Sunday, September 13, 2009

The First Doctor: An Introduction

The First Doctor:
William Hartnell (1908-1975)

**Author's Note: I had planned to review the Doctor Who catalog on this site, but given the sheer number of stories I opted to spin-off those reviews to a separate site: Gallifrey Exile. As such, readers will find reviews may hop from one site to another. Reviews are collected at a link at the end of this essay. Also, this essay was updated on January 2021.

I've decided to write some bits about one of my favorite science-fiction shows: Doctor Who. I've loved the sci-fi series ever since I watched it on PBS. The thing that grabbed me was the title music. It was so mysterious, so otherworldly. In fact, I think it's one of the best television theme music ever made. Now with its revival, I thought I'd look back at the ten official actors who've played the role of The Doctor, giving my own impressions as a fan as to the pluses and minuses of their performances and stories.

November 22, 1963 was a traumatic day for all those who can remember it. Unfortunately, it was under the horrible circumstances of President Kennedy's assassination that Doctor Who premiered the next day. The launch of a new show with the world still in shock lead to few people noticing. In an act of faith, the BBC took the step of re-launching the show with far better results. The first four episodes of the first story now known as An Unearthly Child really reflect the best and worst of the series. 

It had a great idea and atmosphere, along with actors who took their roles and situations seriously. However, the story itself involving cavemen and the creation of fire seem nowadays a bit silly, almost laughable. It wasn't until the fifth episode, the first part of a seven-part story now called The Daleks, that a legend was created. Through quite a few companions, visits to the past and future, and the first showdown with the Cybermen, the Doctor captured the imagination of the British, especially children.

William Hartnell, the First Doctor, began by playing him as an irascible, grumpy old character. He was pretty arrogant and dismissive of his first companions, but a bit more tender with his granddaughter Susan. In the very early days he was not altogether a pleasant personality. As is true of all relationships, age & time mellow, and the Doctor became more of a grandfather figure to all his companions. He shifted from crotchety to almost endearing. 

Off the set, however, Hartnell felt at times a bit limited by the role. One guest star on the story The Dalek Invasion of Earth commented on how upset Hartnell was when he had to turn down a role in Doctor Zhivago because of Who, and the schedule also prevented him from attending the funeral of his aunt, who had cared for him in his youth. It also didn't help that he was growing more ill as the series continued. For those of these reasons, he decided to leave the series. However, the show was still a hit, so how to continue? Well, as the character was an alien, a little ingenuity was called for, but that's for next time.

Unlike future Doctors, The First Doctor went to Earth's past often. He visited Marco Polo, the Aztecs, revolutionary France, the court of Nero, even pre-Hastings England. It's in this story (The Time Meddler) that I think Doctor Who achieved an important milestone: mixing historic fact with a sci-fi element by stopping a member of his own race (a being known as The Meddling Monk) from rewriting history. The Time Meddler blended history with science-fiction, setting a template almost all future historical stories would draw from.

Hartnell should be honored by creating a unique character. Thanks to him, the Doctor proved that intellect was a stronger weapon than sheer force. In all his dealings with villains both earthly and otherworldly he could resort to violence but it was always as a last resort. By and large, he thought his way out of situations. Hartnell's Doctor was a bit irascible and not embarrassed by showing off how much smarter he was than everyone else, a trait all his successors would follow.

His Doctor is more grandfatherly, and not just because of his appearance. Hartnell also by the end showed children that things will be all right because he could be trusted to find a solution. He gave kids and parents confidence that no matter how dangerous the situation, the Doctor would see them through to new adventures. His costume of an Edwardian-style garb with distinct hat, also added to his grandfatherly persona. The unique outfits would be followed by all following Doctors, with varying degrees of success.

I like William Hartnell's portrayal in the later stories. In the beginning, such as in An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, and Edge of Destruction, he can be short-tempered, suspicious, even slightly cruel and devious to his companions. However, by the time of the four-part The Aztecs, he had a subtle sense of humor (as when he accidentally gets himself engaged), and his belief that history must proceed as is rather than as how one would like it is set in stone. His softening made him a kinder, gentler Doctor, and I think Hartnell hasn't been given enough credit for making him less cantankerous and more a wise elder as he grew in the role.

He was wonderful in the part. I think his performance was quite good: his pauses and fumbles with lines made him appear a bit tottery, but he could also take action and charge of the situation. Crabby, sometimes curt, the First Doctor eventually had his heart in the right place, and he grew to be a character that we as the audience could embrace. That will be William Hartnell's finest legacy to the character of the Doctor.

Tragically, we do not have his entire output to enjoy. Due to a lack of foresight, twelve of Hartnell's stories are incomplete in terms of footage: Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Crusade, Galaxy 4, the one-off special Mission to the Unknown, The Myth Makers, The Daleks' Master Plan, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve (also known as The Massacre), The Celestial Toymaker, The Savages, The Smugglers, and most tragic, his final story The Tenth Planet

Three of those (Marco Polo, Mission to the Unknown, and The Massacre) has no known surviving footage whatsoever. Galaxy 4, The Myth Makers, The Massacre, The Savages, and The Smugglers have clips but no known complete episodes, while the rest have full episodes but with gaps*.

While it is terrible that these stories are not available to us, what makes The Tenth Planet especially sad is that the only episode missing is the final one. This is the episode that saw the first regeneration of the Doctor from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton as well as being the debut story for one of the Doctor's greatest foes: the Cybermen. Curiously, all the episodes survive in audio form, thanks to the rabid fans who recorded the soundtrack straight from the television to cassettes. Therefore, there is always a chance to recreate them.

This has already happened with Marco Polo. A 30-minute condensed version of the seven-part story was a special feature in The Daleks/Edge of Destruction DVD release. There is also a DVD with episodes from lost stories called Lost in Time. It contains the known episodes of The Crusade, The Daleks' Master Plan, and The Celestial Toymaker. What makes it so terribly frustrating is that these stories were good, at least judging from the episodes and clips that survive. 

This was at a time when Doctor Who wasn't encumbered by its own history & mythology, where the imaginations of the writers could take the show in any direction the producers allowed them to go. It was also at a time when the budgets were, if never large, at least capable of making the show a strong sci-fi series. Then again, it may be possible that episodes may yet be rediscovered: the eternal hope of the fans. Those episodes may also be reconstructed or animated, as the case with the Second Doctor's story The Invasion.

Out of the stories that are available as of this writing, my favorite is The Aztecs followed by The Time Meddler. Not only does it introduce another of the Doctor's people (later to be known as Time Lords) but mixes the best of the historic with science fiction. In spite of the heavy criticism I enjoyed The Romans. Not only is it fun to see the Doctor deal with Emperor Nero, but it's OK to have a laugh once in a while. The worst, sad to say, is The Web Planet. This story looks as if it was made for children only. The monsters don't always have to be the most convincing, but boy do they look silly.

*Update: In 2011, Episode Three of Galaxy 4,  entitled Air Lock, was rediscovered.  That leaves Marco PoloMission to the Unknown, The Myth Makers, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve and The Savages as the only First Doctor stories with no known surviving episodes as of 2021.

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