Why Christopher Eccleston Left Doctor Who

Christopher Eccleston reflects on why he left Doctor Who.

Actor Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccelston, who left Doctor Who after one season as The Doctor in 2005, has recently become more open about his decision to leave the fan-favorite show. Speaking to a crowd of Doctor Who fans gathered at New York Comic Con earlier this month and echoing the comments he made to The Guardian and to RadioTimes earlier this year, Eccleston gave some context to his time on Doctor Who, his departure, and the period that immediately followed.

“I left because my relationship with the showrunner and the producer broke down,” Eccleston said. “[I left because of] the politics of the show. I left only because of those three individuals and the way they were running the show. I loved playing the character, and I loved the world … I felt, ‘I’m gonna play the Doctor my way and I’m not gonna get involved in these politics,’ and that wasn’t workable, so off I went… and became the invisible man.”

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At the time, Russell T. Davies was acting as showrunner, with Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson serving as executive producers. This creative team would stay on the reboot of the show through its first four season, leaving when Matt Smith took over as Doctor in 2010.

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It was Davies’ involvement in the project that initially drew Eccleston’s interest, said Eccleston. They had previously worked together on a series called Second Coming, and had “a great working relationship.” Eccleston said he emailed Davies to ask for an audition, and obviously got the role. 

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“At the time, I was seen as a very social realist actor, no sense of humor, no laughs,” said Eccleston. “So the fact that I was not exactly their idea appealed to them, I think.” Eccleston notable kept his natural working class accent for the role, a first for the Doctor, and one that set a new precedent for the role moving forward. Later, Peter Capaldi would keep his natural Scottish accent as the Twelfth Doctor, with current Doctor Jodie Whittaker using her natural Yorkshire accent in her role as the Thirteenth Doctor.  

Eccleston said, while filming, he didn’t necessarily feel any extra pressure when it came to the legacy of Doctor Who, at least not compared to other experiences he had had up until that point in his 20-year career in film and TV. 

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“In a sense, I treated it like just another job,” noted Eccleston, before adding: “I think it’s fair to say that David Tennant, who came after me, understood that much more than me: the size of the show. I was just thinking about him as a character and this as a job that I will do, which worked for me. But there’s always pressure.”

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When Eccleston left the show, the story was big news in the British press.

“In the UK, they never talk about the positives,” reflects Eccleston. “When I left, all they wanted to talk about was why I left. They never wanted to talk about the fact that I did 13 episodes. You know, we have a tradition of the gutter press in the UK, so I had to deal with them.”

It wasn’t just the British tabloids that were making life harder, said Eccleston, but also the British film and TV industry itself.

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“I lost all my confidence, as an actor and a person, as a result of what happened on Doctor Who,” said Eccleston. “I was blacklisted in my own country for four years. That’s unofficial, but it was clear that it was happening. And I learned about politics of power and money, and I got my confidence back. And I say to anybody in the room who’s ever lost their confidence, the great thing about losing it is, if you get it back, you know you’re never going to lose it again.”

Eccleston spoke numerous times about the extreme, sometimes cruel pressures of the entertainment industry, giving the following advice to young people trying to get their foot in the door: “There’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of power, and you can sell yourself short, you can sell your soul in a way. And I would say: hold onto your soul, really, because that will affect your work.” 

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Eccleston was asked to return for the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special, “The Day of the Doctor,” which saw previou Doctor David Tennant join current Doctor Matt Smith, as well as a special cameo from Fourth Doctor Tom Baker in a role known as “The Curator.”

“I was asked about the 50th anniversary episode, and it was written by Steven Moffat, so obviously I was really interested,” recounted Eccleston. “But, when I read the script, I felt that it was basically myself, Matt, and Dave riffing off the fact that we used to be the Doctors. I, personally, didn’t feel the narrative was strong enough, particularly for the Ninth Doctor, because I had taken quite a lot of abuse in my own country when I left. As the show was being celebrated, I was being abused in the press, and that was hard to take. And very confusing. So I looked at it and I thought, ‘Is this really the way I want to come back?’ And I decided it wasn’t.”

