Modern Doctor Who owes a lot to Christopher Eccleston. Along with showrunner Russell T Davies, he’s the man who brought the sci-fi drama back from the wilderness to become a primetime BBC hit once more, appointment TV for the nation – but then he shockingly left after just one season, with behind-the-scenes tensions apparently leading to him leaving the TARDIS behind for good.
David Tennant may have been more popular at the time, Matt Smith more internationally successful, Peter Capaldi a dream casting and current Time Lord Jodie Whittaker more groundbreaking, but NuWho all started with Eccleston. It was just a shame it all finished with him so quickly too, with fans forever deprived of the further Ninth Doctor adventures they might have expected.
Or so we thought. After years of dodging Doctor Who questions, turning down convention appearances and even passing on a role in 2013 anniversary The Day of the Doctor (with John Hurt’s War Doctor written in as a replacement), fans might have assumed there was no chance of seeing more from the Ninth Doctor beyond books and non-Eccleston audio dramas.
But things started to change. First, Christopher Eccleston started talking about his Doctor Who work in interviews after previously refusing to – then, he started attending conventions, realising for the first time the groundswell of affection Whovians had for his performance. And after years of negative feeling about the show, it’s clear this experience re-framed Doctor Who for him.
“Yes, I have felt bitter, and yes, I have felt betrayed, but I know also that Doctor Who was the best thing that, professionally, ever happened to me, not so much a learning curve as a plunge down a well and a long climb towards the sunshine I see now,” he wrote in his 2019 memoir.
“These days, I feel nothing but positive about the show, to the extent I have even started doing conventions, something I’d been wary of because I always wanted to earn my money from acting.”
And now, the impossible has happened – Eccleston is back in Doctor Who! Well, OK, it’s for audio dramas from Big Finish, a company that often gets ex-Doctors to return. But considering how little Eccleston material exists after just one series in the role, as well as his long reluctance to rejoin the Who world, his voice role here is a hugely exciting development.
Now at last we can see Eccleston over the course of a longer period playing the Doctor, potentially facing monsters he never did on television (maybe the Cybermen?) and teaming up with past and future incarnations. And longer term, who knows where it could lead?
Back in 1996, Paul McGann was a similarly short-lived Doctor, only on-screen for a single night with the Doctor Who TV Movie – but by recording Big Finish stories McGann gave his incarnation a true “era”, filled with exciting adventures, memorable companions and critically-acclaimed stories, which itself led to a brief on-screen return in 2013.
With Eccleston onboard for Big Finish, fans could hope for something similar for the Ninth Doctor, filling in the gaps between his TV appearances and even (say it softly) a potential TV return, just like McGann. There is an anniversary coming in 2023, after all…
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now fans can just take comfort in the knowledge that for the first time since 2005, we can expect new Ninth Doctor adventures starring Christopher Eccleston. No matter what happened behind-the-scenes or exactly why he left in the first place, that’s a big victory for those fans who kept supporting this version of the character for so many years.
Or, in other words… it’s fantastic.