Doctor Who: a celebration of Christopher Eccleston

Andrew looks back at the sterling work of the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, who helped steer the series into a more mature new direction…

When the casting of Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor was announced, it said several important things about the forthcoming series of Doctor Who.

First, that it was not a light entertainment concern as had been rumoured. Paul Daniels was nowhere to be seen, and an actor of Eccleston’s reputation (there’s almost certainly an algorithm used by the press that selects which adjective from ‘serious’, ‘intense’, ‘brooding’, and ‘Northern’ he is to be described with) showed people on the fence of the size and ambition of the revival.

Second, the ambition was clearly to win over new fans, and bring a new audience to the show outside current fandom. Eccleston himself was not a fan of the original run, and did not have a sensibility that allowed him to enjoy camp or poorly-made telly, as it took him out of the fiction.

In order for Russell T Davies’ vision to work, it would first need to convince his lead actor. If he liked it, and RTD liked it, then presumably the show would appeal to both the new, harder-to-impress audience with a negative perception of the show, and the hardcore fan who would snigger into their drink at the mention of the words Bandril Ambassador. This is why, before we even heard or saw anything from the new show, the casting of Eccleston was inspired. He simply cut through a lot of the baggage the show had been lumbered with.

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When we saw him on screen, the general reaction was positive. There was, in online fandom anyway, a sense of a ship being steered in a different direction, and of people not being immediately used to the new orientation. In Rose, which does everything it seeks to do quite effectively without trying to overload people with information and sensation, the Doctor is presented to us via someone else’s eyes.

Series one takes inspiration from all the previous 26 seasons, but a huge chunk of it comes from the very earliest days of the show, back in 1963, when the title character was an unknown quantity.

What is cleverly done – and this is clever in the sense of making simple, effective connections and joining the dots, which is harder than it sounds – is that the Doctor is hiding things from Rose that even the hardcore wouldn’t know about, so the character remains a mystery on some level, regardless of your knowledge.

The Ninth Doctor is, like the First Doctor, an unknown who remains aggressively weird until his new-found human friends soften him up. He usually inspires others to save the day, and when he does so in The End Of The World, it’s not in the traditional Doctor-way. Rather than find a peaceful solution, he impassively watches as the villain explodes, intoning that “Everything has its time and everything dies”.

He’s uptight, he clearly hides behind his sense of humour (which is quite antagonistic and desperate), and needs someone to calm him down and help him recover.The Time War, mercifully never seen, works brilliantly as a gambit to establish the Doctor’s character and rids him of a lack of mystery, where we know much about his background. It ties in very well with the characters of the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, but gives him a blank slate to start from. He’s a wanderer again; we don’t know his background.

Eccleston brings a forced mania and aggressive swagger to the role, which I assume is the way the actor played it upon reading the scripts. Not being a fan, it’s a joyful coincidence that he brings his own idiosyncrasies while also being clearly reminiscent of past Doctors. In fact, on forums, I have seen every single incarnation of the character being compared with Eccleston’s take on the role, and there’s some truth in that.

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Without necessarily watching them all, he’s managed to be similar to Hartnell’s distant alien, Troughton’s upbeat friendliness, Pertwee’s tendency to be abrupt with authority, Tom Baker’s boggle-eyed enthusiasm, Davison’s occasional ineffectiveness, Colin Baker’s brashness, McCoy’s confrontational attitude towards his enemies, and McGann’s passionate bursts of ebullience. He manages nearly all of these in The Empty Child alone.

His relationship with his companion is more explicitly an equal friendship than before, and the Ninth Doctor’s relationship with Rose Tyler is much sweeter than the Tenth’s. Being less sure of himself initially, its only when Captain Jack joins the team in Boom Town where he starts to look more assured. Even then, he doesn’t save the day, the TARDIS does.

The Ninth Doctor doesn’t often defeat his opponents himself, but inspires others to do so by his example. While this drew complaints that this made the Doctor seem weaker, it did eventually reveal itself to be part of an excellent character arc, where the Doctor’s heroic qualities are revealed precisely because he doesn’t  flick a switch and kill everyone, and doesn’t go down the darker-fanboy-pleasing path.

He’s already destroyed one planet, and when given the chance to do so again, he ultimately finds himself at peace by proving that he is not defined by that act. He’s managed a complete U-turn from the resolution of The End Of The World, and then Rose saves the day anyway, because she thinks it’s what he would have done. It’s by far the most satisfying of the RTD-era finales, as everything ties together beautifully in terms of character, theme and spectacle. Also, because the Daleks are scary.

The best thing about the Ninth is his relationship with his arch enemies. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is absolutely the best at selling their threat, helped by great scripts from Rob Shearman and Russell T Davies (the ‘T’ stands for ‘The’, incidentally). Being placed into a situation where the Daleks have taken everything from him certainly helps, but Eccleston’s spittle-enhanced and terrifyingly furious reaction is breathtaking. You can’t imagine any other actor playing it that well.

In series one, the Dalek stories form part of a longer story that’s about the main character’s relationship with his worst enemies, and use an actor who can completely sell that level of hate, anger and despair. Since then, Dalek stories haven’t quite lived up to the then-novel sight of thousands of Daleks floating through space, whole fleets hanging in the sky, and the Doctor veering between defiance and silent resignation.

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Dalek shows them being effective, cruel, cunning and ruthless. The last few Dalek stories had been very good, but without really showing the Daleks as effective fighting machines. Dalek achieved that, and told part of a bigger story. Indeed, series one is essentially the second half of one huge tale, the first half of which we will never see.

It’s hard to bring new facets to a monster while keeping fans happy with the same ol’ bloodbath. Eccleston’s era managed it, and maintained a veneer of Proper Drama sufficient to impress viewers. It’s a shame Eccleston’s time on the show was soured by his experiences, but at least he gave us a modern day season seven, a unique version of the show driven by his take on the role.

Without these semi-serious foundations, we wouldn’t have been able to move onwards towards the even more popular David Tennant era.

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