The story goes that Watership Down began life as a series of tales regaled by Richard Adams to his children on long car journeys. The genesis of Doctor Who was, of course, very different, and while the stories seem initially at odds, they hold more in common than you might think.
On the surface, taking a glance at the 1978 Watership Down film, you’ll notice a few stars connected to Doctor Who: Richard Briers (Paradise Towers) as Fiver, whose vision of a horrific future is the driving force for the narrative; John Bennett (Invasion of the Dinosaurs; The Talons of Weng-Chiang) as Captain Holly; and notably, John Hurt.
Hurt, our brilliant War Doctor, is the link with the 1999-2001 Watership Down TV series – but whereas he played protagonist, Hazel in the movie, he completely switches sides for the small screen. Across 7 episodes, he played the vicious General Woundwort, the main antagonist.
Briers was also asked back for the series, this time playing Captain Broom, while further familiar names include Lee Ross (The Curse of the Black Spot) as Hawkbit; Stephen Gately (Horror of Glam Rock for Big Finish) as Blackavar, and singing a new arrangement of the famous track, Bright Eyes; and Tim McInnerny (Planet of the Ood) as Silverweed.
It’s especially tragic that John Hurt has passed away shortly before Watership Down once more makes its way to screen, this version a four-episode series for the BBC and Netflix starring James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Ben Kingsley, Miles Jupp, and Olivia Colman (The Eleventh Hour). That’s expected sometime this year.
(Of course, it’s equally tragic that Richard Adams passed away on Christmas Eve last year. But how satisfying must it have been for the storyteller to know, with a new TV show on the horizon, that his tales would live on?)
For many, Hurt will forever be synonymous with Watership Down, but for us, he’ll always be a vital part of the Doctor Who mythos.
One story is the journey of a rabbit warren striving to reach their own semblance of paradise; the other is of a Time Lord, exploring all of time and space. But both find their singular truth: the thrill is in the chase; never in the capture.
That isn’t the interesting thing, however. Saying it’s all about the trip, not the destination would describe a vast amount of drama, in a literal sense, as in Lord of the Rings, or figuratively, as with Lord of the Flies. No, the really great thing about Doctor Who and Watership Down, something that defines them, is their approach to the audience.
Most childhood memories of Watership Down will recall how harrowing it is, just as recollections of Doctor Who will likely feature either hiding behind settees or otherwise fearing the Daleks/Autons/ Weeping Angels/Insert Monster Here. Similarly, there are forever calls that the two are too adult for young viewers and readers. And that’s exactly how it should be.
This is the important thing about Watership Down and Doctor Who: they don’t patronise children. It’s something society as a whole should learn from (but sadly never will).
Both are informed by their times, but the themes remain eerily relevant. Everyone will recognise Watership Down‘s raising environmental issues; however, everyone will read something different into the narrative: is it about immigration? Acceptance? Civil unrest? War? Is it about religion, mulling over the nature of faith no matter what creature you are? Is it a variation of Lord of the Flies, shedding light on the darker sides of humanity (despite being about rabbits)?
Of course, Watership Down is all of this and more, as is Doctor Who. It’d be fair to say the parallels are most obvious during the Third Doctor’s tenure – just watch Inferno, Frontier in Space, and The Green Death! Then again, these themes find a place, whatever the era. The God Complex is a fine example of religion, the human condition, and, yes, even a distillation of Lord of the Flies, especially in the character of Gibbis, willing to sacrifice everyone else just to get home.
We must naturally turn to The Day of the Doctor, John Hurt’s only full serial as the War Doctor, an examination of war, immigration, and acceptance. You might even see religious allegory in there too. It’s fitting that this episode has such strong thematic links to Watership Down.
All these ideas are tackled in things that are made to be watched or read by numerous ages. Children might’ve been the immediate audience for Doctor Who and Richard Adams’ book, but they’re just as accessible, no matter what your mileage. Indeed, you’ll discover different notions while revisiting stories throughout your life, their relevance becoming fresh for each generation.
You may question the brutality of Watership Down, how appropriate the violence is to the youth, but the truly exceptional adult tone is what makes the tale essential for all.
John Hurt appreciated this in his roles as Hazel, General Woundwort, and the War Doctor, and carried the weight of the narrative to suit. It’s actually in The Day of the Doctor that we find the overall attitude to life expressed in every fibre of Doctor Who and Watership Down: “Make it worthwhile.”