Fox’s Doctor

In 1996 a doctor immigrated to the United States from England. Not because he found a better hospital to work at, but because he found a different network. Yes, the individual in question was no medical doctor, but instead Doctor Who, transitioning from his traditional home on the BBC over to the Fox network. After a backdoor-pilot was produced and run as a movie of the week to blockbuster ratings, the network jumped at the chance to air the newly Americanized series, and slated it for a Sunday time slot in the 1997-1998 television season, pairing it with the fifth season of The X-Files to create a two hour block of science fiction.

The show had a bumpy start. Existing fans of the BBC series were constantly frustrated by the re-establishment of so many basic elements of the mythology (and even some changes to the core notions, such as the Doctor now being half human). New fans were often overwhelmed by the 35 years of history the show traveled with. It was an awkward middle ground, but the show persisted, pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week. Which was enough to keep the network happy, though not thrilled. An attempt was made to goose the ratings during the 1998 November sweeps when the two shows crossed over with a single two hour narrative that saw the Doctor help stem an invasion from the shape-shifting bounty hunters. This episode also saw the departure of Daphne Ashbrook as the Companion, killed during the climactic battle.

Ashbrook’s departure was the first kink in the armor. While long term fans of the British show understood that Companions came and went, and that even the Doctor changed faces every few years, American audiences were accustomed to more continuity in their programming. The second season also saw some cost cutting by the show. The Master, recast from the television movie, steals the TARDIS, stranding The Doctor in present-day San Fransisco for most of the season. While the show never went to truly exotic locales, due to budgetary restraints, this locking down of the Doctor changed the tenor of the show considerably.

The big news hit in the third season. While his TARDIS was restored, the show was losing viewers. Worse, it was about to lose its star. McGann announced his intent to walk away from the show at the end of the season, forcing Fox to weigh their alternatives. Cancellation was discussed, but the show was still proving profitable, and though the viewership had shrunk, the remaining fans were devoted to the show. Fox made a blockbuster move, courting George Clooney who had announced his own departure from ER. Clooney was looking to pursue his movie career, but couldn’t pass up the chance at such an iconic role. He agreed, but with a stipulation.

He would only do thirteen episodes.

Fox assented to the demand, largely in hopes that Clooney would change his mind once on set. He was set, however, and his rapid departure ushered in an instability of casting as Fox jumped from one actor to another, sometimes keeping a Doctor for as long as a half season, sometimes stunt casting an actor for a single two-parter. It was seen as a guest role, even though it was the star of the show, and focus moved away from the Doctor himself and towards the more stable companions. After two seasons of this, Fox saw the writing on the wall and announced the show would end after its fifth season. With The X-Files ending the same year, it was a blow to science fiction on Fox.

20th Century Fox held on to the rights to Doctor Who, however, denying the BBC an opportunity to reboot the show on no less than three occasions between 2001 and 2008. Finally, in 2010, they were in a position where they were forced to exercise or lose the rights. Not wanting to put the character back on television, they attempted a feature film. Believing that saddling the character with now 45 years of back story was asking too much of the audience, Doctor Who was to be rebooted with a fresh origin story.

There was initial promise. Wanting to return the Doctor to his roots as an older character, not to mention in hopes of casting the first British actor to play the role since McGann, Fox landed their dream actor, Patrick Stewart. He’d been central to not one, but two science fiction franchises, why not a third? Unfortunately while the casting was well received, the movie was panned by critics, largely for Damon Lindelof’s confounding back-and-forth time travel plot. The movie made a profit, but not enough of one to justify a sequel. However, Fox still puts out direct-to-DVD follow-ups every few months starring a British actor known mostly for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock in the main role, just to hold onto the rights. And they’ll probably keep doing so. They’re cheap enough to put together, and just enough people buy them.

If y0u believe in alternate universes, somewhere out there might be one where Fox passed on the show. Where the BBC started it back up. And where it was done right. However, the various attempts at Americanizing the show left it a shadow of its former self. I hope they know the bullet they dodged by the McGann version failing. It’s not that McGann was bad. He was great. He was my first Doctor, watching him on Sunday nights on Fox. But everything else around the idea was so bad, so cynical, so…not Doctor Who.

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