50th Anniversary Retrospective: The First Doctor

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John Hussey begins a new monthly series looking at each incarnation of the Doctor.

With the build-up to the grand occasion in 2013, i.e. Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, over the next year I shall be analysing and discussing the different incarnations of the Doctor one-by-one as we slowly come closer and closer to the big day. Today, on the 49th anniversary, I begin with the first Doctor, William Hartnell.

The Origins of the First Doctor

When Sydney Newman came up with an initial idea for a new science-fiction programme, which included time travel, he eventually began working with Donald Wilson (the then Head of Serial and Series for the BBC) and they would go on to create the blueprints of the Doctor’s character and Doctor Who itself. It was then up to original Doctor Who Producer Verity Lambert and first episode Director Waris Hussein to find the right actor to play this ‘frail old man lost in time and space’. Between them, they had ideas of asking the likes of Cyril Cusack and Leslie French, but they weren’t interested in playing the part.

The next choice would be William Hartnell, who was very much known for playing a tough guy or being a sergeant within the army (which was aided by the fact he was once in the military). Hartnell was worried about being typecast and was searching for something different. Verity approached Hartnell’s agent and asked if he would be interested in the role. His agent knew that this wasn’t his usual role or character to play, but Hartnell was intrigued by the offer and went to see Verity for more information. At first he was wary about the role and the strain it would have on him with such a long shoot and remembering so many scripts, but after hearing a description of the Doctor’s character, he was hooked. After he spent a little time thinking about the offer, he called Verity back and took the job, thereby hoping to move away from type and into the world of children’s television. And history was made -- the Doctor was born.

Character Traits, Personality and Catchphrases

To begin with the First Doctor was very grumpy, selfish, and in many ways without mercy. In his first appearance in ‘An Unearthly Child’ the Doctor was willing to allow caveman chief Za to die to save his own skin. He believed that Za’s underdeveloped mind was unpredictable and he was also angry about the idea of his companions saving someone who had them imprisoned and threatened them with death. Ian also catches him trying to kill Za with a blunt rock.

In the following story, the Doctor was willing to risk everyone’s safety so he could satisfy his own curiosity, resulting in them nearly dying from radiation poisoning in the prison cells of the Dalek city. He committed one final act of darkness in ‘The Edge of Destruction’ by threatening to throw Ian and Barbara off the TARDIS after accusing them of sabotage. After that, the First Doctor mellowed out and became a gentler person, especially towards Ian and Barbara.

It was very clear from the beginning that The First Doctor was a grandfather, and a very caring one at that. He was always looking out for Susan, even lecturing her many times and telling her off. The first true emotional scene with the Time Lord is when he decides to let Susan go. He locks the TARDIS doors and tells Susan that it’s time for her to have her own life and identity with David Campbell, the man she had slowly fallen in love with, and stop worrying about looking after her old grandfather. His grandfather act then continued over to next companion Vicki, who was in many ways like Susan (only a little braver). This was his strongest trait within his young female characters; he looked after them like a grandparent like he did with his own granddaughter Susan. When his other original companions, Ian and Barbara, left – taking their one and only chance at returning home in the Daleks’ time machine – the First Doctor was furious, believing them to be mad. But this was just something for the surface. Deep down, which he admitted later on with Vicki, he would truly miss their company.

The First Doctor tended to hold onto his collar while speaking about knowledge, and he would often release a little chuckle from time to time when something made him laugh (usually his companions). Whenever the First Doctor coughed, he would waft his tissue around. An earlier trait of his was that he got Ian’s surname wrong. When he disagreed with something, he would scorn and get angry – denying the facts his companions gave to him in these situations.

The First Doctor’s catchphrases tended to be how he referred or spoke to his companions. For instance he would say to his male companions:

“My dear fellow.” or “Young man.”

When speaking to his younger female companions, he would refer to them as:


The First Doctor was more of an intellectual incarnation, due to his older and frail appearance, and was unable to fight with action. Although from time to time he would use his walking stick as a weapon. He was certainly a thinker when it came to defeating his enemies; strategising the best way of defeating them. If it was one thing the First Doctor had, it was a voice. He was either shouting or having an argument, or he was delivering vast knowledge to those around him.

Era and Stories

The First Doctor’s era was quite dark in many ways (and not just because it was black and white TV back in 1963). It was filled with dark creatures and mad villains with sinister ambitions, which normally resulted in deaths. The show was originally meant to be educational for children, but this idea would later get pushed back for more of a focus on adventure and science-fiction. Many of the stories were darkest in tone during the show’s early years, with ‘The Daleks’ being a prime example due to its themes of nuclear warfare, attempted acts of genocide, supremacy and, of course, the main characters exposure and near death by radiation sickness.

