A Veteran of The Last Great Time War

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Guest contributor Martin Backman looks at the effect of the Time War on the Doctor.

There have so far been eleven (canonical) actors to portray the Doctor for the almost fifty years the franchise has existed. There has been a steady continuity of sorts through all the different incarnations from William Hartnell to Matt Smith, with clear similarities in attire and personality, to show that all these men are portraying the same character. However, there is one incarnation of the Doctor who stands out from the rest more than any other: The Ninth Doctor, portrayed by Christopher Eccleston for a single series in 2005.

While most incarnations have had some variety of formal wear, such as suits or just long coats with dapper lapels, Eccleston’s Doctor is dressed in very simple and functional clothes. He is also the only Doctor with very short hair, which is another thing that visually stands in stark contrast to the trend for most incarnations to have longer or more well-groomed hair. Besides his appearance, the Ninth Doctor’s mannerisms differ from most previous incarnations. While he does occasionally display the same manic sense of adventure and excitement for general weirdness – as is expected from the Doctor – this incarnation is in many ways less eccentric and more reserved with a no-nonsense attitude. Christopher Eccleston plays the Doctor like a hardened military-type, a soldier who has seen his fair share of combat activity. Why this Doctor has such a strong military vibe becomes apparent very quickly in the first storyline that puts all of “Nu-Who” in motion.

The Last Great Time War

Already in the first episode of Series 1, Rose, do we get an implication that the Doctor has experienced something quite horrible and traumatising since his last appearance nine years prior in the TV-movie. Over the entire first series we get more hints and a vague understanding of what happened: There has been a catastrophic conflict between the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, and their enemies known as the Daleks. “The Last Great Time War” has done unimaginable destruction throughout time and space, which has caused some of the mightiest species in the Whoniverse to go extinct, but “lower life forms” such as humanity have remained blissfully unaware of it. Only much later – near the end of David Tennant’s run – do we get a retroactive confirmation of what exact role the Doctor himself played in the Time War. But the hints are there, already at the beginning of Eccleston’s all-too-short run.

To me the character seemed during Eccleston’s run very similar to how traumatised war veterans tend to be portrayed in fiction. In most episodes Eccleston’s Doctor shows signs of extreme survivor’s guilt, which is understandable as he believes he is literally the last of his species. He also has a very apparent ruthless streak in how he handles problems, and judging by his occasional suicidal recklessness he seems to have a strong death wish. It is made abundantly clear to the audience that the Time War is what turned the Doctor into the man he is in Series 1. Going by appearances on television only, the Eighth Doctor’s brief outing in 1996 showed him as a kind and romantic soul. Paul McGann’s portrayal seemed very reminiscent of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, who has been considered by many fans as “the nice one”. The extreme difference between the Eighth Doctor as a sensitive Edwardian gentleman, and the Ninth Doctor as a gruff efficient military man, truly hammers home the point that the Time War was very traumatic to our dear Doctor. The hints we get through the entire RTD-era imply that the Time War was the Doctor’s personal Great War, Vietnam or any other conflict seen in a very negative light in the public consciousness.

The post-War veteran

As I continue to look at the Time War’s effect on the Doctor, I will draw comparisons to fiction about Vietnam veterans specifically. Why Vietnam? Because the Ninth Doctor reminds me in many ways of two specific fictional veterans: Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and John Rambo from First Blood, both men veterans of the Vietnam War.

Both Bickle and Rambo have proven their worth as soldiers in Vietnam before being honourably discharged from service. Rambo even mentions that he was in charge of “million dollar equipment” and a long list of awards is counted by his former superior officer, Colonel Troutman. But whatever their actions of skill and bravery they might have performed in Vietnam, both men have severe difficulties in re-adapting to civilian life. Bickle is socially awkward and is obviously suffering from some type of post-traumatic stress disorder, while Rambo is so consumed by his personal demons that he can’t keep a job or form any new relationships with people. Both men feel truly alone and lost in peace-time and feel like strangers in their home-land. One of the key incidents that trigger the events of First Blood is when Rambo goes to visit his final surviving platoon-mate, only to discover that the man has died from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Rambo is completely alone and surrounded by people who lack understanding or empathy for his plight.

