We now understand that John Hurt played the Doctor. That his Doctor has as much of a right to that title as any other, that he stuck to promise as far as he could, that he’s no more at ideological tensions with his other incarnations than Pertwee’s Doctor is. But there’s still another kind of tension to resolve: for, whilst we can acknowledge that Hurt is the Doctor, there’s still the question of whether he is a Doctor.
The discussion of canon makes me want to throw myself out of a window, so it pleases me to say that this isn’t exactly a matter of canon. This project assumes that Hurt absolutely exists within the show’s continuity, if such a continuity could be described as singular or unitive at all. Still, other issues revolve around the War Doctor, the extent to which his era – that is, the stretch of stories to feature him between 2013 and 2017 – is able to function as its own era of Doctor Who, and how it engages with other eras.
First one must ask the question of what a War Doctor story actually is. This is a question which has to be approached by looking at the Big Finish range for two reasons: one, because The Day of the Doctor and the Titan Comics are still Eleventh Doctor stories, caught in the trappings of his era and its hallmarks; two, because Engines of War is a standalone piece to bridge The Night of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor, and couldn’t then be described as a ‘prototype’ for stories of this era.
Because what Big Finish presents is a sustained range of War Doctor stories, a range that could have continued for at least another series if Hurt were still with us (and he already managed four boxsets). There is, within that range, what can be described as a ‘typical’ War Doctor story, and there are tropes and conventions that recur across them all.
It may be better, however, to describe these as a lack of tropes, or as a rebuttal of them. Let’s return again to The Innocent. One might expect the first episode of the range to act as a companion introduction, and one would not be mistaken: The Innocent introduces the (arguably eponymous) character of Rejoice, 100% companion material, and uses her relationship with the Doctor as the focal point in a much larger story. The usual key stages of the companion introduction story ensue – until the point the Doctor usually asks a companion to travel with him.
WAR DOCTOR: Well… I, I’ve grown rather fond of you.
REJOICE: I… I know that.
WAR DOCTOR: I’m sorry, but… in another time, another life, we could have… well, this could have been the beginning of a… another great adventure.
REJOICE: But… it isn’t.
WAR DOCTOR: No, Rejoice. It’s time to say goodbye.
This isn’t a new trick for Doctor Who writers, and it’s usually used when the Doctor, or the show, is approaching a Fall – for example, the Doctor’s rejection of Christina in Planet of the Dead before his moral descent in The Waters of Mars, or Clara’s sudden death in The Snowmen before the Doctor faces his own death in Series 7B.
Other stories work in much the same way [spoilers ahead]: one of the Doctor’s great adventures ends with him being imprisoned as a war criminal; a story which seems to be about the Doctor finding a middle ground for peace ends in his sacrifice of two ‘contaminated’ factions of fighters; a Sontaran romp ends in the betrayal of a central character; a bog-standard morality tale ends in the death of the Doctor’s youngest companion; the Doctor’s heartfelt reunion with an old companion is cut suddenly short when he realises that she has been the victim of a time weapon; and most shockingly of all, a finale which seems to be about the Doctor rediscovering his compassion with the help of a new alien race ends in his single-minded desire to use the Moment (or an equivalent device). A War Doctor story is best described as an ordinary Doctor Who story which becomes infected and starts to get madder and madder, darker and darker. (The only time this doesn’t really apply is in The Shadow Vortex, a pretty conventional pseudohistorical runaround, and indeed it does feel at odds with the rest of the series). The Doctor spends most of these stories (from the second series on, at least) trying to escape the war narrative that’s been pressed upon him, trying to escape the conventions of the war hero that Ollistra is projecting onto him, which only adds to the madness.
(Funnily enough, this is the same technique used in situation comedy, but for a very different effect.)
These are twelve Doctor Who stories that don’t feel quite right. Stories that catch you out, that make you feel uncomfortable. Self-consuming, cannibalistic narratives that lead to the slow and systematic decomposition of what a Doctor Who story is. It’s no coincidence that The Innocent begins with news of the Doctor’s death, and it’s no coincidence that the theme tune is deeply unsettling in its ostentatious use of brass instruments, its weariest pace, and its battle march of a drumbeat. It’s Doctor Who with the fun taken out of it, turned against itself, a nationalistic composition fused with what was once a hopeful, warm theme.
