In some sad news Sir John Hurt recently announced that he had been diagnosed with early stage pancreatic cancer. The veteran actor who portrayed the War Doctor in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of The Doctor” was optimistic when he made a statement about his condition on his Tumblr but even with early detection and treatment pancreatic cancer has only a 16 percent survival rate. Nonetheless, Hurt plans to keep working during treatment.
It’s got me wondering, though, if Doctor Who anniversary specials are cursed in some way. They often seem to be extremely hazardous to at least one of the Doctors who appear in them, and there are some rather odd parallels.
First there was “The Three Doctors”, which was the 10th anniversary special starring William Hartnell. Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. The First Doctor barely appears in the special. One of the reasons that Hartnell had left the role in the first place was his increasingly poor health due to arteriosclerosis and he had not improved in the subsequent years. Still, he desperately wanted to be a part of the show, and shot prerecorded segments to be shown over the Tardis scanner. His lack of physical appearance in the special was explained as being trapped in a time eddy by Omega, though he, Troughton and Pertwee did take promotional pictures in Hartnell’s garden.
“The Three Doctors” was the final role of Hartnell’s life. He died two years later at the age of 67.
Ten years later another anniversary special was shot, “The Five Doctors”. Hartnell was obviously unavailable to play the First Doctor, so he was recast with actor Richard Hurndall, thus far the only time an incarnation of The Doctor has been replaced with a new actor on television outside body doubles and cameos. The move was somewhat controversial; Whovians tend to treat the actors who play The Doctor with severe respect and replacing one outside of regeneration is not a popular idea. Still, Hurndall did a pretty marvelous job in the role especially considering the special is a pretty slapdash affair plotwise.
Playing the First Doctor in a multi-Doctor anniversary special was Hurndall’s second-to-last role. He died of a heart attack less than five months after “The Five Doctors” was broadcast. According to Elisabeth’s Sladen’s autobiography he never even lived to cash the check for playing the part.
Now we have the 50th anniversary and Hurt’s diagnosis. At least he’s not playing the First Doctor, right? Not so fast.
In essence the War Doctor is a kind of new First Doctor. He is a retroactive incarnation that takes place before Christopher Eccleston became the Ninth Doctor and the first of the revived series. Beyond that, the War Doctor fulfills many of the attributes usually held by the First Doctor in multi-Doctor specials. He’s is gruff, easily angered, paternalistic and in general the wisest of the incarnations on screen.
Here’s another similarity. Hurndall didn’t just replace Hartnell in “The Five Doctors”, he also in a sense replaced Tom Baker. Baker refused to return to the part of the Fourth Doctor after only a two-year absence (all his appearances in the special are culled from the un-aired episode “Shada”), and as a result the First Doctor’s part was increased to make up for the lack of the Fourth.
Initially “The Day of The Doctor” was hoped to include Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, but Eccleston like Baker turned down the part and the War Doctor was created to make up for his lack of participation. Ironically, Baker would appear in person as a new incarnation of The Doctor called The Curator in the special and Eccleston would be seen only from previously shot footage. Still, in many ways “Day of The Doctor” and “The Five Doctors” are mirrors of each other, and in both cases the newest cast member soon found themselves either dead or very ill shortly afterwards.
Granted, in all three cases we are dealing with pretty old men. Hartnell, Hurndall and Hurt were all in their 70s when they were cast in anniversary Doctor roles, but Hurndall was still working regularly when he died as is Hurt right now. Neither was known to be sickly before appearing on Doctor Who.
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And there is one big flaw to the pattern I have to admit. The First Doctor actually was recast for “The Day of The Doctor”. All the Doctors appear in the climatic finale through use of stock footage and audio, but the First Doctor gets a new line he never said on the show when he appears, “Calling the War Council of Gallifrey, this is The Doctor”. Gallifrey hadn’t even been introduced to the series when Hartnell was playing the role, even in “The Three Doctors”.
That line was eventually revealed to be the work of voice actor John Guilor. Guilor is a talented impressionist known for playing Hartnell and Tom Baker in fan work. His First Doctor is so good he was picked to do an official audio recreation of lost episodes of “The Planet of the Giants” alongside original cast members William Russell and Carol Ann Ford for a DVD release, and then graduated to “The Day of The Doctor”. If the anniversary specials were cursed Guilor would be the most obvious candidate to be hexed, not Hurt, and yet Guilor seems to be just fine.
So maybe there’s no curse at all, and hopefully Hurt will recover and continue being awesome and Guilor will keep voicing the Doctors who are no longer with us in projects and we’ll get a 60th anniversary special in the magical-sounding year of 2023 and everyone will point and laugh at me for believing in something this silly for even a second. I hope so. Rassilon bless and protect you, War Doctor, we don’t want you to go.