Doctor Who in the 2000s: the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years

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Russell T Davies regenerated Doctor Who for the 21st century, with Christopher Eccleston and then David Tennant as the Doctor. We look back at RTD’s first spell as showrunner…

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade…

Part Five: The 2000s

“It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be – the trip of a lifetime!”

Is there anything that sums up the excitement of Doctor Who coming back in 2005 more than its trailer being so quotable? After some time away, Russell T Davies’ revamp banishes the programme’s quaint image and turns it into the sort of show where one of the best actors in the land might run away from a big fireball.

After much finagling at the BBC, Davies recreates Doctor Who in the image of 1990s US genre TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer without forsaking its fundamental weirdness.

Doctor Who in 2005 is big. It’s bold. It’s accessible for new viewers and international buyers, but it keeps fans in the style to which they are accustomed – an odd amount of episodes with madly varying subjects, budgets, and production values.

It aspires to Buffy's heady mix of everyday dramatic stakes and the wooden, vampire-fettling ones, but the influence goes right down to the music. Once-and-future composer Murray Gold revolutionises the soundscape of the 13-episode series, as radiophonic and electronic music gives way to an omnipresent Welsh orchestra and choir.

And on top of it all, Davies consolidates the previously separate roles of writer, script editor, and producer in a US-style “showrunner” model. Wiping away the old, tangled mythology with a largely unseen Time War, he reinvents the Doctor first as a noble veteran, outwardly cheerful and loving and brave, but racked by survivor’s guilt from unseen adventures.

Sooner than expected, he does it again with the Tenth Doctor, a motormouthed geek with a hero complex and a nasty streak, who inadvertently leads the people around him into danger. The Doctor is still the title character, but at least to begin with, the human companion is the lead.

Before all that, the show needed a serious actor, a real leading man; a world-class actor who could embody the Doctor. And after years of waiting, the announcement finally came that Richard E Grant would be the Ninth Doctor!

Hang on, what? WHAT? … What?

Guess Who’s back, back again… (1999 – 2003)

Davies almost got the greenlight to bring Doctor Who back towards the end of the 1990s. As detailed in last week’s feature, this clashed with the efforts of BBC Worldwide and BBC Films to make a Doctor Who movie. So, he moved on, but kept in touch with Doctor Who’s supporters – namely, controllers Jane Tranter and Mal Young – as they moved up the BBC hierarchy.

But yet another department entered the fray in 2003. The corporation’s online service BBCi commissioned Cosgrove Hall to animate a new six-part Doctor Who serial for the show’s 40th anniversary. Written by Paul Cornell, Scream Of The Shalka stuck to Withnail & I in its re-casting and made Richard E Grant the BBC’s official Ninth Doctor… for a while.

Running 78 minutes in total, the Flash-animated adventure reboots the Pertwee-era format for an alien-invasion story in Lancashire in 2003. Like the TV revival, the companion character is central, there’s some off-screen trauma involving the Doctor, and no regeneration for McGann’s Eighth Doctor.

The voice cast also included Sophie Okonedo as the new Doctor’s companion Alison, Derek Jacobi as an android replica of the Master, and an up-and-comer called David Tennant as a warehouse caretaker. All three have since appeared in New Who in one capacity or another.

It’s an interesting could-have-been. If nothing else happened in the Drama department, maybe Scream Of The Shalka could have launched an animated continuation. But with incoming BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey also keen on reviving the show, things moved quickly.

The serial was earmarked for release in weekly instalments in November and December 2003. But Davies’ revival of the show on BBC One was announced at the end of September.

In the retrospective documentary on BBC DVD’s 2013 disc release of Shalka, Cornell remembers RTD calling him with the immortal line: “I’ve got terrible news. We’re bringing back Doctor Who.”

Trip of a lifetime (2003 – 2005)

At long last, how did Russell T Davies bring back Doctor Who? Well, it was commissioned before a word was written, so he wrote a series treatment to give BBC executives at the time an idea of what they’d get.

Conveniently, Doctor Who Magazine published this treatment in a special edition covering the making of the 2005 series, so we can have a look. And the vision is pretty fully formed.