This is what Phil Sandifer calls a narrative collapse, which I’ll explain briefly so as not to make a hash of it: it’s the engineering of a situation which doesn’t so much endanger the characters within the show (i.e. “How will the Doctor stop x from destroying the universe?”) but endangers the way Doctor Who stories are fundamentally told (i.e. “How can Doctor Who renew itself when the Doctor has reached his final incarnation?”). The War Doctor’s entire era is a long, brutal narrative collapse in which the very substance of Doctor Who stories are sacrificed upon the altar and replaced with a war narrative, something antithetical to the show’s identity.
But this is a different kind of narrative collapse. A narrative collapse in the new series still follows a similar logic to any other kind of tension – that is, the knowledge that the show will still manage to restore itself by the end. Even when all options seem exhausted, we know there will be a way for the Doctor Who narrative to reassert itself, just as we know that the Doctor will make it out alive, that 21st Century Earth won’t be blown up, and usually that even in a trolley problem, there’ll be a way out. Those are the rules of the show.
This is different because of its place within Doctor Who history. The War Doctor stories fill the space between the cancellation of the show and its revival, a space in which Doctor Who is dead. This isn’t a narrative collapse engineered for a bit of tension, this is a real, sincere narrative collapse that coincides with the show’s fall. One so total and so devastating that the Doctor Who narrative does not reassert itself at the end.
Trapped in the nothingness between old and new, the War Doctor is naturally drawn from both the era he succeeds and the era he prefigures, right down to his costume, a synthesis of McGann’s and Eccleston’s. The Moment, the weapon which destroyed the burden of the classic series (that is, the original Gallifrey) takes the image of Billie Piper, the iconic face of the new series. She symbolises the renewal, the purification, of the Doctor’s character; the reassertion of the Doctor Who narrative which follows its collapse, and of course, she acts as the origin story of the new series.
It would be tempting just to suggest that, as a product of the new series, the War Doctor is wholeheartedly a new series Doctor – but that somewhat misses the point, and as I said above, his characterisation draws on both sides of his era. For instance, before he dies, the War Doctor admits that he’s “wearing a bit thin”, which actually invokes The Tenth Planet, the story which really laid down the rules of Doctor Who. This isn’t the only way Hartnell’s presence hangs over the character – he feels in many ways like the Hartnell to Tennant and Smith’s Troughton and Pertwee, in a close analogue of The Three Doctors: it’s the War Doctor who is at an odd remove from his other two incarnations, and who from a distance is able to critique his future selves. This criticism is through a distinctly Classic lens, too, as he attacks the use of the sonic screwdriver, cheesy catchphrases, the excitability of the younger incarnations, the role of romance within the show – it’s even tempting to say he’s more like a Classic fan than a Classic Doctor.
We know that the War Doctor’s narrative stands alone. It’s safe to say that he is a Doctor. His story has a beginning (The Night of the Doctor), a middle (Only the Monstrous), and an end (The Day of the Doctor). He gets two on-screen regenerations, a sonic screwdriver, a catchphrase of sorts (“No more”), a recurring antagonist of his own in Cardinal Ollistra (her morality is ambiguous, sure, but she at least endangers the type of character the Doctor is), a role in multi-Doctor stories (on-screen and off-screen), a couple of distinctive companions of his own (Cinder and Rejoice), and even a story working with a classic companion (Leela). His era has its own set of conventions, its own style of storytelling; Big Finish gives it a theme tune, and gives the Doctor his own incidental cue. He’s probably more established as the Doctor than McGann.
So, acknowledging that the War Doctor is very much a Doctor wrapped in his own continuity, let’s pick apart his relationship with McGann a bit more. Again, I feel obliged to return to Dead Man’s Hand, in which, as I said in the previous part, the Eighth Doctor actually steps forward to defend the War Doctor. That is, for my money, the single most revealing scene across John Hurt’s tenure, even if it does exist in an insignificant little corner of continuity. Why would Eight choose to stand up for his future self? Why do events which haven’t happened yet concern him? How can he defend his actions if they’re not even his own yet?
