The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie could have involved a major Star Trek talent.
Was Leonard Nimoy ever in Doctor Who? Actors from the United States were few and far between during the venerable British time travel show’s original run (1966-1989). Nimoy would no doubt have given an excellent performance, but he was busy on the U.S. side of the pond during those decades—not least with Star Trek in its original, animated, and theatrical film forms. And although Doctor Who has included more Americans since its 2005 return, Nimoy would soon be busy as a recurring guest star on Fringe and playing Spock Prime in the first two Kelvin timeline movies.
Had he been British, I can’t help but believe Leonard Nimoy would have been high on anyone’s list to play the Doctor. His work as Spock leaves no question he could have handled both the role’s dramatic requirements and its “technobabble” demands. The multiple time travel stories in which Spock figures, from “The City on the Edge of Forever” through Star Trek (2009), prove Nimoy was comfortable with the concept. And can’t you imagine him working the TARDIS console with the same thoughtful, deliberate hand movements he used to create the Vulcan neck pinch, mind meld, and salute?
I think Leonard Nimoy might have played the Doctor as Third Doctor Jon Pertwee did, full of intelligence and moral authority. We might even have seen Nimoy’s Doctor practicing Venusian aikido on the bad guys instead of nerve pinches!
Alas, in this corner of the multiverse, Leonard Nimoy never appeared as the Doctor or as any other role in Doctor Who. Nevertheless, bearing out Spock’s belief (per Admiral Kirk) that “there always are possibilities,” the actor who is now and ever shall be identified with Spock did once take a behind-the-scenes trek in the TARDIS.
Leonard Nimoy wanted to direct the Doctor Who TV movie
According to Radio Times, Leonard Nimoy met on several occasions with Philip Segal, executive producer of the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, about directing the project.
Doctor Who (1996) was a joint production of Universal Studios and the BBC. Philip Segal wanted to revive but not “reboot” the series. Thus, it featured Sylvester McCoy—the Seventh Doctor, who’d been starring when the BBC shut the show down in 1989—regenerating into Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.
The movie’s poor U.S. ratings and mixed critical reviews meant McGann would not return as the Doctor onscreen until 2013 (though he has played the part in many officially licensed audio dramas). But it did help pave the way for writer-producer Russell T. Davies’ successful Doctor Who relaunch in 2005.
Segal recently told Radio Times that Leonard Nimoy “was genuinely excited about the possibility” of directing the Doctor Who TV movie. After all, by that point in his career, Nimoy had enjoyed several successful directorial outings, including the box office hits Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Three Men and a Baby (1987).
But Segal says the Fox network, on which the TV movie aired stateside, “did not want [Nimoy] to do it. They were concerned it looked very kitsch to go, ‘Aren’t we clever? We’ve got Spock from Star Trek directing.’”
Radio Times also reports:
"Segal revealed that the TV movie’s US broadcaster would only permit Nimoy to direct if he took a role in the TV movie, potentially as The Master: “That was just insulting to Leonard, because that wasn’t the object of the exercise.”"
As a fan of both Star Trek and Doctor Who, I was surprised to learn about this could-have-been meeting of sci-fi legends, and am even more disappointed it didn’t come to pass.
Could Leonard Nimoy’s directorial hands on the TARDIS’ helm have brought the Doctor back to TV screens almost a decade sooner?
Ryan Britt, author of Phasers On Stun!, thinks it unlikely. In a Twitter direct message, Britt told me he doesn’t think Leonard Nimoy’s involvement in the 1996 TV movie as director or guest star would have changed history. “Nimoy had several projects that are kinda lost to time,” he noted.
To make an analogy, Britt points to how Irvin Kershner, famed for directing The Empire Strikes Back, directed Sean Connery’s 1983 “comeback” as James Bond, Never Say Never Again. It wasn’t “earthshaking,” says Britt. He adds:
"I’m not saying the 1996 Who movie is the Never Say Never Again of that franchise, but I’m not sure Nimoy could have made a huge impact on it. Would it have been a bit different? Sure! Probably better! Would it have ushered in an early Who comeback? No way."
In the end, as Spock himself would no doubt say, all such speculations are illogical. We are fortunate to live in an era in which both Star Trek and Doctor Who are living long and prospering.