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The Real Reason Paul McGann Left Doctor Who

In the almost six decades since Doctor Who first debuted on the BBC, many memorable actors have played the title role of the time-traveling alien Doctor. In a convenient sci-fi device, Time Lords like the Doctor can regenerate when they're injured to the point of death, getting a new lease on life in a new body, with a new face. Naturally, that allows for recasting as necessary. Since first Doctor William Hartnell's departure, twelve other actors have had tenures in the part, plus a few others (including John Hurt) who've made short-lived appearances.

Paul McGann was the Eighth Doctor, and holds a special place in the franchise's history as the Doctor who bridged the gap between the end of the original series in 1989 and the beginning of the new series in 2005. Despite technically being the Doctor in residence for nine years, however, McGann had less screen time than any other actor in the main thirteen. Let's take a look at how that happened.

The 1996 Doctor Who movie wasn't well received

Paul McGann first played the Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. A British/American co-production, the film premiered on Fox TV in the US before airing on the BBC. In addition to McGann, it starred Daphne Ashbrook as the Doctor's new companion and Eric Roberts as the latest incarnation of the Doctor's archenemy, the Master. It also featured the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, who had starred in the last three seasons of the original series, in a prologue leading to his regeneration into McGann.

The movie was meant to kick off a new Doctor Who series on Fox, but poor US TV ratings kept that from happening. Fan and critic reactions were mixed, but McGann himself was one clear highlight. Unfortunately, with no new series and no likelihood of further movies, the Eighth Doctor was left without a home.

Beginning in 2001, McGann would get to continue the Doctor's adventures beginning in a series of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, leading to his embrace by hardcore Who fans. When Doctor Who returned to TV, however, he was nowhere to be seen.

The new Doctor Who wanted a fresh start

One problem with the Doctor Who movie is that it starts out with Sylvester McCoy going about his Time Lord business like it was still the '80s, and potential new fans didn't necessarily know who he was or feel welcomed in by his presence. When the BBC revived Doctor Who in 2005, they wanted it to feel new and fresh and not weighed down with old baggage, even though it was set in the same continuity as the original series and the movie.

With that in mind, showrunner Russell T. Davies decided to start with the newly-cast Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. A reaction to his own face in a mirror in the first episode makes it clear that he's just recently regenerated, but that regeneration isn't shown. McGann has said he would have been willing to return for the new series, but that just wasn't on the table. After all, the last thing this attempt to revive the franchise needed was to remind people of the previous unsuccessful effort.

Nevertheless, Paul McGann continued to appear in the Big Finish audio dramas, and he still hadn't made his last onscreen appearance as the Doctor.

The untold story of Paul McGann's Doctor revealed

With the beginning of the 2005 series, the obvious assumption was that Paul McGann had regenerated into Christopher Eccleston offscreen. That turned out not to be the case. In 2013, as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, a special episode called "The Day of the Doctor" told the story of the forgotten Doctor who'd come in between, the so-called War Doctor played by John Hurt.

Leading up to the special, the BBC released a mini-episode called "The Night of the Doctor," which begins with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, and ends with his regeneration into John Hurt. In only his second on-screen appearance as the character, McGann portrays a Doctor who's had many years of adventures since the movie, and he even gets to namedrop some of his companions from the audio dramas. It's simultaneously an important piece of continuity and a fitting tribute to a little-seen but much-loved Doctor.

If that's the last time Paul McGann ever plays the Doctor on screen, it's a good note on which to end. On the other hand, with the way Doctor Who continuity folds in on itself thanks to all the time travel, it's entirely possible fans will get to see the Eighth Doctor again some day.