Twenty Years Ago Today: Doctor Who passes into the hands of Steven Spielberg

DrWhoTwenty years ago today (or thereabouts), the long saga of Doctor Who's wilderness years took another strange turn when the rights to the British science fiction series passed into the hands of Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's production company. Feverish speculation soon followed about what Spielberg would be doing with the property he'd acquired, and how this would fit in with his new-found ability to make serious films like Schindler's List (which was looking to do rather well at the Oscars). Not to mention the crucial point of who he might cast as the Doctor - Dudley Moore? Alan Rickman? Michael Crawford? Tom Cruise? Any speculation that Spielberg would have a personal connection with Doctor Who was, of course, misplaced. The series had been bought by the TV arm of Amblin, and was never intended to be turned into a feature film; it went straight into development for television, landing squarely in the lap of executive Philip Segal.

The surprise here is that Segal was not an American. While he was a longtime resident of La-La land, he was born and raised in Southend-on-Sea, a seaside town on the Thames Estuary with a pier so nice they crashed ships into it twice (and burnt down both ends of the pier in separate fires... but enough about my own issues with the town of my youth).

Segal had overseen such shows as SeaQuest DSV and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, so he had some kind of pedigree in genre TV. Although some might assert that his pedigree was more of the Pedigree Chum variety. But never mind that - he was British! So surely he was the man to return Doctor Who to our screens, after the long gap since the BBC gave up on it in 1989? Surely he would protect the legacy?

Alas, the hopes of a billion (ish) science fiction fans were rather misplaced. Segal initially developed Doctor Who as a compete reboot with an American setting, or at least an American sensibility. It was only under the influence of various screenwriters that he eventually decided to resume the story with the continuity from the original series, casting the excellent Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and recruiting Sylvester McCoy to portray the demise of the Seventh Doctor.

But by that time Amblin had given up on the project, forcing Segal to shop it around Hollywood until it found a home at Universal, who produced the 1996 TV movie that they intended to be the pilot for an ongoing series. And we all know how well that worked out...

You may not be surprised to hear that Segal's most recent endeavours include bringing such shows as Ice Road Truckers to the History Channel, along with many other examples of the debasement of television via the medium of 'reality TV'.

(I may be a little more tongue-in-cheek than usual today. Never mind, I'm sure there'll be an event of historical significance tomorrow. Maybe...)