On Christopher Eccleston and Who Tenures

I’ve long thought that the reason Doctor Who ended in 1989 was because of a decision Peter Davison made way back in 1983 — that he was going to do three seasons and only three seasons of Doctor Who.

What’s this? Six years and two Doctors later the series ended, and it’s Davison’s fault?

My reasoning is this. Davison felt that three seasons was enough. He didn’t want to get typecast. And when he made his decision — in the middle of season 20 — Davison was not having a good time making the series. Three years, then, seemed a reasonable amount of time.

Unfortunately for Davison, he had a fantastic time during the making of season 21. He felt as though he were coming into his own, and he felt that the series was going in the right direction. But by this time Colin Baker had been approached and cast.

Fortunately for Davison, he went out on a fantastic high — “The Caves of Androzani.” It’s arguable that nothing in the following season or two approaches “Androzani.” Even if Davison had a fantastic season 21, had he stayed his season 22 wouldn’t have been any better than Colin Baker’s.

Peter Davison put in three years as the Doctor, and he moved on to other things. Things like Campion, which is a series I recommend to pretty much anyone who wants a period-piece mystery series. (And it has Brian Glover in it, and Brian Glover reading a phone directory would be absolutely rivetting.)

After Davison came Colin Baker.

Colin Baker is an interesting case. He was, in all likelihood, the first fan to play the Doctor. Baker loved the series. And he had plans, big plans. He wanted to stay forever. Or at least longer than Tom Baker did. And Tom Baker played the role for seven years.

Sadly, Baker’s big plans never came to fruition. Season 22 was, to be charitable, a bit of a mess. Season 23 was cancelled, and then replaced with a different twenty-third season that saw the series itself on trial. And when season 23 was over and done, Colin Baker was sacked by the BBC.

The reason? Three years.

Baker only performed two seasons. But there was a year gap between those seasons, and the feelings of the BBC was that he had been in the role for three years, and it was time for new blood. Davison had been the Doctor for three years, now Colin Baker was the Doctor for three years.

Enter Sylvester McCoy.

McCoy played the Doctor for three years, seasons twenty-four through twenty-six. And while there were plans for a twenty-seventh season starring McCoy, production never began.

It’s not difficult to imagine that in the BBC, they looked at McCoy’s three years and said, “Well, that’s enough of this actor. Do we recast again? Or do we just rest the series?” The BBC, obviously, went with the latter.

Three years.

Peter Davison’s decision to do three years of Doctor Who set the template that his successors — Baker and McCoy — both unwillingly followed.

Flash forward years later.

The BBC relaunched Doctor Who to great fanfare and acclaim in early 2005. And the week of the BBC’s triumph, the new lead actor, Christopher Eccleston, is announced as leaving the series at the end of the season.

One year.

From my vantage point — and my theory of Davison’s departure as the cause of Who‘s ultimate cancellation in 1989 — I feared the worst. Would this set a precedent that Doctor actors would see a rapid turnover? Would this create the perception the series was inherently unstable?

Fortunately, there’s no real sign that those fears have come to pass. Oh, fandom twinges with fear over when Eccleston’s successor, David Tennant, will leave the series. Yet I’ve never really feared for Tennant’s departure; Tennant, like Colin Baker, is first and foremost a fan of the series, and Doctor Who is the role of a lifetime for Tennant. I envision Tennant staying with the series at least through the 2010 season, if not beyond that. Indeed, I expect that Tennant will outlast producer Russell T. Davies, perhaps by a year or three.

But let’s return to Eccleston.

At the time Eccleston’s departure was announced, I thought it a tragedy — and I hadn’t even seen any of the new Doctor Who. In retrospect, Eccleston was unprepared for the shooting demands of the series. British television production is horribly inefficient by American standards — nine months in Cardiff was a bit of a drag for Eccleston. And there are reports that he didn’t get along particularly well with the production staff.

While I wasn’t sold on David Tennant at times in the second season — and wondered how Eccleston might’ve handled some of the stories — I had no doubts in Tennant in the third season. I cannot imagine Eccleston in, for example, “Gridlock” or “Human Nature.”

