Christopher Eccleston’s involvement with ‘Doctor Who‘ ended when his last episode aired in June 2005. Despite that, the show has loomed over the last thirteen years of his public life. It’s not just a case of the Ninth Doctor being arguably his best known role (though that probably hasn’t helped), either. On top of this, fan curiosity has only been compounded by the actor’s seeming hesitance to discuss the matter, often doing so only in the most general terms.
Indeed, for the last decade and change, there has been a distinct air of… not “mystery,” but perhaps “vagueness” surrounding the circumstances of Eccelston’s exit from ‘Doctor Who’. For his part, then-showrunner Russell T. Davies noted while promoting his 2008 book ‘The Writer’s Tale’ that Eccelston had only been signed for a single year due to the uncertainty surrounding the revival’s chances for success. A few years later, in 2011, Eccelston himself would chalk it up to “politics,” alluding to disagreements with the powers that be (were?) and issues with “the culture that had grown up around the series,” though as usual he didn’t name names or even specify whether these issues were with people in the ‘Doctor Who’ production office or higher ups at the BBC.
Every few years seems to bring a new development in the bizarrely ongoing saga of Christopher Eccleston’s relationship with ‘Doctor Who’ and 2018 is no exception. But rather than the departure itself, this latest revelation deals with the aftermath. In a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian, the subject eventually -perhaps inevitably – turns to ‘Doctor Who’, though it’s hardly the focus of the piece. In it, Eccleston relates the difficulties he faced after leaving the show. It’s not exactly a secret that the British tabloids weren’t terribly kind to him, and there was a frankly disgraceful backlash among ‘Who’ fans (some of which was directed at Eccleston himself), who seemed the think that the BBC was trying to destroy the show they’d only just brought back. And now, he has revealed that there was a professional element to the fallout as well, and not just in the sense that he was suddenly an actor in need of a job:
“What happened around ‘Doctor Who’ almost destroyed my career. I gave them a hit show and I left with dignity and then they put me on a blacklist. I was carrying my own insecurities as it was something I had never done before and then I was abandoned, vilified in the tabloid press and blacklisted. I was told by my agent at the time: “The BBC regime is against you. You’re going to have to get out of the country and wait for regime change.” So I went away to America and I kept on working because that’s what my parents instilled in me. My dad always said to me: “I don’t care what you do – sweeping the floor or whatever you’re doing – just do the best job you can.” I know it’s cliched and northern and all that bollocks, but it applies.”
As journalists are so fond of saying “trust, but verify.” It’s impossible to say with any certainty at this time whether Eccleston was actually blacklisted by the BBC or if that was simply the impression his then-agent was given. In either case, it doesn’t really matter as Eccleston was operating under the assumption of a blacklist and conducted his career accordingly.
Most relevant to ‘Who’ fans though is that more than anything else, this likely accounts for a good bit of Eccleston’s famous reticence to revisit the Ninth Doctor. While this has normally been expressed in terms of his own preferences as an actor (in his own words, he prefers not to “bathe in the same river twice”), but if the BBC actually retaliated against him? Even under the best of circumstances, no actor is under any obligation to revisit a role they’ve left behind. Put another way, no matter how much fans might want to see it, Matt Smith never has to don a tweed jacket and fez again if he doesn’t want to. And if there’s even a shred of truth to what Eccleston is saying here, then I certainly can’t blame him for wanting to put as much distance between himself and the BBC as possible.
All that being said, those yearning to see the Ninth Doctor in some future anniversary show do have some hope to hold on to, slim though it may be. We know from comments Steven Moffat has made over the years that Eccleston considered making an appearance for the show’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Or at the very least he didn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. Though he ultimately did decline, and his role in the story was ultimately given to John Hurt’s War Doctor, the fact that that he was at least willing to hear pitch is enough to keep the flame alive. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but who knows? Maybe for the sixtieth anniversary…