The First Doctor: Five Favourites
Guest contributor K-Ci Williams picks out five favourites on William Hartnell’s date of birth
When the First Doctor began his travels in 1963 – then known as Dr. Who – there was no knowing how much of a global phenomenon Doctor Who would become. From 1963 – 1966, William Hartnell piloted the TARDIS alongside some of the most memorable assistants in the show’s history. With stories ranging from An Unearthly Child to The Tenth Planet, Hartnell captured the hearts of millions across the world and to this day is the man who started it all. As another year begins and now reaches his birthday, here are five of my favourite serials from the First Doctor in tribute to the legendary William Hartnell.
An Unearthly Child
The genesis episode of Doctor Who was focused into this sublimely written, thought provoking script that captured my attention from the very first scene. But the discussion between Ian and Barbara was the real lure into the episode. The whole setup to the world of Doctor Who was intricately carved and presented in the diversity of characters. First, Ian and Barbara; amazed that their student Susan could possess intellect beyond their own and so they follow her to a junkyard in Totter’s Lane, we meet the Doctor, William Hartnell. Hartnell is exceptional; full of life, vibrant in giving a coloured performance (in black and white) and speaking with a formal vernacular common in the times of production. His formality is the one of the many characteristics I admire about him.
Further in we are shown what it could have been like in the Stone Age through the eyes of four travellers. As an audience, the Doctor is shrouded in mystery to us yet the story exposes a sense of awe at the dimensions inside the TARDIS. The genesis of Doctor Who is impressive for the all round cohesive cast in four wonderfully characterised roles. An Unearthly Child truly is a classic story!
The Aztecs is undoubtedly one of my favourite Hartnell stories. The four episode structure suited the serial, allowing each character the opportunity to be fleshed out. There are a few moments of this episode that stand out, namely Barbara’s intended intervention in human sacrifice. The story of morality embedded in the core of the tale provided exposition of why the Doctor cannot interfere and an exploration of Barbara’s passion for history and humanity.
Barbara Wright is in her element in The Aztecs and it’s fair to say that this is by far her best story. A stubborn side surfaces from her idealisms in this serial, particular her want to abolish human sacrifice in the 15th Century. This provided a new layer or development to her characterisation, a deep set attitude that becomes prominent in her being.
William Hartnell takes the role of the Doctor to pristine places; his short lived romance with Cameca being a prime example. Refusing her to travel with him in the TARDIS, the relationship ended with the Doctor afflicted due to his loss. Hartnell creates a dark atmosphere near the end when he authoritatively discusses with Barbara the problems with meddling in time. The Aztecs introduces the eponymous rule of no meddling in time, but also showcases Hartnell’s plentiful qualities of irascibility, anger, happiness, wisdom, humour and his love for his companions. The Aztecs is his finest story.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
William Hartnell is unarguably on top form here; his manner of speaking to Susan when he thinks she is questioning his authority is magnificent. In fact, the opening to this serial sets up the story in an interesting way that most Hartnell episodes do – with an enthralling opening. Surely a sign warning citizens not to dump bodies into the Thames is sure to gain curiosity from the audience, as is the concept of Robomen later on. The scene in which a lone Dalek rises from the Thames at the end of episode one evoked my first goosebumps from a Dalek moment since the reactions of characters in The Stolen Earth.
Upon my first viewing I had not seen such a scenario; at times Daleks seem to materialise on the screen with no big bad introduction. This is not the case in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. There is something momentous yet spine tingling about the Daleks moving across Westminster Bridge in this serial, it reminds me of a time when the Daleks truly did spark fear. However, I cannot neglect the Doctor leaving Susan on Earth. It was spectacularly executed with a sense of a farewell not truly being farewell forever. This is echoed in the Doctor’s final words to his beloved granddaughter. In this final moment where he speaks those words, those memorable words, William Hartnell is the definitive article of the Doctor.
The Time Meddler
In a matter of minutes Hartnell is undeniably captivating. His attitude shifts in a sweet moment with Vicki to a very authoritative scene with Steven calling him “Doc.” The Time Meddler evidently serves the purpose for which the show was devised: to educate children about science and history. But of course, without the original assistants Ian and Barbara, the historic explanations fell upon the Doctor to give to the audience. Generally these scenes are with just the Doctor, and it is entertaining to watch him talk to himself, fascinated with his own genius.
The Time Meddler also continues the established comedic side to the Doctor that was alluded to in earlier serials. “It’s going to put that young man in his place,” he says, before he laughs in that signature William Hartnell tone. Additionally, the characterisation of Vicki as smart and thoughtful is an appealing factor of the story – and also possesses the steel that I think should have been implanted in Susan. The Meddling Monk was a welcome addition to the mythos of Doctor Who; the first of the Doctor’s species since An Unearthly Child introduced himself and Susan. The concept of meddling of time was given promising exposition through character actions, serious dialogue and Hartnell’s anger towards the Monk’s irresponsibility that made the serial worthwhile.
The War Machines
The War Machines boasts a fast paced structure and an intriguing plot, commencing with an opening scene full of allure: a bird’s eye view of London; zooming into the TARDIS landing near the Post Office Tower, followed by the First Doctor sensing something about the building itself.
This serial had a more realistic edge thanks to the natural performances of Anneke Wills and Michael Craze as Polly and Ben respectively. Both are new characters bursting at the seams with potential. Dodo was not heavily utilised in the serial; the very scene in which she was left to ‘rest’ being her final appearance as the First Doctor’s assistant. The concept of WOTAN and the War Machines is absolutely fantastic and thoroughly developed throughout the four episodes, leading to the mind-controlling of Dodo and Polly which provided more elasticity for the actresses, who played their parts well.
The champion of the piece is Mr William Hartnell. At the time of filming these episodes his health was deteriorating, but I find that the small mishaps in delivery improve his portrayal. We must remember that he was the Doctor – there was no-one else. As the War Machine advances towards him at the end of episode three, he stands there poised, with Hartnell confidently upright ready for what may come…
Honourable Mention: An Adventure in Space and Time
Strictly speaking William Hartnell is not actually in this, but nonetheless it was an amazing tribute to him so it deserves a mention. Mark Gatiss assembled a skilled cast to perform his heartfelt script that ultimately fills in what happened behind the scenes so that fans like me can understand the struggles William Hartnell went through years after becoming the Doctor. I’ll have you know that it was this docudrama that has given me the enthusiasm to go back and rewatch the Hartnell stories that I have always loved.
How to conclude? Is there really any other way?
“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 beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine…”
Mr Hartnell, thank you for taking me on numerous adventures through time and space. Those times, albeit on remastered DVDs are some of which I will never forget. You were the one who started it all off and you are the original who they called Doctor Who.
Happy Birthday to the late, great William Hartnell.
William Hartnell (8 January 1908 – 23 April 1975)
The First Doctor (1963-1966)