Saturday, January 28, 2017

DOCTOR WHO: Memories of the War Doctor

"Great men are forged in fire.  It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame, whatever the cost."
-- The War Doctor, Doctor Who: "The Day of the Doctor"

Three days ago, the world lost noted English actor Sir John Hurt, better known to Doctor Who fans as the War Doctor, although his death at the age of 77 wasn't announced until yesterday.  Hurt's career spanned six decades, including such classic films as The Elephant Man, 1984, Alien, Spaceballs, V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Contact, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Snowpiercer, and the Harry Potter films.  The man, quite simply, was a legend, which made his decision to become such a integral part of the Doctor Who mythos so wonderful.

We got our first glimpse of the War Doctor in 2013's "The Name of the Doctor", the Series Seven finale, where Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor and his companion Clara Oswald encounter a mysterious stranger the Doctor ominously describes as "The one who broke the promise". Clara suddenly collapses from exhaustion, and as the Doctor picks her up, the stranger addresses the Doctor, saying "What I did, I did without choice...in the name of peace and sanity", to which the Doctor replies angrily, "But not in the name of The Doctor."  As the Doctor carries Clara away, the stranger turns around to reveal an elderly bearded man and an on-screen caption states "Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor."  Needless to say, fans (including myself) who watched this on BBC America were stunned by the cliffhanger and positively squirmed at the idea of having to wait six months to find out what that damn caption meant.

On November 23, 2013, Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor", finally revealed the War Doctor as a previously unknown and unmentioned incarnation of the Doctor between Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor and Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor.  Created by writer and showrunner Steven Moffat as a replacement character because Eccleston declined to return for the anniversary special, the War Doctor fought in the Time War as a warrior and was responsible for the planet Gallifrey's destruction, an act which tormented his later incarnations. Hurt's war-weary and grumpy performance won fans over quickly, especially when he began interacting with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors and felt like a character "worthy" of being one of the Doctor's incarnations.  At the end of the special, we were sad to see the War Doctor regenerate into the Ninth Doctor, officially connecting the Eighth and Ninth Doctors in continuity, and simply hoped he might return someday, however unlikely that was.

In 2014, the War Doctor turned up again, this time in his first Doctor Who novel, Engines of Warwritten by George Mann.  Yeah, this wasn't as good as seeing the War Doctor on television again, but at least it was something with the character. With so much of the Time War still unrevealed, there was a lot of untapped potential to be explored and it was fun to get a proper War Doctor adventure at last.  In the story, the TARDIS crashes on the planet Moldox following a battle with Dalek saucers, where the Doctor meets a human resistance fighter Cinder, a young woman whose family were killed by the Daleks when she was a child.  The Doctor learns that the Eternity Circle, a group of Daleks created by the Dalek Emperor, have produced temporal weapons which they plan to use against the Time Lords, removing them from history.  Travelling to Gallifrey to warn the Time Lords, he finds them preparing to counterattack using a weapon that will cause the death of billions, Dalek and non-Dalek alike.  Mann's novel was satisfying, in my humble opinion, but it still wasn't the same as hearing Hurt's gravelly voice once again.

Big Finish Productions came to our collective rescue in 2015, with John Hurt reprising his role of the War Doctor at long last in a series of three audio adventure sets.  The first War Doctor audio adventure, "The Innocent", arrived with the first set, Only the Monstrous, and gave the War Doctor his own militaristic theme arrangement by Howard Carter and a supporting character in the form of a manipulative Time Lady, Cardinal Ollistra.  The Big Finish audios essentially created a War Doctor "TV season" of twelve stories total where Hurt was able to develop his Doctor beyond the 50th anniversary story.  The final set of three audio adventures, Casualties of War, is slated to be released by Big Finish in February, including Hurt's final story as the War Doctor, "The Enigma Dimension".

Unless the role is recast at some point in the future, there will probably be "No more" adventures of the War Doctor.  Although the character's time with us was short and sweet, if a bit grumpy along the way, John Hurt's performances will be cherished by Doctor Who fans all over the world for decades to come.  

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