Leaked episodes. Rapid departures. Graham Norton. March 2005 was a rollercoaster month for Doctor Who fans everywhere. Could it be the most eventful in Doctor Who history?
In March 2005, fans were gearing up for the return of Doctor Who to their TV screens after a nine year absence. In fact, the Ninth Doctor’s debut season was to be the first full series since the show’s sudden cancellation in 1989. Without a shadow of a doubt, Doctor Who history was about to be made – but not in the way that people were expecting.
The first of the unprecedented events took place a few weeks before the new series’ debut, when an unfinished copy of ‘Rose’ was leaked onto the webosphere. This was the first time in Doctor Who history that a full episode had been unleashed in such a dramatic manner, and indeed it was the first story to be illegally uploaded to the internet (the world wide web wasn’t quite capable of such things in the 1980s…)
And this version of ‘Rose’ was more-or-less identical to the one that was broadcast a few weeks later, save for a few tweaks. The new theme music wasn’t present, and there was no Next Time trailer for the subsequent episode ‘The End of the World.’ Also (fun fact) there was no ‘boing’ sound effect when the Auton Mickey got hit with a champagne cork.
Obviously, this moment wasn’t hailed as one of the greatest in Doctor Who history, and some of the early reviewers of this illegal copy were quite scathing of the show. Moreover, the individual who was responsible for the breach – which was traced back to a company in Canada – was fired.
And whilst this setback didn’t put people off from watching the premiere on the 26th March, viewers were in for a confusing surprise. Because, due to an error on the BBC’s part, the presenter Graham Norton’s voice interrupted the broadcast, chatting jovially over ‘Rose’ as the titular character was menaced by an Auton. You can read more about that incident here.
At the same time, the new episode achieved some of the highest ratings in Doctor Who history, with some 10.81 million viewers tuning in to watch the Ninth Doctor battle the Nestene Consciousness, winning an impressive 44.3% audience share. And just four days later, the BBC declared the new series a ratings hit, and instantly commissioned two further seasons, plus a 2005 Christmas special.
Undoubtedly, this was one of the fastest commissionings in Doctor Who history and, again, a real first; never before had the series been given a Christmas special. In fact, the 2005 episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’ was the first time that Christmas had ever been referenced in the Whoniverse, unless you count William Hartnell’s fourth wall-breaking moment in 1965’s ‘The Feast of Steven.’
Certainly, this was a dizzying time to be a Doctor Who fan. And it wasn’t over yet.
Inevitably, with the announcement that at least 27 new episodes would be bursting onto our screens, people were chomping at the bit to know if the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston would be staying with the show. Fans were understandably nervous about the actor’s future, as Eccleston had carefully side-stepped questions about a possible regeneration during the promotional interviews. Little did they know that the Ninth Doctor was set to become one of the shortest-serving Doctors in the show’s history.
Because, on the same day that the BBC announced the Christmas special, they also released a statement (purportedly from Christopher Eccleston) saying that he would be giving up the role as he feared being typecast, and that he found the production schedule gruelling. At the same time, rumours began to surface that David Tennant had already been cast as his replacement, and that a regeneration scene had been filmed.
Again, such a rapid sequence of events was unheard of in Doctor Who history, and things were about to take another dramatic turn. Because, as it turned out, Christopher Eccleston had never made a statement about his future on the show.
This is how BBC News reported it at the time…
“An initial statement issued by the BBC said Eccleston feared being typecast and had found the series gruelling – although the BBC later accepted the statement was not correct and said it had not spoken to Eccleston before releasing it.
“A BBC spokesman said it had hoped, rather than expected, that Eccleston would continue in the role.
“He said that although talks to make David Tennant the Tenth Doctor were taking place, other names may be put forward.”
Of course, it took many years before the truth about this whole situation came out. Speaking to Doctor Who fans at New York Comic Con in 2019, Eccleston revealed: “I left because my relationship with the showrunner and the producer broke down. [I left because of] the politics of the show. I left only because of those three individuals and the way they were running the show. I loved playing the character, and I loved the world … I felt, ‘I’m gonna play the Doctor my way and I’m not gonna get involved in these politics,’ and that wasn’t workable, so off I went… and became the invisible man.”
This was certainly a key moment in Doctor Who history, and it’s fair to say that subsequent departures were handled more carefully. Of course, rumours about upcoming regenerations always circulate, and sometimes they’re true, and sometimes they’re not. These days, very little is said publicly until all the relevant parties are in alignment.
Still, few can deny what a memorable month March 2005 was. It may well be the most dizzying in Doctor Who history, save for November 2013 with its 50th anniversary special and the return of nine missing episodes. In March 2005, there was a leaked episode, a brand new series being aired, record viewing figures, two new series commissioned, a Christmas special commissioned, a regeneration announced, and a new Time Lord unveiled.
And as someone who remembers watching these events unfold, it was certainly an exciting time to be a fan. But I remember being sad about the Ninth Doctor’s rapid departure, despite having only watched the one episode.
What are your memories of this pivotal month in Doctor Who history? Is it really the most eventful in the Whoniverse, or can you think of another, more dramatic month? Let me know in the comments below.
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