The Day of the Doctor - what could have been

Above: clickbaity image.

In the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor", rather than bringing back another familiar incarnation of our favourite Time Lord alongside the main stars Matt Smith and David Tennant, writer Steven Moffat instead opted to retroactively introduce a "mayfly Doctor" - an incarnation of the character apparently from between his Eighth and Ninth bodies, who would only appear in the 50th anniversary special (and briefly in cameos in "The Name of the Doctor" and the webisode "The Night of the Doctor"). This Doctor (although, until the very end of his regeneration, he doesn't use this title himself) is known by fans as the War Doctor, as he is the one who fought in the Last Great Time War, and he was played by the late John Hurt (1940 - 2017).

Steven Moffat apparently opted to go down this route to represent the stern, dark, scary old man in David Tennant and Matt Smith's Doctors, and (as the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston doesn't want to return to Doctor Who) felt that the Eighth Doctor's personality did not fit with this hypothetical character. So, he created a new Doctor instead. But I also think Moffat created this "mayfly Doctor" because he felt it was a unique, never-before-tried idea, and therefore it suited his ego. The YouTube reviewer MrTARDIS has noted this problem in Moffat's writing before - if he comes up with a striking, original idea in his head, such as a mayfly Doctor, Davros opening his eyes, or sonic sunglasses, he just *has* to write it down to prove to the world that he invented it, regardless of whether it is actually fitting to do so. I do like the concept of the War Doctor - of this scary old war veteran within both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors finally brought to life. It especially works well as after the events of the 50th anniversary special, in the very next episode Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor regenerates into an old man as Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor - the first Doctor over the age of 50 since the War Doctor himself. In my head-canon, it's as if the Doctor came to terms with his difficult old man personality during the events of "The Day of the Doctor" as he realises that as the War Doctor he never destroyed Gallifrey after all, and this is why his subconscious causes him to regenerate into an older-looking gentleman.

Nevertheless, I can't help thinking of what could have been. I feel as if in a perfect world Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor, would have been ideal as this War Doctor figure (as Moffat originally intended). He was the war veteran Doctor after all; his series introduced the whole concept of the Time War and his own guilt about ending it - his entire character arc was his guilt over the Time War and his eventual sense of acceptance and redemption*. With all three revived series Doctors it would have been perfect - all neat and tidy. All the "New Who" Doctors in one episode. Somehow that would have made more sense than clumsily retroactively creating a new temporary incarnation out of the blue - John Hurt's character was created solely to make up for a noticeable lack of Christopher Eccleston. But we don't live in an ideal world, and Eccleston understandably doesn't want to appear in DW again. So, instead of Eccleston, why didn't Moffat bring back his predecessor Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor) instead? Fans assumed for years that the Eighth Doctor also took part in the Time War.**

Moffat may have thought the Eighth Doctor had too innocent a personality (so it would have been out of character for him to play this War Doctor figure) but actually I think this is why he would have worked so well. "The Day of the Doctor" could have explored how the Eighth Doctor's characteristic sweetness could have been corrupted by the War, and the episode could have followed his journey, through meeting his Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, of regaining that innocence. Not only this, but we had never seen McGann's Doctor regenerate into the Ninth Doctor - he could have been any age when this happened - so he was perfect to return to Doctor Who as even though he aged seventeen years since his only television appearance - the 1996 Doctor Who film - this ageing could have perfectly fitted within the continuity of the show (if, for example, they had decided to bring Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor back, they may have ran into difficulties in this regard. The same get-out clause used in "Time Crash" could have been employed, but I fear the obvious ageing would have made the episode a bit naff). So I think that was a real missed opportunity too, although at least McGann got to return to his role in a (woefully brief) webisode leading up to the 50th anniversary ("The Night of the Doctor", in which we finally get to see his regeneration, which finally inextricably links the revived series with the 1996 Doctor Who film and by extension the classic series).

The problem with John Hurt's War Doctor is that nobody had ever seen him before (except in brief cameos), so subsequently the audience could not be as attached to him and his character arc as they potentially would have been with Doctors Eight or Nine. But it was interesting that there was an incarnation of the Doctor who renounced his title, and John Hurt is a fine actor who had a fine performance, and now that he's sadly gone, we were never going to get a chance to see his interpretation of the character again. "The Day of the Doctor" was a decent episode and a decent 50th anniversary special. But that doesn't mean we can't wonder at what could have been.

*From his final episode, just prior to his regeneration: "Rose, before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And d'you know what? So was I".

**Indeed, I was one of them; prior to the 50th anniversary I had assumed that McGann's Doctor had used the Weapon of Mass Destruction known as "The Moment" to destroy Gallifrey and Skaro, expecting himself to die in the process, but instead he only regenerated (hence why we get the Ninth Doctor in New Who's series one).