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Digital Subscriptions > Doctor Who Magazine > 497 > “ I came back to life before your eyes. I held back death...”

“ I came back to life before your eyes. I held back death...”

Although it didn’t lead directly to a new series of Doctor Who, the 1996 TV Movie left a lasting legacy for the adventures that were to follow in the 21st century...

The most important thing you need to know about the 1996 TV Movie is that it was a huge success. It was a massive hit. Sometimes, when a project doesn’t lead to the greater things that had been hoped for it, it is retrospectively considered a failure, but the TV Movie was a triumph.

Bear in mind that seven years earlier Doctor Who had been barely scraping four million viewers; apart from a few, little-watched repeats and an EastEnders mash-up for 1993’s Children in Need it had been off the air since 1989. It was, at best, regarded as an object of nostalgia, as a fondly remembered but nevertheless dead TV show; and, at worst, regarded as the butt of a joke, usually one about wobbly walls or monsters proving unable to climb stairs.

What the TV Movie did – or rather, what its producer Philip Segal did – was to take a show that was regarded as a relic of the past and make it the biggest TV event of the year. It was on the cover of all the TV magazines and newspaper colour supplements, its trailers were impossible to avoid... and it was watched by nearly 9.1 million viewers. Apart from various soap operas, The National Lottery and Antiques Roadshow, it was the most-watched show of the week. And it proved one thing, beyond a shadow of a doubt: that given a realistic budget, decent promotion and a top British star in the lead role, there was a very, very big audience that would watch Doctor Who. It proved that the only thing preventing Doctor Who from being a hugely popular TV series was the fact that it wasn’t being made.

A few months after the TV Movie’s broadcast, Doctor Who was voted the nation’s Favourite Popular Drama as part of the BBC’s 60th anniversary celebration. If the TV Movie hadn’t restored Doctor Who’s place in the audience’s affections, if it had been a ratings disaster, then without a doubt that would have been it for Doctor Who. There would have been no Russell T Davies series, no Steven Moffat series, no Chris Chibnall series. The TV Movie’s success meant that it was no longer a case of ‘We’re not making Doctor Who because nobody would watch it,’ but a case of ‘We would love bring Doctor Who back but we can’t afford it.’

So why didn’t it lead to a series, if it was such a success? Well, ironically it’s for the same reason that it got made in the first place, because it was a co-production between BBC Worldwide and Universal, with a large part of the finance coming from Fox television in the US (and a small part coming from the BBC). For there to be a series, it needed to be a success, not just for the BBC, but for Fox, and for the video to be a big seller for BBC Worldwide. Unfortunately, in the US, it was scheduled in a highly competitive slot, one of those decisions that is described as a ‘vote of confidence’ before broadcast and a ‘total political assassination’ afterwards. It achieved an audience of 8.3 million – which, at the time, was usually prefixed with the words ‘a paltry’ as The X-Files routinely achieved ratings of twice that figure, but which is still over four times more than any other Doctor Who episode has ever received in the US, before or since. (The Magician’s Apprentice had the second-biggest audience with two million in 2015.) If we can assume that a few viewers stopped watching the TV Movie before the 20-minute mark, it means the Doctor with the biggest audience in the US is Sylvester McCoy!

“ The TV Movie proved that with a realistic budget, decent promotion and a top British star in the lead role, there was a big audience for Doctor Who.”

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About Doctor Who Magazine

A special issue celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1996 TV Movie! Contents include: interviews with actors Paul McGann, Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook, Yee Jee Tso and Gordon Tipple, and Executive Producer Jo Wright; a feature examining the legacy of the TV Movie; Steven Moffat answers readers' questions; Fact of Fiction – The Power of Kroll; Part One of a new comic strip, Witch Hunt by Jacqueline Rayner, illustrated by Martin Geraghty; The Time Team watch Victory of the Daleks; plus news, reviews, previews, prize-winning competitions and much more.