Being granted an interview with Christopher Eccleston would always be a big deal; for a Doctor Who fan who was introduced to the show through the Ninth Doctor, however, it’s doubly so. It’s fair to say that, without Eccleston (alongside many others, notably former showrunner Russell T Davies and ex-producers, Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson), the Doctor Who Companion website wouldn’t be here.
But everything is a big deal when it comes to Eccleston and Doctor Who. Rightly so. Every time he appears at conventions, it’s huge news. Whenever someone thinks about the show’s heady comeback in 2005, Christopher’s smiling face is an intrinsic part of those memories. His return to the role of the Doctor for audio company, Big Finish was a massive revelation, something that many fans hoped would happen but something which seemed unlikely.
It was for Big Finish that Eccleston was talking to media outlets now, ahead of the release of The Ninth Doctor Adventures: Ravagers in May 2021.
Restrictions imposed by lockdown actually proved a boon, though: no, these interviews couldn’t be face-to-face, but we could talk in between his recording for further boxsets. It gave us an intimate feeling, as if gaining brief access to the inner sanctum of Big Finish. Indeed, Chris seemed very at ease, seemingly fresh from a lunch break and raring to go. The atmosphere was warm. When I tell him it’s great to talk to him, it’s 14-year-old me talking, and this big kid is heartened to hear him reciprocate.
Eccleston appears a natural actor, at home when performing, when immersing himself in another character, another world. Naturally, I wonder how far this extends, how flexible the scripts are for these new audio adventures. Was he keen to offer notes and tweak the scripts like some of his predecessors (Tom Baker being the best-known example of this)?
“No, I’ve never been an actor who ‘notes’ writers, never – I don’t believe [in it]. If there’s a script I don’t like, if there’s writing I don’t like, I just don’t take part,” Chris says. “I was trained in the Seventies and Eighties by absorbing the very high standard of television writing for British television, and then I went to drama school and I trained myself on Shakespeare and [Henrik] Ibsen and [Johan August] Strindberg, and a central thing of my training is honouring the writer, protecting the writer.
“And what I find with writers is, unlike some directors, they have huge respect for the intelligence of their audience: they know that an audience is highly sophisticated, far brighter than us television programme makers, and they never write down; they always write up,” he continues. “And I feel like within the [Big Finish] module, there’s a great deal of conversation between – there’s the central hub, the team, and they draw the writers together, so there’s a consistency in the writing of the Ninth Doctor’s voice. But there’s also that great thing that you get from episode to episode where he’s stretched somewhat by the individual writer that keeps it fresh – both in the television series and in the audios – for the actor playing it. Because he is every one of us, I think. He belongs to everybody within that creative process. And that shape-shifting element to his persona is lovely.”
All three stories in Ravagers are written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, creative director for Big Finish Productions (although we’re teased with many other writers for subsequent sets).
Of course, Eccleston and Briggs worked together when filming Doctor Who Series 1, with Briggs on set to provide the voices of the Daleks in Dalek and Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways.
Looking back, then, are there any stories from 2005 Ecceston would like to do again, to remake on audio?
“I wouldn’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t remake; I think the beauty of this for me is to make the audio things and not to refer back. I don’t think we need [to] – the strength of the writing that Big Finish have means that we don’t have to refer to the television series and I don’t want to revisit all that. It stands; those 13 episodes stand, for good or for bad, and if I were one of the people at Big Finish, I wouldn’t brief a writer like ‘let’s take x, y, or z and redo it’ – No, let’s create something entirely new.”
That’s definitely what’s whetting the appetite of Doctor Who fans, the chance to spend more time with the Ninth Doctor and see him approach new situations. It has, after all, been some 16 years since we last saw this incarnation (although footage is sometimes reused, i.e. The Day of the Doctor steals a brief moment from The Parting of the Ways).
In that time, Eccleston has done a wealth of productions – The Shadow Line, The Borrowers, Thor: The Dark World, Safe House, The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, and many more – but are there any he thinks would translate well to audio? After all, Big Finish doesn’t solely do Doctor Who: the company’s other work includes The Picture of Dorian Grey, Sherlock Holmes, and Shakespeare.
“Well, I’m not finished with Macbeth,” he enthuses. “I did 119 performances of Macbeth; I want very much to revisit that on the stage in London in a much smaller, more script-based, intimate, stripped-back production. I really want to do that on stage, and I will go back to it; I’m not finished with Macbeth. And I would very much like to do Macbeth with Big Finish. There’s a couple of Shakespeares I’d like to do – Richard the Third, Coriolanus, Shylock in Merchant of Venice.”
I suggest The A Word too. The series, in which he plays Maurice Scott, whose grandson is diagnosed with autism. The BBC show is a huge success and a spin-off is even in the works. But could it work without the audience seeing those stunning Lake District vistas? “I think A Word would work wonderfully with that central notion of autism and communication and failure to communicate; I think that would translate great to audio!” he says. “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of other stuff. But I think that communication element to The A Word and of course the richness.”
His love for the Bard quickly draws him back, as he continues: “And you can be very psychologically precise with Shakespeare and strip back what you sometimes get, which is directorial overload, of gimmickry and stuff, and it’d be nice to take all that back.”
Although time is short, it feels like we’ve covered a lot already, and Eccleston’s passion for great storytelling really shines through. Nonetheless, he’ll soon be ushered back to the recording booth. That afternoon, it sounds like he’s about to record the fourth volume of The Ninth Doctor Adventures, which, it has since been revealed, will feature Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier.
It sounds like things could get heavier for the Doctor again, so now I wonder what part the Time War plays in these upcoming Big Finish productions. It’s been expanded upon a lot since Eccleston left Doctor Who, so would Chris like to expand on that more, or would he prefer to be cast free from those shackles and explore the more fun side of the Doctor?
“Well, yeah, what’s been interesting, apart from I think the one we’re doing at the moment, the Doctor has been very light and that’s been wonderful,” Chris concludes. “I think probably I’m slightly known for the heaviness. He carried the guilt of the survivor and the scars of that. I think that was essential to the first series; I think that’s why they needed me – because I could bring some of that. And all the actors before me could bring that; it’s just that because it’d be quiet for so long, I think it needed a little bit of weight and credibility in a sense. And I’d done a lot of that with things like Our Friends in the North and Cracker and [playing] Derek Bentley [in] Let Him Have It, Shallow Grave… So that was useful.
“And I think as for possibly further down the line, at the moment he’s free of his angst, and [he’s] questing, and enthusiastic, and comedic, and loving, but who knows, further down the line, if we want to go to a darker tone, that’s a possibility.”
To think we’ve gone all this time without saying the one word the Ninth Doctor is most associated with. Nevertheless, chatting to Christopher Eccleston has been fantastic.
Thank you to Chris, and to Steve and Caitlin at Big Finish.
The Ninth Doctor Adventures begins in May 2021 with Ravagers and continues with three further volumes, to be released in August 2021, November 2021, and February 2022.
A version of this interview (and more) appears in 100 Objects of Doctor Who, available now.