Most of the cliffhangers showcased menace or apparent deaths of the main characters or characters around them. There were also a lot of stories containing murder and battles over power, with these two elements sometimes being crossed over. It became a common/reoccurring theme during the First Doctor’s era. Equally common was the fact that the First Doctor had no control over the TARDIS, and that they would land in a random time and space. It became apparent later on that the TARDIS couldn’t return to a previous location.

To begin with, the Doctor’s companions were very sophisticated and intelligent (Susan being a Time Lady and Ian and Barbara being teachers) but this gradually died down by the time of Steven, who was simply a space-pilot. The whole educational side of the format was lessened, with the Doctor becoming the main explainer of information (rather than in the beginning when any of the main characters could do this). It retained its dark side while gaining more comedy elements, most notable in ‘The Romans’ during the scene where Nero chases after Barbara, almost the entire plot of ’The Chase’ and Steven and Dodo’s forced singing and piano playing scene in ‘The Gunfighters’. Every now and again this was counteracted, which was clearly seen during ‘Mission to the Unknown’ and ‘The Daleks Master Plan’, especially due to the death of Katarina and one-off companion Sara Kingdom. All of the First Doctor’s companions were human (except for Susan of course), but not all of them were from the present. Vicki and Steven were from the future while Katarina was from the past.

One interesting story is ‘The War Machines’ which was the first plot to be entirely set in present-day Earth (except for ‘Planet of Giants’ but the Doctor and co. were miniaturised throughout the story) and worked alongside the military. It acted as a development for future stories later on in Doctor Who’s history.

In the First Doctor’s era, the stories mainly focused on futuristic or historical plots set on Earth. Many them featured journeys to other planets. Here are some of those destinations and their allotted episode:

  • Skaro – ‘The Daleks’
  • Marinus – ‘The Keys of Marinus’
  • The Sense Sphere – ‘The Sensorites’
  • Vortis – ‘The Web Planet’
  • Xeros – ‘The Space Museum’
  • Kembel – ‘Mission to the Unknown’ and ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’

The First Doctor’s era also featured many encounters with historical figures and historical events in Earth’s history (both good and bad). Here are some of the people he encountered:

  • Marco Polo
  • Robespierre
  • Emperor Nero
  • King Richard

And these are some of the historical events the First Doctor got involved with:

  • The French Revolution
  • The Great Fire of Rome
  • The Crusades
  • The Fall of Troy
  • The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve

The First Doctor’s Companions

Susan Foreman
The young Time Lady was the First Doctor’s original companion, who was travelling with him before the start of ‘An Unearthly Child’ and made her departure in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. Susan was easily scared by things but remained extremely intelligent, brave when she had to be, and totally loyal to her grandfather.

Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright
Ian stumbled onto the TARDIS along with Barbara in ‘An Unearthly Child,’ due to their curiosity of Susan’s strange behaviour and intelligence. They were made companions against their will and joined the Doctor unwittingly on many mad adventures. Ian, a science teacher, would become his protector, while Barbara would aid the group with her knowledge of history and intelligence. They both left in ‘The Chase’.

Due to being an orphan trapped on the planet Dido in ‘The Rescue’, the First Doctor decides to take her onboard as Susan’s sort of replacement. She was quite intelligent, very adventurous and got on with her different comrades during her journey in the TARDIS. She left in ‘The Mythmakers’.

After being held prisoner by the dreaded Mechanoids in ‘The Chase’, Steven finally found his way to the TARDIS in the following story ‘The Time Meddler.’ At first he was very sceptical about the ship’s capabilities, but he soon got the hang of it and became good friends with the Doctor (although there was one occasion after the events of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ and ‘The Massacre’ were he confronted the Time Lord about the violence that followed him). He left in ‘The Smugglers’.

The young maid from Troy joined at the end of ‘The Mythmakers’ in order to aid the First Doctor in carrying a wounded Steven onboard the TARDIS. Upon her next journey, ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan,‘ Katarina would come face to face with the deadly Daleks and ultimately sacrifice herself to save her new friends.

Sara Kingdom
Sara was originally used by the evil Mavic Chen to help capture the Doctor, Steven and her brother Bret Vyon in ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan.’ She would later aid the Time Lord after realising the betrayal of Chen. At the end of the battle she is killed.

