A Celebration of the First Doctor

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Guest contributor James Wynne celebrates William Hartnell’s portrayal of the First Doctor.

In 2005, I was introduced to Doctor Who by a friend and I instantly became hooked. The whole premise of it seemed amazing, the TARDIS, the Doctor himself… everything. I have followed the show religiously ever since and have only recently started to step back in time and give some attention to the classic series.

I found out about the long history of the show fairly soon after becoming a fan, but I disregarded it straight away for the same reasons most people ignore old films or television: The acting will be poor, the special effects will be horrible etc. This was a mistake and probably down to immaturity more than anything else, when you grow up with what we have now it’s hard to appreciate stuff from the old days. I decided to finally give them a try. I thought the ultimate test to see if I could indeed enjoy it, would be going as far back as possible.

So I started with An Unearthly Child and couldn’t have been more surprised, not just by the quality of the episodes themselves, but by how much I enjoyed Bill’s portrayal of the Doctor. Everyone understands why the show has the title it does, but the very first man to play the role fully epitomises that reason. He played the character with so much mystery and I was never sure what he was going to do next.

His very first scene has him confronted by Ian and Barbara who want to know the whereabouts of his granddaughter: Susan. He responds in a very aloof manner, he doesn’t seem to consider them important enough to bother taking too seriously. There is a definite air of superiority and secrecy about him straight from the off, and it’s enticing to watch. The two school teachers eventually discover the reason for his secretive behaviour: the TARDIS. As you would imagine, upon seeing a time machine that’s bigger on the inside, they have a lot of questions about it. This Doctor doesn’t deal with it as some of the most recent ones do though, he waves off any questions with a chuckle and a rather mocking tone.


Halfway through the first serial, our four travellers escape from their captors and try and make their way through the jungle. Two of the captors follow them but run in to trouble themselves when an animal attacks one of them. Ian, Barbara and Susan all double back to try and help the injured man, whereas the Doctor insists on leaving him so that they can make their escape before the rest of the tribe catches up. The group are firm in their refusal to leave an injured person, but the Doctor shows a brief glimmer of malice. A jagged stone by the man’s hand catches his eye and he very carefully goes to pick it up, the intention is clear but Ian ensures that nothing is done. It’s very obvious from his actions that he considers his and Susan’s lives of greater importance than anyone else, and he is willing to go very far to protect both.

The most important aspect of the First Doctor is that he’s learning, unlike our all-knowing Time Lord of today, Bill’s would go to various planets and try and learn as much about them as he could. He was just starting out and, initially, wasn’t in it for all the adventure, but rather to further his knowledge of the universe. The true mark of his dedication to knowing as much as possible came in The Dead Planet, in which his three companions had unanimously decided it was unsafe to explore the alien planet they had arrived at. Faced with having to try and pilot the TARDIS back to Ian and Barbara’s time so they could return home, he tampered with his machine, claimed it was broken and insisted exploration was necessary because he needed a substance that would likely be found in the planet’s city.

The thing I find most impressive about Hartnell’s Doctor though, is how he developed the character. At the start he wasn’t the most likeable or understandable person, but as he went on, he softened. He gained an appreciation for humans and began to revel in their company. Ian and Barbara’s departure really emphasises the change in him, in the beginning he treated them with very little respect, but by the end, he was sad to see them go.

William completely surpassed my expectations, not only with his acting skills but his completely unique take on the now famous Time Lord. Mystery was at the core of his Doctor, right down to his very morality, and it’s an angle that will hopefully be applied more to the Eleventh incarnation.

My article was based mainly on his first few adventures, because his character had so much impact on me from the start. I’ve still got plenty of his era to see but I couldn’t resist writing an article about his Doctor. He was truly phenomenal in the role and I recommend his era to anyone yet to delve in to Doctor Who’s rich history, it’s a blast right from the word go.

William Hartnell (8 January 1908 – 23 April 1975)
The First Doctor (1963-1966)