Doctor Who fans had quite a bombshell dropped on them in the closing moments of the seventh season finale, “The Name of the Doctor.” The title alone suggested major revelations, but even though we knew actor John Hurt would be appearing in the upcoming 50th anniversary special, and even though early rumors correctly predicted the nature of that role, it was still pretty audacious that they went through with it. But while the jaw-dropping final scene of the finale gave us some of the answers, it raised even more of them. Now one of those questions has been answered, courtesy of the show’s costume designer Howard Burden, whom I can only presume is currently having his lips sewn shut in a subterranean BBC dungeon. Needless to say…
So, just to recap, the final moments of “The Name of the Doctor” revealed John Hurt as “The Doctor.” Specifically, a Doctor that, for whatever reason, the Doctors we know do not speak about. During that pivotal scene, Matt Smith’s Ninth Doctor explained that his real name doesn’t matter. He chose the name the Doctor because it speaks to his nature; he’s a healer of sorts, a righter of wrongs, and a defender of the weak. His name is “a promise.” John Hurt’s Doctor, on the other hand, is “the one who broke the promise.” That sounds pretty damn ominous in and of itself, but when Hurt’s Doctor speaks, he says, “What I did, I did without choice.”
The question, of course, was this: if Hurt is playing an incarnation of the Doctor, what exactly does that mean? Is he a Doctor that was, or a Doctor yet to come? This is a show about time travel, obviously, so either option is possible within the realm of the show’s fiction. The fact that both Smith and Hurt refer to this new Doctor in the past tense suggests he’s an earlier, previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, as does the fact that his introduction has him wearing the Ninth Doctor’s (Christopher Eccleston) leather jacket and Paul McGann’s (The Eighth Doctor) waistcoat. And indeed, Burden’s recent comments about Hurt’s character, made while Prince Charles was touring the Doctor Who studios:
There was a gap between Paul McGann playing the Doctor and Christopher Eccleston, when we didn’t see a regeneration, and John Hurt will fit into that gap. He is a past Doctor, not a future Doctor.
So Hurt is indeed playing a Doctor of the gaps — the time between Eight’s one adventure we saw (in Fox’s 1996 Doctor Who TV movie) and our introduction to Nine in 2006’s “Rose.” I realize some of that time has been explored in other Doctor Who media, but there’s still tons of potential in that (relative) time period. Among other things, we know the Time War fell during that period, and that it left the Doctor many emotional scars, on display throughout Eccleston’s run.
Moreover, it could theoretically rewrite the past three incarnations of the Doctor — if Hurt is the true Nine, then Eccleston is really Ten, Tennant is Eleven, Smith is Twelve, and whoever they cast as his replacement will be (hopefully not unlucky) Thirteen. Trippy.
In the meantime, McGann (still number Eight!) will be uniting with Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor), Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor), Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor), and Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor) for a new Doctor Who audio drama, The Light at the End, set to release this November. As for the show, the 50th anniversary special is set to air on November 23.