As billed, Rose Tyler is a shop girl who dreams of more. The Doctor is her new best mate, the last of the Time Lords. Worried mum Judy Tyler, useless boyfriend Mobbsy, and shagger-from-the-future Captain Jax would all have name-changes, but they’re in there too. Charles Dickens, aliens in Downing Street, Rose’s dead dad, “Gameshow World”, and the Time War are all present and correct in the proposed episode order. And the mission statement is this:

“If the Zogs on planet Zog are having trouble with the Zog-monster… who gives a toss? But if a human colony on the planet Zog is in trouble, a last outpost of humanity fighting to survive… then I’m interested.

Every story, somehow, should come back to Earth, to humanity, its ancestors, and its descendants. Rose will experience the entire history of her race. And we will celebrate it.”

And thus, the short-lived “no bug-eyed monsters” edict of the original 1960s conception neatly translates to a 2000s version with the courage of its conviction.

Introducing the Doctor through Rose’s eyes places the focus squarely where it remains for four out of Davies’ five years in that job. At first, it’s a continuation, without the continuity. There’s even a sense of Davies, who first pitched to write for the show during Colin Baker’s era, reviving or rescuing ideas that had either been mishandled by the show or otherwise gone unheralded.

Back in 1985, season 22 also featured dystopias built on television viewership; amoral, green-skinned capitalists; Daleks that fly and cannibalise humans to reproduce; and of course, 45-minute episodes.

This first run of New Who is hardly all killer, no filler. But a good rule of thumb is that the pre-title sequence covers as much ground as Part One would in a classic serial. As always, the sonic screwdriver helps with economy of plotting, but the psychic paper is a new RTD invention that keeps the plot from stalling or sticking for too long.

What’s more, series one was staffed by TV writers who had grown up as fans – Cornell was commissioned to write Father’s Day, and Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, and Steven Moffat also contributed scripts. It wasn’t the first time that fans ran Doctor Who, but Davies refurbishes and reorients everything for new audiences.

Accordingly, the new Who is never embarrassed by the old Who. Heck, Rose is almost a loose remake of 1970’s Spearhead From Space. This time, the only returning characters are the Doctor and the TARDIS. The new series neither writes off nor overwrites what went before. Instead it grounds stories on Earth, whether in its past, present, future, or assorted satellites.

Handily, Davies didn’t look to the fan-favourite casting suggestions in finding someone new to front the series either. Christopher Eccleston wanted to play the Doctor because he was a fan of RTD, not of Doctor Who. More importantly, Billie Piper was cast as Rose following her TV debut in the 2003 anthology series The Canterbury Tales.

And when Doctor Who came back in 2005, it was just what the Ninth Doctor says – fantastic.

But not five days after Rose was watched by more than 10 million viewers, the BBC press office bungled the swift commission for series two by confirming that Eccleston had quit Doctor Who. Despite all falsely accredited “typecasting” concerns and other speculation about the difficult working environment in the revival’s first production block, Eccleston has never divulged why he decided to leave early on in production.

It’s a shame how it ended because there’s always a sense he could have done more with his Doctor in another run on telly. He’s great throughout, but his performance really clicks by the time of The Empty Child, Moffat’s first script for the show proper.

By the end of the series, we have the first big test of the new equal-billing approach with the Doctor departing and Rose carrying on. The inherited paranoia that the show would go away again would bubble up later in the decade and right up to the present but here, the do-or-die attitude is only for the good.

Had this multi-million-pound reboot been a catastrophic flop for one reason or another, or the BBC had pulled the plug when Eccleston left, Davies and company could walk away not feeling they’d left anything on the table with this run.

There’s a case to be made that it’s the strongest, most consistent run of Davies’ first spell as showrunner. Like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the old adventure serials that inspired it, it’s not great because it’s a faithful recreation of the original, but a new thing that’s as good as its makers remember Doctor Who being, and better.

The scary bits are scary, the funny bits are funny, the much-grumbled-about “soap” bits are real and grounded, and the Daleks are still basically Daleks. It was a hit with critics, with audiences, and – by and large – with fans old and new.

Even Boom Town – Davies’ low-budget, last-minute-replacement script, and no one’s favourite series one episode – pares the new vision down to silent running and still delivers some smashing moments, like the Doctor reckoning with the fallout of his travels, a long-distance relationship falling apart on a day out, and (just to lighten things up) public officials being hilariously murdered off-screen in electrified swimming pools and very icy patches.

As a capper, Doctor Who won Best Drama Series at the BAFTA Television Awards in May 2006. By then, the show was already barrelling forward with the next Doctor…

New teeth (2005 – 2009)

David Tennant was confirmed as the Tenth Doctor on 16th April 2005. The BBC commissioned a 60-minute Christmas special at the same time as the second series, giving Davies the unusual task of launching two Doctors in one year.

