The Ninth Doctor: The Coward’s Journey
Guest contributor George Wellard explores Nine’s remarkable development across his limited time.
Thanks to only having one series, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor often isn’t considered to be as fleshed out as the other modern incarnations, something I hugely disagree with. In one series the Ninth Doctor achieved a tremendous amount of development and has a remarkable story of his own. This is my interpretation of his journey, highlighting the prominent episodes in his development and addressing the themes sprinkled throughout his era.
When we first meet the Ninth Doctor, we see him through the eyes of Rose. He is a mystery to us as much as he is to Rose, as we do get to know him we find not all is quite as it seems with this man, even taking account his time machine. It’s here we get our first glimpse at a man traumatised from the Time War.
“I couldn’t save your world, I couldn’t save any of them!” he pleads to the enraged Nestene Consciousness, having discovered his Time Lord origins. It is only our first glimpse of the guilt he is carrying from the destruction of Galifrey and all the other lost worlds with it, a guilt and anger that stays with him throughout his tenure.
When Rose first joins him, he enjoys showing off, landing at wherever she suggests and saying he can do better. It’s almost as though he’s testing her thirst for adventure. In the end he decides to take her to watch her planet burn, seems an odd place to take someone on their first trip, doesn’t it? But there is method in this seemingly strange decision…
Having realized Rose shares his lust for adventure he needs her to understand his pain at losing his home and showing Rose her own planet’s destruction can make her see that before finally admitting to his loss. This is a huge demonstration of how instrumental Rose is in the Ninth Doctor’s road to forgiving himself; he finds comfort in her and eventually starts to rebuild himself alongside her.
The Parting of the Ways is another example, once the Doctor sends Rose home Satellite Five becomes a remorseless battlefield with characters from the sweet Lynda to the heroic Captain Jack dying terrifying deaths. It’s a display of the hopelessness the Doctor had endured in the aftermath of the Time War before he met her and Rose’s return as the Bad Wolf to save him symbolizes how she helped make him better.
The Doctor eventually faces consequences for bringing Rose with him in Aliens of London/World War Three, dropping her back home and finding it’s been a year since they’d left. It’s up to Rose to deal with the consequences with her family but it provides an interesting dilemma where the Doctor has to question whether he can keep her safe having proved himself unreliable if he can even get her to the right time. In a reversal from the Time War, the Doctor is initially hesitant to risk the few for the many as he realizes it would jeopardise Rose’s safety, once again showing her importance to him and how the Time War haunts him.
These consequences are a recurring theme in series one such as not seeing things through to the end in The Long Game leads to the earth in chaos. Even the Bad Wolf arc is a consequence from the finale. It’s particularly resonant with the Ninth Doctor as he deals with the consequences of destroying his own planet.
The Ninth Doctor wears many masks; he hides his shame and anger behind the smiles and showing off. Small scenes like The Long Game where Rose and Adam wander off and his smile immediately fades as though he’s pretending gives us a glimpse, but it’s Dalek that shows us in full force what is under this mask.
One of the most interesting relationships the Ninth Doctor shares is with his oldest and most dangerous enemy: The Daleks. They very much represent his guilt and he holds them responsible for everything he lost. His encounter with them in Dalek is one of fear and anger, unlike many of previous encounters with them. He recoils in terror as the Dalek screams its all too familiar catchphrase and once he learns that this Dalek is in fact powerless, he unleashes an anger we’d have never thought he was capable of before. He gloats at the destruction of its race and proudly declares his part in it but the Dalek points out that they are more alike than he thinks. Both think they are last standing members of their races and in retaliation he gleefully tortures it and demands its destruction.
It’s interesting to note that in this one confrontation the Doctor breaks his promise of “Neither cruel nor cowardly”. The Dalek brings out a side to the Doctor we don’t often see, someone fuelled by hatred and would happily see this creature dead. Even Rose questions what he’s changing into as he threatens it but nothing perhaps hits him harder than the Dalek’s own words: “You would make a good Dalek” It just goes to show how far his guilt and anger have made him fall and its Rose that makes him realize this. As the Dalek destroys itself before it can change into something better, the Doctor does the opposite and begins his path of redemption.
The Ninth Doctor’s arc is all about self-redemption and the ending of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances marks a huge turning point in that journey. After so much bloodshed at this point in the series, the Doctor finally has his big victory and saves everybody. The Doctor has always been surrounded by death, as Clive calls it in Rose, it’s his ‘one constant companion’ and perhaps no Doctor understands this more than the Ninth. With the weight of the Time War on his shoulders he needed something like this, it’s a huge stepping point into healing himself and his infectious joy just shows how far he has already come.
However, once again, the Doctor has to face consequences of his actions, this time with Margaret Slitheen. She confronts him to what he has done to her and forces him to face his morality as he has to choose between sentencing her to death and trusting her to live out the rest of her life in peace. Margaret spites him for the devastation he leaves in his wake, and how he “plays” with peoples lives. She turns his own words against him that sparing her would be him trying to make up for the millions he had slaughtered. It’s a fascinating insight into his mind, how he thinks he understands his enemies only to find he shares more in common with them than he likes to admit.
In the Ninth Doctor’s final adventure he faces the Daleks once again. In an arc of self redemption, it is most fitting that the Doctor is forced into a very similar position he was at the end of the Time War while facing the very same enemy.
As the final battle of the Time War commences it’s the ordinary people that stay and fight off the Daleks just to buy the Doctor more time. It’s an example of how the Ninth Doctor makes people better. You’ll notice a lot through Nine’s era that it’s not the Doctor that saves the day but the people he meets instead, Gwyneth in The Unquiet Dead and Cathica in The Long Game are only a few examples but none show this side of him better than Rose in The Parting of the Ways. Having had the Doctor send her back home to keep her safe, she desperately does everything she can to get back and save him, working out the meaning of “Bad Wolf” to get there. Rose’s passionate speech to Jackie and Mickey perhaps sums this up best: It wasn’t about the aliens and it wasn’t about the travelling, it was about ordinary people stepping up to the plate in extraordinary circumstances. Why? Because the Doctor inspired them to do so, he gives them the knowledge and the courage to do what’s right. In the end, the Doctor helps normal people become heroes.
Finally, the Daleks surround the Doctor. The Emperor challenges him to use the Delta Wave to wipe out the Daleks at the cost of all life on earth, the question is posed by a creature which only values killing, turning humans into remorseless monsters and yet despite his threats, the Doctor simply can’t bring himself to do it. After how much he’s grown over the past thirteen episodes, the angry, vengeful and war-torn man is gone and embraces the “coward” over the “killer”. He wouldn’t make a good Dalek after all.
As he accepts his fate, Rose, with her new God-like powers, arrives and saves him and defeats the Daleks by reducing them to dust. With this, Nine’s opportunity to complete his redemption comes and gives his life to save her.
The Ninth Doctor’s last moments are rather understated. He laughs and jokes with Rose before explaining to her what is going to happen; his priority is helping Rose through his regeneration. The most poignant thing of all in this scene is that he goes out with a smile; there are no tears and no regrets. It’s a man who has finally found peace and, in his own eyes, redeemed himself from his actions in the Time War. And with that, he is ready to become a new man.