In April 2013, The Daily Star reported that Christopher Eccleston had passed on returning to Doctor Who for the 50th Anniversary special set to air at the end of the year, and an unnamed BBC source subsequently confirmed the news to Digital Spy, saying “Chris met with Steven Moffat a couple of times to talk about Steven’s plans for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode. After careful thought, Chris decided not to be in the episode. He wishes the team all the best.”
On this very site, I questioned how much we could really trust The Daily Star or the time-honored “unnamed insider,” yet concluded that it’s not like we should really have been surprised to hear that Eccleston had decided to pass. He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Congeniality as far as Doctor Who is concerned. To him, it was a job he did that one time. However, his decision to walk away forever, 50th anniversaries be damned, necessitated a somewhat messy solution in which there just happened to have been this extra Doctor we never knew about, unnumbered and sandwiched between McGann and Eccleston. In my Doctor Who-loving heart, I wish none of that would have been necessary and we simply could have seen Eccleston as the War Doctor.
But then they cast John Hurt to play the Hurt Doctor.
It almost didn’t, though. In a new Radio Times interview, Steven Moffat exclusively reveals how much of a clusterfuck the 50th anniversary was for him, not just the actual special but also having to stay on top of every bit of new content they were producing for the entire year. Well, maybe not a total clusterfuck, but definitely something which went through some patches during the development stage. What did we learn?:
- When he wrote the season 7 finale in which Clara enters the Doctor’s timestream, he had no idea what was going to happen next. He just knew that the Doctor would go in after Clara to save her, and whatever he encountered in there would lead into the 50th anniversary special.
- The anonymous BBC source from 2013 was absolutely right – Eccleston really did meet with Moffat multiple times before deciding to pass and wish them good luck.
- Moffat’s initial concept for the 50th anniversary included Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, but after Eccleston passed he was thrown for a loop and suddenly realized that technically neither Tennant nor Smith had signed the contract to be in the 50th. So, as filming approached he had to start writing a 50th anniversary script all about Clara with no Doctors because none of the Doctors had officially agreed to return.
- Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy never had a snow ball’s chance in Gallifrey of reprising their roles in the 50th because Moffat was only going to consider those actors who still at least looked roughly like they did when they played the Doctor…except for Tom Baker. They made the exception for Tom Baker.
- John Hurt was their first choice to play the War Doctor, and he said yes immediately, which was ever so good for him because they needed him on set almost right away to start filming.
- John Hurt was not “slumming it” playing the Doctor. Instead, he took it very seriously, and continually told people during production how proud he was to be able to say that he played the Doctor.
Here are the money quotes:
I knew that Chris was almost certainly going to say no. I met him a couple of times and he was absolutely lovely. He met with me because he didn’t want to say no through his agent or a phone call or email. He wanted to do it personally. And I three-quarters talked him into it.
So I started a version of it but I got to a point where I could go no further unless it was going to be him. I went for another meeting with him and he decided no. His reasons are his business and he’s a very private man. But it’s reasonable to say he really cares about Doctor Who. He’s well versed in what’s happened since he left, and happily chatted away about Amy Pond by name.
On The Script
[After Eccleston passed] We had to work out what else to do. At that point neither David nor Matt were under contract either. I had Jenna [Coleman]. And I did come up with a plotline that was just Jenna. It was a nightmare. We’re weeks from filming. A production team is assembled, people are doing storyboards and I don’t even know if anyone who has ever played the Doctor is going to be in it.
So then David and Matt come on board and the BBC are waiting for my big idea. I remember saying to Marcus [Wilson, producer], “What if there was an incarnation of the Doctor none of us knew about? And, coincidentally, he was played by the most famous actor in the world? Specifically someone who might have been cast as the Doctor during the long hiatus. For instance, John Hurt…”
On John Hurt
I wrote the War Doctor script and we sent it off to John Hurt, assuming that was the beginning of a frantic two weeks of sending it off to every actor you’ve ever heard off and got Janette Krankie. And – God bless him for ever! – he said yes almost immediately. That was the first stroke of luck we had on that sodding show.
And how good was he! One moment as the Doctor and he nails it. He totally gets it. And he was lovely about being in it. I wasn’t there on his last day, but he gave a little speech and said something like: “I don’t want anyone to think I took this lightly or thought I was slumming it. This really meant something to me, to be the Doctor.” He was quite insistent, saying to me and to others: “So I am properly Doctor Who now. I am a Doctor Who. I can say it?” He loves the fact that he’s Doctor Who. Only having to stay in Cardiff for three weeks, he gets to be Doctor Who.