Paul McGann played the eighth incarnation of the Doctor in the Doctor Who 1996 television movie. The television movie also starred Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook, and the outgoing Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. McGann's brother, Mark McGann, also auditioned for the title role.
The Doctor Who television movie was a joint venture between the BBC, Universal Studios and the Fox Broadcasting Network. McGann had signed a contract to appear as the Eighth Doctor in a new Doctor Who series, if Fox or Universal exercised their option. Thus, the television movie was supposed to be a "back door pilot" in that, if it obtained respectable ratings, the new series would continue to be produced. The movie aired on 14 May 1996 in the US and on 27 May 1996 in the UK. Although it earned 9.08 million viewers and was very successful in the UK, ratings were very low in the United States. As a consequence, Fox did not exercise its option to pick up the series and Universal could not find another network interested in airing a new Doctor Who series. Thus no new series was produced until 2005, after all the contractual rights had returned to the BBC, and the movie became McGann's only televised appearance as the Eighth Doctor.
Although McGann played the Doctor on television only once, he gave permission for his likeness to be used on the covers of the BBC's Eighth Doctor novels and he has reprised the role of the Eighth Doctor in an extensive series of audio plays by Big Finish Productions.
For nine years, McGann was treated as the "current" Doctor until Christopher Eccleston assumed the role in 2005. McGann (1996–2005) is tied with Sylvester McCoy (1987–1996) for serving the longest period of time as the "current" Doctor, at nine years each, though McGann actually had the role for 40 days more. The show was not in production for all of this time, however. Tom Baker's portrayal of the Doctor from 1974-1981 ran for the largest number of production seasons, while McGann's single appearance as the Doctor in the television movie makes him the actor with the shortest "screen time" in that role.
Rumours abounded that Paul McGann would reprise the role of the eighth Doctor in a new series of television films, alongside the current television series.. McGann has denied these rumours on the grounds of not having been asked back to play the part but if he were to be asked would be interested as long as he "didn't have to wear a wig". McGann has appeared again as the eighth Doctor in the BBC Radio 7 series Doctor Who in 2007 - 2010