimicked the hour-long format of the revived TV series and also starred Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller) and later the “Dark Eyes” and “Doom Coalition” series (the latter of which remains ongoing).
The eighth Doctor stories from Big Finish revived my interest in Doctor Who in the early 2000s, and I’m sure they played a big role in his Doctor’s return in the 50th anniversary minisode “Night of the Doctor,” which finally saw a regeneration but not into the Doctor any of us expected.When it comes to conventions or other appearances related to the role, McGann remained a notoriously private man for the first eight years or so after playing the role on TV. When he finally booked his first American convention – the 2004 Gallifrey con in Los Angeles – I arranged on short notice to fly out there for it. Who knew if he’d hate it and never do another one? Luckily, that convention only started his love affair with Doctor Who fans, and over the years I’ve seen him at three other conventions: once at the last official I-Con (where I got a quick station ID for WHRW that I use to close every edition of The Signal) and twice at L.I. Who over the past couple of years. (He’ll be returning for his – and my – third year in a row this November.)
At last year’s L.I. Who, I fulfilled a longtime goal and got to interview McGann. Wish I’d had more time but the schedule was running late and others were waiting for interviews behind us. Perhaps I’ll get another shot this year – we shall see.
Time can be a funny thing, but in many ways it hardly seems like 20 years since I first saw Paul McGann’s Doctor on TV – and I’m glad that, two decades later, he’s still roaming time and space with new adventures. Glorious.