The Ninth Doctor. Only a few years ago, they were words we would never hear – we thought. And then we got two! Seriously though, the return of Doctor Who has been analysed immensely, with all sorts of opinions based on fact, fancy, and fish written across the media and Internet. But one thing is constant throughout the discourse and readings of the first 13 episodes of 21st Century Who. Christopher Eccleston made the character cool again.
While it was Russell T. Davies who was credited with bringing the show back and making it a success, it simply wouldn’t have worked with a lead character locked into the traditional “period costume and eccentric traits” pattern that had developed throughout the show’s history, only to be soundly abused in the 1980s.
It took an actor of considerable reputation to be able to come to the new Doctor Who, adding his own interpretation of otherworldly detachment to the back-story of being the sole survivor of the Last Great Time War. Much of the performance was grounded in Eccleston’s previous work with Davies, ITV’s The Second Coming, which was a big drama success in 2003. The parallels are obvious – he has to persuade his friends that he is something fantastic, plan how to save the world, and then sacrifice himself to save it. (You could also point out the irony of the title, but that really would be twee.)
Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was a man of pain, a man who had been through the greatest trials of all of his lives: watching Gallifrey burn. Or at least he thought he did. Eccleston’s natural ability as an actor allowed the Ninth Doctor to be a truly commanding figure, taking charge of situations throughout time but most notably in 10 Downing Street in Aliens of London/ World War Three. Upon hearing screams, he quickly takes charge of the soldiers posted there who accept him immediately, even though moments before he was their prisoner.
He is the same man underneath, however. This is all made clear early on – he faces the Nestene Consciousness in Rose, and knows all about the species. It was Russell T. Davies who made it obvious that he was the same man who faced the Master in San Francisco in 1999. While some contemporary groups of fans decided that he couldn’t possibly be the Doctor in that costume, with that accent, that he had stolen the TARDIS and was the Master posing as the Doctor, the general public took to this incarnation of the Doctor arguably like no other since 1974.
The Ninth Doctor doesn’t get into his stride until The Long Game. This is a strange point to make, but one which stands up through repeat viewing of the series. It is hard to tell, however, whether it actually is Eccleston coming to terms with the character, or the Doctor finally feeling at home in this incarnation. One thing is for sure; the whole series seems tighter in the second half, and this is in no small part to the actor.
And yes, he did have his own quirks… but they weren’t covered in question mark motifs. His revelation of a love of Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead was another sign that this man still had hidden depths after 40 years. His choice of jumpers was occasional and almost non-existent, but there was much more to him. His steely resolve, refusal to be beaten, and his hitherto unseen utter contempt for the Daleks painted a picture of not a whimsical wanderer in time and space but a man who had lost everything that he held as sacred.
When we first met the Ninth Doctor, he is alone. He’s been wandering, he catches sight of the Nestene Consciousness operating in London, and intervenes. Why? The same reason that he intervenes when he believes he has a chance to save the Gelth. He is responsible. Not only as a Time Lord, not only because he is the Doctor, but because he feels a large amount of responsibility. The Time War affected both of these alien entities. Their presence on Earth isn’t met with immediate defiance: he gives both of them a chance, just as he does Margaret Slitheen. Thanks to Rose, he even gives the “last Dalek” a chance!
Unlike any previous incarnation, the Ninth Doctor is remembered for his reliance on his companion. You always got the feeling that previous Doctors were taking companions to educate them – but this Doctor was lonely too. Much of his character was shaped by the Time War, including the need for a companion like Ms Tyler. His second companion, Captain Jack Harkness, could never have worked at the beginning of the series, when the Doctor was in need of a companion to basically show him what it meant to be human.
The Ninth Doctor may well turn out to be the most significant incarnation of the Doctor yet. His impact had to be massive in order for the show to make an impression; the BBC publicity machine looked after that. All of a sudden, children across the country were once more scared of plastic, Daleks, and monsters, just as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. They knew that the Doctor was the hero, that he could stop the monsters, and that he and Rose would do so together, hand in hand.
You’re 8 years old. You know other actors have played the Doctor. But you don’t know how this is important. Someone tells you that the actor playing the Doctor is leaving the show. You guess that your new favourite show is about to come to an end.
There were a number of moments in The Parting of the Ways in which the Doctor could have been killed. But what is significant is that, despite the fact that we sadly all knew what was coming – and imagine the shock if we hadn’t known that the Ninth Doctor’s time was up! – the Doctor really only cares for Rose. He doesn’t hate or ignore or respect any less Captain Jack or his new friends on Satellite 5, such as Lynda with a Y. But he sends Rose home. Having thought her dead twice in the previous 13 weeks, he isn’t going to let it be third time lucky for the grim reaper. But with the departure of Rose, we see the departure of the Doctor’s resolve. Sending her back in time, back home, doesn’t only save her. It condemns him.
The Ninth Doctor cannot deal with an army of Daleks without the knowledge that the Time Lords are lurking in the background, watching and waiting to step in, should he fail. His only way of defeating the Daleks is via an all-consuming delta-wave.
Whether or not the Doctor should have sacrificed himself for all of humanity or just Rose Tyler is another matter entirely. If we measure this in terms of comprehension, however, saving the woman you love (and it seems the Ninth Doctor did love Rose Tyler) seems to be dramatically superior to laying down your life to save everyone on Earth.
No previous Doctor – with the exception of the Eighth – could have made the sacrifice for a human that the Ninth Doctor made. No previous Doctor would have made the “have a good life” speech. But most importantly, no previous Doctor was made to feel so alive by his companion. Rose saved the Doctor from the Daleks in an intimate way, looking into the heart of the TARDIS. In turn, he saved her with a kiss.
The Ninth Doctor was with us for 10 stories, 6 novels, and a few Doctor Who Magazine strips. Yet there is still so much more to say about him. He was cool, he was hard, he was ruthless and had that irresponsible streak where he courted danger. He was also a hero, a new interpretation of a classic character, and he most certainly will not be forgotten.
He really was fantastic.
(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in February 2006.)