Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: NOT The End of the World

By Jim Smith on 31 March 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

“That wasn’t supposed to ‘appen”.

Well, there’s been some good news and some bad news, and the title of the new episode of ‘Doctor Who’, plastered as it is across the website, seems bizarrely apt today. For those of you who’ve been living in a cave since last weekend (possibly re-watching ‘Rose’ and ‘Casanova’ – Part Three on an endless loop, and who could blame you?) then the good news was that ‘Doctor Who’ got 9.9 million viewers according to initial figures, the great news was the announcement of a confirmed second (or as I like to think of it, twenty eighth) series and confirmation of the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special. The big shock was the announcement of the departure of Christopher Eccleston from the series. All this a mere fourteen episodes (and one transmission week) into the revival. There have probably been more column inches devoted to ‘Doctor Who’ this week than the Royal Wedding and ‘Jamie Oliver’s Direct Action’ combined. These are strange days indeed.

The loss of Eccleston is a minor tragedy, I think. He proved his mettle across ‘Rose’ with terrifying speed; capturing the character quicker than any actor aside from Hartnell (and beating Davison and Tom Baker’s attempts by about 5 and 10 seconds respectively).

No blame can fairly be laid at the door of the actor himself. He’s done , based on what evidence we’ve seen, a superlative job and obviously wants to move on, albeit sooner than we’d all like. Given that some tabloids have been invading his private life on a semi-regular basis for ages now this shouldn’t really be as surprising as it initially was. He’s never been that kind of actor, even quitting his supporting role in ‘Cracker’ after one year, and obviously the workload and intrusions into his life are more of a problem than he anticipated.

Some people have said that he shouldn’t have chased the role if he wasn’t willing to put up with the baggage, but that’s entirely unfair. No one anticipated just how big this was going to get (the series highest ever Top Ten placing, the biggest audience appreciation figures in the show’s history) or how fast it was going to do it. Equally, tabloid intrusions into the lives of Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy were never a particuarly prominent part of the red top agenda, were they?

Look at it this way, would you rather have Christopher Eccleston play Doctor Who half a dozen times or never? I can’t imagine that anyone could possibly really prefer the latter to the former. Anyone feeling an antipathy towards Eccleston should hop over to the BBC website and watch the clip of him talking to Rose on the embankment – that’ll chase your blues away.

In the medium term this may ultimately be a good thing; it prevents the series being seen as a Christopher Eccleston vehicle. (Such things are possible, the BBC laboured for nearly a decade under the delusion that Caroline Quentin was indispensable when it came to ‘Jonathan Creek’). With the BBC determined to press on with a second series regardless, ‘Doctor Who’ has already taken on its old mantle as a series which renews and changes itself on a regular basis.

In an odd way, this little crisis may be what ensures the series longevity in its new form. Can you imagine a new Doctor every year? A new A-list actor coming in, stamping himself on the role and then departing after eight months of hard work. Think of the amazing possibilities that lie in that direction.

It appears, incidentally, that some further tabloid shenanigans may have prompted the quite spectacularly ill-timed announcement, which wouldn’t be at all surprise given the plague dogs that pass for much of the Fourth Estate in these islands today. It is, also, really the timing of the announcement, not the nature of the announcement itself, that is the major concern.

There has been fan speculation that for some – perhaps many – it could hobble the series before it’s even really begun. The BBC has, once before and seemingly quite deliberately, ‘Ratners-ed’ ‘Doctor Who’. There’s poetic justice, as well as tragic irony, in someone else doing it for them at the first point since 1983 that they’ve acted, as an institution, like they understand what this property means, and what it’s worth to them financially and creatively.

I think this is unlikely, however. In the real world, away from media ‘elite’ speculation and the frenzied actions of the most fanboy of fanboys, the ‘bounce’ has been surprisingly small. While everyone I’ve spoken to about it has expressed surprise at the announcement and considered it somewhat ill-timed, no one has suggested foul play of some sort, or intimated that it will spoil the rest of the season for them; far from it in fact. Out in the wilds of TV watching land people do one series of a show all the time and the announced-vastly-in-advance departures of characters from soaps provide a moment’s frisson of meta-excitement that neither detracts from, nor adds to, the actual programme.

The BBC will find a new actor to play ‘Doctor Who’. For all I know they’ve found a new one already. At the moment I can’t imagine how he’ll be as good as the last one, but we have all been here before, after all. It’s not, as it happens, the end of the world is it? Well, not till Saturday night at least.

Next Episode: ‘The End of the World’

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