The fact that Christopher Eccleston is doing more Doctor Who for Big Finish productions, is exciting stuff. Considering Eccleston had a mixed time on Doctor Who – loving the character and the response of the younger audience especially, but playing the part while ill and disagreeing with the production team – it is also unexpected.
Having appeared at a few conventions and bumping into some of his successors recently, Eccleston seems more at peace with his legacy. It was a difficult time for him personally, but what an impact he has had on Doctor Who. As mentioned here, casting an actor of Eccleston’s reputation and stature immediately suggested this show was a serious proposition, disconnecting it from a variety of baggage.
As there was no guarantee Doctor Who would survive for more than one series, Eccleston’s departure meant that the Ninth Doctor had a complete character arc. His stories often led into one another, meaning few gaps to explore. Those that exist have been explored in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and the BBC Books range.
The gap most commonly considered worth exploring is the one at the end of ‘Rose’, where the Doctor leaves in the TARDIS only to return seconds later from Rose’s perspective and tell her the ship also travels in time. Indeed, this gap is where Charlie Higson’s excellent 2013 novella The Beast of Babylon is set, and any further stories set in this gap would contradict this.
However, this is not new territory for Big Finish. Contradicting events in BBC Books has been done before, and will almost certainly be done again. This is an excellent opportunity to state: Canon is less important than simply enjoying stories.
Big Finish’s output has varied in approach over the years but nostalgic comfort through the replication of styles is very much part of their approach now. Consider their Tenth Doctor box sets, which evoke that part of Doctor Who in terms of music, tone and scope. They are usually three stories long and are simply about replicating the fun of watching a good arc-lite episode from Series Two or Four. This, so far, has been the approach of Ninth Doctor spin-offs: tell a good story set in a gap in the television series.
One assumes that, given twelve stories are involved, this will be more akin to the Eighth Doctor box sets – four sets of three stories, some or all connected. Given the screen time Paul McGann has had, the Eighth Doctor is easier to add to, as we’ve only seen his beginning and end. For the Ninth, it will be a challenge to add to what we already know while telling a good story, and to find relatively unexplored aspects of the character to develop.
The second challenge will be the companion role. There’s been no announcement on whether Billie Piper will be involved as Rose Tyler, but it can’t be ruled out as a possibility. Piper has worked with Big Finish before, reappearing as Tyler with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and in a spin-off set on a parallel Earth. There’s a tension between nostalgia for hearing the pair reunited, and the possibilities of a new companion casting a new light on the Doctor.
Also, given the inevitable demand for it, it’s likely that Eccleston will meet some returning monsters and characters that didn’t appear in his series. The next time he speaks to a Cyberman, it may actually speak back. The appearance of the Master is unlikely without judicious memory loss (though not impossible, as Big Finish have other Masters on the payroll who could work in this gap), and River Song has met all the other surviving Doctors in Big Finish stories.
Normally, the saying goes, you try to give the audience what they didn’t know they wanted. With Big Finish this is partly true, but you also get David Banks to reprise his role of the Eighties Cyberleader because fans of a certain mileage will form an instant mental image the second he says ‘Excellent’. Giving fans exactly what they want is a key part of Big Finish’s DNA. And part of what fans will want is just the sheer thrill of hearing an actor revisit their take on the Doctor, especially when you thought it wasn’t going to happen.
Let’s suppose, for a second, that Big Finish are being especially canny here. They know that we have assumptions about how they operate, about how any minor character who catches the attention will result in jokes about possible audio spin-offs (Binro the Early Years: Heresy, Morton Dill: Like the Nation Estate Would Give Up the Rights That Easily, or an Avant Garde, Web Planet style piece about the day in the life of a giant clam – that sort of thing). They’ve been evidently trying to widen the writing pool recently, and not just because Matt Fitton’s fingers must be worn through.
You can imagine a lot of people wanting to write a script for Christopher Eccleston. Consider how he lifted Rob Shearman’s already excellent script for ‘Dalek’, the way Eccleston made it and the Doctor scarier through his performance. The glee of “Everybody lives”, the sheer weight of “Everything has its time and everything dies”; the greatest performance against the Daleks in the show’s history. If you were a writer, you’d want a piece of that wouldn’t you?
Consider what else makes Eccleston’s Doctor and the 2005 series unique: his Doctor is distanced from many of the tropes that were associated with the character. He’s not naturally whimsical, his clothes are unremarkable, he doesn’t speak with a Received Pronunciation accent. We no longer have the trappings of a Victorian or Edwardian gent, or the eccentric professor vibe of many of his predecessors. After critique of these tropes in the last few series of the original run, Russell T. Davies elected to disconnect them more severely (if not permanently), before they begin shifting back with David Tennant and are then firmly back in place with Matt Smith.
I’d like to see this brief moment where the Doctor was ‘just some bloke’ looked at. I don’t mean ‘just some bloke’ disparagingly. Only Tom Baker can be Tom Baker, but only Christopher Eccleston managed to bridge the gap between ‘The Oncoming Storm’ and ‘Broken man in his forties who’s just trying to carry on’, and that’s a wonderful thing. If you’re slightly broken, or just trying to carry on, or someone in their forties who’s had a really bad day at work… there’s something more tangible to appreciate in Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor than there is any of the others.
It’d be interesting for Big Finish, who are very good at maintaining their audience for niche interest products that not everyone can afford, to see if they can use this reach and bring in new writers who can expand on Doctor Who’s possibilities, engaging with these conflicts within the character and turning them into stories.
Including – it goes without saying – one where he meets the angry guy in a nappy from ‘Vengeance on Varos’.