Doctor Who anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor‘ was a hit when it aired in 2013, with the feature-length special uniting multiple generations of Doctors (primarily David Tennant, Matt Smith and John Hurt’s incarnations) as they teamed up to save the world.
Once, though, the episode could have been very different – because as most Who fans know, then-showrunner Steven Moffat originally wrote Hurt’s role for ex-series star Christopher Eccleston, who had played the Ninth Doctor in the revived 2005 series before departing in its final episode.
Obviously, Eccleston declined the part, and now the actor has revealed his reasoning for doing so, which wasn’t necessarily due to an antipathy for Doctor Who itself (as many may have assumed).
“When [The Day of the Doctor] came along I did speak to them,” Eccleston told the crowd during a panel at Rose City Comic Con.
“I didn’t feel that what they were asking me to do did justice to the Ninth Doctor. So I said no.”
Eccleston also revealed that he still felt hurt by his treatment upon leaving Doctor Who in 2005, having previously spoken at length about how he “lost faith” in the production during filming and threatened legal action over a statement the BBC put out about his departure.
“They approached me to be in [‘The Day of the Doctor’], but the BBC had still not apologised to me,” he said.
“I liked Steven Moffat a lot. I considered it. But it had an enormous emotional impact on me, what happened with Doctor Who.
“As the series was going out, as the series was being celebrated I was being vilified in the press in the UK because of the statement that the BBC issued.
“And it caused quite a depression in me that year. While everybody was going ‘Doctor Who’s great – he’s great and he’s gone’. Because they [the BBC] kind of smeared me and told lies about me.”
John Hurt as The War Doctor
With all this in mind, Eccleston turned down the chance to team up with Matt Smith and David Tennant, forcing Moffat to create a new character to fill his place – the late Hurt’s War Doctor, imagined as the forgotten (and unnumbered) incarnation before Eccleston’s who fought in the Time War.
And with hindsight, Eccleston thinks his decision to decline was positive for the series as a whole.
“The virtue of that is that we then get the War Doctor. Because if I’d have come back you wouldn’t have got the War Doctor – the War Doctor was there precisely because the Ninth Doctor wasn’t,” Eccleston explained.
“And John Hurt’s a far better actor than me, and that opened up a whole new dimension. So it was a positive thing really.
“I would have loved to have acted with him, loved to,” he added.
“I did meet him, and he walked past me and he said ‘Oh, Chris, we’re kind of mingled aren’t we? We’re mingled, you and I!’”
Today, fans can at least read some of Moffat’s original script starring the Ninth Doctor (which he released for charity a couple of years ago) and see what might have been – but if the price of his absence was the War Doctor, well, we’d be hard pushed to wish it had gone the other way.
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 in early 2020