Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston on Why Now Is the Time for His Return

Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston on Why Now Is the Time for His Return
Photo: Big Finish

Christopher Eccleston transformed Doctor Who forever. Sixteen years ago, the actor — headlining a bold reboot of the beloved British sci-fi classic that had been off screens for nearly a decade — presented a tortured, compassionate take on a Time Traveller without a home. Then, as quickly as we met him, he vanished, transformed into a new person.

It took many moments of silence in the years since that departure before Eccleston would speak to the reasons why he would seemingly walk out of a role that he adored as much as a suddenly-charmed public did — from clashes with upper management on-set to the painful mental health issues he was confronting during filming. Whenever he was asked about a potential return now that his issues were out in the open, on his terms, the answer was always no.

Until now.

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Doctor Who fandom was shocked and delighted in equal measure last August over news that the Ninth Doctor would return, and it was Eccleston embodying him once more. This time, not on television, but in a series of audio dramas for long-term Doctor Who audio producer Big Finish called Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures. Now, just a month before fans will be able to hear his Doctor again, Eccleston is ready to talk about not just his return to the TARDIS, but his future hopes for his time inhabiting it.

“What convinces a bricklayer to build a wall? What convinces a plumber to plumb? What convinces you to do your job?” Eccleston said when asked of the reasons behind his long-awaited return while speaking to gathered press over the phone in-between recording sessions in February. “First of all, I know it’s not a fashionable thing to do because we’re all English, we don’t talk about these things, but I’m an actor and the way I pay my mortgage and support my children, Albert and Esme, is by acting. So, it’s paid work. First and foremost. It’s what I do my job for. Secondly, as I’ve always said, I have a great love for the character. I’ve always said that. And the quality of the scripts.”

But Eccleston also made it clear that, as much passion as he has for the character, his love of the medium his Doctor is returning in is just as strong. “I love audio drama. I do quite a lot for radio. I do audio books, and I get great creative satisfaction from that. Again, it’s because I’ve always been passionate about writing and writers,” Eccleston said of his choice to return for audio — and explicitly not on TV. “There are no visuals, you know? All you have is the word and your voice. And I felt I could do something with a character that I’ve played in a visual format. I felt I could do something, and explore it, technically, in a vocal sense, as well.”

It’s a love the actor has had since he was a child. “I was born in 1964 and one of the big moments of my life — we were all there, me, my mum, my dad, Alan and Keith, my identical twin brothers — there was a power cut in the ‘70s and it was very exciting to me, because my mum and dad lit candles put them in bottles, and we had a battery run radio and I — being a not particularly technical kid — I was like, ‘How is that working? It’s the only thing that’s working…’. Of course, it was running on a battery. My mum and dad tuned into a radio drama. It would have been on BBC 3 or 4 — I can’t remember what it was. But we were all transfixed. I would say we’d never listened to one before, and the candlelight and….just the audio and our imagination creating the pictures, it had a profound effect on me. I can remember exactly where I sat in our back room, so maybe the love was born there. I love audio drama. Love it.”

Eccleston’s transition from Doctor Who on the screen to Doctor Who on audio — albeit a decade and a half apart — was largely easy for the actor, thanks to the work from Big Finish’s scriptwriters. “I think writing something like a Doctor Who adventure is a huge challenge, because you have to introduce a great deal of science and technology — you have to do that with levity, you have to move the narrative forward with elegance and grace and ease — you have to refer to the history of the canon. You have to introduce new characters. There’s a great need for economy,” the actor said of Who’s unique narrative hurdles. “It’s much easier to write for the television than it is for audio and for radio — much, much easier, and I would be amazed if some of the adventures that I’ve recorded so far are not taken up by the visual medium. I’ve been so overjoyed by the strength of the writing.”

But it wasn’t all easy. An animated, passionate actor, Eccleston also had to balance his very physical portrayal of the Doctor in an environment where that’s not seen by an audience. “I’m often told to keep still. My Doctor was quite physical. And he remains that way. But that has to be constrained in an audio setting,” the actor said. But, unsurprisingly for a social creature like actors can be, Eccleston’s biggest challenge came in recording his work during a global pandemic, when, even in recording booths, he could not be together with fellow actors and directors. “One of the challenges for us all recording in lockdown and under covid regulations is that we don’t meet. So, there’s no socialising outside in the green room at lunchtime — which can create a relationship, when you relax with each other you get to know each other, and that comes into the studio,” Eccleston said. “Unfortunately, that’s not there. So we’re having to establish that down the line. People are recording under the stairs, in broom cupboards — I’m in a studio. We never see each other. It’s one of the challenges. But we’ve tried to make that a positive…but apart from that, it’s lonely. And I long for us all to be together.”

Hurdles aside, hearing Eccleston in action once more after all this time, it feels like little has changed. “I think it’s essential that the Doctor remains partly unknowable — which facilitates the fact that he can change his physical appearance. So, there is a familiarity in that he sounds like me and obviously, what the very brilliant writers have done, is they’ve listened very closely to the voice that was established way back in 2005, and picked up on that,” Eccleston said of re-finding his Doctor. “But his enigma, which I’m very keen to retain, remains, I would say. What is familiar is his lust for life, his insatiable curiosity, his energy, and his highly flirtatious nature.”

It’s that element that Eccleston actually finds most interesting to explore — after all, part of his arc on Doctor Who is, in some ways, a love story: a man turning his back on the universe to hide his great pain, coaxed back into a sense of life and love by spending time with a new friend in the form of Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper, who had her own Big Finish series). “The feminisation of Doctor Who, I would call it,” Eccleston noted of the Doctor’s opening up over the course of his single television season. “Russell T. Davies’ great strength was to really elevate the female in Doctor Who. I think Russell writes brilliantly for women.”

