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The Gospel of John Hurt – Part I: A Question of Origins

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First off, apologies for not having updated this blog in a long time.  I’d like to bring good news, but sadly this post isn’t the start of a new surge of creative output.  As of April, I enter a period of still and reflective contemplation, in which I will retreat from the stresses and distractions of western life to fully calm and purify my mind.  Or, in other words, I have shit loads of work to do and the internet’s a distraction.  Which means that this project will probably be the last thing I post until at least June, unless I manage to push on and get the Zygon essay out before then, but that’s unlikely.

Anyway, here I am getting ahead of myself and I haven’t even explained what this is yet.  Simply put, The Gospel of John Hurt (a title I’ve borrowed shamelessly from an alt-J song, but which I feel embodies the nature, and of course the scale of Hurt’s impact on the show – as we’ll discover) is an examination of Sir John Hurt’s short-lived but by no means insignificant time as the Doctor, in three (hopefully) succinct parts.  It’s also an apology note to the person who told me he misses me.  I can’t always be there, but I can always try to give you something from this chaotic and disorganised mind of mine.

This project is something I feel I have to do.  It’s something which if I don’t do, will nag at me relentlessly.  It’s a way of occupying my late nights.  But this isn’t an origins story of the essay – no, this particular entry is an origins story for the War Doctor.  Because before we delve any further into his era, what we must first do is trace, as precisely as possible, how it even came about.

As most fans are now aware, The Day of the Doctor did not begin with John Hurt.  According to an interview with the Radio Times Steven Moffat’s original plan was to bring back the Ninth Doctor, in an anniversary special restricted (cameos excepted) to the Doctors of the new series.  Moffat began the first draft after Eccleston seriously considered the proposal, but the actor changed his mind on a second meeting, at which point Moffat proposed to Marcus Wilson: “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…”

Coincidentally, that’s also similar to how Hurt landed his most iconic role, as Kane in Alien.  The role was initially offered to him, but he was unable to make the filming; it was delegated to John Finch, but after he fell ill on set, Hurt – now having a free schedule – stepped back in and took on the role last-minute.

Anyway, while there’s a neat and romantic comparison to be drawn there, the circumstances and their implications do vary greatly.  Firstly, Hurt’s appointment on Doctor Who gives us the rather wonderful opportunity to say the Eccleston (albeit indirectly) is to thank for John Hurt being the Doctor in the first place, which isn’t half a bad legacy to leave behind.

But the element I’m more interested in for the purpose of this piece is Moffat’s vision of Hurt as “the most famous actor in the world”.  Yes, there’s the inherent hyperbole, but what can’t ever be reduced is – though I’m reluctant to re-use the word – quite how iconic John Hurt is.  That’s not even a matter of fame, but of consistency and, well… it’s basically a part of who you are.  The fact is this: John Hurt is recognisable.  He’s had a wise, weary expression about him since he was young, probably too young to be wise and weary, and even if you look straight past him, he has a voice which literally cannot be mistaken for anyone else.  If you’ve heard John Hurt once, you can identify him anywhere.  It’s why, whilst I, Claudius is, if not the most famous, at least the definitive Hurt performance, you can actually recognise the guy in Merlin, even though he’s playing a dragon who lives in a cave.  There’s no one in the word who looks, or more to the point sounds, like John Hurt, making him both a perfect candidate for an eye-catching ‘big name’ Doctor, and indeed, for someone whose era is going to predominantly consist of audio dramas.

So when Moffat said “the most famous actor in the world”, tied up in that assumption was that the actor had to be distinct; recognisable.  And with only one story to sketch him out in, it made the job a whole lot easier to cast by type and, if you’ll forgive my flippancy, write John Hurt as a John Hurt character.  Hurt, diversity of performance and reputation aside, is, in his most basic role, every inch a Doctor: eternally old, infinitely wise, desperately tired but with a glimmer of hope, innocence, and even charisma.  Moffat, to his credit, solved one of the toughest problems of his career by identifying what he needed this Doctor to be – “battle weary… so sick of the Time War that he was going to do this” – and picking the very first actor who came to mind.

Perhaps an effect of an unhappy and traumatic childhood – and what could ultimately be described as, at least, a troubled adulthood – Hurt is adept at conveying the weight of suffering.  As such, and other factors considered, he is at once quintessentially ‘Doctor-ish’ and utterly distinct from anyone who’s ever played the Doctor.  He has Eccleston’s propensity for the most profound and disturbing expressions of emotion, but through an old man’s voice; he has Tennant’s celebrity status, but is years ahead in experience; he has Smith’s comedic timing, but a sardonic wit that works in contrast.  In short, he’s got everything an actor playing the Doctor needs, yet feels… just slightly outside the usual scope of Doctor Who.

All of which only serves to further endear us to his performance.  In light of Hurt’s recent passing, The Day of the Doctor feels like a last hurrah for an accomplished thespian, a chance for one of the great actors of our time to play the greatest role on television.  His days on Big Finish never reach those heights, true, but there’s a warmth about even the coldest stories, getting to listen to Hurt on his last adventures with Jacqueline Pearce, an old RADA acquaintance.  John Hurt may be a tragic loss, but that his final days were spent working on low-budget Doctor Who stories is only fitting.

And thus, this story of origins is not one of meticulous planning, of contrived schemes to finally get a John Hurt Doctor Who story, but is instead a result of pure coincidence.  The Day of the Doctor was going wrong.  Steven Moffat needed a Doctor.  John Hurt, with his fondness for characters who – as Nicholas Pegg put it so succinctly – “found themselves on the fringes of society looking in” – just so happened to be the right man for the moment.

Hurt was always capable of playing the Doctor.  That much should never have been doubted.  But on that dark and terrible day, was he actually the Doctor at all?  Or did the most famous actor in the world play, in a twist of fate, a whole new man?  Was that man a good man?  Can he ever be reconciled with his predecessors or his successors?  These are questions I hope to answer over the next two entries.  I’ll try to keep them as short and snappy as possible, whilst still examining as much content as I can.  I won’t be able to cover all the comics, but I’ll get a couple in if I can.  This will not be an easy task.  But, as a great man once said, never give up and never give in…!

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