Following on somewhat from my last post (don’t worry if you haven’t read it, but you can find it here if you want to), allow me to discuss the latest announcement for Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary, and why it’s not actually that much of a big deal. Since my last post, the BBC have announced that:
“Chris [Eccleston] met with Steven Moffat a couple of times to talk about Steven’s plans for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode. After careful thought, Chris decided not to be in the episode. He wishes the team all the best.”
The main reason this isn’t a big deal, it has to be said, is that it’s hardly surprising. Since his departure Christopher Eccleston hasn’t always had the best of things to say about those he worked with (even though most have now also moved on), and like any actor taking any role, to him Doctor Who was just a job. The most high profile and prolific perhaps, but even enthusiastic fandom can’t compete with his statement that “it’s more important to be your own man than be successful”.
More than this however, Eccleston didn’t quite achieve the popularity of his immediate successor David Tennant, who will be returning, therefore placating the majority who provide the over-enthusiasm in the first place.
Without knowing the story of the forthcoming anniversary, it has to be said that despite Tom Baker’s decision to not take part in the 20th anniversary special, “The Five Doctors” suffered mainly from the producers’ use of old unbroadcast footage. Explained elsewhere as being caught in the Time Vortex, the lack of the Doctor and Romana appearing throughout the main narrative actually helped the four remaining Doctors and their companions to get a more even share of the congested screentime. Unlike Tom Baker however, Eccleston’s relationship with Doctor Who is somewhat unique.
Whilst I’m young enough to have to rely on the judgement of history to assess all the previous Doctors’ careers, it would seem as though many have since been typecast, their names synonymous with the Doctor. While David Tennant and Matt Smith haven’t had enough time to carve out careers of their own, Worzel Gummidge and All Creatures Great and Small may still be recognisable names to a certain degree, but even without the revival would hardly be fighting for the spotlight. I’m also sure that many of the younger generation who saw Sylvester McCoy’s appearance in The Hobbit films will now be wanting to see his portrayal of the Doctor (and this is nothing but a good thing).
At least to those of us who didn’t grow up with Doctor Who the first time round, Eccleston, and to a certain degree Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, has a somewhat unique relationship to Doctor Who, in that typecasting doesn’t necessarily apply, and not just because of limited screen time.
Eccleston has appeared in a variety of films, and has gone from being directed by the likes of David Cronenberg in eXistenZ, and Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later, to starring in Gone in 60 Seconds alongside Nicolas Cage, and even this summer’s Marvel offering of Thor: The Dark World. And this is not to mention his TV work, from the regional Our Friends in the North to the international Heroes, with even an episode of The League of Gentlemen somewhere in between.
Although perhaps not as recognisable abroad (not even as the Doctor) McGann has supplemented his roles in films like Withnail and I and Alien3 by consistently making guest appearances in TV shows such as Hornblower, Jonathan Creek, and more recently, Ripper Street.
Although it’s fair to say that Eccleston’s single series as the Doctor also played a part in his not being typecast, it’s more to do with its content, rather than short length. Despite achieving the great leap forward of bringing Doctor Who back to our screens, it also took a few steps back in terms of creativity. Pilot episode ‘Rose’ made the right choice of not confusing an uninitiated audience with concepts such as regeneration, which was one mistake made by the US co-produced one-off special starring McGann, but season 1 as a whole began its new slate by simultaneously changing, ignoring, and following on from what made Classic-Who a classic.
Although it did tread new ground with the development of Rose and the Doctor/Companion relationship, this was still just extending the footprints already started by the Doctor and Ace back in the 80’s.
Like Ace, Rose was a London teenager with little direction in life, but with the courage to stand by and protect those she cared about (apart from her boyfriend Mickey at least, but TV’s view of miscegenation is best saved for another post).
Also unlike other companions who left their previous lives to have countless adventures, the Doctor formed a closer bond with both Ace and Rose, and often took them to times and places which left little separation between their former, and current adventurous lives. Just as Rose kept flitting between some of time and space, and contemporary Britain, Ace held her baby mother in her arms, and was taken to a stately home back in the days before she had burned it down.
This is not to say the concept of a new Doctor having just committed genocide in order to end the last great time war wasn’t new, but again carried on from McCoy’s darker portrayal of the Doctor. Indeed, it fit so well, that many seemed to believe the BBC had selectively forgotten about McGann’s incarnation, and that it could just as easily have been McCoy’s seventh Doctor who had (supposedly) destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks, considering he showed no hesitation in destroying the Dalek home planet of Skaro in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’.
Perhaps the biggest change brought about however, was its structure. At least partly to appeal more to international markets (by following US conventions), Doctor Who left the four 25 minute episode serials behind, and adopted the series structure of thirteen 45 minute episodes. Despite a greater number of individual stories, Bad Wolf and the “Adherents of the Repeated meme” notwithstanding, Eccleston’s season 1 offered surprisingly little variety.
All of the 13 episodes took place either on or in orbit of the Earth, and all but one of those set in the past or present took place in British Capitals. Episodes such as ‘Dalek’ and ‘Father’s Day’ proved that the show still had what it takes to be top quality drama, but the series overall suffered for being too cautious with what makes Doctor Who, Doctor Who: “adventures in time and space”.
Had Ecclestone given Doctor Who more continuity by not departing at the end of season 1, surely it would be remembered as less of an individual step of the show’s constant evolution. Although every new show has to find it’s place, you only have to compare most pilots with the rest of their series to figure this one out, it seems a shame that New-Who did so with more of a safe crawl, leaving it to season 2 to properly find it’s rightful footsteps amongst the universe.
As exciting as it would have been to see the Ninth Doctor gracing Television screens again, it seems that with a level head Eccleston has chosen to leave his individual chapter of Doctor Who‘s 50 year history as it is, and at least won’t be returning just for the sake of it.
Steven Moffat has already stated that the anniversary “has got some serious fanboy-pleasing going on in it“, which to my mind sounds reminiscent of the ‘so too good to be true I’m afraid it’s actually ridiculous’ alliance of “The Pandorica Opens”, which was one of those ideas that sounds great on paper, but doesn’t necessarily work on screen.
All in all, season 1 of New-Who, the only time Eccleston is seen on-screen as the ninth Doctor, is something of an anomaly; hardly something to be embarrassed about, but at the same time something that is perhaps not indispensable either, and I doubt the 50th anniversary will suffer too much from Eccleston’s absence.