I’ve loved Christopher Eccleston for years.
I loved him in Shallow Grave, where he played an unhinged Scot who drilled holes in the attic floor. I loved his brief, disconnected cameo in The Others, and his turn as sadistic Major Henry West in 28 Days Later. His performance in The Second Coming was a literal revelation. I even love him in Gone In Sixty Seconds, in which he makes the most of a dog’s breakfast as Raymond Calitri, a crime boss who gets to stick Nicholas Cage in a car crusher – which is something I think we’ve all wanted to do for years, or at least since 8MM. Calitri eventually falls to his death, but his best scene occurs earlier in the film, during an angry confrontation with Cage: “Am I an a***hole?” he asks directly. “Do I look like an a***hole?” (Cage’s response is a quiet “Yeah.”)
So let me repeat that disclaimer: I love Eccleston. He’s a talented actor and, if the rumours about his on-set conduct are to be believed, a man of great integrity. But I could never get used to him as the Doctor.
These things are always going to be relatively subjective. Everyone has their own ideas of what the Doctor ought to be, and what he isn’t, and what he… never won’t be… sort of thing. And I suppose that my Doctor is always going to be BBC English (all right David, I’ll settle for Estuary), with fashion sense that dallies between elegant and eccentric. Eccleston’s minimalist look is (purposely) as stripped back as his Doctor, and similarly direct. And it seems strange to me that I should find it as foreign as the idea of Shaggy wearing a business suit. All this is accompanied by remarks about “beans on toast” (a line I cannot hear in the mouths of any other Doctor, except perhaps the Sixth, in the same manner that he delivers the words “carrot juice?!?”). It all seems – and forgive me for this dreadful snobbery – it all seems a bit too working class. I know that’s the point, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It’s not the accent. I don’t think accent in itself is the problem, because I have no issue with Capaldi’s Glaswegian twang, even if I occasionally have to turn on the subtitles to make out what he’s saying above Murray Gold’s frankly intrusive score. It’s no problem having a Doctor who’s not from around here, although I think I was probably one of many people who was hoping that the Twelfth Doctor would use the words “Lots of planets have a Scotland” at some point in Deep Breath. (As it stands, we had the encounter in the alley, arguably more famous for being the first example of eyebrow fetish – and that regrettable scene with Vastra, in which Capaldi almost appears to be acting in a docudrama about Alzheimer’s.)
I watched Rose again recently with my six-year-old, and it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether we’ve been more forgiving of that opening episode – of the series in general – than we would have been if it was in the middle of a Doctor’s run. How many of the shortcomings went unnoticed simply because it was Doctor Who, and it was back? Does it matter? I’d suggest it probably doesn’t, except when you line up all the Doctors in a row, whereupon Eccleston is the one that always sticks out like a sore thumb.
A friend of mine describes Vincent and the Doctor as “a good episode of something”, and in many ways he’s right: part of its charm lies in the fact that it’s relatively atypical. Similarly, Davies rewrote the rulebook in 2005 when he resurrected the show by effectively rebooting it. But it’s a trend that he and his successor spent the next ten years gradually undoing, and what we have now is a show that glorifies in its past, revisiting and rewriting it on a whim. And I wonder if the fact that the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors take obvious cues from previous Doctors – in a way that the first casting did not – has skewed my appraisal of the Ninth. In other words, to what extent is a failure to accept Eccleston a reflection of what’s come since, as much as what came before?
But there’s more to it than that. Not long before the 50th anniversary episode, I created (purely as a lark) a series of tables that charted the average effectiveness of each New Who Doctor when it came to dealing with the end-of-episode threats that he faced, at least when compared to any companions or supporting characters who wound up doing most of the work for him. In many ways the data is flawed, because he gets only one series in which to prove himself, but it should be no great surprise that the Ninth Doctor sits at the bottom of the list. He’s rubbish.
It is his incompetence, indeed, which forms much of that first arc. That first batch of episodes is to all intents and purposes about the Doctor learning to be the Doctor again. The central concept was that of empowering the companions so that they are no longer screaming girls, and it is the Time Lord himself who is forced to diminish in order for this to happen. (When Rose admonishes the Doctor after their encounter with the Nestene in the series opener, proclaiming that he was “useless in there”, it more or less sets the tone.)
A brief analysis of that first series reveals a game of two halves. It’s all building up to Dalek – a good story, although the Big Finish drama upon which it is based is better. The finale of Dalek has the Doctor actively confront the monstrosity from Skaro, wielding the sort of gun you’d normally expect to handled by the likes of Jack (you almost expect Tennant to pop his head round the corner, raise an eyebrow and remark “Compensating for something?”). It’s a powerful moment, although anyone who seriously thinks it’s dramatically out of character clearly wasn’t watching the programme in the ’80s.
After Dalek – which I’ve always described as the Emperor’s Throne Room moment, given that it’s the point at which the central character comes close to losing the plot – Eccleston’s touch noticeably lightens. There is less brooding. At the end of The Doctor Dances he is boogieing around the TARDIS to the strains of Glenn Miller. But he still seems off somehow. The finale to that episode sees the Doctor fix the zombified patients simply by waving his hands. There’s excessive arm-folding. The ‘ape’ jokes are borderline offensive. It’s partly the scripts, but he feels like someone playing the part in a pantomime.
Then there’s a moment in Parting of the Ways where it clicks. It’s a small scene, in which the Doctor is on the floor of Satellite 5, assembling things out of cables and bits of circuits and chatting quietly with Rose. I like it because all of a sudden it feels right. I like it because, for just about the first and only time that series, Eccleston ceases to be the actor trying to play the Doctor, and actually becomes the Doctor.
And then a few minutes later, he regenerates.
Seriously. What an a***hole.