The Reason Doctor Who: The Movie Was A Complete Flop In The U.S.

"Doctor Who", much like its titular time-traveler, has undergone periods of reinvention. One of those periods saw Paul McGann picking up the sonic screwdriver from Sylvester McCoy in a made-for-TV movie during 1996. The film takes a unique approach to the Doctor Who mythos, with the Doctor suffering from a case of amnesia and Eric Roberts playing the Master. Yes, there was a Doctor Who movie where Eric Roberts — the master of villainy — played the ultimate villain.

However, the movie faced obstacles greater than the Daleks or the Cybermen. Despite the BBC and Fox Television co-producing the "Doctor Who" movie and a dual airing in the U.S. and U.K., viewership was extremely slim — only 5.6 million viewers saw the film in the U.S. Pair that with a mixed critical reception, and it's no wonder that it took a while for the series to finally find new life in 2005. But that begs the question: Why, exactly, did viewers turn away from McGann's Doctor? The answer lies in another extremely popular show.

Crushed by the Connors

The "Doctor Who" movie had the misfortune to air on the same date as "Roseanne," which was nearing the end of its eighth season. "Roseanne" happened to be one of the most popular television series at the time, and this episode wound up drawing 20.97 million viewers — nearly five times as much as the "Doctor Who" film. Rik Moran, who helps run one of the biggest Doctor Who fan clubs, knew that this was a kiss of death for a potential U.S. reboot of the sci-fi series. He even admitted as much during an interview with The Independent.

"We saw the American ratings and went, 'It's over, it's not going to happen,'" 

However, "Roseanne" wasn't the only reason viewers steered clear of the "Doctor Who" movie. The film drew upon decades of Doctor Who lore, which made it rather confusing and off-putting to newcomers. Plus, the series was hardly the cultural behemoth it is today — back then, when people thought of sci-fi, they usually thought of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Physician, heal thyself

"Doctor Who" would eventually find new life — and new cultural relevance — thanks to Russell T. Davies, who rebooted the series in 2005. The modern approach, as well as choosing to make Christopher Eccleston's Doctor the last of the Time Lords, was immensely more viewer friendly than the movie was. Davies is even slated to return to "Doctor Who" as a showrunner following the conclusion of the current season.

Though the film didn't exactly take off, McGann's tenure as the Doctor was far from over. He reprised the role in a series of audio dramas for Big Finish, and even re-appeared in "The Night of the Doctor" — a prelude to the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor," where he regenerated into the War Doctor (John Hurt). This time, the reception to his appearance was extremely positive — proving that time and distance can often re-shape your perspective on things.