The Ninth Doctor – Nine Years On

The Ninth Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston in the first series of rebooted Doctor Who, broadcast in 2005.

After a long wait since the the series finished in 1989, and the false dawn of an American co-production in 1996, Doctor Who was back. Since the Doctor and Ace had walked into the sunset at the end of Survival, I had become a man, been to university, spent a year backpacking around Australia and eventually had to bite the bullet and get a job.

I haven’t watched the 2005 series since it was broadcast, and I only watched each episode once. The truth is, I didn’t really enjoy most of them, and in particular Christopher Eccleston’s performance as the Doctor. Hopefully anyone who has read my blog before knows that I’m not generally negative about my favourite television programme. I generally like to pick out the things that I do enjoy or think is interesting. To be fair some of the stuff I didn’t like in 2005 (in particular the Doctor rarely directly saving the day) were addressed in subsequent series.

Partly inspired by John Feetenby and Lawrence Sutcliffe’s excellent retrospective on this series on their Feexby Podcast last year; and partly because I want to explore just why I disliked the Ninth Doctor so much, I am re-visiting his short tenure on the ninth anniversary. I hope to find that I enjoy it more now, away from the immense hype and expectation, and with six further series and change of modern Doctor Who under my belt. We now also know a little of his immediate predecessor, an incarnation who informed so much of this personality.

I decided to finally buy the Series One box set. Happily  this also satisfied the niggling completist part of my brain too. I’m going to re-watch the thirteen episodes of the Eccleston-era with a fresh eye, and the benefit of nine years more age and wisdom.

Lance Parkin, in Enlightenment #121, reprinted in Time Unincorporated (2009, Mad Norwegian Press) says:

“This is an extraordinary piece of casting. Christopher Eccleston is a British actor known mainly for serious, gritty roles. It’s a bit like if JNT had cast a young Robert DeNiro to be the fifth Doctor in 1981. He’s relatively well known in the UK. Not a household name, perhaps, but certainly a heavyweight actor, someone who brings prestige to a production. He genuinely is a Shakespearean actor, rather than – as with pretty much every actor – someone who was once in a Shakespeare play.”

This was written before we’d seen the Ninth Doctor in action, and I think it sums something up for me. I really like the idea of Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor. Even reading about him subsequently I like the thought of him as an actor bringing his chops to bear on the part. It’s just actually watching him that I struggled to accept him as the Doctor.

I watched this BBC News interview with Christopher Eccleston on the Special Features section of Disc One. Eccleston makes a lot of good points, and I find myself agreeing with most of his decisions about playing the part. He has clearly put a great deal of thought into it. But he also makes it clear that he didn’t really watch the original series, and this comes through in the common misconceptions he indulges in, a sort of shared folk memory the public have that sets always wobbled. His assessment of the ‘problems’ of Doctor Who had been resolved by season twenty-five – i.e a Doctor without a regional accent, under-written female character and flightless Daleks.

He also talks about his dislike of associating heroism with Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England.” This, again, was no longer the case with the Seventh Doctor; Sylvester McCoy using his native Scottish burr in the part. But the advantage of RP was that it doesn’t pin the character down to one specific place, other than England. The Ninth Doctor very clearly has a broad Salford accent. I don’t know why it bothers me that an alien would have a specific regional accent, but not when they’ve got a generic English one, but I’m not a fan of the Scouse Vervoid either. The Tenth Doctor is a little bit Cockney, but nowhere near as Cockney as the Ninth is Manc. The Eleventh incarnation once again has no strong accent.

I don’t think I’ve got much of a chance with the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee fans…. I’m hoping that eight to ten year-old children will, I’ll be their first Doctor and they’ll love me the way they love Baker.”

He says that he’s not had the privilege of acting for children before, and speaks on Doctor Who Confidential about being excited by “a writer as intelligent and rigorous as Russell (T Davies) writing for children.” Although he says he hopes to draw in a family audience by appealing to children, I’ve wondered if part of my problem is that he pitches his performance at children more overtly than other actor to play the part. While no actor to take the part is aiming for my demographic (sophisticated, handsome, early thirties, lifelong Who geek), the other Doctors all appeal to me despite this.

Another thing I came away from the 2005 series with was the sense that this Doctor doesn’t have the crucial hero trait of making the viewer want to be him. He’s obnoxious to people for no good reason. The past Doctors were like this with villains, but this one just seemed to treat everyone except Rose fairly contemptuously. He’s a fairly unapproachable, swaggering alpha male.

My other impression the Ninth Doctor left me with when I watched him the first time was of an actor unable to capture the crucial eccentricity of the role. His idea of being an eccentric seemed to be grinning broadly. Subsequently I’ve read in books, like Charlie Higson’s The Beast of Babylon, what seems to me like an attempt to retcon Eccleston’s performance as a man trying to put a reassuring, friendly face on a battle-scarred warrior. I can’t reconcile with thethe performance myself, but I’m willing to give him another go.

I have strong memories associated with the episodes from the Ninth Doctor’s series, because of various things that were happening at this time. I changed jobs and came out of a long-term relationship. This has really crystallised each episode in my mind in a way that hasn’t happened with subsequent episodes. This may also have something to do with why I haven’t re-visited them.

So, those are my thoughts on this era before I start. I’ll probably end up completely changing my mind. Now to place the first disc in the player and watch Rose.

.

Order Time Unincorporated from Amazon:

Time, Unincorporated, Vol. 1: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives

On Kindle:

Time, Unincorporated 1: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives: (Vol. 1: Lance Parkin)

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