In 2005, Doctor Who came back to the TV screens. Today, the series is an open book, but in the beginning, everything was very vague. Was this the same Doctor who had last been seen fighting the Master in San Francisco or was it a reboot of the classic series? It wasn’t until the Doctor picked up a Cybermen head from Revenge of the Cybermen and then met a Dalek that it became clearer… this was the same character with a new face. Even so, fans would have to wait until School Reunion to find out that the Doctor was from Gallifrey and in his tenth life cycle. In 2005, it was anyone’s guess.
This was partly down to the tone of the BBC Wales version of Doctor Who, which seemed inspired by the 1978 series known for its zany off-the-wall humor. The new Doctor was by far the most wildly spontaneous version of the character that we had seen to date, throwing himself into the deep end of danger without a second though. However, he was touched by tragedy as well, reluctant to take an active role in saving a life or civilization. Instead, he attempted to push those he met to helping themselves.
Actor Chris Eccleston was the most popular and successful actor to take on the role of the Doctor since Peter Davison back in 1980. It made a bold statement when he was announced over several other possibilities (including Sir Derek Jacobi and Bill Nighy). It made audiences sit up and take notice that this was a serious attempt to revive the program that once commanded the attention of millions. Interviewed at the time, Eccleston stated that he sought to bring the character down to Earth, as it were, by making him more colloquial and less grand and part of the old regime. He spoke of the importance of gaining the attention of children with good material and shouted praise of Russell T Davies to the hills.
Two series were crammed into one, putting a lot of pressure on the leading man who discovered that all of his noble intentions were lost behind farting aliens and a camp space pirate. Frustrated, he resigned and a newcomer named David Tennant was hired to take his place. Given that RTD had already worked with David who was a very devoted fan of Doctor Who, I cannot imagine that this was not planned early on.
Just as the British public was warming to this alien with a Northern accent dressed in as battered leather jacket, the BBC announced that Eccleston was leaving. Furious, the actor fought the press who painted him as an exhausted man overwhelmed by the demands of the role. Ever since, he has been reluctant to talk about his stint as Doctor Who and maintained that he has no wish to ever return. Recently, he gave what could be the most direct statement regarding his departure…
Via Guardian UK:
Speaking at an acting masterclass at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Wednesday, Eccleston reportedly revealed that it was on-set politics and principles that finally led him to resign. According to Bad Wilf, which has a transcript of the session, Eccleston said he left the show “because I could not get along with the senior people”.
“I left because of politics. I did not see eye to eye with them. I didn’t agree with the way things were being run. I didn’t like the culture that had grown up around the series. So I left, I felt, over a principle.”
It’s brought an end to a lot of speculation. Ever since Eccleston left the show in 2005 he has dropped several lukewarm hints that there was more to his experience as the Doctor than he was letting on – with fan assumptions being that the BBC either wasn’t happy with him or that Eccleston feared he might never regenerate from Doctor Who’s typecasting doom if he stayed longer. When asked recently whether he would return for the show’s 50th anniversary in 2013 (an episode rumoured to feature past Doctors such as David Tennant) he was clear: “No, never bathe in the same river twice.”
A shame, really. For Eccleston’s Doctor may have had many faults – looking like an EastEnders extra and bellowing “FANTASTIC!” at every opportunity being two of them – but he was merely a reflection of a show that, at the time, still didn’t know what it wanted to be. The first series of the revived Doctor Who – which featured farting aliens – was a world away from the intelligent, populist science-fiction we know it as now. But then, it is thanks to Eccleston that it got this far at all – a big, respectable name who laid the foundations for Tennant to swag away with the show.
At his worst, Eccleston was as cheesy as the lines that were written for him. “I think you need a doctor,” he once said, before kissing his companion, Rose. At his best, however – in Steven Moffat’s sinister two-parter The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, for example – he brought warmth, wit and promise. Yes, he didn’t really look right, but what he lacked in the Doctor’s trademark ‘quirk’ he made up for with a formidable presence.
He painted a picture of a man always on the run for fear of looking back – who had purged two mighty civilisations and was paying for it every day with his conscience. In essence, despite all the hype of a man who burns at the centre of time, Eccleston’s Doctor gave us something human. Given a second chance – or a second series – he could have given us a lot more.
Despite a promising headline, the article itself offers very little insight into why Eccleston left the program. At one point the story was that he had ‘always planned to be in one series only’ but that has since changed. What is interesting is that the article is followed by a slew of comments from readers praising him as the Doctor, something that rarely comes up in Doctor Who fandom more determined to deify his successor David Tennant. The Ninth Doctor was not perfect and his first series was far and away from the classic program, but it is interesting to see attention and praise heaped at his feet.
Of course that doesn’t mean that we’ll ever see him again as the Doctor, does it?