When we meet the Ninth Doctor, he is a man of mystery. We don’t know about the war between the Daleks and the Time Lords, when the regeneration between the Eighth Doctor and the Ninth happened, or whether there was another, extra Doctor in the middle somewhere, doing stuff that the subsequent Doctors are too appalled to discuss. The key aspect of the Ninth Doctor’s character is that he has seen too much and lost too much, and that he carries a heavy load. He starts off partially dazzled and partially deafened by war, and it takes a human to bring him out of his shell.
He’s no longer a gadabout space meddler with curious fashion sense, he’s a war veteran. The silly shirts, twinkly eyes and frock coats have all gone, to be replaced with a scuffed leather coat and a frown, and a ton of nervous energy. He’s no longer running away from the stuffy self-regard of high Gallifreyan society, he’s just running, because he has nowhere and nowhen else to go.
So with a backstory like that, it was a masterstroke to cast Christopher Eccleston as the first Doctor with a northern English accent.
Had the Doctor been a charming eccentric or a lofty boffin from the home counties, the grim reality of his war record would have been harder to bring across. The Ninth Doctor has the least gentlemanly demeanor of all of his incarnations, because he’d been a foot soldier in a terrible conflict and had been forced to bring it to a close by destroying everyone involved.
It might be theatrical shorthand, but by giving the Doctor an accent rooted in the industrial heartland of the British Isles, Russell T Davies takes him out of officer class and puts him amid the rank and file of serving Time Lords, as if the Time War was so extreme it made even this eternally foppish flibbertigibbet look at himself in the mirror with such venom he had to become a hard-bitten working man just to get by.
Even Rose spots this and points it out, “if you are an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?” to which Nine shoots back “lots of planets have a north,” with a slightly wounded tone, as if caught out.
This all comes out in the key confrontation in the key Ninth Doctor story, “Dalek,” a scene in which fear, anger, horror and glee dance across his face, to be replaced with self-loathing, Dalek-loathing and bitter recrimination.
This is not the Doctor that we’ve known until now. And at times he doesn’t seem sure about himself either. There are moments during that exchange when you can almost see him thinking “is this what I do now? That doesn’t seem right.”
Luckily, as he so often has before, the Ninth Doctor makes a friend that slowly resets his internal spirit level. It’s pointless to consider Nine without Rose, as she’s the young girl, also of humble origins, who teaches him how to regain his sense of proportion and his warmth. In return, she gets to meddle with time (she meets her dead dad, get him back together with her mum), and kill her own race of Daleks. Their relationship is symbiotic.
So it’s fitting that this is the Ninth Doctor’s final act.
He takes his perspective, his view of the universe (in the shape of the time vortex) out of her mind, and somehow finally heals that embittered part of himself. As a character arc, all he has left to do now is die, so that he can be reborn as the significantly less traumatised (and slightly posher) Tenth Doctor, and the regenerated Doctor Who can take over the world.
A fantastic outcome all round.
And if you want more on the Ninth Doctor, Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited – The Ninth Doctor is on BBC AMERICA on Sunday September 29 at 8/7c.