What led to the departure of the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston in 2005?
2005 was a rollercoaster year for Doctor Who. The Ninth Doctor burst onto our TV screens in March in an epic 13 part series written by Russell T Davies. This was the first proper television version of Doctor Who for some 16 years, although there had been a few one-offs during the Wildness – most notably ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ and ‘The Scream of the Shalka,’ both of which introduced alternative versions of the Ninth Doctor.
Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal, however, was bold and in many ways expected. His incarnation of the famous Time Lord was tortured and Northern, fresh from the Time War and wandering the lonely universe in his TARDIS – until he met Rose Tyler, that is, played by the actor and former pop star Billie Piper.
At the time, nobody knew if the Ninth Doctor’s era would be a success. Many people wondered if this truly was a last chance saloon for Doctor Who; would modern audiences be able to connect with a revamped science fiction show about a mysterious alien with a blue box?
Undoubtedly, these questions were on the mind of the production team too, and they needed to plan ahead. What were they going to do if the new series was a smash hit, and viewers suddenly demanded more adventures from the Ninth Doctor and his leather jacket? Could they persuade him to stay on?
These were decisions that had to be made before the 2005 series even began transmitting, and the matter was made more complicated by the fact that the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston didn’t wish to continue. So, presumably, the creative team had to decide whether to give his character an ambiguous exit, or go all-out and shoot a regeneration.
As we know, the Ninth Doctor was ultimately given a regeneration scene, but would this still have happened if the new Doctor Who had been cancelled after just one season? We don’t know. It seems unlikely, although the Tenth Doctor David Tennant has suggested over the years that he feared becoming the “George Lazenby of the Time Lords,” (referring to one of the less-remembered James Bond actors.) It’s possible that the Tenth Doctor era could have consisted of one single scene at the end of ‘The Parting of the Ways’ before Doctor Who was taken off the air for all eternity.
Moreover, the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration was not a conventional one. Indeed, it stands as one of the few occasions in the series’ history where the departing actor has not been present for the transition, another notable instance being the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration in 1987. The new Doctor David Tennant stood in for his predecessor, donning a skullcap to mask his somewhat fluffier barnet. Presumably, this was because the Ninth Doctor’s final lines had been shot several weeks earlier.
In addition, the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration marked the first time that the Doctor had regenerated standing up (at least on screen.) In previous years, the Doctor had collapsed on the floor of the TARDIS – or at the foot of radio telescopes – and had physically ‘died’ before changing into a new face. But this time the Ninth Doctor remained conscious, grinning puckishly as he threw his arms back and exploded like a volcano. Apparently, the intention was to standardise the regeneration effect; before 2005, virtually every regeneration had occurred differently.
But why did the Ninth Doctor have to go? At the time, Christopher Eccleston’s sudden departure came as a shock to many, although the actor did point out that, given that his episodes were 45 minutes in length, he’d effectively done two series already.
The initial publicity surrounding the regeneration was confused. In the first instance, the BBC stated that the actor was leaving because of the gruelling production schedule and because he wished to avoid being typecast, but it later emerged that this was not true and that this statement had been falsely attributed to Eccleston. Meanwhile, the actor himself remained quiet on the subject.
Indeed, the full story surrounding the Ninth Doctor’s rapid departure didn’t emerge until many years later. Speaking at Dragon Con in 2021, Eccleston said: “I left because my relationship with Russell T Davies, [producers] Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson completely broke down during the shooting of the first series. I think it’s fair to say… that [in] the first series nobody knows what they’re doing and the politics are raging. The shooting of the first series was a nightmare.”
He added: “I agreed with Russell that I would go, quietly and respectfully, and I would look after the show publicity-wise, in terms of publicising it. And then, without saying anything to me, they announced that I was leaving… And more importantly… they created a quote, and they attributed it to me, which said I was tired.
“Now the thing is about that, ‘Oh I found it too tiring’, I didn’t find it too tiring. I found it too tiring working with Russell, and Phil and Julia. I didn’t find it physically too tiring. When they said that, any other producer reading that would go, ‘Oh, we’re not going to employ Christopher Eccleston because he gets tired.’ So it was a lie, and it was in quotation marks, and I’m from Salford, you don’t do that to me.”
So whilst it wasn’t the happiest of departures for Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor continues to be immensely popular with fans, and the actor has just finished recording a second season of audio adventures for Big Finish.
But can we expect to see the Ninth Doctor back on our TV screens any time soon? Eccleston says it’s “doubtful” as his “relationship with the BBC has not healed.” So it’s unlikely that he will appear during Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary, for example.
What are your favourite memories of the Ninth Doctor? Let me know in the comments below.
Click here to read about the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration!
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