On Feb. 16, 2020, just a few short weeks before "coronavirus" entered the global vocabulary, Christopher Eccleston walked on stage to a room of thousands, all singing "Happy Birthday" to him. Eccleston stood in front of this massive crowd in silence, visibly moved by the performance before him. As the end of the song shifted to applause, he lifted his microphone to his mouth and said “I can not remember ever having a better birthday” and thanked everyone before taking a seat and participating in the last interview of the convention.
I was fortunate enough to be seated in the front row that day, shouting the song alongside so many others. That’s the moment the Ninth Doctor was reborn, and Eccleston’s decision to come back to Doctor Who in a new audio series was decided.
Eccleston had been testing out fan cons for a few months by the time this birthday celebration had come to him, and those who had been following his attendance at these events knew he was becoming increasingly comfortable with sharing his story. Why was his time as the Ninth Doctor limited to a single season in 2005?
Why was he off stage and screen for so long after that performance? U.S. audiences, anyway, didn't see much of him until he played Malekith in Thor: The Dark World (and even then, under full makeup) in 2013, and the pivotal role of Matt Jamison in the excellent HBO series The Leftovers over the next few years.
Did the rumors of bad blood between the showrunners and Eccleston have any merit to them? It had all started coming out in these convention interviews.
The answers to these questions weren’t pleasant ones. Eccleston tells a story of a man who was all but blacklisted by the BBC and used as a scapegoat for why the triumphant return of Doctor Who to television wasn’t the explosive event as had been predicted. His stories often included deeply personal dips through depression, as he struggled to find motivation to return to the work he had previously loved. His relationship with his fans didn’t feel great to him either, often concerned those who asked for his autograph were just going to turn around and sell it on eBay instead of appreciating it for themselves.
Gallifrey One, the annual Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles, is where those who deeply appreciate all things Who really turned out to show Eccleston how loved he truly is. Videos of other U.S. cons he’d done, like the Portland Comic Con late in 2019, showed he was starting to see fans of his work really loved him for him and he’d started to warm to the idea of being there for this audience. But Gallifrey One is all Doctor, all the time. And while the convention had seen many of the old school Doctors and plenty of companions appear every year to do autographs, Eccleston was the first modern era Doctor to grace the hallways of this amazing fan event. And knowing he was going to be there, the fans made sure to show up in style.
Eccleston wasn’t just the headliner of the event, he was the theme for most of the cosplays and fan panels of the show this year. The autograph line filled up within seconds. And because of the outpouring of support and love Eccleston actually agreed to keep the line open for several additional hours to make sure he was able to see as many people as possible. It’s a convention unlike any other, and as the massive crowd sang to him on that last day it was clear it left a lasting impression on him.
This new audio series will place Eccleston back in the driver’s seat of the TARDIS for 12 episodes, spanning four boxed sets as a collector’s set on CD or vinyl, as well as a digital download. Pre-orders for these sets have already started on the Big Finish Website.
News that the Ninth Doctor is returning has a lot of fans deeply excited, and with good reason. But if you ask me, the truly exciting thing is having been able to witness a fandom breathe happiness and warmth into an actor enough to encourage him to return to this role with my own eyes. Fans are awesome, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
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