Dodo Chaplet
After stumbling onboard the TARDIS by accident in ‘The Massacre’, the loud and adventurous Dodo enjoyed five adventures with the First Doctor. These adventures took her into space, another dimension, back to the Wild West, then an alien planet, before arriving back in her own time where she left in ‘The War Machines’.

The First Doctor met Polly, an intelligent and feisty 60s girl, during the events of ‘The War Machines’. She wasn’t much help to the Time Lord during their first encounter due to her mind being controlled by the insane computer WOTAN. At the end of the story, her and Ben sneak into the TARDIS and become bombarded by a brand new life. But after only two adventures with the First Doctor, they are shocked to see him regenerate.

Ben Jackson
The First Doctor met Ben during the events of ‘The War Machines’ where the strong minded and caring sailor aided him during the events of the WOTAN invasion. At the end of the story, he and Polly sneak into the TARDIS and become bombarded by a brand new life. But after only two adventures with the First Doctor, they are shocked to see him regenerate.

Encountered Villains and Monsters

The Daleks
The First Doctor’s main adversary was the Daleks. They joined the show within the second story, ‘The Daleks,’ where they were revealed to be survivors in the underground levels of their metal cities. The Daleks desperately tried to kill their neighbours the Thals, a race they had had been engaged in a 1000 year war with, resulting in a petrified world. At the end of the story it was thought the Daleks were destroyed, but due to their popularity, they were brought back the following season (in episode two again) were they made their first invasion of Earth in the 22nd Century. By this time, the First Doctor and his companions had become sworn enemies of the Daleks and within their third appearance (which featured in the same season as their second appearance) they built a time machine in order to hunt down and exterminate them. The Daleks then returned the following season in a one-off episode that didn’t feature the First Doctor and companions, and merely served as a prequel to their next appearance ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. Within their fifth appearance they made an alliance with aliens and attempted to build a deadly weapon called the Time Destructor which had the ability to destroy time.

The Monk
In ‘The Time Meddler’ we were introduced to the first Time Lord since Susan (although their race wasn’t named back then). The Monk was a time meddler who wished to change a vital point in history, i.e. the Battle of Hastings. The First Doctor is furious to see his sinister plans and disregard to their laws of time and so in order to teach him a lesson, he takes away his dimensional controls – causing his TARDIS to shrink on the inside – thereby trapping him in Medieval England. The Monk returned one last time in the following season during the events of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, proving as a mere obstacle for the Doctor during his battle with the Daleks. After many attempts at getting revenge, and at one point unwilling helping the Daleks in exchange for his own life, the Monk ends up marooned on an ice planet vowing that he would find the Doctor once he escapes.

The Celestial Toymaker
Although they only had one encounter, the Celestial Toymaker proved to be a deadly enemy. He forced the Doctor to play a deadly game which, if he lost, he would have to spend the rest of his life trapped in the Toymaker’s reality as a mere plaything. The Doctor overcame this attack, which at one point left him invisible, and the Toymaker was defeated with the First Doctor and his companions escaping his twisted dimension.

The Cybermen
The First Doctor’s final enemy was the Cybermen. They and their homeworld Mondas, Earth’s twin-planet, returned to the solar system in order to drain Earth of all its energy and convert Humanity into their own kind. Due to their drifting away from the Sun, the people of Mondas converted themselves into Cyborgs, with all of their emotions removed, in order to survive the freezing temperatures.

Three Must See Episodes

  • 3. The Gunfighters
  • 2. The Keys of Marinus
  • 1. The Time Meddler

Special Mentions to:

  • The Daleks
  • The Aztecs
  • The Dalek Invasion of Earth
  • The Space Museum
  • The War Machines

First Words

The First Doctor: What are you doing here?

The Incarnation Speech

The First Doctor: One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then…There must be no regrets. No tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your believes and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.

Famous Last Words

The First Doctor: Ah, yes! Thank you. It’s good. Keep warm.

The Regeneration

The First Doctor regenerated in ‘The Tenth Planet’ due to slow energy drain during his first encounter and battle against the Cybermen. This energy drain almost rendered him completely powerless during the adventure. After the Cybermen were defeated, he rushed back to the TARDIS followed by his companions at the time, Polly and Ben Jackson. The TARDIS began operating on its own accord, while the Doctor collapsed to the floor. The energy drain is believed to be caused by either old age or the effects of Mondas’ attack on Earth. While the TARDIS makes its iconic “whooshing” noise, the Doctor transforms in a flash of light into a younger man before the confused faces of Polly and Ben…