This has been a tough few days for Doctor Who.
On Friday, the world lost the War Doctor. John Hurt’s career has been long and varied: I suspect, given the depth and breadth of his filmography, that his are the footsteps in which David Tennant has been following. (Not too closely, David, Sir John was married four times!) But it is for this tiny slice of a role that so many of us will remember him.
The War Doctor was conceived in an emergency. Christopher Eccleston had declined to participate in the 50th Anniversary special, and so his Doctor’s experience of the Time War could not be portrayed. According to himself, Stephen Moffat asked, “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?” Hurt was Moffat’s idea of Wilderness Years stunt casting: the Doctor who never was. Also according to Moffat, Hurt was tickled by the opportunity. “So I am properly Doctor Who now. I am a Doctor Who. I can say it?” Clearly he was delighted by the role: one of my favorite anniversary-special accessories was a short video in which he affectionately refers to Matt Smith and David Tennant as “the boys.” As a result, every one of his scenes is magic:
Yes, even that one.
On Monday, as we reeled, our beloved Twelfth Doctor disclosed his departure. While not surprising, it’s still terribly sad: he still feels so fresh, his tenure so brief, and he’s been such a delight in the role. I had hopes for Chris Chibnall’s powers of persuasion. Yet it was not to be: Capaldi is a film actor first, and not one for lingering television roles. (Film and TV are different worlds: the demands, the shooting schedules, the ongoing commitments of each suit different actors differently.) I will mourn and miss this Doctor, and feel grateful for the three seasons we got. (Will get? Will have gotten? Tenses are funny.)
Which I will watch over and over, as I have the single season my own first Doctor gave me.
Series 11 will be a jolt no matter what: new showrunner, new Doctor, for all we know a new companion. (Please, Pearl, stick with us!) It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before: Moffat’s era began so, and managed a reasonable amount of success. But DW was on an upswing of popularity at that time, new to BBC America and a blazing international audience. Now, if anything it’s plateaued, removed from streaming, with a whole year left fallow between seasons. Capaldi himself expressed misgivings about how his beloved show had been treated by its administrators; does it retain the strength it needs to overcome the trauma of this change?
And what will this change look like?
For years fans have clamored for someone other than a white man in the role. The opportunity here is of course immense, for Chibnall and the BBC. But so is the risk. America demonstrated this past autumn how much it still hates and fears women and people of color. In spite of its Queen is Britain really so different? Will the BBC have the courage to make this kind of statement with the crown jewel of its history?
Somehow I doubt it.
Current fan speculation is not without its bright spots. Richard Ayoade, Miranda Hart, and Olivia Colman make the short list. Other suggestions are more bland and typical. I’m sure we’ll ultimately be surprised, not necessarily unpleasantly, but I don’t expect to be inspired.
My personal one-two are Helen Mirren and Alexander Siddig. Both have the charm, the flair, the gravitas, and the range the Doctor demands. Mirren has expressed how much she’d love the role – and as much as I’d love to see her in it, I can’t help thinking of the statement Siddig would make. Refined and British he may be, but does television have the vision in these times to cast Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi in that most beloved and iconic of British roles?
Star Trek would do it. The play is yours, Doctor Who.
Mostly I don’t listen to the Moff but every once in a while – when he’s not trying to tease something upcoming – he’s got some fun insider tidbits to share. The article below is old, and the headline is bogus, but there’s some lovely stuff about John Hurt, a writer’s world, and Sylvester McCoy.
Behind the 50th
Regarding last week’s last-minute post, 10 Things about ‘Day of the Doctor’, I like #4 best (just like in the actual program!):
4. The dialogue in which the three Doctors remind themselves of the Doctor’s core principles is based on this section from the 1976 book The Making of Doctor Who by former Who script editor Terrance Dicks: “He never gives in, and never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him. The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly.”
