Why Doctor Who Fandom Is Wrong About Christopher Eccleston

Mr Eccleston poses a problem to the Fandom Hive Mind (FHM from hereon – not to be confused with the magazine of the same name). He is a controversial figure amongst fans even over 10 years after he took on the role of the Doctor. Back in 2005, no one had any idea whether the show would be successful or not – it was all very uncertain. His Doctor was different to everything that had come before. Gone were the frock coats, big hair, and flamboyant dress. Gone too were the trappings of the establishment. He looked and sounded completely different from everything that had gone before and won the hearts of a new audience – all thanks to Eccleston’s performance.

But then he left. And apparently he left under a cloud. Despite looking from one angle like a piece of dedicated hard work in a role he fully embraced, from another it all looked very uncomfortable.

Back in July 2011, Eccleston gave a revealing interview during a master class at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London. It was perhaps the most revealing account he’d given of his departure from the show. Initially the BBC had announced that he was leaving to avoid being typecast which he had them retract. It wasn’t true.

The real reasons are still unclear, though this is what he had to say some six years after leaving…

“I thought to remain, which would have made me a lot of money and given me huge visibility, the price I would have had to pay, was to eat a lot of sh*t. I’m not being funny about that.… If you allow your desire to be successful and visible and financially secure. If you allow that, to make you throw shades on your parents, on your upbringing, then you’re knackered.”

He went on to say:

“You know, it’s easy to find a job when you’ve got no morals, you’ve got nothing to be compromised, you can go, ‘Yeah, yeah. That doesn’t matter. That director can bully that prop man and I won’t say anything about it’. But then when that director comes to you and says ‘I think you should play it like this’ you’ve surely got to go ‘How can I respect you, when you behave like that?’ So, that’s why I left. My face didn’t fit and I’m sure they were glad to see the back of me.”

Now, a lot has been written about how and why Eccleston left the series – in short it seems there was a disagreement and it brought up issues that Eccleston feels very strongly about. We don’t really know what happened but it seems from that particular interview, where he referred to his parents and upbringing, it may have been issues around social class – again it’s important to be clear where we’re speculating. None of us at the DWC were there and we don’t know Mr Eccleston personally, but one interpretation is that he felt a kind of class prejudice came up in the production team and that he couldn’t stay without compromising his integrity.

In a recent interview, Eccleston talked about this issue in the entertainment industry more generally. He said:

“In my experience, about 33 years in the industry, there has always been a class system… We have always given precedence to people with an RP accent and those from public schools. That’s always been the way this country has developed and the entertainment industry, particularly at this moment in time, is built to reflect that.”

By way of explanation for those from who may not be familiar: the British social class system probably has its roots somewhere in feudal systems of the Middle Ages, but in its current form, it was more or less invented by the Victorians (though don’t quote me – I’m far from being a social historian!). As a system, it groups people according to their wealth and power and is codified in dress, behaviour, and even accent. RP or “Received Pronunciation” is the Upper Class way of speaking you’ll hear from the Royals, some of the BBC (though less so), and the majority of British actors particularly in the earlier parts of the 20th Century. It’s posh, in short. And there are implicit (not very nice) value judgements often made by those that see themselves as belonging to one social class about those belonging to another. Obviously this isn’t unique to the UK and it’s something many of us are trying to get rid of – it’s an old way of thinking and like many traditions, it’s tenacious.

Something that’s important to note is when Eccleston deliberately played the Doctor with a Northern accent, he changed everything. In the Classic era, the Doctor had spoken more-or-less with RP. And it’s not being too out there to suggest that the Classic character had some of his origins in the Victorian concept of the Gentleman Scientist. And from the very little social history I do know, the concept of a Gentleman in the UK was linked to social class, wealth, and power. 21st Century Britain has come a long way since the Victorian era but class prejudice undeniably persists (though probably in a more subtle form).

Indeed, similar issues around class and power in the military and Britain’s Imperialist past featured in the Series 8 relationship between Danny and the Twelfth Doctor. The Doctor (in Danny’s eyes) as an Officer rather than a soldier…

When the Ninth Doctor arrived and spoke like a normal person, it was noticed – and was even name-checked in the show by way of acknowledgement: “Lots of planets have a North”. For the first time, the Doctor didn’t sound like the establishment and the most powerful people in British society. Again, while my accent (occasionally “pirate-farmer”, I’m told) isn’t Northern, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that Eccleston’s portrayal may have made the character more accessible to people who otherwise might have felt excluded by an alien speaking as though he lived in a wealthy part of London. This is by way of saying that Eccleston is not wrong: there are issues to be addressed, and his views and values reflect something important about British society.

The Eccleston Problem

Christopher Eccleston has a bit of a reputation for being serious – if not “prickly” – in interviews. It probably didn’t help that he hung up on the reporter when she asks about Doctor Who (despite the journalist being warned not to).

And just to be clear, it is easy to imagine what he is not telling us and what he may have thought and felt on the set of Doctor Who. It’s far too easy – particularly when one is tempted to piece together events from what we do know. But we need to be careful. We of the FHM are all at risk of reading things in a way that serves whatever view we may already have settled on. And despite the way ‘celebrity’ works and how the media is known to elevate or depose people depending on where they can get or create a story, that isn’t fair.

