There’s something about rewatching Christopher Eccleston’s episodes of Doctor Who which takes me right back to 2005. No other series of the show has so potent a transporting effect. I think, as I’ve alluded to before, watching the show be so successfully revived in 2005 was a unique thrill. It was a great time to be a fan. It was a time for rejoicing.
But just before the broadcast of the second new series episode, The End of the World, we got our first sense of there being trouble in paradise. The BBC announced that Eccleston would be leaving the series after its first year. Then it was revealed that the BBC’s statement was falsely attributed to Eccleston, and that they had broken an agreement to stay quiet on the length of his tenure. All in all, it seemed that this happy show had an unhappy leading man.
Ever since then, and to this day, there has been speculation about why Eccleston left. He doesn’t say much about it, but when promoting the many other projects he’s tackled post-Who, he inevitably gets asked about it. What he does say is short, guarded but tantalizing. He didn’t see eye to eye with the production team. He didn’t like the culture of the show. He didn’t like the way cast and crew were treated. And most recently he gave the clearest indication yet of the internal conflict which lead to his departure. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 with Emma Freud he said:
“Myself and three individuals at the very top of the pyramid clashed, so off I went. But they are are not here to say their side of it, so I’m not going to go into details.”
Whatever the circumstances, it’s easy to sympathise with Eccleston. Many of us have had difficult, unpleasant or simply bad jobs which we’ve left which various degrees of acrimony. Few of us will be asked time and time again about the circumstances of those jobs years after we’ve left them. Even fewer of us will have to do so in public fora. And Eccleston probably wants to talk about his more recent work and leave the past behind. Sadly, public interest in Doctor Who just isn’t going to let him.
Doctor Who fans are used to reticence from some of those who worked to the show to discuss it publicly. Tom Baker, Janet Fielding, Paul McGann and Peter Purves were among those who had long periods where they wouldn’t talk about the show. Script editors Andrew Cartmel and Eric Saward stayed similarly quiet for a long time. Eventually, they relented and opened up about their time on the show, often addressing the difficult circumstances which prevented them from talking freely about it before.
And for long term fans, Eccleston’s silence may feel like one of these temporary hiatuses, which will hopefully end one day and he’ll embrace discussing the show. It may not, but it seems to me like he’s going to be dogged by questions about his departure at every launch and talk and press conference until he opens up more fully. Seeking out an interviewer with a sober, balanced approach – probably from Doctor Who Magazine, I suspect – and telling his story in a controlled manner, may well be the only way to stem the tide.
Also on BBC 4, he said:
“I think I over pitched the comedy. If I had my time again I would do the comedy very differently. But I think, where I possibly succeeded was in the tortured stuff.”
I agree with him about “the tortured stuff”. He’s famous for it, he could be tortured for England. Of course he’s going to do that well. But I think the lighter side of his Doctor is also on display and Eccleston manages these nicely. In The End of the World, there’s the moment where he gives the various alien thrillseekers gathered to watch Earth’s fiery demise the gift of air from his lungs. There’s also when he grooves out to Soft Cell and when he warns Rose about the size of her phone bill. I’d say when he gets a comic moment to play, he plays it adeptly.
And throughout this first year, he’ll find various opportunities to crack that goofy grin and go for the laugh. Personally I’ve always liked the ‘passing the port’ routine in World War Three. And he’s funny chasing down Margaret Slitheen in Boom Town. And, as might be expected in a Steven Moffat script, he gets plenty of smart one liners in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. If he’s not as fed as many of these funny moments, it could be that the Doctor’s angst is one of this season’s key themes. What would have happened, I wonder, if he’d stayed for another year? Might there have been more of a chance to build on his Doctor’s sense of humour?
For me though, it’s not the mix of comedy and gravitas which makes the ninth Doctor stand out. All the Doctors have those qualities to various extents. What marks Eccleston’s Doctor as unique is his variation from the Doctorly norm. Think of the Doctors who followed him, Tennant and Smith. Each are much more traditionally Doctorly: charming, witty, leisurely charismatic. Eccleston though is the very opposite of frock coated familiarity. His leather jacket, short cropped hair, Northern accented Doctor feels like something new and dangerous. He fits no standard Doctorly type. He talks and dresses like a human but his opinions and reactions are alien. He’s like no Doctor before or since.
It’s this uniqueness which leaves us wanting more than one season of this Doctor, not how he played the comedy or the drama. And it’s also why we’d love to know more about why Eccleston didn’t want to stay on our favourite show. Us fans, we’re like nervous hosts and Doctor Who is like a grand house party we’re throwing. We hate to think anyone’s not having a good time, let alone our a-list guests.
“Everything has its time and everything dies,” the Doctor says in this episode. This proves as true for this incarnation as for the stretched canvas which is Lady Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker) or for the doomed Earth itself. One day perhaps, Eccleston might tell us why.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: The Adherents of the Repeated Meme and renamed “the Adherents of the Repeated Mean”. Which makes no sense of course when the Doctor says a repeated meme is just an idea. And the Moxx of Balhoon’s Bad Wolf scenario becomes a ‘bad move scenario’. Which, given this phrase’s importance in Series One, is unfortunate.
SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Or rather burn, when Jabe the Tree (Yasmin Bannerman) catches light.
LINK to Black Orchid. Both feature “Ladies”: Cranleigh and Cassandra.
NEXT TIME… Don’t turn your back, don’t look away and don’t Blink.