In the history of Doctor Who, 2005 is a pivotal year, second only in importance, perhaps, to 1963, which saw the show’s debut. It’s hard to credit now, just seven years later, but prior to 2005, Doctor Who was… Well, not dead, but certainly a cult show with a dodgy reputation that was being kept alive by a small but loyal fanbase and a modicum of support at the BBC. 2005 saw it relaunched in a blaze of publicity, achieving monster success and establishing itself, once again, as a centrepiece of BBC1’s Saturday night programming.
This success was by no means guaranteed, and can’t be ascribed to any one individual – any list of names would have to include Russell T. Davies, Billie Piper, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson, Lorraine Heggessey and many more – but one person sometimes gets overshadowed. Step forward Christopher Eccleston.
Now, I’ll admit I was surprised to hear of Eccleston’s casting, and when I say “surprised” I actually mean “had to read the news reports twice because I thought I was going mad.” Eccleston is a great actor, committed and intense, but he’s known for powerful, socially-relevant roles, and with the best will in the world, the Doctor isn’t one of those. Then came pictures of the Doctor’s costume – t-shirt, leather jacket, pretty standard for a night down the pub but not the eccentric, not-quite-normal look that the character’s known for. And, because I’m a geek, I got worried. And while the 2005 season of the show was great, I wasn’t convinced by the characterisation of the Doctor. In some ways he was ineffective, other people saving the day around him. I couldn’t quite believe he was the same person as, say, Tom Baker.
Thing is, I was wrong.
I was wrong because Christopher Eccleston wasn’t playing the Doctor I knew from years of being a fan. He was playing a character who had been through hell. Those missing years? They changed him. Narratively, that was because of the Time War, a temporal conflagration that the Doctor could only stop by wiping out both sides, one of them being his own race. In the real world? The years when Doctor Who wasn’t on TV had done damage to the show’s reputation – could it be a going concern again, not just for a handful of fans but for millions of people who wanted to watch something on a Saturday night before the lottery results were announced? The Doctor couldn’t come back as the same man.
And so the 9th Doctor was damaged, and that’s how Eccleston played him, a man who could put on a goofy smile to mask anger, depression and bitterness. And yet that’s only a part of it – there was almost a sense that the Doctor was no longer happy with who he was. That’s why he dressed as a bloke from the pub – he was running from the trappings of being the Doctor, the hero who saved people from the monsters because, when it came down to it, he couldn’t save his own people – worse, he couldn’t save them and he was the one who pulled the trigger. That’s why the 9th Doctor needed an actor like Eccleston, someone who could sell the idea of a broken-down hero who was trying to be true to himself whilst being haunted by a war full of ghosts. And so his story arc was to find redemption – when faced with a near-identical situation to that which forced him to wipe out the Time Lords, he manages to win – sure, it’s because of his influence on a single individual rather than a grand plan, and it costs him his current incarnation in the process, but he wins – he wins and in doing so he fully becomes the Doctor again.
(Of course, the 10th Doctor’s biggest problem was that he was too confident in himself, leading to hubris, but that’s another post.)
In many ways, the story of the 9th Doctor runs parallel to that of the first – someone who, as the TARDIS Eruditorum blog points out, had to learn how to be a hero in order for the show to move to its next stage. And to really sell that, you don’t need a leading man, you need a powerful, dedicated character actor who’ll take a role that tabloids feel should go to some random celebrity and bring the actor’s craft to bear. Get that and you get something special. And that’s why, when Christopher Eccleston delivers the 9th Doctor’s last words, it’s a real lump in the throat moment:
“Rose, before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic, absolutely fantastic. And you know what? So was I.”