I like that the script quotes Terrance Dicks, who was without question a major force behind the show’s success and longevity. I like that those words and ideas have been a part of the Doctor’s makeup for at least 40 years. Though a pacifist, he is also a fighter, putting himself on the line against evil. Though he often encounters violence, he never instigates it, never chooses it. He is willing to destroy an enemy only when there is no other way, and he is always willing to sacrifice himself first.
The Doctor may not always be a good man, but he always tries to be.
I haven’t read this yet but it looks fun.
10 Things about ‘Day of the Doctor’
If you haven’t seen this docu-drama by uber-fan Mark Gatiss, go see it now.
The movie is Gatiss’ love letter to the show, as well as an overview for the uninitiated into its beginnings. While neither entirely thorough nor entirely accurate – key word docu-DRAMA – this fictionalized account still captures much of what made Doctor Who special – and what made it happen. Beautifully written, shot, and acted, it’s also an entertaining and moving piece of film. David Bradley plays the crotchety William Hartnell with all the acerbity and charm of the original. Jessica Raine makes a lovely – too lovely, some say – Verity Lambert, and Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan capture Sydney Newman and Waris Hussein with perfection.
You will laugh. You will cry. And the Tenth Doctor’s most famous phrase will break your heart in whole new ways.
I adore this ridiculous thing.
This pass I watched the special together with its two mini-prequels: ‘The Night of the Doctor,’ which I previously watched many many times, the last not long ago, and ‘The Last Day,’ which I originally watched only once. ‘Night’ is as I said a gem and a tiny slice of perfection. I wasn’t so impressed on the first pass with ‘Last Day,’ but in fact it is rather cool, and sets up some of the war scenes nicely.
Both prequels are available on youtube (links above).
And then comes the main event.
We never find out how the Doctor and Clara got out of the Doctor’s timeline in ‘The Name of the Doctor,’ but we quickly don’t care. With original titles, Coal Hill School, and Clara’s Theme, details seem unimportant. Then we jump right in with UNIT, Malcolm’s ravens, Osgood, and the Queen.
(I’ve never been a fan of the Doctor/Queen Elizabeth storyline, but I suppose there are some things we just have to put up with.)
The 3D paintings are great. The war scenes are great, and terrifying. I didn’t observe it at the time, but someone quite wisely pointed out that we would never have been shown all those children if the planet was in fact going to end up destroyed. I don’t remember who that was, but they’re right: it’s just not that kind of show.
Then we get the epic John Hurt and spectacular Billie Piper. Other Rose/Ten shippers were disappointed – even distraught – that it wasn’t Rose featured in the special. I however thought it was a perfect execution. Rose’s story was complete; she’d already returned several times, and she got her happily ever after in the end. There was no need for more. On the other hand, Rose and Piper were a huge reason for the success of the reboot, and I like that the special was able to acknowledge that. Piper, older and wiser as a performer now, got to expand on her role and have a bit of fun. And the Bad Wolf was an excellent vehicle for the Moment – as well as a great moment for the Tenth Doctor.
The scenes with the three Doctors are pure joy. All the banter, all the wit, all the silliness and seriousness and brilliance a fan could hope for. Clara holds her own with the three of them. And their ultimate solution to the problem is not only brilliant but an absolute joy to watch.
“No, sir! All thirteen!”
Bonus points for best use of a future Doctor who doesn’t officially even exist.
Even that scene, however, is topped by the special guest feature at the end. Tom Baker’s appearance is the absolute highlight of everything anniversary-related. The man IS the Doctor, in so many ways: eccentric, arrogant, unfailingly loveable in spite of his worst qualities; the oldest surviving and longest-serving actor in the role; and the only one never before willing to return to the show. No one expected him; in fact, when I heard he said he was appearing, I was certain he was lying. The spoiler failed to spoil.
I’ve watched that scene at least a dozen times and it never gets old.
All in all, this special is a treat. It’s perfect Doctor Who: ridiculous and brilliant, hilarious and heart-wrenching, full of laughter and tears and things that make you gasp with delight. It can’t be said about a lot of things, but this one lives up to the hype.
Every bit of it.