It’s rare a show still running can be categorized as “legendary,” but BBC’s Doctor Who is definitely the stuff of legend. The show hit its 50th anniversary back in 2013, and the special that aired to celebrate the milestone was one for which Whovians everywhere could barely contain their excitement. After all, it’s not every episode that brings past incarnations of the Doctor back to interact with the current/ According to Doctor Who executive producer Steven Moffat, however, the special was very nearly a disaster thanks to a dearth of Doctors.
Moffat recently revealed the difficulties with producing the 50th anniversary special to in an interview with Radio Times:
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.
Earlier anniversary specials had seen multiple Doctors crossing paths due to some timeline shenanigans, so it’s no surprise that Steven Moffat would have panicked at the prospect of not even managing to secure one. David Tennant as Ten had left Doctor Who after the final special following the fourth rebooted season, and Matt Smith as Eleven was on his way out. Nine was never particularly likely to appear thanks to actor Christopher Eccleston’s standing decision to separate himself from Doctor Who, but the special just wouldn’t be...special...without Ten or Eleven.
Of course, Eccleston not coming on board threw a wrench in Moffat’s plan to explore the events and repercussions of the Time War. Nine was the first Doctor that 21st century audiences met, and much of his arc for his single season dealt with his guilt of what he had done to end the war. Moffat went with some of his trademark (and oft-repeated) timey-wimey stuff and tweaked the history of Who by establishing that there had actually been a Doctor between Eight (last seen in a TV movie) and Nine from the premiere of the reboot. The existence of the War Doctor, as played by John Hurt, meant that fans have technically had the numbering system of Doctors off.
While it would have been nice to have Eccleston return for one last hurrah as Nine, Tennant as Ten joining Smith as Eleven was enough to hook in plenty of fans. Tennant luckily hadn’t visibly aged since departing the show that he couldn’t be sold as an ageless Doctor, and Hurt as the rumpled War Doctor was a solid substitute for the Doctor that fans had known as Nine.
The anniversary special itself was met with mixed receptions from fans. The cameo appearance of Peter Capaldi’s Twelve was a nice surprise, but the episode effectively undid one of the major events that motivated the character development of Doctors Nine through Eleven from 2005 – 2013. Still, the team up of Ten and Eleven as well as the introduction of the War Doctor was enough to make up for the absence of Nine, and the special was certainly not a total disaster.