The Ninth Doctor shows parallels to the post-war life of these two men. He is literally the last of his kind (as far as he knows) and he carries the heavy burden of his memories. Like Vietnam, the Time War is implied to have been a very dirty conflict, where both sides commit unbelievable atrocities. We can only imagine what the “Nightmare Child” actually is, as well as the “Skaro degradations” or the “Could-have-been-King” and other horrible-sounding things mentioned by the Tenth Doctor. Because we don’t know exactly what these weapons are, our imagination paints a dreadful picture of the Time War. Even though most details known about the conflict aren’t revealed until later, Eccleston’s performance gives the audience an idea of what he has been through.

One thing in particular that Eccleston’s Doctor has in common with Rambo is how both men handle dangerous situations: They both seem to revert to instinctually following whatever they learned in their basic military training in order to survive. I have no idea how the Gallifreyan military works, but judging by the Doctor, they seem to value commando training. There also seem to be implications that the Doctor was not a rank-and-file soldier, but some type of field officer. Looking at specific episodes, most notably Dalek and the two-parter with the Slitheen, the Doctor takes control of the situation and begins issuing orders the way a Sergeant would to his troops. A very small moment stands out to me, when the Doctor tries to sneak into the hospital where the modified pig is kept in secret. The Doctor is caught and held at gunpoint, but the exact moment when Toshiko screams in fright he issues orders on instinct. And the trained soldiers follow him without question. No Psychic Paper, no Sonic Screwdriver, or any other tricks. Just an order to follow him, and they do. It would have been very interesting to see how this Doctor would have interacted with the Brigadier, who was often frustrated with the anti-military attitude of previous incarnations.

Getting over the War

There is one other thing in the Ninth Doctor’s arc that makes much sense if Nu-Who is seen as the story of a traumatized war veteran. Many fans seem to object to the Doctor’s relationship with Rose, questioning what makes her so special and so on. The budding romance between the two never bothered me because I thought it made sense considering how they met and what the Doctor was implied to have been through. It is understandable why Rose would fall for the Doctor: He is a mysterious stranger in a leather jacket, who is also a cool older man with more experience of the world (and the universe at large), plus he has a time-machine crossed with a space-ship. It also helps that Rose is only 19 years old when they meet, as a typical 19-year old tends to in many ways still be more a child than an adult. So her immature girlish infatuation with the Doctor makes sense, even though I never actually approved of her poor treatment of Mickey.

But why would the Doctor fall for her? What makes her so special? I have a potential answer for this as well, but I’m sure that many will disagree with my argument. The way I see it, there is nothing remarkable about Rose herself when they meet. If the Doctor had instead met, say, Martha or any other woman who might fit the description of a typical Companion, then he might have fallen for them instead. The point is that the Doctor was in a very vulnerable state, and she simply happened to be there. To draw another parallel to Taxi Driver, Rose can be seen as analogous to the child prostitute that Travis Bickle encounters and whom he desperately wants to save. In my interpretation of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose, he sees in her someone innocent who is unaffected by the horrors that he has witnessed. He is also flattered by the interest she shows in him and – as the Eleventh Doctor later on admitted – the Doctor likes to keep people around, so that they can be impressed by him. An obviously dark side to the relationship is shown when the Doctor emotionally blackmails her to travel with him immediately after the Slitheen have been defeated, instead of mending ties with the people left behind. The relationship between these two is far from healthy and occasionally quite creepy even. But it makes sense within the presented context.

The way their relationship is portrayed is a very common story in fiction: An old soldier, broken by the horrors of war, meets an innocent young woman who “sees the good in him”. She sees someone whom she can take care of and he sees someone who can save his soul. Again, the romance dysfunctional and unhealthy, and it does get bothersome after a while to see David Tennant pine for Rose for a few years after her departure. But it makes sense to me, when I look at the Doctor as broken man desperate for some type of affection. However, the relationship didn’t blossom into a full romance until the Ninth Doctor regenerated into his Tenth incarnation and mellowed quite a bit. Until the end he was still a soldier, with an officer’s reserved bearing.

Final thoughts

Most of the things I’ve listed here were more or less confirmed after Christopher Eccleston’s departure, in subsequent series’ and in the specials leading to the end of the RTD-era. But re-watching Eccleston’s performance with all this knowledge has been astounding. There are constant subtle hints in his line delivery and his facial expressions, which can easily be overlooked. I would very much want to know how much of the storyline was planned ahead by the writers and how much Eccleston knew about his character’s off-screen past, to influence his performance. Eccleston’s run was short, but a very memorable one nonetheless. Because this Doctor’s back story was so dark and sad, the rare moments when he does show genuine childlike happiness are all the more effective. There is a reason The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is such a highly regarded story, which can be summed with the following quote:

“Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!”