Doctor Who movie: the precedents

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Fans all over the UK - including me I'm happy to admit - will have been delighted by the news in the newspapers this morning that confirmed a big budget Doctor Who movie is in development.

You do wonder, though: how many of these TV spinoffs have ever really been successful in the cinema - how easy or feasible is it to extend a franchise beyond its original media?
It's usually at this point that people (including the Times today) cite the two Peter Cushing Dalek movies of the 1960s. Unfortunately the figures show that a third entry in the series was scrapped because, fondly though the kids of the 1970s remember the films from TV, the second didn't perform very well financially.

A further attempt at a Doctor Who film featuring Tom Baker died a death in the 1970s when he and an actor colleague tried to turn the public into shareholders (an early attempt at what we'd now call crowd funding) without legal advice (all monies were returned, there was no dishonesty).

A third failed in the late 1980s when the TV version was steadily losing viewers, the BBC tried a fourth when the series was out of production in the early 1990s (it was to have reunited all of the surviving Doctors) and it wasn't until the Paul McGann film in 1996 that a one-off Doctor Who movie was actually made. A second wasn't commissioned.

Other shows

Assuming this one finally gets green-lit - and "in development" can cover a multitude of stuff not happening - you have to ask which TV shows have actually made a successful transition to the big screen.

The 1970s in the UK were littered with big screen versions of Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads and others, and in the 1960s Morecambe and Wise made a couple of so-so potboilers. Let's not even mention Kevin and Perry Go Large with Harry Enfield or the Mr. Bean films - and I'm still in denial about Ant and Dec's one about aliens or Mitchell and Webb's The Magicians.

America has had more success in transferring talent and ideas, with the Star Trek franchise as the obvious comparable example. Harrison Ford's version of The Fugitive and a high-budget pair of Addams Family movies performed well in the 1990s, cut short only by the death of leading man Raoul Julia.

More recently there has been a bigger hit in the form of The In-Betweeners, which has performed well. Harry Potter director David Yates, who is attached to the new project, and any backers he attracts will no doubt be hoping a Doctor Who movie will follow that sort of precedent rather than the indifferent performance of so many other TV films.

There will also be the issue of the programme's low profile in the US. Over here it regularly picks up 6-8m viewers and another million on iPlayer; in America the BBC heralds it as a triumph if it reaches 100,000. It doesn't go without saying that anyone except the British market would go to a Doctor Who movie in large numbers.


There isn't a leading actor announced as yet, and I'm predicting the usual flurry of "should he be black/female" speculation. So on the strict understanding that I have no insider knowledge at all and we're at the "fun" stage of "cast your ideal Doctor", here are my three nominations - AOL will welcome your own choices as comments:

  • Matt Smith: Performing well and popular on TV, but may not want to be identified with the same part when the movie eventually comes out in a couple of years' time (the show's 50th anniversary is in 2013, making this the obvious release date). BBC might by then be promoting another TV Doctor or preparing for one, and may not welcome the last bloke off TV going even higher profile - will the Beeb have the right of veto?
  • David Tennant: Rumours abounded that he left the programme partly because of an impending movie deal as the Doctor with Billie Piper back as the assistant. He may be tempted to return if asked but may also have reservations about going backwards. His profile isn't high in the US and the BBC might, again, have reservations about promoting an existing TV Doctor over and above the current incumbent. Also, early reports suggest that Yates wants his version of Doctor Who to be separate from the TV series so Smith, Tennant or indeed Christopher Eccleston would be the wrong choice.
  • Johnny Depp: Engaging, eccentric when he chooses to be and not afraid of popular schlock as well as proper acting. Given that younger Doctors have been popular since the series returned in 2005 he could well be the only choice (although at 48 he's older than any of them, he just looks irritatingly young).
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