Appreciating John Hurt’s Tenure as The Doctor

Over on TrekBBS, there was some discussion last night and today about John Hurt’s tenure as the Doctor. A poster by the handle of Newspaper Taxi kicked it off:

I don’t really see a lot of people talk about the Hurt serials that ran from ’01 to ’05. I really felt that the show took on a much darker tone during this period and I’m really shocked at some of the things that the guy we’re supposed to call “The Doctor” did. I mean — the Time War? It made for one hell of a season finale and my favorite regeneration scene ever, but wow. I had a hard time looking at him the same way afterwards.

I’m going to riff on some of what I wrote there.

As much as I love Paul McGann and Matt Smith, and even though it was the Bakers and Davison that I grew up watching, it’s John Hurt that is my Doctor. There’s no shame in saying that. I’ve always admired Hurt as an actor, and I’m sure that has something to do with it, but I think it’s more that Hurt’s era as the Doctor spoke to me. His four years in the role were a serious attempt at grappling with and saying something about the present in a way that Doctor Who had never really done before.

In the late-90s, when I really started to get into online Doctor Who fandom, I didn’t think anything could be more controversial than Sylvester McCoy’s era. That was probably the thing that shocked me the most about my early ventures into rec.arts.drwho; there were people out there, Doctor Who fans all, who absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, hated significant chunks of the show they claimed to love. As much as McCoy’s era was slagged in retrospect, Hurt’s era was reviled in its time. That wasn’t unique to Doctor Who; Star Trek fandom had the same thing at the same time with the online backlash to Star Trek: Enterprise. My theory then, my theory now, is that the rise of the Internet and its widespread adoption in the first few years of the 21st-century helped give rise to what I call “hatedom.” Fans who hated what they claimed to love were always there, but they had been marginalized over the years. The Internet gave them a platform, USEnet and bulletin boards and blogs gave them a platform and a megaphone, and people saw that it was acceptible to not just dislike the program but actively hate it. Hurt’s era had the misfortune of coming along at precisely that moment in time.

What I usually say to people who say that those four years “aren’t Doctor Who” is this.

You need to look at John Hurt’s four years in the context of the times. Look at what was going on in the world in early 2001 when McGann’s departure was announced as John Hurt was cast. The world was at peace. The economy had taken a dip after Bush’s election but it was starting to rebound. Frankly, early 2001 was a good time to be alive and it looked like things were going to be mellow. The first half of John Hurt’s first season, which would have been planned and written during the summer months of 2001, reflected that reality.

Unfortunately, Hurt made his debut as the Doctor on September 13th. The world changed rather dramatically two days before. And, midway through Hurt’s first season, Doctor Who began to reflect that.

It wasn’t until “The Sontaran Gambit”/”Sentinel of the Daleks” two-parter in February 2002 that we really began to see how dark Doctor Who could go. Ironically, it wasn’t even Hurt’s Doctor that was dark. It was what the Thals were doing in that two-parter that was so jaw-droppingly insane, and as appalled as the audience was by the revelations at the end, it was clear the Doctor was right there with them in their shock. Clearly, it was a story written in reaction to the Afghanistan mission, but it really opened the door for where Hurt’s era would go with the Daleks taking the Sontaran clone banks for themselves and the revelation about the Dalek time machines. Doctor Who was in new territory. Midway through his first season, Doctor Who did something that it had never really done before — it became a series that, like Star Trek did back in the 1960s, reflected the present world and its concerns through sci-fi metaphors. The Last Great Time War, a science fiction idea that should have been a natural for a time traveling series like Doctor Who, was a metaphor for the threat of terrorism; the Time Lords could no more guard themselves against an enemy who could travel through time than we could guard ourselves against a dedicated terrorist cell determined to destroy us. The fanaticism of the Daleks, once a metaphor for Naziism, became the fanaticism of the Islamic jihadists. What was so surprising about Hurt’s era in that regard is that, unlike Star Trek‘s attempts at subtlety, Doctor Who foregrounded the metaphors and made them impossible to ignore. Hurt’s Who was very much of its time, but that also made the series difficult for so many to love because it was such a break with the past.