It’s something the actor finds again in audio — this time the Ninth Doctor may not have Rose by his side, but he does meet new companions like Jayne McKenna’s Audrey and Camilla Beeput’s Nova. “He’s very straight, isn’t he? [My] Doctor, he does not go in for manipulation, he does exactly what he says on the tin. And I think the most intelligent of human beings or apes, as he often refers to them, always respond well to that, particularly females,” Eccleston continued. “I think he has a lean-in towards the feminine, which is obviously illustrated towards his companions down the years. The emotional intelligence…he’s a sucker for emotional intelligence, and forgiveness and humanity in humans. And I think that’s demonstrated within a lot of the relationships throughout these wonderful adventures we’re recording.”

“So far, we’ve only had temporary assistants that he meets within the adventures, and that’s a very positive thing, for me, coming back to the character. It gives more room to explore him.” But the Ninth Doctor’s story is also one of loneliness, and it’s something The Ninth Doctor Adventures won’t shy away from. In fact, in teasing the return of a Doctor Who favourite — the Brigadier, previously played by the late Nicholas Courtney but in the audio adventures by impressionist John Culshaw — Eccleston noted the melancholy heart of his time in the TARDIS will still remain here. “I remember when I decided to play the Doctor, when I decided to put myself forward for the role, I thought ‘Time Lord, falling through time. What’s the essential element?’ The essential element is that he is never at home. He’s lonely. And I thought I could do that,” Eccleston said. “I think, alongside his joy, that must sit there, this longing for home, this longing for companionship which is never quite fulfilled. Which, in a way, is the human condition, isn’t it?”

Screenshot: BBC/Big Finish Screenshot: BBC/Big Finish

But that’s the Ninth Doctor’s past, thematically — and Eccleston’s not particulary interested in re-litigating that so much. His return is the chance for something new, even if couched in some familiar faces. “I just ignore it,” the actor says of the vast swathe of books, novels, and indeed even audio dramas that have added texture to the Ninth Doctor in the 16 years since he left screens. “And [the Doctor] does. We’ve just recorded an episode, for instance, where the Brigadier is saying to him ‘You remember? You came to my retirement party and then we ended up on Gallifrey.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t remember. No.’”

“An essential quality to him is he’s entirely in the moment — I think that feeds into this protean element of him, if that’s the right word, that he can become Peter Capaldi, he can become Jodie Whittaker, he can become Jon Pertwee. You know? Hopefully, he can’t become Boris Johnson! I don’t refer to any of that. My Doctor is very much in the moment. I’m not a slave to the canon. I think, if the show wants to survive going forward, it needs to explode the canon. That rigid adherence to ‘it can only be this number of incarnations’, etc. — it’s nonsense. Nonsense. The imagination is limitless.”

It’s clear listening to Eccleston talk about what he wants out of Doctor Who that limitless imagination applies to himself as much as it does his worldview of the show. When asked about what he would like to see further explored with The Ninth Doctor Adventures beyond what’s already being done, the actor leapt at the opportunity — evoking that “feminisation” of Doctor Who that his showrunner defined in those early days of 2005. “I think it’s time for the doctor to meet the Cyberwomen in the 21st Century. We’ve had enough Cybermen,” the actor joked, before diving into his who’s-who of potential historical figures for the Doctor to encounter.

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“I would very much like the Doctor to meet Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of the Derby winner and was one of the forerunners of the feminist movement — and a martyr for it. I think that would be extraordinary, for him to mix with Emily Davison, and Emmeline Pankhurst — and explore that. As I’ve said earlier, he’s very drawn to the feminine and I think that it’s great we now have a female Doctor — I think we should take that further in the way that we look at history, and look at it through a female lens. I think the Doctor would respond very well to that.”

That said, there is one aspect of his character’s past — a past that has been well-explored and re-litigated by the show itself in the years since his departure — that Eccleston would be interested in exploring on his own terms: Doctor Who’s infamous Time War, the conflict that created the Ninth Doctor’s lonely trauma.

“What’s been interesting — apart from the one we’re [recording] at the moment, the Doctor has been very light — and that’s been wonderful. I think I’ve been slightly known for the heaviness he carried, the guilt of the survivor, and the scars of that,” Eccleston said of potentially revisiting such a traumatic period for the character. “That was essential to the first series — I think that’s why they needed me, because I could bring some of that. And all the others before me could bring that [as well], it’s just that it had been so long, I think it needed a little bit of weight and credibility in a sense. I’ve done a lot of that with things like Our Friends in the North, and Cracker, and Let Him Have It. That was useful [for Doctor Who], and I think that’s for further down the line [at Big Finish]. At the moment, he’s free of his angst and questing, and enthusiastic, and comedic, and loving. But, who knows? Further down the line. If we want to go to a darker tone…that’s a possibility.”

Screenshot: BBC/Big Finish Screenshot: BBC/Big Finish

It’s that, really, listening to Eccleston talk about Doctor Who most of all, that shines through. What was once impossible to comprehended, to Eccleston or his legion of fans, is now very much possible: an association with his Doctor in the future and the possibility of stories to come. After all, that’s something very particular about a time-travelling hero. The past and the future are always in motion, always reachable to them, and now the Ninth Doctor is reaching out to that future.

He’s excited to be in that future, too. “I’ve always believed that the people who watch the show know who I am, and what it meant to me. And what I gave to it,” Eccleston said. “So, [returning] was very, very heartening and welcome and moving. And nice for my children, as well.”

Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures begins with Ravagers, a three-part box set due to release in May 2021.