The On-Set Drama That Made Christopher Eccleston Leave Doctor Who

One of the biggest disappointments for long-time Whovians is that Christopher Eccleston, who started off the revival series as the Ninth Doctor, was only around for 13 episodes. Whereas every Doctor since has gotten three seasons to make an impression, Eccleston's grouchier, more grounded version of the character didn't even get his own Christmas special.

At first glance, this seems like an intentional storytelling decision. The most unique aspect of "Doctor Who" is the way the main character changes actors every few years, so it would make narrative sense to introduce the concept of regeneration to new viewers as soon as possible, to prepare them for a show that's always prepared to reinvent itself. 

In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, however, Eccleston made it clear that the Ninth Doctor's early exit had little to do with showrunner Russel T. Davies' vision for the series.

The Doctor's a Very Demanding Character to Play

Today, "Doctor Who" is known for its long, grueling production schedule, which is part of why its so rare for modern Doctors to stay on for more than three seasons. Being a main actor on the show means working demanding hours for up to nine months at a time. With the revival in its infancy, however, Eccleston had little way of knowing that going in. "In a sense, I treated it like just another job," the actor told The Guardian, adding, "I think it's fair to say that David Tennant, who came after me, understood that much more than me: the size of the show."

He noted that the crew "could've have been treated better," and acknowledged that harsh shooting conditions are unfortunately typical for the industry. Although Eccleston and Davies once had a "great working relationship" from working on a previous series together (2003's "Second Coming"), it was a breakdown in the relationship between the two that served as the last straw. Although Eccleston kept away from specifics, it seems clear the respect was gone by the end of filming: "I learned about the politics and I learned that I don't necessarily ... If somebody asks me to kiss their ass, I bite it. That's what I learned about myself."

Would Eccleston have stayed longer under Moffat's run?

Another reason given for the breakdown in his relationship with Davies was due to a disagreement over how Eccleston's Doctor was written. "I was never as sure what Russell wanted," he told The Guardian. "What I could see with Russell was exactly what he wanted from Rose, Billie Piper, I think that was his strength."

It was only during the Steven Moffat-penned two-parter, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," that Eccleston felt like he understood exactly what was being asked of him, describing the writing of the Doctor in that story as "a gift." Eccleston's approval of Moffat continued long after the actor left the show, with him praising the writing in the 50th anniversary episode as "immaculate" and "a brilliant working of Steven Moffat's imagination."

It raises the painful, unanswerable question of how differently Eccleston would look back at his "Doctor Who" tenure if he'd been cast during the show's later seasons, when Moffat took over as showrunner. Most of the production team during the Davies era was replaced as Moffat took the reins, and although Seasons 5-10 gave fans plenty to speculate about when it came to behind-the-scenes drama, it may have been an environment more suited for Eccleston's personality and his preferences as an actor. 

Eccleston has no plans to return to the show

"My relationship with the BBC over "Doctor Who" has not healed," Eccleston stated during recent DragonCon Q&A. It wasn't just the conditions that led to him leaving, but how he was treated afterward:

They created a quote, and they attributed it to me, which said I was tired ... Any other producer reading that would go 'Oh, we're not going to employ Christopher Eccleston because he gets tired'. So it was a lie, and it was in quotation marks, and I'm from Salford, you don't do that to me.

Despite all this, he hasn't lost love for the character itself. He's since returned to perform in the audio series "The Ninth Doctor Adventures." The first series of episodes was released in May 2021, with 12 more installments expected to be released in the future. He's joked that he'll show up in the show's 100th anniversary, so at least fans of his Doctor have something to look forward to in about 40 years.