Despite varied and acclaimed careers on stage and screen, it’s the mixed blessing of every actor to have taken on the role of television’s favourite Time Lord to be remembered most for their time on Doctor Who.
Even Christopher Eccleston, who’s declined to reprise the role in any capacity since his three-month stint as the Ninth Doctor eleven years ago, can’t escape the association. So his appearance at the Southbank Centre last Wednesday night to read H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel ‘The Time Machine’ can’t help making a few Whovians giddy.
Eccleston was joined by Nikki Amuka-Bird (Beth in the Torchwood episode ‘Sleeper’) and Emma Hamilton (Mr Selfridge) as the dinner guests hearing the Time Traveller’s story. This event kicks off the 10th London Literature Festival, which will run until the 16th October. After a brief introduction, the trio filed onto the stage wearing stovepipe hats to reinforce the Victorian setting. The hats are quickly discarded, however, and were left behind when they filed off the stage ninety minutes later.
Wells’ novel is told from the perspective of the unnamed Time Traveller. After expounding to his friends one evening his experiments with time travel, he arrives the next day bruised and haggard. The Time Traveller recounts his adventure in time to his guests. He found himself in AD 802,701 and discovered that humanity’s evolution had diverged into two distinct species. The placid, childlike Eloi and the brutal, subterranean Morlocks. After his time machine goes missing, the Time Traveller must leave the docile peace of the Eloi and face the Morlocks to reclaim his freedom.
Eccleston looks so different from the Doctor these days that it isn’t hard to disassociate the Time Traveller from the Time Lord. But, despite sporting a grey beard and longer hair that wafts as he performs, Eccleston perfectly blends the Time Traveller’s awe and wonder with insight and humour that comparisons to the Doctor are inevitable. For someone whose first experience with Doctor Who was alongside the Ninth Doctor, it’s downright nostalgic.
Almuka-Bird plays Filby and Hamilton takes the lines of another unnamed dinner guest scoffing at the Time Traveller’s tale. Since the story is mostly told from the Time Traveller’s perspective, both actors share narrator duties to break up Eccleston’s oration. This does lead to a couple of awkwardly-handled shifts from first to third person but otherwise the jump is seamless. Standing centre-stage, Eccleston’s presence dominates the reading with as much of his performance coming through his hands.
Wells’ story does what all science-fiction should do – take modern trends and extrapolate them out to their logical conclusion. But, over a century after publication, we’ve seen some of the things Wells fretted over rise and fall in the 20th century. Claire Allfree, who adapted the text to stage, and director Cedering Fox superbly lead the cast to poke gentle fun at Wells fears without undermining the fact that these were, and remain, prescient concerns.
At the risk of speaking for him, Eccleston may balk at comparisons between his Time Traveller and the Ninth Doctor. But the curiosity, ingenuity and bravery of the Time Traveller are inevitably a reminder of how great his Doctor became. Perhaps someday Big Finish will tempt him over and we’ll hear Eccleston take on a time traveller again. But, for now, hearing one of my favourite actors read classic sci-fi is a worthy substitute.