I’ve come to think that Eccleston’s single season was for the best. An actor of his stature got the series off the ground, and now others are running with it. So while I had the fear that Eccleston’s early departure would ultimately doom the series the way Davison’s decison in 1983 did, my fears proved groundless. Doctor Who scored one of its highest ratings ever with “Voyage of the Damned.”

And while I’d like to see Eccleston come return for a multi-Doctor episode (or, my personal preference, the “Doctor-lite” episode as a flashback episode to a previous Doctor), I don’t expect it to happen. He’s done his Who time. Now it’s time for other stuff.

Maybe someday, though, the fiction — novels and comics — will give us tales of the ninth Doctor before he met Rose Tyler. I think he’s got at least a century or two. And a Time War to explore. :)

7 thoughts on “On Christopher Eccleston and Who Tenures

  1. I couldn’t remember, off-hand, who it was that Eccleston had problems with.

    And why shouldn’t there be pre-“Rose” adventures of the ninth Doctor? There’s no evidence that there weren’t. And the evidence that’s usually cited — the Doctor playing with his ears in the mirror — is hardly conclusive; I play with my ears in the mirror, but it doesn’t mean I resembled Paul McGann a day earlier.

    I think RTD’s recommendation that DWM do a regeneration story that clearly would not have led into “Rose” is a powerful indication that, at least in RTD’s mind, it is the ninth Doctor that fought the Time War and burned Gallifrey.

  2. Peter Davidson turned out to be a hard act to follow, but the real problem with Who back then was that nobody at Michael Grade’s BBC understood it or its appeal.

    The BBC has a long track record of considering anything SF or fantasy related to be for kids only. They’re all arts and humanities graduates, and Grade in particular starved the budget of the show down to kids’ TV proportions, and messed around with the schedules. (The BBC showed Buffy so early in the evening that they had to cut all the scary bits out.) The casting of Sylvester McCoy was a disastrous idea – a clown from children’s telly (Vision On)! I couldn’t bear to watch, and I’d been watching since (almost) the beginning.

    I personally never thought Eccleston was a good idea. He was never going to embrace the role. I’d prefer them to cast an unknown. I don’t remember seeing anything of Tom Baker before he was the Doctor, and I’ve always thought that the new Doctor should be a stranger to everyone. Of course, that all went out of the window with Davidson.

    British actors tend to get antsy about doing tellies, as they call them. A lot of them are hopelessly out of touch and because of their training they’re convinced live theatre is better. If they’re giving Tennant a year off to do Hamlet on stage, I think it’s a mistake. They should just recast and be done with it.

  3. I agree, I don’t think Eccleston was ever going to embrace the role of the Doctor, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return for a multi-Doctor story. Apparently, asking him about Doctor Who in interviews is a touchy subject even now.

    I think RTD needed a “name” actor to get the series off the ground. Eccleston clearly wasn’t going to stay more than a single year. Would Bill Nighy have stayed longer than a year? Would Hugh Grant have stayed longer than a year? I don’t know.

    I tend to think that a total unknown post-Tennant is the way to go.

    As for Tennant’s year off to do Hamlet, I wonder if the decision for Tennant to do Hamlet was due more to the BBC wanting to rest the series for a year — perhaps for the HDTV changeover? — rather than a rejiggering of the shooting schedule to accomodate Tennant’s outside interests.

    And something I’ve begun to wonder. Suppose the eleventh Doctor’s era began much as the ninth’s. Without a regeneration story. Without any indication of how we, the audience, got there. In other words, leave Tennant’s era open-ended, in case the BBC wants to take him to the big screen or — and this is less likely, I think — allow him to return and play his Doctor older and wiser.

    Or maybe that’s just crazy talk. ;)

  4. Granted the series has gone into overdrive with the current Doctor and companions and concepts all firmly established, but the one series we got with Mr Eccleston still outdoes them all.

  5. I think that Christopher Eccleston did a great job as “Dr. Who” I had never heard of him before seeing him on that show. I was absolutely enthralled with David Tennant and was most unhappy when he left. Matt Smith is okay. He takes some getting used to. The main problem seems to me that the story lines are so darned convoluted and not too interesting.

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