The Christmas Invasion not only started the Tenth Doctor’s adventures but also made the Christmas special a ratings-grabbing fixture of the BBC One schedule for more than a decade. Tennant, a lifelong fan, hits the ground running in his first series in the role. He undoubtedly would have been just as popular if Eccleston had stayed for another year or two, but the momentum of series one gives him a big leg-up, as does returning companion Billie Piper.

Taking in Cybermen, Ood, and a werewolf along the way, series two builds to Rose’s exit in Doomsday. Story-wise, it’s bigger than any previous companion departure precisely because the show is built on Piper’s character. Her exit underscores and overshadows the preposterously huge Daleks vs Cybermen finale. Naturally, it also cliffhangers with the introduction of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), because you know, life goes on!

On the publicity side of things, the turnover of leads in each series turbo-charged Doctor Who. Each series launch had a new lead, and the newness became a selling point. In the 1980s, the show struggled in the ratings opposite ITV’s Coronation Street, but since the 2000s, it’s regularly grabbed as many media headlines as all of the soaps combined.

This series also gave us the beginnings of a Whoniverse, establishing Torchwood and re-establishing Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) providing back-door pilots for BBC Three’s Torchwood and CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, which both debuted between this series and the next.

Davies designed these series as a way of keeping commissioners interested in the parent show. But by 2007, Doctor Who became a mini media empire. Commissioners developed other family dramas like Robin Hood and Merlin to fill the now-regenerated Saturday teatime slot, and even ITV had a go with telefantasy shows like Primeval and Demons.

Series three made a star of Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, who joins the Doctor in the cracking series opener Smith & Jones. The back-half of her stint in the TARDIS – from Cornell’s Human Nature two-parter, through Moffat’s “Doctor-lite” classic Blink, into Davies’ epic resurrection of the Master (Jacobi again, then John Simm) – is a pretty unimpeachable streak of scripts.

Soon after, 2007’s Christmas special Voyage Of The Damned became the most-watched episode of the new series to date. 16 million viewers tuned in to see Tennant’s Doctor snog guest-star Kylie Minogue, meet soon-to-be-regular Bernard Cribbins, and prevent a starship Titanic from pancaking London. Ho ho ho!

That popularity was solidified and largely maintained by series four, which brought Tate back as a regular. Whatever you think of this series, there’s never been another time when New Who has been as flat-out popular with UK audiences as it was during 2008.

And where classic Who would have done a multi-Doctor story, RTD’s take reaches its apex in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. The finale brings back Piper, Agyeman, Sladen, and John Barrowman’s Captain Jack back to help the Doctor and Donna fight off the Daleks and Davros. Basically, it’s Doctor Who’s answer to Avengers: Infinity War, when The Avengers was a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye.

In the background of all of this, the online Doctor Who fan community that had grown during the 1990s ballooned in the 2000s, with new episodes to, er… enjoy. This was going about as well as you’d expect. By 2008, the New Who fans who grew up with that buzzing in the background of forums had seemingly internalised older fans’ terror of the show going away again.

The sheer amount of press coverage fuelled this paranoia too. “DOCTOR WHO AXED BY BBC” headlines proliferated around the show’s ongoing success. Due to the manner of Eccleston’s departure, rumours that Tennant had quit were greatly exaggerated from almost the moment he was announced – The Stolen Earth’s audacious regeneration cliffhanger acknowledged that, as did the subsequent Christmas special The Next Doctor, starring David Morrissey as “the next Doctor”.

And so, Tennant’s actual departure became a much bigger event than his predecessor’s. He announced his decision to leave along with Russell T Davies while collecting his third National Television Award for Best Actor (he was very popular) in October 2008.

Tennant’s final specials centre the Doctor more than any other episode in this era. He’s paired with guest-star companions and eventually written out saving another national treasure from a radioactive shower cubicle.

Davies was sometimes caught up in the show’s celebrity orbit too. In his essential “Great Correspondence” book The Writer’s Tale, the showrunner tells journalist Benjamin Cook that he turned down an offer to appear on ITV’s celebrity skating show Dancing On Ice at one point. (It’s relatively early in the RTD2 era, but times have changed – he’s booked to appear on Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel soon.)

