The leading role in the BBC’s decades-spanning science fiction series Doctor Who has been passed around to over a dozen actors since it started in 1963. Each of them has brought their own distinct flair and gravitas to their part, making their Doctors seem as though they were totally separate characters from each other, despite all being the same person at various points in their life.
The classic series, which ran from 1963 to 1989 with a total of 26 seasons, had seven Doctors. The 1996 TV movie featured the Eighth Doctor. And the reboot, which started in 2005, is currently on its fifth incumbent thespian in the role, Jodie Whittaker.
Nearly every actor who has played the Doctor has maintained a presence in the fandom subculture surrounding Doctor Who even after their television tenure, whether it be from conventions, audio dramas, charity, or fan films. But the one actor who continues to elude such continued involvement with the franchise is also the one who helped bring the series back to television in 2005: Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor.
Coming off of a devastating war where he committed great atrocities, including mass genocide of the Daleks and his own people, Eccleston’s Doctor had a darkness to him that had never been seen before. He was afflicted with some level of post-traumatic stress, prone to angry outbursts when things went south, desperately clung to hope wherever he could find it, and struggled with coming to terms with what he did in the war and trying to put it all behind him.
Though he left the show after one series, Eccleston’s Doctor had a complete character arc before he regenerated into the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant. Eccleston has stated in interviews that the reason he left the show was because of his discomfort with the working environment and conflict with higher-ups. Whereas his predecessors and his successors as the Doctor continued to take part in various events honoring, celebrating, and discussing the program after leaving the show, Eccleston, nearly thirteen years later, still does not make such appearances in association with Doctor Who.
Despite his incumbency in the role being the briefest of any actor to play the Doctor thus far (not to mention having relatively little in the way of expanded universe media, with Titan Comics’ Ninth Doctor ongoing range ending this year), Eccleston has many passionate fans in the community. His portrayal not only brought the show back from the dead, but his dressed down and less flamboyant take on the character resonated well with audiences in the mid-2000’s. Such fans loved the Ninth Doctor’s quirks, personality, aesthetic, and overall character, and a not insignificant number would certainly love to meet him at a convention.
Except they haven’t had the chance, and it’s incredibly unlikely that they will get one. While fans have had many opportunities since the show’s revival to meet Doctors new and old, from Tom Baker to Paul McGann, from David Tennant to Peter Capaldi, Ninth Doctor fans are left in the dust.
Many fans of Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor have quietly accepted the reality that their favorite Doctor may not ever make guest appearances at conventions or work with Big Finish. He has moved on. But there are some fans who feel differently about the situation.
Some fans feel that Eccleston did not take his role in Doctor Who seriously; that he isn’t honoring some sort of commitment he agreed to when he took the part back in the early 2000’s. To such people, if you’re the Doctor, you’re always the Doctor. You owe it to the fans to make appearances at conventions and charity drives and work with Big Finish. The other Doctors maintain ties to the franchise decades later, so he should, too.
While it is true that being involved in a television show with a fifty-year pedigree and legacy is certainly going to follow someone for the rest of their career or even life, and that every other actor who played the Doctor on TV made various public appearances in association with the program long after their tenure had concluded, they only did so because they wanted to do it. They enjoy doing it. They don’t have to do it, even if their time on the show follows them wherever they go.
Christopher Eccleston is not obligated to continue his involvement or association with the program if he does not wish to do so. He only ever talks about it when he is asked about it in interviews, and when that happens he expresses pride at having played the part, and wished that he had stayed on for another series had it not been for a poor working environment.
It’s not as though Eccleston was unaware of the expectations that would be placed upon him for taking the role, however. Paul McGann, Eccleston’s predecessor as the Doctor’s eighth incarnation from the 1996 TV movie, informed him of how playing the lead in Doctor Who would change his life forever, and how fans would want him to live up to what they expected of him after he would eventually leave the show. He has been known to be polite and gracious to fans who approach him, even going so far as the help a fan propose to his girlfriend and record a personal message for another young fan who was sick in the hospital, just as other figures from the show had done.
It’s clear he doesn’t hate the show. After all, he doesn’t speak ill of the show beyond his own working experience. He even met with Steven Moffat several times to discuss the possibility of returning for the fiftieth anniversary special in 2013, before ultimately turning down the offer.
Just as well, Eccleston has said that he prefers acting to earn a living over making appearances at conventions, but he has not totally ruled out the possibility of making such appearances.
But that does not mean he will not come around. Tom Baker, after burning out on the show after seven seasons, eventually came back for the thirtieth anniversary special Dimensions in Time, and then again much later to play the Fourth Doctor in Big Finish’s officially-licensed Doctor Who audio dramas for nearly a decade so far. If Baker, who was so sour about the show for years, came back to the franchise in some capacity, who is to say that Eccleston won’t do the same at some point down the line?
Eccleston owes fans nothing. At the end of the day, he is an actor. Doctor Who may not a life-long commitment to him. It was a role that he played, he got paid to do it, and the circumstances of the time weren’t ideal so he moved on. He has no regrets. He is still proud of what he did on Doctor Who and still chimes into the conversation from time to time.
Would I like to see him be more involved with the franchise beyond talking about it every so often, like other Doctors? Absolutely! There is nowhere near enough content featuring his take on the character. Should he do it because he owes it to the fans who enjoy his character and performance? No.
And that’s okay. Eccleston has positive feelings towards Doctor Who, despite his distance from the franchise since he was involved. But he’s only human, and it’s time for some people to realize that. Maybe, one day, he shall come back. But until then, he owes fans nothing. But he loves them anyway. Because he’s the Doctor. And the Doctor cares.