It’s surprising how easily this era slips into history. On the one hand, there is nothing being said here that was not said in DVD commentaries and Doctor Who Confidential ten years ago, often by the same people. And yet there is none of the breathless self-promotion of Confidential, which is what this most obviously resembles. The imminent, thrilling need to celebrate the basic existence of Doctor Who is absent. Just as the tail end of the classic series was drained of all its conflict, this is drained of all its triumph.
For those who remember what the Eccleston series actually felt like as it happened – that is, classic series fans – this is slightly disorienting. Eccleston is basically explained as “he was a Doctor for the 21st century and not quite what anyone expected.” And yet the scenes shown are exactly the ones you’d expect, with no real oddities among them. In marked contrast to the McCoy era, where we spent bizarre amounts of time on Time and the Rani, here we get Eccleston’s Emmy reel.
The issue, one quickly realizes, is that this is essentially the first time these set pieces of the “Doctor Who Season One as vital text in television history” argument have been done without Russell T Davies, who continued his politely silent 2013. And, of course, Eccleston is absent as well. As with the McGann episode, there’s a hole in the middle of this narrative.
It is worth noting that there is actually some suspense at this point in time. This went out on September 29th, the day after it was announced that there would be a trailer soon for Day of the Doctor, but nearly two months after the announcement of Peter Capaldi. “What is Doctor Who these days” was an astonishingly relevant question, with, at that moment in time, essentially three Doctors besides the incumbent having some sort of active “what’s going on with” question, one who’d never appeared, and one who’d only had a minute of speaking time.
The result was a historical moment where there was a past/present line on what Doctor Who was that Eccleston was exactly on the wrong side of. Which was at the time useful. Doctor Who was not a young series – it was already into season numbers well higher than most shows get, and it was at the time highly visible that it was a half-century old. Finding ways to justify calling your “this is where you should start watching” point as recent as possible mattered. So declaring Eccleston to be history was an easy decision to make.
And he’s history by his own choosing, admittedly – we should remember that the entire landscape of Doctor Who would have looked different right now had Eccleston been in Day of the Doctor, or, at least, certainly this special would have. But no, right now the scale of Doctor Who is very much 2006-14. And all of this is bluntly literalized in the closing moments of Moffat’s introduction to Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, when he mentions the fleeting appearance of David Tennant as a highlight.
Given this, the choice of stories is appreciated. There were only three candidates, since the timeslot is based on a classic series four-parter. They were never going to show Aliens of London/World War Three, which made it an either-or choice between Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. They decide to go for the Davies story, in all its glory. They let this era stand on its own terms, in other words. And it’s similarly interesting to hear Moffat describe the “everybody lives” scene in terms of what it communicates, instead of in terms of its quality, in a way that reinforces the historicization by not subsequently colonizing it as a prototype of the present. Which speaks volumes, in the end. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental respect you can pay the Eccleston era – to trust it absolutely to stand on its own merits.
(An idiosyncratic observation – the clips from this that they choose include the “the Doctor tells the Daleks no” scene from Bad Wolf, and is cut to highlight the fact that when he does, all of the other characters in the scene do a simultaneous head-take, in the most gloriously artificial way imaginable.)