First time around, his departure was announced in May 2008, ahead of series four’s Silence In The Library. The two-parter is effectively a sizzle reel written by his successor Steven Moffat, who repeats themes and ideas from his previous three stories but also introduces River Song (Alex Kingston) and the next Doctor’s story. And 26-year-old Matt Smith was introduced as the Eleventh Doctor with a Doctor Who Confidential special in January 2009.

Next to most British TV dramas, Doctor Who’s future was and is relatively secure. To this day, that fan paranoia and online scuttlebutt hasn’t really gone away. Happily, the Ninth Doctor once had some wise words that apply here:

“You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs or beef or global warming or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive.”

Almost 20 years on, the revival is going strong through umpteen new incarnations. And the other thing to remember about Doctor Who, is that the end is always just the beginning…

One day, they will come back…

As well as reviving the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and the sodding Macra(!), the new series quickly populates its wardrobe with monsters for writers to bring out when the budget is stretched. Davies created the Ood and the Judoon, and we’ve previously written at length about the impact of Moffat’s Weeping Angels.

Read more: Doctor Who and the terror of the Weeping Angels

Elsewhere, spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures both continued in the early 2010s and Captain Jack Harkness also returned in the Thirteenth Doctor’s era. Tennant and Piper have both returned as different characters, while Eccleston emphatically hasn’t, but some of the Ninth Doctor audio adventures he’s made with Big Finish Productions are worth a listen.

And the Christmas specials kept going until 2017, eventually racking up enough for a seasonal boxset. And Ncuti Gatwa’s first Christmas special, The Church On Ruby Road, goes out on 25th December 2023. Because of course, the biggest comeback from the first RTD era may yet turn out to be RTD himself…

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 2000s

1. Davies understands that a lot of creative professionals – actors, writers, directors, crew-people – were inspired by watching Doctor Who as a kid. And so, the BBC Three making-of show Doctor Who Confidential provided a crash course in how it all gets made. Only the 15-minute cutdown editions made it onto disc releases, but the full-length versions have lots more of VFX supervisor Danny Hargreaves setting up explosions every single week, and they are EXCELLENT. (A new incarnation of the show, Doctor Who Unleashed, is part of this month’s big RTD2 kick-off.)

2. Across 50 episodes, David Tennant got more time to develop his performance than Christopher Eccleston, but no Doctor has ever had a scene as good to play as the first showdown with the Dalek in Dalek. You could imagine how every Doctor might approach those sharp emotional turns – from fear to glee to anger to grief to spite – but Eccleston utterly owns it. It’s the best scene in the best Dalek episode this century.

3. Much has been written about Rose Tyler and Donna Noble and how brilliant they both are, but Martha Jones remains the most underrated companion. In broad terms, her character arc across that series is there to make a point about life after Rose, but Agyeman outshines what could have been a more thankless role– we’re not convinced the writers always knew what to do with her, but it’s no wonder that she gets special guest-star status throughout the fourth series.

4. That Stolen Earth ending set both the Tenth Doctor and the audience alight, but in the Best Cliffhanger stakes, nothing this era comes close to the last 10 minutes of Utopia, a galloping panic-attack of a sequence in which every alarm set during the third series starts going off all at once. It’s perfectly executed by Davies and director Graeme Harper, and Masterfully performed (eh? eh?) by Tennant, Agyeman, Jacobi, and newly arrived Big Bad, John Simm.

5. With its zombie grannies and gas-mask transformations, Series One hits the horror like it’s the Phillip Hinchcliffe era again, but moment for moment, Davies’ companion-lite journey-into-terror Midnight is the scariest story. It’s not only the Moffat-esque playground-antics-made-scary conceit but also the way it suspends the usual format of Doctor Who for an exciting adventure with Ordinary British People. And we all know what a nightmare they are. Fair play to Donna knowing how terrible it was going to be and staying in the space spa…

6. Never mind the full-length episodes, there were also a lot of minisodes in the 2000s, with every episode of series two getting its own “TARDISode” prequel on the official Doctor Who website. But the two biggies were both scenes produced for the BBC’s Children In Need telethons – an untitled Christmas Invasion prequel that portrays Rose’s immediate reaction to the Tenth Doctor after his regeneration, and Time Crash, a Moffat-penned multi-Doctor comedy sketch that both sends up and celebrates Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor. “To days to come”, indeed.

Allons-y! Feel free to share your favourite things about 2000s Doctor Who in the comments…

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