As iconic sci-fi series Doctor Who celebrates its fifty-sixth anniversary this November, the show is as globally popular as it’s ever been. Headed by a female Doctor at long last in Jodie Whittaker, the series is telling more diverse, interesting stories than ever before, while still offering tales that underscore the power of hope and care even during the darkest of times.
In short, it’s a great time to be a Whovian. But even as we celebrate the continuing success of this show fans have all loved for so long, it’s worth remembering how Doctor Who got here—and how it came to reach a level of success that wasn’t at all guaranteed. When the series returned to television in 2005, it had been off the air for over a decade. It was largely viewed as a bit of campy nostalgia rather than a serious drama, and almost no one took it seriously. One person changed all that, reinventing and revitalizing the series for a whole new generation: Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston.
Eccleston’s time aboard the TARDIS is often overshadowed by the furor surrounding his exit—the actor only stayed with the series for a single season, and has since spoken about both his difficulties with the head creatives and his personal struggles during filming. (His recent memoir reveals the ongoing battle with depression and body dysmorphia that unfortunately impacted much of his time on the show.) And Eccleston’s serious, generally darker take on the Doctor was followed by the much more approachable—and, let’s just say it, conventionally attractive—David Tennant and Matt Smith, who both remained with Doctor Who for years, building significant fanbases that Eccleston’s brief tenure had no hope of matching.
As a result, his turn as the Doctor too often receives short shrift when discussing the series’ legacy, with many viewers simply dismissing his run as a necessary fact of the show’s return to television, or as a bridge to the more interesting Tennant and Smith years that followed. This is particularly unfortunate, because not only is Eccleston a fantastic performer, his Doctor is the foundation upon which the entire concept of modern-day Doctor Who is based.
The Ninth Doctor may only have helmed the TARDIS for thirteen episodes, but they’re some of the most important in the series’ entire run. (Yes, even the one with the farting aliens.)
Eccleston’s Doctor simultaneously embodies everything that is both relatable and strange about the character. Nine is alien—truly Other—in a way that few incarnations of the Time Lord have been before or since, yet he exists in the most human and ordinary of packaging. His basic leather jacket and jeans look is striking simply because it’s so aggressively normal. (Not a celery stalk, clown-patterned coat, or question mark-laden accessory in sight.) His working-class Northern accent is refreshing—after all, lots of planets have a North!—and his occasionally distant demeanor is a natural evolution from his own painful past.
For much of his time in the TARDIS, Nine is a study in survivor’s guilt, as we learn he’s not just the sole remaining member of his species, but the reason the rest of his fellow Time Lords are dead and their home world of Gallifrey gone. Yet, despite this fact, his story is ultimately one of how to rediscover and embrace hope again. The sort of hope against all odds—and often all logical sense—that has become a defining characteristic of modern-day Doctors.
Unfortunately, subsequent seasons of Doctor Who erase and/or alter the events of the Time War as we originally understood them during Eccleston’s run. (And that’s probably a topic for a whole other piece, as it’s more than a little messy and confusing; timey wimey and all.) But the return of Gallifrey and the salvation of the Time Lords doesn’t alter the fact that, for Nine, it and his people are gone, and never to be seen again. And, if we’re honest, there’s something oddly even more tragic about the idea that it is this particular Doctor, who sacrifices so much, who can never know that his greatest mistake is eventually undone.
That this Doctor is born of tragedy is what makes Nine such a damaged soul, but it’s also what gives him such a ferocious, unmatched capacity to feel. This is an incarnation of the Doctor who is unmatched in his pure emotional range, from sadness to rage to simple joy. His greatest weakness—the seemingly bottomless grief he carries around with him—is also his greatest strength. It’s a reminder of that loss that motivates him to do better, to make different choices, to refuse to be defined by a single horrific act.
This determination is a trait that certainly gets passed down to later Doctors, but none of his successors possess quite the internal fire that Nine does. Perhaps that’s because the destruction of Gallifrey is such a recent event for him, but this is a Time Lord whose general fury could probably power the sun. From his incandescent rage at the idea that a single Dalek might have escaped the Time War in “Dalek” to his fierce determination to defend both Rose and the Earth from the army of the creatures he discovers in “Bad Wolf” without committing genocide again to do it, this is a Doctor who is emotionally raw in ways that few—if any—others can equal.
This is also a Doctor who loves with a ferocity that’s as strong as his anger. Nine thrills at giving Rose the opportunity to see the universe, seeks the joy in every situation and embraces adventure with his arms wide open. He’s on the run because his home world is gone, yes; but he has a true appreciation for and fascination with all the things that make other planets and cultures unique. When he joyfully declares that “Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!” it’s not just an iconic moment for this particular Doctor, but a mantra for the series itself, a goal that every Doctor thereafter strives toward.
Many fans remember Nine as the dark, tormented Doctor who eventually gave way to the more lighthearted and quirkier Ten era. But here’s the thing—without Eccleston’s Nine, whose character so successfully reinvented the idea of what it meant to be the Doctor in the first place, wise and broken and wonderful all at once—we never would have seen what came afterward. And we would have missed a pretty fantastic journey, albeit too brief, along the way.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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