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With Eccleston out, the project would go on to cast John Hurt as The War Doctor, a role that presumably came about later in the script development process. Eccleston praised the end result.

“I’ve read a lot of scripts, so I understand the strengths of scripts, and I was sent the new draft, which was without me and with the late, great, and one of my big heroes John Hurt,” said Eccleston. “I just thought that script was immaculate. And I think it added to the canon of Doctor Who in a way that me coming back wouldn’t. I think the War Doctor was a brilliant working of Steven Moffat’s imagination, and I loved watching him do that.”

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Eccleston spoke positively of Moffat’s skills as a writer on multiple occasions during the panel, calling his Season 1 two-parter “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” which Moffat wrote under the Davies era, his favorite episodes to film.

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“They were written by Steven Moffat, and I felt I really understood what he wanted from the Doctor,” said Eccleston. “I was never as sure what Russell wanted. What I could see with Russell was exactly what he wanted from Rose, Billie Piper, I think that was his strength. I think Steven’s writing of the Doctor, or my Doctor, was really a gift to me.” 

When asked to reflect back on his long career so far, which includes The Leftovers, Thor: The Dark World, and The “A” Word, to name a very limited few, Eccleston said that he has probably learned the most from working on Doctor Who (he also named his recent stage appearance as Macbeth), noting “the responsibility of heading up a show that big” during a nine-month shoot as an educational experience.

“You have to achieve the call sheet,” said Eccleston. “You have to get the thing done, with immense pressure, and, leading that, I really enjoyed. And then I learned about the politics and I learned that I don’t necessarily… If somebody asks me to kiss their ass, I bite it. That’s what I learned about myself.”

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When asked specifically about rumors that extras being treated poorly on set were part of the reason for his unhappiness on the show and eventual departure, Eccleston said he never saw extras in particular being treated poorly, but did speak about the traditional harshness of the entertainment industry, in particular on the crew, saying: “The crew, I felt, could have been treated better, but you often feel that. It’s a ruthless business.”

Speaking specifically about how a director or producer’s treatment of the crew can affect an actor’s relationship to the director, Eccleston noted: “I always looked to the director and the producer because they’re the ones with the big stick. The director, for instance, treats a member of the crew badly and then comes to speak to me about my performance, I have no respect for them and I don’t listen to them and that’s difficult.”

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Eccleston, who seems to have processed his time on Doctor Who a great deal since the experience, now 15 years past, also noted our culture’s bad habit of treating actors as gods who cannot make mistakes.

“Actors’ lives are not perfect and actors are not perfect,” said Eccleston. “They make mistakes and they understand they’re flawed. And sometimes we push this idealized idea that they’re gods, and they’re not. They’re fools, bigger fools than everybody, probably.”

While Eccleston’s post-Doctor Who life sounded like an extremely difficult period for the actor, he also doesn’t seem to regret the decision—though he wasn’t specifically asked.

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“I would say in the age of social media and actors getting their careers right, there’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, actually,” said Eccleston. “Because, if you’re an actor, if you stand up for what you believe in, it will manifest itself somewhere down the line in the work that you do, and it develops your relationship with the audience.”

Nearly 15 years after he first appeared on Doctor Who, Eccleston seems more focused than ever in developing his relationship with Doctor Who fandom in particular, embracing that part of his career in a way he was unwilling or unable to do before. In addition to NYCC, Eccleston will be a featured guest at next February’s Gallifrey One Convention, one of the biggest Doctor Who fan events in the world.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve started doing these conventions,” said Eccleston, “to make [it] clear [that] I loved playing The Doctor.”

Will we ever see the Ninth Doctor again? Eccleston hasn’t counted it completely out, though he doesn’t seem eager to return any time soon: “But I am coming back…” he told the NYCC crowd, who were audibly taken aback by that surprise announcement. “I’m gonna do the 100th anniversary. In 2063, the Ninth Doctor will return.”

We’re holding you to it, Eccleston.

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Eccleston’s new book I Love the Bones of You: My Father and The Making of Me is now available for purchase.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.