The following I submit as part of the “Love Hurt” Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid with the intention of filling the Internet with good wishes and thoughts for John Hurt who, sadly, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!?” I cried.
The date: May 18, 2013. The location: my living room. I had just finished watching the final episode of Doctor Who Season 7 entitled The Name of the Doctor and written by the series’ showrunner Steven Moffat. The episode had concluded with the astonishing words: “Introducing John Hurt…as the Doctor.” I simply didn’t understand. “John Hurt is the Doctor,” I said to myself, “where did this come from?” I was even more befuddled when I learned that all the answers to my questions would be answered on November 23. That was a six month wait!
Okay, maybe I should back up a bit. For those who have not taken the plunge and become obsessed with adventures in time and space, here’s a brief overview. Doctor Who is a science fiction television series, which debuted on the BBC in 1963. The show finds an alien, known only as the Doctor, who travels throughout time and space in a 1960s police box. That in the simplest of nutshells has fueled over 50 years of television. In that time, showrunners have added to the show’s mythos – perhaps most notably when Russell T. Davies, who brought the series back to the small screen after a hiatus of sixteen years in 2005. Davies alluded to “The Last Great Time War” which found the Doctor forced to make the decision to annihilate his own race in an effort to destroy the malignant alien race the Daleks (rather accurately described as pepper-pots outfitted with plungers of death – trust me they’re scarier than that description makes them out to be).
The 50th anniversary special entitled The Day of the Doctor premiered on the 23rd of November, 2013 (exactly fifty years to the day the series debuted). Written by current showrunner Steven Moffat, the special starred Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor who, with the aid of his companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), is contacted by the secret government agency U.N.I.T. to investigate some mysterious goings-on at the National Gallery in London. A series of events will eventually lead to the Doctor meeting his previous – the Tenth – incarnation (David Tennant) as well as the long-forgotten, and shunned, War Doctor (John Hurt) who was responsible for the genocide which eradicated the Doctor’s people; an act which he says was carried out “in the name of peace and sanity” – but not in the name of the Doctor.
When I first saw the special, I was incredibly enthusiastic about it. (The curious can check out my initial, gut reaction which I posted on my other blog The Consulting Detective by clicking here.) Since then, my opinion of the special has changed. I would like to make it clear right from the start that the special is good. It is beautiful-looking – three cheers for director Nick Hurran – and very nicely acted. However, I do not think that The Day of the Doctor is the greatest thing since sliced bread. From a writing perspective, Steven Moffat’s script is pretty convoluted and the decision to create a previously-unknown Doctor – in the form of Hurt’s War Doctor – is a dramatic wrench in the gears of the show’s continuity. (Moffat has since said that Doctor Who has no continuity which, to me, sounds like a weak excuse to do whatever he wants.)
But, as I noted above the acting in the special is excellent. The triumvirate of Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt is a force to be reckoned with. Smith is my favorite actor to play the Doctor, and he has excellent screen chemistry with David Tennant (my second favorite Doctor). But, this being a John Hurt blogathon, I should really talk more about the War Doctor. As I noted above, Hurt made his first appearance in the show at the end of The Name of the Doctor; it’s a shock-inducing cameo for the unaware. He also briefly appeared in the much-loved mini-sode The Night of the Doctor which showed how the War Doctor came into being. But, the War Doctor gets his finest moments in The Day of the Doctor. He is completely unlike Doctors Ten and Eleven and the juxtaposition of the younger actors with the seventy-three-year-old Hurt is great fun. Their interaction is made all the better as the characters are incredibly different; the War Doctor is something of an intergalactic grump and he is simply stunned to see the kind of man he becomes.
But, the War Doctor isn’t only there for laughs. The War Doctor has to deal with the weight of destroying his own people, and given the opportunity to save them come the special’s finale, he utters one of the finest lines in Doctor Who’s history: “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” The gravitas with which Hurt delivers the line is brilliant; Hurt truly does bring all of his classical training to his performance herein. To some, Doctor Who may just be a science fiction family show, but Hurt never lets that from preventing him from delivering a fine performance. I do feel that Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston were cheated out of appearing in the special, but that in no way prevents me from greatly appreciating Hurt’s wonderful contribution to the series’ history.
The Day of the Doctor is not perfect, but it does do two things right. Firstly, it looks epic. It is without doubt one of the best-looking episode of Doctor Who. Secondly, it features brilliant performances from its central cast. The regular Doctor Who team do great jobs (as expected), and the choice to bring aboard the great John Hurt was an excellent decision. The special will no doubt linger on the memory for many years to come – that is until the show’s 100th anniversary.