Yet, Hurt’s era was not without its charms. I loved the two-parter with Jamie McCrimmon set in Revolutionary-era, British-occupied New York. Yes, it was clearly inspired by the New Adventures, with the Doctor and his former companion at odds with one another, but I didn’t mind because it was done very well and it had a spin on the concept that those NAs didn’t have. As an old school Doctor Who fan, I kept hoping that Jamie would remember something, anything about his travels with the Doctor. I liked that they didn’t go that way, though, and that Jamie never remembered, not even as he lay dying after taking a bullet to save his daughter and the Doctor from a mob, not that he would have recognized Hurt.

That story, of course, gave us Claire McCrimmon, one of the most delightful companions of recent memory. Yes, she could have been a Victoria redux, but instead they treated her with more psychological depth than the series was capable of pre-1980s. I liked the way her relationship with the Doctor developed, especially as she drew out the Doctor and came to understand who her father had been as a young man. And who can forget the tragic consequences when she was captured by the Daleks and brought before the Emperor? Her screams as she’s led off to the conversion chamber still haunt me. That was another moment that, in my opinion, really broke this Doctor.

The other charming moment came early in Hurt’s first season, before the series changed direction in “The Sontaran Gambit.” I’m still amazed that they did a Hartnell-esque pure historical. Not even RTD or Moffat have had the testicular fortitude to do that. The only word to describe “The Vinlanders” is “vintage.” You look at that episode now, and you have to think they got lucky in their timing. It hit screens right before The Lord of the Rings hit, so there was already this medievalist buzz in the air, and when FOX repeated it that summer they recut the trailer to be more Lord of the Rings-esque. I won’t say that “The Vinlanders” is completely successful, but it was fun in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t been for a few years and wouldn’t be again until “Smith & Jones.”

Ultimately, I view Hurt’s era as a reaction to the Bush/Blair failure in Iraq, and I see Hurt’s Doctor as a tragic hero. Obviously, the writers in 2001, 2002, 2003 had no idea that Iraq would end in ashes, and the early stages of The Last Great Time War, especially in Hurt’s second season (2002-3), are unfailingly optimistic about the Time Lords’ inevitable victory over the Daleks. But as Iraq turned sour, and it was obvious by late 2003 that it had, the initiative shifted in The Last Great Time War and there was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the Time Lords. You can see in Hurt’s Doctor the arc from true believer in the righteous cause to disillusioned warrior who has lost faith in his leaders. You can see it most clearly in “The Tears of the Ten Thousand” when the Doctor confronts Romana and demands to know how many more worlds must burn because of a mistake, and Romana’s chilling response — “The mistake would be in not burning more” — is the point where the Doctor loses all faith in his cause.

Hurt’s era is uncomfortable viewing, because they were trying so hard to make something relevant to the era. But Hurt’s era is also, in retrospect, difficult to watch simply because it hasn’t aged well. The ambitions of the era didn’t match the budget, so these galaxy-spanning battles were as realistic as the Dalek army in “Planet of the Daleks.” Even Babylon 5, with its budget issues, looked better than Hurt’s era. The era that followed with Eccleston and Tennant also hasn’t aged particularly well — Eccleston’s season in particular is grounded firmly in 2005 pop culture, and its references have dated badly — but Hurt’s era looks cheap by comparison and its political undercurrents are no longer meaningful.

Hurt himself was great. He brought the gravitas that you would expect from an actor of his calibre. His four seasons, however, are very much of their time. They lack timelessness. Say what you will about Steven Moffat as writer, but as a producer he’s made his era timeless.

I would hope that in this 50th-anniversary year fandom can reevaluate John Hurt’s four years as the Last of the Time Lords. I hope that Steven Moffat does Hurt’s Doctor justice in the anniversary special. I suspect, though, that we’re still a decade away from the reevaluation and reappreciation of the era. Another decade, and the children who watched Hurt’s Doctor every week will be adults, breaking into prose and television, some of them even working on Doctor Who in a professional capacity. That’s what it will take, someone saying, “I’m going to do Hurt right.”

I’m glad to see John Hurt back this November. He was my Doctor.

2 Replies to “Appreciating John Hurt’s Tenure as The Doctor”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *