Despite the fact that his first audio drama in the role has been out for a few weeks now, it still feels kind of shocking to live in a world where Christopher Eccleston is back in the proverbial leather jacket as Doctor Who’s Ninth Doctor. But we indeed are, and it’s mostly fascinating: if only because it’s perhaps not quite the Ninth Doctor you could expect.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Ravagers is not so much three stories to mark Eccleston’s return to the world of Doctor Who since his dramatic exit from the series in 2005 as it is one wider plot told across three parts. They don’t all quite work so well — for all the energy it wants to hit the ground running with, hitting us en media res as Eccleston’s Doctor tries to stop a sinister gaming corporation with his new companion Nova (Camilla Beeput), opening tale Sphere of Freedom feels oddly slow. The second and third stories, Cataclysm and Food Fight, capture more of the kinetic speed that defined the revived Doctor Who’s storytelling in Eccleston’s TV tenure much more evocatively. They also play largely well with both expanding on what we missed out on in the actor’s short time on screen while feeling like they’d sit right at home with the likes of “The End of the World,” “The Long Game,” or “The Empty Child.”
There’s much more sci-fi space adventure compared to the earthbound stories of Eccleston’s sole TV season. There’s a big threat to time, pinging us about everywhere from the far future to ‘50s London, a sinister if slightly nebulous foil in evil capitalist Audrey (Jayne McKenna), playing less on the creature features we got on TV and with something more, for better or worse, that feels cribbed out some of the convoluted time-bending plots of Steven Moffat’s tenure as Who’s showrunner.
But to be honest, most Doctor Who fans are not coming to Ravagers for the plot. Sure, having one a bit better than the trio of stories’ messy, but serviceable time-bending adventure would make it an even more pleasurable listening experience than it already is, but even as is, the box set was always going to be a must-listen for fans of the series who grew up with the modern era of the show, introduced to this weird world of phone boxes and pepperpot fascists by a big-eared, big-grinned alien that sounded awfully lot like he was from Northern England (lots of planets have them, we’re told — norths, not Englands, thankfully). And that kind of listener is going to be rewarded; far and away the absolute highlight of Ravagers is not just how good it is to have Eccleston back as the Doctor, nor is it how quickly and comfortably it feels like the actor slips into a role he has not inhabited for over 15 years. Truly, it’s like he never left at times, an experience as alien as it is deeply touching. What makes Eccleston’s Doctor in Ravagers ultimately so fascinating, however, is neither of these things. It’s that for the most part, the Ninth Doctor in this series feels quite unlike what we’ve come to know him as. He’s… happy?
That’s not to say Eccleston’s tenure on TV was devoid of joy, but hyper-condensing the Ninth Doctor’s entire on-screen presence in the series into a single season all those years ago has, in a sense, warped our idea of who he was as a person, as an incarnation of this long-lived, ever-shifting Time Lord. We do it to all Doctors, past and present, boil them down to a few definable traits that make them not just the Doctor, but their Doctor. And Eccleston was the Sad One. He was the one defined by pain and trauma, shut off from the world around him even as he fought so hard to save it — harrowed by war and the loss of his people, maudlin, even bitter, at his survivor’s guilt. The tragedy of the Last Great Time War provided Eccleston’s solo series in the role with a mystery the show would fill in the gaps of long after he left, but it came to shape our very definition of his version of the character going forward. The Ninth Doctor wasn’t happy, he was tragic, and haunted, and so very compelling because of it.
There are elements of that here in Ravagers, but they’re kept brief, and to the sidelines for further exploration down the line. Instead, Eccleston primarily gives us a Doctor that is inherently, explosively gleeful. There’s a mania to his performance that was always there in his time on the show, but here it is the absolute of his turn, a glee that comes through as a hero that is incredibly compassionate, in awe of the wonders and danger around him, a Doctor that so very deeply feels, whether it’s anger at his foes, the speed of his wit, or the sheer joy he has to be doing what he does across time and space. At first, it might feel like too much of a nostalgia shock, to be confronted with a Ninth Doctor that is as joyful as Eccleston is here. But it just takes moments of light in the darkness of his character on television — his introduction to Rose, the iconic “Everybody lives!” of “The Empty Child,” the slapstick hijinks of “Boom Town,” and so many more — and brings them to the fore. It’s a reminder that what has made Eccleston so dearly missed in the series for all these years is that there was always so much potential with the Ninth Doctor that we never got to explore. Ravagers is proof of that, and that we’re well on the way to exploring it.
Eccleston’s charisma, as utterly delightful as it is to behold, does overshadow a lot of the other things in Ravagers. While it gives us the benefit of largely propelling us through an otherwise humdrum narrative arc, and can make much of its roughly two-and-a-half-hour runtime breeze on by, it means that other major characters we meet don’t quite get time to breathe or stand as their own people in comparison to the manic Doctor they’re flitting around the orbit of. While McKenna’s Audrey is a fine villain, this mostly affects Beeput as Nova. In part, it’s because the story does her little service in having her introduced and promptly waylaid, necessitating the Doctor’s rescue of her when things go wrong. Also in part, it’s because she perhaps unfairly has to be contrasted in our minds with this Doctor’s eventual relationship with Rose Tyler, at some point in his future. But even without those hurdles, Nova feels more like a generic template for a Doctor Who companion than an actual character of her own merit yet, and although there’s potential for growth there, it’s not quite on display in Ravagers, sitting in the shadow of Eccleston’s ebullient performance.
But as we said before, what doesn’t quite work with Ravagers is ultimately not going to matter to a lot of the Doctor Who fans who are interested in listening to it. The flaws aren’t even particularly fatal ones in spite of the set either, just issues that would otherwise render it a perfectly fine listening experience instead of a truly great one. What people wanted to work most with Ravagers was Eccleston, and not only does he work, he goes above and beyond to deliver not just the Doctor we knew and loved all those years ago, but a side of the character we only ever really got to see in moments and asides.
It’s wonderful. It’s refreshing. And yes, indeed, it’s a little bit fantastic.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Ravagers is available now.