Steven Moffat has long made it known what an insanely stressful time the creation of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special was—an event almost so disastrous it nearly didn’t have the Doctor in it at all. But at long last, Moffat has revealed what story he would’ve had to use for the potential reality of “The Day of the Doctor” with no Doctor.
Speaking in the second part of a vast interview with The Doctor Who Fan Show covering his now-concluded era as showrunner, Moffat delved further into his previous comments on the nightmare-that-was when it came to delivering a 50th birthday bash for Doctor Who. According to the writer, he’d sold the BBC on Doctor Who’s answer to the Olympics, only to find, as he’d previously revealed, that Jenna Coleman—then currently the Doctor’s traveling companion, Clara Oswald—was the only person the team actually had contracted to appear:
There wasn’t anything very enjoyable about doing [“The Day of the Doctor”]. I look back on it with great satisfaction—I think it’s a genuinely terrific episode of Doctor Who, I’ll just say that—but at the time... I was just upset. Everybody was cross with me, I remember that. Everybody was cross. Everybody.
The script was late, so everybody was cross at me, and I’m saying ‘Guys! Who’s in it, who have you got!? Nonono, You tell me who you’ve got, under contract, to be in it, because I promised this year’s Olympics. Could you tell me who’s in this?’
‘Jenna.’ And that was the list.
So I’m doing, celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who... with Jenna. Who’s wonderful, and one of my personal favorites, but I don’t think that’s really gonna cut it!
But what we didn’t know, was just what Moffat was going to do with his sole star had nothing else worked out. Apparently, he began drafting a version of the special where Clara was the lead character—and although The Doctor would appear, it wouldn’t be any incarnation fans had ever seen on screen, not even Matt Smith’s then-current iteration:
So I came up with an alternate version of the 50th. Which was, the Doctor having stepped into his own time stream at the end of [season 7 finale] “The Name of the Doctor,” he’s eliminated from all of space and time, and Clara is trying to remember him. And the Doctor turns up in various fictional forms, and she says ‘That story’s true, that wizard, that was the Doctor,’ so she keeps encountering this, and we have the Doctor played by a succession of very famous people. That was my plan. ‘Very famous people.’
Luckily, Moffat was granted a moment of hope when Matt Smith and former star David Tennant both signed up. Christopher Eccleston, who famously departed the series after just one season under less-than-amicable terms, declined to appear, necessitating the creation of a new “old” incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt. According to Moffat, the decision was made so late the script for “The Name of the Doctor” ended with a statement from the writer saying “I’ll figure it out when we figure out what we’re doing for the 50th” rather than the scene that eventually revealed John Hurt’s War Doctor.
Just over four years on, we know it all turned out okay for Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. “The Day of the Doctor” broke broadcast records at the time and turned out to be warmly received. But it’s kind of spectacular just how close it came to being a complete and utter disaster, a prospect even scarier than any villain the Doctor had ever faced down in 50 years of time travel.
You can see the Moffat’s full thoughts on writing the special, as well as everything from taking over Doctor Who to the misfire of the show’s giant-sized redesign of the Daleks in the full interview below (the first part can be found here, too!).