This is a post in the Tor.com Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.
William Hartnell was an alien.
Okay, perhaps not literally (although I admit I have no definitive proof either way), but as an actor creating a role for the very first time, he certainly knew how to portray the otherworldliness that’s now become such a quintessential element of the Doctor’s personality.
I think it’s easy for people to underestimate the impact that this had on the overall success of Doctor Who as a television show, and also on the way in which subsequent actors developed the role of the principle character.
At the time, in the early 1960s, there was nothing else like Doctor Who on the screens of Great Britain. And for all of the wobbly sets and fluffed lines, what the BBC managed to create was an enduring, limitless show that, even today, almost fifty years later, still stands up well against the vast swathes of television drama that now vie for our attention.
For me, Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor was a fundamental component of this success. When Hartnell was on screen, he stole the show. His Doctor was both stately and occasionally bumbling, crotchety and kindly. He forgot people’s names but demonstrated a fundamental understanding of the inner workings of the universe. He didn’t always know what it was to be human, or how human beings behave, but he found ways to empathise with his companions. He showed impatience, but also great tolerance. And what’s more, he came across as fundamentally alien, an ancient traveler, drawn to Earth for obscure, unknown reasons.
I came to Hartnell late. He wasn’t “my Doctor.” That was Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor, who was on television when I was growing up. But Hartnell stole my affections from the moment I first saw him on screen.
It was a few years ago now, before the show returned to our screens in 2005, that I decided to see if I could watch every episode of Doctor Who in order, from the very start. Ultimately, I failed in this task due to the immensity of it, and the difficulty in tracking down all of the episodes, and, well, because life kind of got in the way. But I did manage to watch and listen my way through every surviving episode of the Hartnell years. And consequently, I’ve gone back and done it again, since. I can only begin to describe the impression those stories have made on me.
The era of the First Doctor perfectly captures that all-important sense of wonder, when—as a viewer—we’re allowed to see for the first time into that secret, exciting, incredible world of this benevolent alien. Most of the show we still see today is present there, too, in these early stories. The Doctor is perhaps a little more enigmatic—we don’t yet know of Gallifrey, and his history, and the Time Lords—but the format is there, as is the myth, and the fantasy, and the science fiction. There is also historical adventure there, too, an element of the show that was later dropped in favour of more fantastical stories. But even that change occurred during the Hartnell years, during a four part story called “The Time Meddler,” when the Meddling Monk, another of the Doctor’s people, turns up in 1066 with a record player and a TARDIS of his own.
There are moments in these stories when Hartnell really shines as the Doctor, such as his wonderful first, enigmatic appearance in the pilot episode, An Unearthly Child, or when he first faced the Daleks, or when he found himself impersonating an agent of Robespierre during the French Revolution.
Sadly, a number of Hartnell’s appearances as the Doctor are now lost, deleted by the BBC in the era before home video, when the broadcasters were moving to colour and thought that no one would be interested in old black and white shows anymore. There are well over forty missing Hartnell episodes of the show, including the complete run of perhaps the finest historical story the series ever produced, “Marco Polo,” and most of the epic twelve-part “The Daleks’ Masterplan.” Sadly, Hartnell’s final appearance as the Doctor, the last episode of “The Tenth Planet,” which features the first appearance of the Cybermen, as well as introducing the concept of regeneration, is also missing. The search for copies of all of these episodes continues around the world in the dusty archives of television stations as far and wide as Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The soundtracks of these stories do still exist, however, as off-air recordings made by enthusiasts and fans at the time of their original broadcast. Now cleaned up and released by the BBC with linking narration, they provide us with an insight into this most fascinating of the show’s eras, and the genesis of the show we all still know and love today.
Perhaps ironically, given the nature of this blog post, Hartnell was also, actually, the First Doctor of Christmas. During the epic serial that was “The Daleks’ Masterplan,” there was an episode entitled “The Feast of Steven,” a Christmas special—the first and only until David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor appeared on Christmas Day to fight the Sycorax—during which the Doctor, for the one and only time in the show’s history, addressed the audience at home. This truly was an era of firsts!
Hartnell may not be the definitive Doctor for many people, but he was the first, and his legacy permeates everything about the show, even now. When Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor recently flashed his psychic paper at a bunch of vampires in a catacomb beneath Venice, only to realise a moment later that it was really his library card and that the photo ID was actually a picture of his first incarnation, I admit I felt a little thrill. Even now, in this age of 3D movies, high definition and digital streaming, this actor from the era before television, born in 1908, is still remembered for the role he originally made his own.
Recently, I had the privilege to be asked to write an original audio story for Hartnell’s First Doctor, to be performed by the remarkable William Russell, the actor who played his companion, Ian Chesterton. For me, this felt like the culmination of all of those years of watching and being inspired by Hartnell’s performance on the show. More than that, though, it felt like I was paying tribute to the man who first created this most important of roles on screen, and in some small way continuing to keep the spirit of that wonderful era alive.
And so, I’ll end with a recommendation. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching the very First Doctor on screen, then go and look out a copy of “An Unearthly Child” on DVD and see where it all began. You won’t be disappointed.
George Mann is the the author of The Affinity Bridge, The Osiris Ritual and Ghosts of Manhattan, along with the original Doctor Who audiobook The Pyralis Effect. You can find him talking often and entertainingly about the show on his blog.