On a personal level, when we hear about him distancing himself from Doctor Who there is a temptation to think (or rather feel), “fine, sod off!” We love Doctor Who and there’s a temptation as a fan to take the discord between Eccleston and the production team of 2005 to heart. His reluctance to have any official involvement since then, particularly his decision not to appear in the 50th anniversary, can potentially leave a bruise on the fan-soul.

However, I do think people’s demands for him to attend conventions, give interviews, and jump at the whim of the FHM are, frankly, ridiculous. It doesn’t even bear discussing. Regardless of the fact that the part was not a high-profile guarantee of success and exposure in 2005, he’s not obliged to do anything that wasn’t in his contract. While there might be a debate to be had about celebrities who rely on and court press attention, Eccleston has never done that. The industry is driven by profit and people do not lose rights or take on new obligations because they have embarked on a career as an entertainer. It would be nice if they did the extra crowd-pleasing stuff but we choose whether we do paid or unpaid overtime on our jobs. Nothing more to say.

So he left. And he hasn’t come back (except perhaps in one small and very personal way that I’ll mention later). Since his departure, the FHM has speculated vigorously about when and how he might return and hoped with all its heaving, bubbling grey-matter that he’d put in an appearance in The Day of the Doctor. There aren’t many television programmes that can boast five decades of longevity and it can leave a particularly bitter taste in the mouth when someone who brought so many people to the show didn’t want to return.

So the problem for the Fan Hive Mind is this. Unlike Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi, he’s neither a Who fan like us, nor is he someone who readily indulges in the behind the scenes crowd-pleasing. The FHM is left thinking, “what are we supposed to think” and, more importantly, “what are we supposed to FEEL about the man behind the Ninth Doctor?!”

This might be all the more pertinent to our fannish dispositions when so many of us could be reliably described as “geeks”. Geeks are used to having their enthusiasm for what others see as escapism (it is, of course, far, far more than that) ridiculed or scoffed at. The FHM might wonder whether Eccleston is distancing himself from the geekiness.

The Eccleston Problem: A Solution?

So, when struggling with The Eccleston Problem, it might be helpful to bear in mind the following. While he’s not turned up at conventions to woo the masses, or donned the leather jacket to further the on-screen adventures of his Doctor, he has engaged with fandom in smaller, more impromptu ways.

In an interview with the Guardian back in 2011, he talked about young children who are fans of Doctor Who that meet him in public,

“Usually they don’t say much – it’s quite overwhelming for them to meet Doctor Who. One little boy just burst into tears. His mum said to me: ‘Will you say hello?’ I did, and he burst into tears – and I understand it, that confusion about what’s real. Long may it last.”

That, to me, reveals an actor with a very nuanced view of his craft who completely understands what Doctor Who is and should be, regardless of whether he’s a fan or not. And however “prickly” he may come across in other interviews there’s something remarkably kind there.

When asked yet again in 2012 about his reasons for leaving, he, yet again, declined to give any names or specifics, but he did say that, “I’m hugely grateful to the children who to this day come up and talk to me about the show.”

In 2014, Eccleston assumed the mantle of Ninth Doctor once more, showing incredible good humour and understanding of how much the show can mean to individuals where he helped with a fan’s wedding proposal.

And while he didn’t get directly involved with the 50th anniversary, he did send a message to the BFI screening of the Ninth Doctor episode screened as part of their celebratory season. The episode chosen was the finale two-parter, Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways, directed by Joe Ahearne. The message read:

“I love the BFI. I love the Doctor and hope you enjoy this presentation. Joe Ahearne directed five of the 13 episodes of the first series. He understood the tone the show needed completely – strong, bold, pacy visuals coupled with wit, warmth, and a twinkle in the performances, missus.

“If Joe agrees to direct the 100th anniversary special, I will bring my sonic and a stair-lift and – providing the Daleks don’t bring theirs – I, the Ninth Doctor, vow to save the universe and all you apes in it.”

So there we are. At least publicly – and in fairness, that’s all we are and should be privy to – Eccleston is affectionate and considerate towards Doctor Who, albeit from a distance.

Regarding The Eccleston Problem and the frustration or even anger some of the FHM has felt towards him: it’s a strange thing, feeling cross with a star for not being or doing who or what you want them to. But that is the nature of celebrity. We always see people through the prism of the media, editing, spin, and how various agendas put together a persona for public consumption. And that can be tough. While there are harder, riskier, and more morally upstanding jobs than the entertainment industry, it’s still a peculiarly nasty working environment where you are pressured to use your face and even personality as a marketable commodity.

At the end of the day we don’t know what went down in 2005 – and whether it was a truly awful piece of bullying where Eccleston has conducted himself with integrity and refused to name names, or whether he has some kind of chip on his shoulder – we don’t know. And nor should we. It is, frankly, none of our business. What we choose to believe about him is up to us but it should be said that this chap, for all his perceived prickliness and seriousness, has been very kind and has done something increasingly rare in today’s media.

He’s refused to sell a story for the publicity.

At the end of the day, like the Doctor, Eccleston is just a bloke, passing through and helping out. He has a craft and he has values. What we make of him and his distance from Doctor Who is up to us. But it’s important to also recognise it as a distance from the media storm that the press would love to create from whatever disagreement happened 10 years ago. Whatever the Fan Hive Mind makes of Mr Eccleston, we know he’s been kind and we know he’s got integrity. And for a time back in 2005, he rocked a leather jacket like very few of us apes can.

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in February 2015.)