I’ll happily admit that between May and December of 2013 I went through a period of adamant fan-insistence, telling anyone who’d listen that there was no way John Hurt’s role in The Day of the Doctor was borne purely from Christopher Eccleston declining to appear. “Don’t be so cynical!” I’d say, “This is what Moffat’s been building up to all along – a secret Doctor! How would that possibly work with someone we’d already seen?” Alas, I had to eat my words late last year when the aforementioned Moffat confirmed to Doctor Who Magazine that Eccleston would indeed have taken the War Doctor’s role in the anniversary special had he agreed to appear. But nevertheless, how would that possibly work with someone we’d already seen? Despite only appearing in one-and-a-bit episodes, the War Doctor’s existence hits Doctor Who’s 2013 output like a stone in a pond (a pond without any ducks, of course), sending ripples back through series 7B and forward across the 50th anniversary celebrations and into Matt Smith’s Christmas departure. So what would have happened to the surrounding episodes if Eccleston had shocked everyone and agreed to take part? Cue speculation…
“The Doctor has a secret…”
Most of The Name of the Doctor would work just fine without John Hurt turning round in its last moment. The Great Intelligence’s plan may have led to the War Doctor being uncovered, but the latter doesn’t hold any direct connection to the undoing of the Doctor’s victories that ensued in the episode. But putting the episode’s primary plot aside, the key dialogue allusions throughout the episode seem irrevocably tied up with the War Doctor. The entire story is instigated by a single line: “the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave, and it is discovered”. The very satisfying rug-pull of the discovery being the Doctor’s grave, not his secret, may untie the War Doctor from the Great Intelligence plot, but it also further entrenches him in everything else.
With the Doctor’s secret, and the reasons for his name being hidden, revealed as only incidental to the Great Intelligence’s plan, there had to be a pretty damn good pay-off for what they actually were. Personally, and I’d hope most would agree, I’d say that “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” more than fulfilled that criteria; “Re-introducing Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor from a few years back”, however, would not have had anywhere near the same impact. Fair enough, Clara may not have seen the Ninth before, and the initial feeling from the audience would probably be sky-high excitement just the same, but once the euphoria wore of it would have made no sense: how could the Ninth Doctor be a secret Doctor? Rose knew him personally, of course, but he was in no way hidden away even after she left; a certain distinctive Northern face found its way into John Smith’s Journal of Impossible Things, and was happily shown off to Jackson Lake, Rosita, Amy, Rory, the Atraxi and Craig Owens at various points over the years. Hardly hidden away in the sub-subconscious, is it?
So what would the alternative be? The only way I can imagine it working is to remove the notion of a secret altogether. Thus: a different title, no pre-broadcast “they’re going to tell us his name” fun, no “his secret revealed” tag-line, a much less intriguing message from Clarence (“The Doctor’s grave has been discovered on Trenzalore, go there now” perhaps?), and a totally different ending. I’m thinking the Ninth Doctor appearing in the time stream as a direct appeal for help in his darkest Moment-pressing moment, echoing through his history. Despite the losses in The Name of the Doctor itself, this ending could have created a tighter link between Name and Day and, story-wise, a more immediate cliffhanger – and less of a coincidence when the War Doctor crops up again the very next episode. However, I don’t think anyone fan of the show would want it to lose the sheer amount of publicity and interest generated by the mystery of Hurt’s Doctor.
“I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor any more…”
The Night of the Doctor was fan-pleasing to the extreme, and I don’t think it’s controversial to say that was down to Paul McGann’s appearance more than the revelation of the War Doctor’s origin. On the face of it, therefore, having McGann regenerate into Eccleston here wouldn’t have made much difference (and may have even allowed for a slightly fuller appearance from the new Doctor). But I don’t think The Night of the Doctor could have played out as it did at all if it was to feature the Ninth Doctor. Ask yourself, would you have been happy with the idea of the Doctor in series 1 having been specifically chosen as a warrior, and not as the Doctor? Would it ring true that Rose could fix him to such an extent that he won’t even kill the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways, if this was his genesis? It just wouldn’t have fit. The Ninth Doctor would have had to have a natural beginning within the war as we’d assumed for all those years, and so the Eighth would have been right in the thick of the action. It would still have been wonderful to see Paul in the role again, but The Night of the Doctor would have lost that element of filling in the last piece of the puzzle – it would just have been telling us what we already knew, and would feel far less necessary to the fiftieth narrative as a result.
“Are we forgetting Captain Grumpy?”
In my mind, however, the biggest difference in the parallel universe where Christopher Eccleston agreed to return to Who is in Matt Smith’s exit. Quite simply, the Eleventh Doctor would not have been on his last regeneration had the War Doctor not been introduced. So how on Earth/Trenzalore/Gallifrey would The Time of the Doctor have worked? There’s a couple of possibilities. Perhaps Trenzalore stops being the Doctor’s final resting place, and is just the scene of a climactic battle. But hold on, doesn’t that break the plot of The Name of the Doctor entirely? So maybe Matt would get an alternative swan-song that ties up the crack in time narrative and so-on, with Trenzalore tucked away for Capaldi’s last episode? But that seems equally unlikely, when we were told way back in 2011 that Trenzalore signified “the fall of the Eleventh”.
It’s also pretty unlikely that Moffat can be sure of outlasting Capaldi’s time as the Doctor; if he were to leave the Trenzalore story open when stepping down, it would rather restrict any incoming showrunner’s own ideas. So I have to return to the breaking of The Name of the Doctor point. Not only does the secret have to be removed with the Ninth figuring, so too does the core plot of the Great Intelligence’s plan! Other than the general foreshadowing of the Trenzalore setting, I can’t see anything else that could remain of series 7’s finale without the War Doctor. Unless, that is, the events of The Day of the Doctor encourage the Eleventh to head to Trenzalore before his time, in order to pre-empt and avert his final death down the line – sacrificing his current life in the process (which were my initial thoughts before the Eleventh being his final life was confirmed). That could have worked, but it would have changed the climactic scenes of The Time of the Doctor completely and in all probability left the Twelfth Doctor with the issue of gaining a new regeneration cycle hanging over him.
“I never forget a face”
Before concluding, I should confirm that I am a massive fan of Christopher Eccleston. I started watching Doctor Who in 2005, and before Matt Smith came along I was sure that he’d always be my favourite Doctor. Series 1 is very special, but it’s also complete. I would never complain if Chris came back to Who one day, far from it, but does it need to happen? Is he letting anyone down by declining a reappearance? No. When Chris took the job, he owed us nothing more than the thirteen episodes he signed up for – and he more than delivered with them.
I believe also that, when looking at how different 2013 would have been with Chris on board, that it’s all worked out for the best. Matt Smith’s final three episodes would take on a totally different character had the Ninth returned and, now it’s all happened with John Hurt on board and the Doctor gaining a new set of regenerations, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re not going to see him again, not with that daft old face, but it’s OK, it’s good, as long as we remember all the people that he used to be. We will never forget when he was the Doctor.