The solution is obvious, but contained within McGann’s era rather than Hurt’s. McGann’s era is equally fragmented, told in part on TV, in part in novel, and in part in audio. Like Hurt’s, it has a beginning, a middle, and end, though the boundaries between these are far more muddled, and each interpretation diverges in its understanding of what an Eighth Doctor story looks like.
I’d wager that McGann is at his best in the Eddie Robson stories: Human Resources, Grand Theft Cosmos, The Eight Truths and Situation Vacant, to name a few. Many of these are romps, or at least are ‘frock’ stories unwilling to take themselves seriously. And they’re delightful – utterly delightful. McGann clearly loves them, and he thrives in them, portraying a Doctor who both revels in having fun with his best friends and finds himself as an awkward outsider in events he doesn’t fully understand. It’s those stories which allow McGann to walk the thin line between ‘human’ and ‘alien’, which has always plagued his incarnation.
To The Death and Dark Eyes… they don’t work. Not in the same way. There’s no enjoyment to Eight’s anguish, in the same way that there is to Nine or Twelve’s anger: he’s not a Doctor suited to that kind of angst-driven characterisation, and McGann, not knowing how to approach it, tends to go overboard on the toxic masculinity.
Anyway, this left a problem, another tension. If the real McGann era is Eddie Robson stories and Doom Coalition adventures, how can that be reconciled with the Time War? The Time War ends up hanging over Eight’s whole era: one cannot enjoy Situation Vacant due to the burden of what the Doctor will become. To The Death is not a blip, but a prophecy. Eight is the Doctor who is fated to fall. He, bridging the classic and new series, embodies the show’s narrative collapse. He is the sacrifice required for the narrative to reassert itself.
But then the War Doctor steps in. He carries that burden himself. Eight is allowed to die in honour, saluting his companions, his hands free of blood. His barmiest and silliest stories can stand taller and prouder than ever, no longer overshadowed by the actions of the Doctor in the Time War. Quietly, bravely, the War Doctor sets the Eighth Doctor free, ensuring the transition from the war-ridden Dark Eyes to the far more colourful Doom Coalition. In being born, Hurt’s Doctor asserts a vision for McGann’s era.
Not only does he free the past, he also frees the future. Hurt does, as I’ve established, represent the wilderness years, but I daresay that my description of these as “nothingness” was somewhat flippant. The wilderness years were very much something. Sometimes they were wonderful, beautiful, as Ten and Eleven’s acceptance of Hurt’s Doctor suggests. Except Hurt isn’t really about what happened in that time, not as a product of the new series: he’s more concerned with Russell T Davies’s Time War narrative.
Davies devised the Time War as an untellable tale, an era of the Doctor’s life which can never be exposed. At the time, this made sense. In destroying Gallifrey, Davies freed the Doctor Who universe of the obsessive continuity which had so haunted the late classic series and the wilderness years, whilst acknowledging the weight of the show’s cancellation in the process. Eight years on, however, this manifested as a wound: Time War stories were beginning to be told. The show was haunted more than ever by its cancellation. The Doctor himself was haunted by his actions, unable to move forward.
So the War Doctor opens that window in full, allows a Time War story to be told without the tentativeness of the Davies era. In doing so, in opening the breach as far as it would go and exposing the wound, the show finally healed, and the breach closed forever. Sir John Hurt passed away in 2017. Hurt played the War Doctor. There is no more War Doctor; there is no more Time War.
Isn’t it incredible that Hurt got to play a role on this scope? In life, he exposed, raw, the wound of Doctor Who’s darkest hour. In death, he healed that wound for good, sealing off the Time War and forcing the show into its future. The Time War is now, again, an untellable tale: except now, it doesn’t need to be told. It’s over. Doctor Who has been back for twelve years and its cancellation doesn’t matter anymore, and through his death, Hurt blurred the lines between actor and character, in both cases being a transformative force within the show.
If John Hurt has been forgotten as the Doctor, it’s only a testament to what a good Doctor he was: he took the most flagrant and problematic period in the show’s history and calmly dealt with it for good. The character may not be the conventional Doctor, but he is at least a doctor, treating and curing the show of a sickness which had ailed it for the last two decades. Now, hidden in his own obscure corner of Doctor Who lore, he is a Secret History: a narrative known only to those who seek him, an origin story for how we’ve reached where we are today. Great men are born in fire, and it was a greater man who lit the flame.