The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Steven Moffat Reveals the Nightmare Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special We Could Have Had

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

52 years ago today, Doctor Who aired for the very first time—and two years ago, it took over the world as it broadcast “The Day of the Doctor,” the show’s 50th anniversary special. But the celebration was, according to Steven Moffat, nearly a total disaster: and somehow almost didn’t star The Doctor at all.

It seems like it’s been one hell of a week for candid behind-the-scenes interviews. On the back of a shockingly honest Hobbit featurette about the trilogy’s production problems, we now have an equally interesting interview with Who showrunner Steven Moffat for the Radio Times, which discusses one of the writer’s most challenging periods on the show: the celebration of the longest running science fiction series’ golden anniversary.


Moffat has freely admitted that the creation of “The Day of the Doctor,” as well as organizing a plethora of side-projects to tie into the show’s anniversary, was one of the most stressful periods of his time on the series. But it wasn’t just pressure to deliver an episode that had to satisfy five decades of time travel and legions of potentially bloodthirsty fans that got to Moffat—it was figuring out a way to integrate the adamant desire from viewers to see old Doctors. His original plan for the show featured no actors from the “classic” period of the show, but instead the then-three actors to have portrayed The Doctor in the post-2005 era:

The first version was David [Tennant], Matt [Smith] and Chris [Eccleston] together. With whatever involvement we could contrive for the other Doctors, but – being brutal – it had to be Doctors that still looked like their Doctors. I know I’m a bastard but hey, I think Peter [Davison], Colin [Baker] and Sylvester [McCoy] were better deployed in The Five-ish Doctors [a spoof short film] than they could ever be elsewhere.


The problem, however, would be Christopher Eccleston. Rumors as to why the actor left the wildly successful show after just a single season persist to this day, but ever since his departure, the actor has sworn off the idea of ever returning to the role. Moffat met with Eccleston to attempt to persuade him, but eventually it lead to plans being scrapped on the current incarnation of the script altogether:

But I knew that Chris was almost certainly going to say no. I met him a couple of times and he was absolutely lovely. He met with me because he didn’t want to say no through his agent or a phone call or email. He wanted to do it personally. And I three-quarters talked him into it.

So I started a version of it but I got to a point where I could go no further unless it was going to be him. I went for another meeting with him and he decided no. His reasons are his business and he’s a very private man. But it’s reasonable to say he really cares about Doctor Who. He’s well versed in what’s happened since he left, and happily chatted away about Amy Pond by name.

But while those meetings went on, more and more actors publicly denied that they would be a part of the special, prompting growing discontent from Doctor Who fans—who didn’t realize that behind-the-scenes problems with the script, and a ticking clock, meant that Moffat very nearly had to scrape together a story with whatever actors he could find. Case in point? In one form or another, there was a story outline for “The Day of the Doctor” that featured no Doctors at all... only Jenna Coleman as Clara.

We had to work out what else to do. At that point neither David nor Matt were under contract either. I had Jenna [Coleman]. And I did come up with a plotline that was just Jenna. It was a nightmare. We’re weeks from filming. A production team is assembled, people are doing storyboards and I don’t even know if anyone who has ever played the Doctor is going to be in it.

And meanwhile the entire internet is finding my email and sending me the most hideous death threats. Because I haven’t got William Hartnell back! And I’m thinking, “Well, one: he hasn’t answered the phone. I don’t know why...” But never mind him – I’m not sure if David and Matt are doing it either. I’m crouched in the corner of my office wondering, “What the f*** am I going to do!”


But eventually, things came together. Smith (who was already negotiating for his exit from the show) signed on for the special, followed by Tennant. Instead of courting a former Doctor to join them, the idea to cast a previously unseen incarnation of The Doctor was set into motion. Shortly after John Hurt was cast, a script was hastily written, and the episode went into production just days later:

Didn’t John Hurt say something like “I received the script on Friday and was on set on Monday”?

It wasn’t quite as fast as that but it was bloody fast. He was top of our list. I wrote the War Doctor script and we sent it off to John Hurt, assuming that was the beginning of a frantic two weeks of sending it off to every actor you’ve ever heard off and got Janette Krankie. And – God bless him for ever! – he said yes almost immediately. That was the first stroke of luck we had on that sodding show.


We know the rest of the story: “The Day of the Doctor” debuted in a record-breaking 94 countries, and somehow, managed to pull off an adventure that satisfied (almost) every Doctor Who fan’s immense expectations.

And now we know how very nearly wrong it all went. You can check out more of the Radio Times’ interview with Steven Moffat at the link below.


[Via Radio Times]

Image Credit: BBC/Doctor Who