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Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who

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1996-05-14 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.jpg


'Doctor Who'

When: 7 tonight

Where: Channel 2

THE Doctor was out. Surely he hadn't confused the time - after all, the man is a bona fide Time Lord.

Of course, he hasn't been one for long, and when Paul McGann eventually got on the phone in his Los Angeles hotel room, it became clear that while he's happy about the new role, he hasn't quite come to terms with all the responsibility it carries.

McGann, a 36-year-old British actor best known so far for the 1987 movie "Withnail & I," is the new "Doctor Who," and if you just said "Who?" you must not have been paying attention for the last, oh, 33 years.

The longest-running science-fiction series ever, "Dr. Who" made its debut on Nov. 23, 1963, on the BBC and was picked up by public television stations all over the United States. It ended production in Britain in 1989 but aired on Channel 9 here until last spring.

Seven actors played the Doctor over the years - we'll get to that later - and McGann becomes No. 8 tonight when Fox broadcasts a new movie called, aptly enough, "Doctor Who."

In the simplest terms, the Doctor is a member of an alien race called Time Lords who travel the universe gathering knowledge and, in the Doctor's case, generally interfering. Time Lords have 13 lives, and when one ends, they regenerate into someone different-looking - a concept originally dreamed up to allow for a recast of the lead. It worked then, and it worked six more times over the years.

McGann hopes it will work one more time, but he wasn't so sure when he was first approached about playing the Doctor, a character he'd seen on British TV ("You couldn't really miss it") since early childhood in Liverpool.

"For four or five years we'd heard rumors in Britain about a new 'Doctor Who.' At one time, Steven Spielberg was supposed to be behind it, with Sting as the Doctor. Then Eric Idle was supposed to play the lead."

But 18 months ago, when executive producer Phil Segal was finally getting the project off the ground, he came to McGann.

"I was surprised, to say the least," says McGann, a classically trained actor (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) who, when he's just being himself, sounds a lot like a fellow Liverpudlian, Paul McCartney.

"I thought I was all wrong for the role. I remembered a lot of humor in it, a goofiness, and my thing had always been straight drama."

McGann told Segal, "I can't do that eccentric thing," and Segal's insistent response was, "I want you." After a year, McGann relented; four days later, he was in Vancouver about to begin filming.

That didn't give him any time to prepare, but McGann says, "I'm not a great researcher anyway. I tend to just sleep, turn up fit and do it."

As written, the "Doctor Who" movie gave him a break, too. In the opening scenes, the Doctor is played by Sylvester McCoy, the last Doctor from the BBC series. After the Doctor is shot in San Francisco, a well-meaning but confused M.D. named Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) kills him on the operating table.

In the morgue, the Doctor regenerates into McGann, but he's lost his memory. For a big chunk of the movie he's trying to figure out what's what and then trying to make Grace understand it (oh, and save the world from his old nemesis, the Master, played with over-the-top relish by Eric Roberts).

One gag during the post-regeneration sequence should amuse "Who" fans, and McGann is proud to claim it as "entirely my own bit of business."

Naked, wrapped in a shroud, the amnesiac Doctor leaves the morgue and rummages through a hospital locker looking for something to put on. Finding a long, striped scarf - the trademark of the longest-tenured Doctor, Tom Baker - he briefly considers and then rejects it.

"I told them all along, bleep the scarf, I ain't wearin' it," McGann says. "I mean, it's a 5-foot woolly scarf, and I'm to wear it indoors? T hey ignored me."

Came the day of filming and there was the dreaded scarf, hanging in the locker. McGann looked at it, snubbed it and (he says triumphantly) "they left the bit in."

During a breakneck 29-day shoot, McGann didn't have time to think much further than the next scene. Now, though, he's looking ahead to the possibility of a "Doctor Who" series; he's committed for five years if the network decides to go forward.

"I really want it to happen," McGann insists, while admitting he's a little intimidated by the show's huge worldwide fan structure (80 countries, more than 100 million viewers), which includes clubs, newsletters, Internet pages and conventions.

"I'm a bit shy of all that," he says. "But am I scared? Ask me again in a year."

Nitpick the new "Doctor Who" movie with members of the St. Louis C.I.A. (Celestial Intervention Agency) at its next meeting, set for 1 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Indian Trails branch of the St. Louis County Library, 8400 Delport Avenue in Vinita Park. Call president Mike Hatley at --- for information, or just turn up.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Pennington, Gail (1996-05-14). Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who. St. Louis Post-Dispatch p. Everyday Magazine, p. 6d.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Pennington, Gail. "Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who." St. Louis Post-Dispatch [add city] 1996-05-14, Everyday Magazine, p. 6d. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Pennington, Gail. "Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, edition, sec., 1996-05-14
  • Turabian: Pennington, Gail. "Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1996-05-14, section, Everyday Magazine, p. 6d edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who | url=,%27_That%27s_Who | work=St. Louis Post-Dispatch | pages=Everyday Magazine, p. 6d | date=1996-05-14 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 February 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who's Back? Another 'Dr. Who,' That's Who | url=,%27_That%27s_Who | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 February 2024}}</ref>