Let me open by saying that I adored John Hurt as the War Doctor, and even though I haven’t had the chance to check out his continued adventures on Big Finish audio yet, I hear nothing but great things. Hurt was and remains amazing. You will never hear me say different.
However, I was hanging out on Facebook with Jon Blum, author of some really great Who novels like Vampire Science with his wife, Kate Orman, and he posted something that got me thinking…
Sudden realization in the shower: the part of the War Doctor should have gone to Helen Mirren.
Advantages? Singlehandedly settles the "could he be a woman" debate — not only can he, he already has, so suck it. Plays completely against type for what people think a woman Doctor would be. And introduces it in possibly the safest way possible for the more risk-averse folks in the BBC — in a story which is guaranteed to be huge, with return appearances by Tennant and Piper already on the board, with a big star name, but without having to even run the risk of committing to several years of letting a lady lead the series. (Yet.)
Plus? Fanboy heads asplodey, left right and centre.
I’m a longtime fan of the idea of a female Doctor taking over at some point, and Mirren is one of the names that show up over and over again alongside Tilda Swinton and Maggie Smith. I totally agree with Blum on the advantages of having that transition happen in a guaranteed winner like “Day of The Doctor,” but I realized there is a better choice. Penelope Wilton, most famous in Who circles for playing Prime Minister Harriet Jones, would have killed at the role.
Yes, Mirren is the eternal badass that almost everyone likes. She, like Hurt himself, is one of those figures no one can seem to dislike, and that’s always helpful. Wilton, though, has upped her game considerably, as anyone who watches Downton Abbey will testify. Watching her snaipe back and forth with Maggie Smith is like a graduate course in snark.
On top of that, though, imagine what it would have been like to see Harriet Jones’ face as The Doctor in the Time War. The Doctor’s face is not always mere coincidence. The Twelfth Doctor wears the face of a man he saved that he wasn’t supposed to, and it serves as a constant reminder of the power and he wields. Likewise, the Sixth Doctor wore the face of another Time Lord, a warning against the machinations of The Valeyard and his persecution by his own people.
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And yes, I’m aware that when the Time War was fought, The Doctor hadn’t even met Jones yet. The Moment makes it clear that the Time War has done terrible things both backwards and forwards. He hadn’t met Rose or the Bad Wolf entity either, and yet the connection was instantly there.
So there is the War Doctor, bearing the visage of the woman who would come to be everything The Doctor both loves and despises about humanity. On one hand, Jones was the consummate leader who cared deeply for her people. On the other was a person willing to shoot a retreating enemy to protect the Earth. Eventually she would be willing to sacrifice everything to eliminate the Daleks, something that mirrored The Doctor himself.
Think of how retroactively tense the end of Series 4 would have been knowing that the War Doctor looked (and in many ways acted like) Wilton’s Jones. The Daleks saying, “Yes, we know who you are,” takes on an air of panic as they recognize their exterminator. They would know if she was The Doctor or not, but they scramble to murder her at the first opportunity because what if she is?
Wilton as the War Doctor could have been the kind of commentary on armed conflict Doctor Who hasn’t made since the days of Jon Pertwee. As much as I love Hurt and celebrate him among the Doctors, I think this was a missed opportunity.