Paul McGann is hot in the world of Doctor Who right now. His Night of the Doctor was a smash hit internet sensation that paved the way for The Day of the Doctor and he continues to do new Eighth Doctor adventures for Big Finish Productions.
Back in 1996, the situation was a little different.
When McGann’s TV movie debuted in May on FOX, it got buried under the season finale of Roseanne, which was at the height of its popularity. The TV movie was a hit in the UK with over 9 million viewers, but with the ratings collapse in America, it didn’t matter. Among other things, the rights issues were so complicated that even if the BBC would’ve wanted to do more Eighth Doctor episodes, the legal issues were almost impossible to clear up… and would remain that way for several years.
The TV movie, sometimes subtitled The Enemy Within, was the pet project of producer Philip Segal, an American who had grown up in the UK. Segal had inquired about acquiring the rights to Doctor Who as far back as 1989, which actually may have had a hand in the show’s cancellation during the Seventh Doctor’s era. He was able to eventually secure the rights in the early 1990s from the BBC. Segal worked for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, but when Amblin folded to become part of the new DreamWorks in 1994, the producer was allowed take Doctor Who elsewhere. This eventually led to an uneasy and complex alliance between Universal, FOX, and the BBC. With Segal stuck in the middle, they put together and financed the TV movie.
The scripts basically came in three stages. The first was by John Leekley, whose credits included Miami Vice and a Knight Rider TV movie at that time. His script was based on his own series bible – a detailed rundown of the characters, motivations, settings, and storylines. Leekley’s bible was made while the project was still at Amblin, and they went so far as to fully illustrate it and bind it into an expensive leather volume, which makes it pretty obvious that someone thought the show would go to series.
Leekley’s bible and script were the first phase, followed by a re-write by a scriptwriter named Robert DeLaurentis, followed by a complete re-do draft by Matthew Jacobs. All in the space of a year or two. Leekley and DeLaurentis’s versions are considered to be reboots of Doctor Who. Jacobs’ is considered (especially now!) to be a continuation of the original show.
This writer would like to focus on the original Leekley bible and it’s reboot ideas, because even though Jacobs’ script was quite different and turned into what we now know as the TV movie, it still contains some of Leekley’s original plan. The most infamous of these is: “I’m half-human on my mother’s side.” The production also stuck very close to the illustrations and Jules Verne-like designs in Leekley’s leather book.
Leekley’s main aim was to set up conflicts and add a quest for the hero (sound familiar?). His ideas are a strange mish-mash of years of Who history with his own additions, and just seem bizarre, especially in light of how successful and true-to-form the show is today.
So, here we go: Leekley sets up that President/Cardinal Borusa (or Barusa as he sometimes misspells) is the Doctor’s stuffy old Time Lord grandfather. Borusa’s son—the Doctor’s father—is a rebellious man known as Ulysses the Explorer. While exploring the universe, Ulysses had two sons. One son was with a beautiful Earth lady named Annalisse, and that son, of course, was the Doctor. The other son was with a dark-haired Time Lady, and he was… The Master.
So, yes, the Doctor and the Master are half-brothers. And because they are both Borusa’s grandsons, they both have claims to the Throne of Gallifrey and its Domed City. Nowadays, this all sounds very similar to the Thor-Loki relationship in the Marvel movies.
Anyway, the evil Master takes the throne when Borusa dies. Wanting to eliminate the other heir to the Presidency, the Master sends out his henchmen, the scary spider-like metal and alien creations called the Daleks (!), to hunt down the Doctor. The Doctor flees Gallifrey to escape his crazy half-brother and his Dalek army.
The Doctor steals an old Type 40 TARDIS, whose crystalline power source (Superman, anyone?) has become possessed by the ghost of his grandfather Borusa. So now, the Doctor can actually talk to the TARDIS – his granddad. The Doctor’s aim is to find his father, Ulysses, and reunite the family. His quest will take him on many adventures, including clashes with a race known as the Cybs, who are a humanoid race that resemble American Indians, but with metal and cybernetic parts. Delete, indeed.
The next version of the script was by Robert DeLaurentis, best known for writing several episodes of the ‘80s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He took the Leekley script and bible and made some changes, not all for the better (although sometimes it’s hard to tell). DeLaurentis killed off both Borusa and Ulysses early in the story… and added a dog. In fact, DeLaurentis’s main contribution seems to be adding a cute, funny little doggie to the story. If K-9 himself ever heard of this, he’d shoot it down faster than a hungry Krillitane.
The third and final version was what we now know as the TV movie. Written in what sounds to be an extreme time crunch, Matthew Jacobs’ script is thankfully a continuation of the classic show – complete with the Seventh Doctor (although the BBC reportedly wanted Tom Baker) and a regeneration. Some of Leekley’s reboot elements did survive, including the Verne-esque themes and TARDIS design, the Master’s central involvement in the story, and yes, the Doctor’s being half-human.
If the TV movie had been a success, though, the question remains just how many of Leekley’s ideas would have been revisited and incorporated into the storylines. A partly human Doctor being hunted by spider Daleks while searching for his ne’er-do-well father while talking to his dead grandfather-TARDIS doesn’t seem especially appealing. But hey, maybe a cute dog would’ve made it better?
If the McGann TV movie had been a success in the US in 1996, and had been picked up as a FOX series and run for the usual 5-ish year lifespan of US shows, would Russell T. Davies still have had the chance to bring back the original British show in 2005? If so, it’s possible that this “American reboot/re-do” Doctor Who series – even with its appearance by Sylvester McCoy in the pilot – might today be ignored as non-UK-canon and Paul McGann relegated to Peter Cushing status. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the US show’s storylines and events could have been adapted and retooled by Russell Davies and folded into the 2005 show. (And McGann regenerating into Eccleston?)
Another question is whether a big network like FOX would have allowed McGann to regenerate and be replaced by another actor. It’s one thing in the US to replace actors on ensemble shows like CSI and Law & Order, but a sole lead actor is a different matter. The most recent example would have to be Charlie Sheen being replaced by Ashton Kutcher on Two and a Half Men. But that is a half-hour sitcom and not a huge, big-budget hour-long drama like Doctor Who would have been. Paul McGann probably would have been locked in for five years and the Doctor probably would have defeated the Master or been lost in time in the final episode.
Perhaps in some alternate universe, there was a successful show called Doctor Who that starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and stayed true to the classic show’s origins. The odds are that it probably wouldn’t have been made by the BBC and probably didn’t last for more than six or seven seasons. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be brought back some time in the future…
If you want to learn more about the tempestuous behind-the-scenes struggles of the TV Movie, check out the 2000 book, Regeneration: The story of the revival of a TV legend, by Philip Segal and Gary Russell.