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Just as the Doctor has done so many times down the years, Christopher Eccleston embarked on a journey into the unknown when he heard a new series of Doctor Who adventures was being planned.

First, he emailed co-executive producer and lead writer Russell T Davies to let him know he was interested in playing the Time Lord's ninth incarnation.

One of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, Christopher (41) accepts that saying 'yes' to reviving the Doctor was a bold move.

"If you wanted to be cynical about it, a lot of the work I've done has been comfort food for liberals," he says with a smile, referring to benchmark TV dramas such as Our Friends In The North and Hillsborough.

"What's dawned on me about Doctor Who is that I'm trying to entertain a different audience. It's exciting and funny and scary and it's aimed at families, so I'm kind of acting for children and I feel very lucky to be able to do that.

"For all the danger the Doctor encounters, the basic message of the show is seize life, be optimistic and see the positives.

"The series is written with passion and humour, and there's an innocence about it. It's a kind of celebration of life in all its forms.

"In everything the Doctor does he saying 'it's great to be alive'. I can hear people sneering at that, but that's what he believes and it's a nice thing to say to kids, or anybody for that matter."

Fittingly for a classic TV series being reinvented for the 21st century, Christopher had no preconceptions about Doctor Who, having rarely watched it as a child.

"I've got some memories of it, but I was always out playing," he says. "So I didn't have to think about what had gone before.

"I've just always tried to do the very best television I possibly could, and I knew that, having worked with Russell before, this series had a good chance of being great television."

When Christopher signed up to play the Doctor, Russell had already written the first two scripts, giving his leading man a character template to work on.

"He is Russell's Doctor and I've responded to the character that he's written," says Christopher. "But I have a sense that, as we went along, Russell started to look at what I was doing and began to write for me. I think I've done certain things with the character which he's liked, and he's used that."

Gone is the sartorial flamboyance of the previous Doctors, as is the slight air of theatricality which seemed to suit their outfits, and in their place is a more pared-down, more 'alien' adventurer - with a northern accent.

"The accent is an interesting thing," says Manchester-born Christopher, whose movie credits include Shallow Grave, Elizabeth and 28 Days Later.

"The Doctor is a scientist and an intellectual, and a lot of people seem to think you can only be those things if you speak with received pronunciation which, of course, is rubbish.

"In terms of what he wears (mostly black but with a succession of coloured tops), I didn't want the costume to be my performance, I wanted any flamboyance and colour to come out of my acting.

"I think it's quite a big performance already, so I think if I was wearing a 'big' costume as well I'd need a circus tent!

"There's also the challenge for me of the comic element to the Doctor's character. I hadn't done a great deal of comedy before and I wanted to try that."

But the bottom line for Christopher is that the Doctor is someone who lives for the here and now.

"He doesn't like to think about his past - there's some pain there - and his only concern about the future is that he makes sure it's there.

"He kind of eats life. He's not on a mission, he hasn't got an agenda, he's just there. Things just happen, he responds to them and does what he thinks is right."

Teaming up with Rose brings him into contact with her family, bringing out another element of the Doctor's personality.

"He doesn't do 'domestic'," Christopher smiles. "There's a line about it in one episode. He doesn't really like domestic set-ups or being answerable to other people. The ninth Doctor seems to have a problem with commitment!"

But for all his insights into the new Doctor's personality, the man playing him admits he's still trying to work a lot of it out himself.

"I find it quite hard to talk about the series because it's such a massive project and we're working so hard on it that I've not had a moment to collect my thoughts," says Christopher.

"To be honest with you, I've actually found myself behaving like the Doctor - I walk into a scene, the scene unfolds, I react to it, they film it and I move on.

"I'm not talking about 'immersing' myself in it, or any 'method' stuff - it's just such a fast-paced show and production that you have to get on with it!

"Everything you need to know about Doctor Who is all there on the screen. More than anything else I've worked on, this show does exactly what it says on the tin."

Christopher adds: "When I agreed to play the Doctor, I was reacting with my heart to what I feel Russell has tried to do with all his work, which is deliver television