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A theory: performances as the Doctor divide into two categories. There are those that seem like extensions of the actor’s own personality and charisma (Pertwee, both Bakers, McCoy, Smith), and those that seem like more orthodox acting performances (Troughton, Davison, McGann). On first glance, I’d put Christopher Eccleston’s 2005 portrayal of the Ninth Doctor in the latter group. But on reflection, I’m not so sure.
Evidently, the production of Eccleston’s single season in the role wasn’t much fun. Euros Lyn, director of its second and third episodes, has said, “I don’t think it’s a secret that the first series was troubled.”¹ In The Writer’s Tale, showrunner Russell T Davies recalls “our very first block of filming, back in 2004, when after one week of filming we were three weeks behind.”² And Eccleston himself has given no substantive reasons for his departure except an elliptical 2010 interview in which he said, “I didn’t enjoy the environment and the culture that we, the cast and crew, had to work in. I thought if I stay in this job, I’m going to have to blind myself to certain things that I thought were wrong.”
The British playwright Alan Bennett says that one should never “underestimate the courage required of actors. To go out in front of a first-night audience bearing the brunt of a new play is a small act of heroism.”³ What’s true of stage actors is, I’m sure, also true of those on screen. For Eccleston to take on this role, playing against the type of his previous work and picking up a series whose reputation was so low when it was last on screen, must have been a colossal act of nerve. And it’s nerve that I think is the defining characteristic of Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor, a refusal to duck out of risks. He’s unafraid to be callous when witnessing Cassandra’s death in “The End of the World,” contemptuous when Rose bends the laws of time in “Father’s Day,” and even a user of torture in “Dalek.” But he can be unashamedly heroic, as when he faces down the Dalek fleet in “Bad Wolf” with a simple “No.”
Structurally, of course, the 2005 season comes after something terrible: in story terms, the universe-convulsing Time War; in production terms, a 16-year hiatus broken only by the Paul McGann TV movie. The Doctor is recovering from something so dreadful that it can’t be spoken about and can’t be gone back to. Under his larky exterior, the Ninth Doctor is a walking wounded—at least until Rose arrives and his persona softens over the season. I can’t think of any other Doctor whose emotional wounds leave him so driven. Both Eccleston and the Ninth Doctor are taking huge risks by doing what they do.
There’s almost a sense that the production team know the 2005 season might be their only throw of the dice. So they try out everything that Who fans have always wanted to see, in the knowledge that it might break the show for good but at least it’ll get made. So there are unashamedly emotional stories like “Father’s Day,” classic monsters-lumbering-down corridors moments in “The Empty Child,” the Doctor meeting Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead,” and, at last, a Dalek invasion of really convincing scope in the finale. For all David Tennant’s skill at portraying the Doctor—and, clearly, his greater comfort with doing so—it’s hard not to feel that this sense of adventure was lost in the subsequent seasons. And, indeed, the highlights of Tennant’s years were stories like “Midnight,” “Blink,” “The Waters of Mars,” or “Human Nature,” that did push the format beyond the expected. But in 2005, everything about the format was up for grabs: how funny, how emotional, how science-fictional it should be. Eccleston wasn’t the only one taking those decisions of course, but he was their public face and the one who had most to lose if it all went wrong. Eccleston and the Ninth Doctor may now be remembered for their refusals, but refusals can sometimes be the bravest thing to do.
¹Doctor Who Magazine 409, May 2009, p.47
²Russell T Davies, The Writer’s Tale (BBC Books, 2008), p. 322
³Alan Bennett, Plays 1 (Faber, 1996), p.16
Graham Sleight is the editor of Foundation, and has a regular column on classic science fiction for Locus. He has two books forthcoming on Doctor Who: The Unsilent Library (edited with Simon Bradshaw and Antony Keen, published by the Science Fiction Foundation in January 2011) and The Doctor’s Monsters (due from I.B. Tauris in autumn 2011).