Steven Moffat finally reveals why John Hurt replaced Christopher Eccleston in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special
EXCLUSIVE: Two years on from Doctor Who's half-century, the showrunner opens up about the highs and lows of 2013
First published in November 2015
Two years ago, on 23rd November 2013, BBC1 aired Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor. It was simulcast in 94 countries and shown in 1,500 cinemas around the world – a spectacular success for TV’s longest-running sci-fi series. There were documentaries on almost all BBC channels and a massive three-day convention at London’s ExCel – yet many fans were disappointed when Christopher Eccleston declined to return for the episode as the ninth Doctor. Now, for the first time, showrunner Steven Moffat sheds light on what was going on behind the scenes…
RT: Let’s talk about the 50th anniversary – you once told me that 2013 was a bit of a nightmare year for you.
Steven Moffat: Yeah, well nobody really noticed how much telly we made during it. Two weeks during which there was a Doctor Who show on every night. It was like a little mini-season that November. Some were saying, “Where are all the extra episodes?” There! Count the minutes.
What was your original plan for the anniversary special?
I didn’t know what we were going to do with the 50th. I wrote The Name of the Doctor [the series seven finale], which built up to a punchline of the Doctor walking into his own timeline to rescue Clara. No idea what he’d find there. I just knew that whatever he found there would launch the 50th.
The first version was David [Tennant], Matt [Smith] and Chris [Eccleston] together. With whatever involvement we could contrive for the other Doctors, but – being brutal – it had to be Doctors that still looked like their Doctors. I know I’m a b*****d but hey, I think Peter [Davison], Colin [Baker] and Sylvester [McCoy] were better deployed in The Five-ish Doctors [a spoof short film] than they could ever be elsewhere.
But 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.
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What was the deal with John Hurt coming in at the last minute?
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.
And meanwhile the entire internet is finding my email and sending me the most hideous death threats. Because I haven’t got William Hartnell back! And I’m thinking, “Well, one: he hasn’t answered the phone. I don’t know why...” But never mind him – I’m not sure if David and Matt are doing it either. I’m crouched in the corner of my office wondering, “What the f*** am I going to do!”
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...”
Really, his name sprang to mind first off?
Yes, because his Doctor had to be battle-weary, the one so sick of the Time War that he was going to do this.
Didn’t John Hurt say something like “I received the script on Friday and was on set on Monday”?
It wasn’t quite as fast as that but it was bloody fast. He was top of our list. 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.
You enjoy all eras of the programme really, don’t you?
I had an epiphany on 1980s Doctors. I’ve always loved Peter Davison. I think he’s lovely and I don’t care who knows it. And I’ve come to really like Sylvester McCoy. His first year  is a bit of a disaster but the other two years are great. And for my son Louis, unequivocally, his favourite Doctor is Sylvester.
Has he met him?
When we were at the 50th [anniversary party] at the BFI, surrounded by the great and the good, Louis clutched my arm and said, “Dad, is that Sylvester McCoy?” “Yes, it is.” “Dad, can I meet him?” “I’m sure I can arrange that.” Later Louis says, “Please, I need to meet him.” So I get a message up to Sylvester asking him to hang around, “My son wants to meet you.” This will make you fall in love with Sylvester as the best Doctor ever.
I took Louis up and, across the room, Sylvester saw us arriving. He leapt up from a sofa – and he’s not a young man – and he spun his walking cane like the Doctor’s umbrella and said, “Louis, Louis! I’m falling over. Could you just come and help me?” So Louis rushed over and helped Doctor No 7 and he thanked him very much. He’d turned into the seventh Doctor like that [clicks fingers] and I cannot now hear a bad word about his Doctor.
The icing on the cake was getting Tom Baker to do a cameo towards the end of the special. How did that come about?
Tom Baker, that was sort of awesome. That voice, unchanged since the 70s, those eyes, that smile – all back on the Doctor Who set. And everyone just standing there, staring. Like after all this time on Doctor Who, Doctor Who had turned up. Wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but he was word perfect, showed up with all his business sorted out, and nailed it, take after take. Magical. I can say I was actually there, the day Tom Baker came back.