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'Doctor Who' class notes: Paul McGann, the 1990s and sex appeal casting

Syracuse Post-Standard culture reporter, Katrina Tulloch, continues her coverage of Who Class with key takeaways from the first public offering of the course in the spring of 2015.

Tulloch writes:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse University's free Doctor Who in the Digital Age class made a major transition last night from the classic episodes of the series to modern "Doctor Who."

Last week, we left off with Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, being fired by the BBC. He took the blame for the show's dip in ratings and popularity, though it was the fault of show runner John Nathan-Turner.

Nathan-Turner, of course, remained on the show and the Doctor was recast with Sylvester McCoy. Similarly to Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, McCoy was written again to act like a clown. He was goofy. He played the spoons.

McCoy gets a few good episodes with his plucky companion Ace, but he can't single-handedly undo the damage done in the late 1980s.

1. 'Doctor Who' is canceled

In 1989, the BBC decided "Doctor Who" had run its course. It was suffering in a new time slot and couldn't compete against ITV's soap opera "Coronation Street."

The BBC canceled "Doctor Who" that year.

The 1990s were a dark time for the international series, which Professor Anthony Rotolo and fans refer to as "The Wilderness Years."

The "Doctor Who" universe ends up in the hand of fans, who create "Doctor Who" magazines, comics and books in the absence of the the BBC show. Even Marvel writes some comics.

This all went down in the VHS era. In America, "Doctor Who" might have regained some popularity on video tapes, but VHS had a firmly negative connotation in the U.K. Most people saw it a porn medium. The series appeared to over.

2. TV Movie rumors

In 1993, rumors began circulating before the show's would-be 30th anniversary. Fans wondered if there would be a TV movie featuring all the living Doctors. The BBC kicked around project ideas but nothing came of it.

A TV pledge drive for the U.K. nonprofit "Children in Need" changed that. As a substitute for the TV movie, the BBC commissioned a children's special called "Dimensions in Time."

They managed to bring back Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Carole Ann Ford, Lalla Ward and many more beloved characters, including villains, props and K-9 the Robot Dog.

"The charity special wasn't meant to be great, but after the show was off for a few years, people were excited to see those characters again," Rotolo said.

The special didn't convince the BBC to reignite the series, but there were rumblings across the pond at Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's company.

Producer Philip Segal had been trying for years to launch a new American-produced series of "Doctor Who." Segal convinced the BBC to agree to a single TV movie with Amblin, and a "space opera" script was sent to Spielberg, who didn't like it.

Segal then took the opportunity to 20th Century FOX, where they committed to a single TV special. If it went over well, FOX was prepared to consider a series.

Segal cleverly pushed for the movie to be part of continuing narrative, so McCoy joined the cast to give the Seventh Doctor his regeneration scene.

In the end, Segal got the green light.

3. The 'Romantic' Doctor

Paul McGann is known by fans as the "romantic" Doctor Who.20th Century Fox and the BBC

The BBC demanded a British Doctor, so Paul McGann was hired to play the Eighth incarnation.

"This is the first time we see sex appeal casting," Rotolo said. "We casually refer to Paul McGann's Doctor as The Romantic. If there's one the we can credit to him, it's youth and wonder."

They had a British Doctor, an American pilot and the whole thing was shot in Canada.

In the U.S. during the mid-1990s, Segal knew the pilot had to stand up against lots of competition. There were lots of popular sci-fi and fantasy TV shows on air: two new Star Trek" shows, "Babylon Five," "Xena," "Hercules" and "The X-Files."

20th Century FOX aired the special in May of 1996. We watched in in class on Monday.

"It's good and it's bad," Rotolo said. "For the first time, it re-imagines "Doctor Who" for the American audience."

In class, students tweeted as they watched the show, noting influences from "Terminator" and other American action films.

The original "Doctor Who" never had much money but this TV movie did. In place of the BBC's low-budget sets, American producers got the budget for bigger explosions, effects and a grand TARDIS set.

The style is distinctly American. There are major car chases, gun violence and plenty of over-stimulation with in-your-face shots and 1990s action music. The Doctor kisses his companion as fireworks explode in the background.

The special tanked in the U.S. with poor ratings, but it was received warmly in the U.K. The experiment showed the BBC there was still a thirst for "Doctor Who."

As we know today, that became very important to the show's modern reboot.

We'll get to that next time. Geronimo!

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