31 March 2004

The Passion of Chris

I would be lax in my duties if I failed to share with you the reasons why the casting of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor is a damn good thing. I warn you now, if you don't like Doctor Who -- or worse still don't know what it is on account of being American -- this entry isn't going to mean an awful lot to you. (If the latter, though, try here for starters.)

The announcement is the latest in a string of excellent signs about the BBC's revival of its most famous property. Perhaps the most exciting is that Russell T Davies, the TV writer-god responsible for Queer as Folk, is taking creative control of the project. Not only is Davies a huge Who fan, as anyone who's seen Queer as Folk will realise, but he's also an extremely gifted writer, whose work reeks of real life without losing any of its drama. The Second Coming, his miniseries about the, er, Second Coming, dealt sympathetically with Christianity and issues of faith even while concluding that the world would be better off without God; while Queer as Folk is quite simply one of the finest TV drama series ever made. He's also done comedy work (Bob and Rose) and work for children (Dark Season). He's even written a thoroughly good Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods -- now sadly out of print, and you're never going to pick it up cheaply now.

The writing team Davies has assembled to write the scripts with him are equally exciting: all of them have extensive TV experience, coupled with previous Doctor Who credits in one form or another. Paul Cornell has written two original science fiction novels for Victor Gollancz (Something More and British Summertime) and worked on diverse TV series including Casualty. Mark Gatiss is one of the main players in the disturbing horror-comedy series The League of Gentlemen (which I'm not personally a fan of, as it happens, but it demonstrates the quality of participant Davies is recruiting). Robert Shearman has a shedload of credits for radio and TV plays, while Steven Moffat wrote (and still writes) the excellent comedy series Coupling. All except Shearman and Moffatt have written Doctor Who novels; all except Moffat and Davies have written Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish; Moffatt created the charity Doctor Who skit for Comic Relief, The Curse of Fatal Death.

Apart from Davies, Cornell is the heaviest hitter of the lot, in the series' own terms if not more mainstream ones, having written eight Doctor Who or related novels, two audio dramas and the script for BBCi's animated Doctor Who webcast, The Scream of the Shalka. That starred Richard E Grant as the voice, and appearance, of the Doctor -- which brings me on to my reasons for appreciating the casting of Eccleston. Grant, you see, is an excellent actor, no question of it, with a range that takes in comedy, arrogance and pathos -- often all in the same performance, as in the classic Withnail and I. However, there was something terribly flat about the character of his Doctor. Grant was, in many ways, the obvious casting choice -- eccentric, aristocratic, tetchy -- and, perhaps as a consequence, the writing, the performance and even the animation of his central character came across in the webcast as rather trite and dull. Perhaps everyone except Grant himself was relying on his performance to buoy the whole thing up, and it just didn't stand up to the weight.

(Not that there isn't much to recommend The Scream of the Shalka if you've an hour to spare, because there is. Derek Jacobi's turn as the Master is a great treat.)

Anyway. This is precisely why the casting of Eccleston impresses and excites me. Eccleston is a proficient and versatile actor, to be sure -- his turn as Steve, the Son of God, in The Second Coming was a tour de force, while his performances elsewhere (an American corporate speaker in eXistenZ, a war-ravaged soldier in The Others) demonstrate impressive range. However, he's a) utterly working class, b) Northern, and c) physically awkward and -- in the nicest possible way -- ugly. He is in no respect what one would consider classic Doctor material. It will be very interesting to see whether the directors allow him to speak naturally or ask him to affect an upper-class accent (which he can, of course, do) -- but, on a more fundamental level, his casting will allow nobody involved to be either lazy or complacent. The writers, the director, Eccleston himself: all will be forced to actively think their way through the nature of the Doctor -- his character, his role, his place in the drama -- without falling back on the cliches established during earlier incarnations. It's been obvious for a while that Davies and his team are taking this completely seriously as drama: Eccleston's casting (rather than that of someone terribly obvious, like, say, Anthony Stewart Head) confirms that utterly.

Doctor Who 2005 promises (as, really, it has all along) to be a thoughtful, genuinely creative and clever take on a classic science fiction universe and its hero. I honestly can't wait.

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