“I’ve written lots of things that I’ve happily forgotten about, or that have been remembered fondly,” says Matthew Jacobs. “But the Doctor Who TV movie is very much like a tattoo that just won’t go away.”
What is it like to make one sizeable contribution to a much–loved franchise – and then everybody hates it? And, two decades later, to turn up to a fan convention for the very first time, only to find fans still want to tell you to your face how much they hated it? That is the premise of what turns out to be a surprisingly uplifting new documentary about fandom and family called Doctor Who Am I from Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille.
“I had distanced myself from the fans,” says Jacobs, whose other credits include The Emperor’s New Groove and The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. “But, on Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, everyone started getting interested in me again. I didn’t initially want to go to a convention in Florida. I said, ‘there’ll be some alligators. And Doctor Who fans.’”
However, Yuille saw it had great potential for a documentary story. “Matthew thought this was going to be about the fans, but I always knew it was going to be about him.”
Ncuti Gatwa may be the new 14th Doctor Who, but back in the 90s Paul McGann was “the Doctor of the future”, according to the Radio Times.
It wasn’t to be.
Coming seven years after the original run of Doctor Who had ended, the movie remains McGann’s only major screen outing in the role. Despite getting over 9 million viewers in the UK, Jacobs’ script didn’t spark the hoped-for new series, and the movie spent years being perceived as a failure. One significant reason was that he had made changes to the very fabric of Doctor Who – McGann had kissed his companion.
“You have the incipient romantic aspect of the Doctor really coming to the fore with Paul’s Doctor,” says Jacobs. It didn’t matter how short the companions’ skirts were in the 60s, the rule of “no hanky-panky in the Tardis” had lasted for three decades until, in Jacobs’ script, McGann was suddenly snogging Dr Grace Holloway, played by Daphne Ashbrook.
Even worse for some fans, the Doctor unexpectedly revealed in 1996 that he was half-human, on his mother’s side. During the documentary, the executive producer of the movie, Philip Segal, talks about going to a convention and being practically assaulted by a fan who was furious about the movie.
Another sequence shows a group of fans looking horrified as Jacobs tries to explain the reasoning behind it, as something that expressed the Doctor’s affinity with humanity, and would appeal to US television executives. They are not convinced. “It was usually the older fans, if we met them, who had a visceral reaction,” says Yuille.
The TV movie did succeed in introducing some new US fans to the show, and one of the joys of the new documentary is meeting some of the most enthusiastic cosplayers of the American convention scene. On camera, they share stories about how Doctor Who has comforted them through grief and loss, or made their relationships stronger.
Jacobs thinks that when writers and actors go to conventions, they always initially think it is just for the fans’ benefit, but find “they’re being brought into a family” themselves. Jacobs ends up on screen wearing props and trying on monster costumes as people enthusiastically detail how much time they’ve invested making them, and his reluctance to embrace fandom gradually diminishes.
Watching the 1996 TV movie again in 2022, it is striking how much the first half-hour feels more like a US medical procedural, rather than the relaunch of a sci-fi/fantasy franchise. Its structure is flawed – giving the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, a regeneration sendoff was a nice continuity touch at the time, but it eats up a third of the film’s run time. But, as the BBC gears up to celebrate Doctor Who’s 60th birthday next year, the Doctor Who TV film looks less like a forlorn coda to the 1963-89 series and more like a springboard between the “classic” and modern eras.
Higher production values, a theme tune rearranged with an orchestra, and the revelation of a mysterious new secret about the Doctor’s past seem nothing unusual in 21st-century Who. The brief kisses between McGann’s Doctor and companion are relatively chaste set next to David Tennant’s 10th Doctor marrying Queen Elizabeth I, and Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor’s very own “time traveler’s wife” in the form of River Song (Alex Kingston).
Despite the movie being a one-off, McGann is no George Lazenby among Doctor Whos. The film set in motion a whole range of off-screen continuations in books and comics and McGann has gone on to embed himself as a much-loved part of the franchise. His enthusiastic portrayal of the character trying to recover his identity remains the highlight of the movie, and his Doctor now has over two decades and more than 100 stories behind him on audio.
Eddie Robson, who wrote Radio 4’s Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully recently wrote for McGann’s continuing Doctor Who audio adventures, and says of his Doctor, “Paul has a nice sort of spontaneity as an actor. He has a way of making a line that’s written on the page sound like the first thing that’s come into his head. It’s fun to run with that. He thrives off snappy, short, little bits of dialogue.”
When McGann appears at the convention in the documentary, Jacobs says it was like witnessing people waiting to see the pope. McGann eventually reprised the role on TV in a specially shot iPlayer “minisode” as part of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
It is difficult, with hindsight, to recapture just how much excitement there was about Doctor Who returning in 1996. In a very different media landscape, the movie was available to buy on VHS prior to being screened in the UK. Robson recalls bunking off school to get it. “A friend of mine was also a fan. We nipped out of school, went to HMV and bought it, went to his house and watched it and then came back to school. I felt very positive about it. There was a sense of really wanting to like it, really wanting it to be good, and to work, and to lead to something.”
It was a bittersweet experience for Sophie Aldred, who played popular 80s companion Ace alongside Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor, as the storyline seemingly signalled the end of her tenure on the show, although she will reprise her role later this year. “I absolutely loved the Tardis in that, I thought yes, that’s what we’d have done if we’d had the budget. I think it really was quite modern. A young, handsome doctor who kissed the companion. It was a precursor to the future, but, in a way, too early.”
As the Doctor Who Am I documentary unfolds, it becomes clear that writing the movie isn’t Jacobs’ only connection to Who. His father, Anthony Jacobs, starred as Doc Holliday in a 1960s Doctor Who story set in the wild west, and, as Jacobs begins to open up about his difficult relationship with his parents, the documentary bends towards a journey of discovery. Yuille says it made sense to have the documentary explore who Jacobs was, as he was “unpacking his past and moving from one city to the next, sort of like a rebirth or regeneration himself”, in parallel with the journey taken by McGann’s Doctor in the film.
And their own verdicts on the TV movie now, in 2022? “I think it’s fun. It has a lot of energy. I didn’t see what the big deal was about the kiss, and I thought Paul was wonderful,” says Yuille.
“I always stand by it,” Jacobs says. “I’m not ashamed of it in any way.”