Doctor Who: a celebration of William Hartnell

One of Doctor Who’s great unsung time lords, William Hartnell deserves far more praise than he currently receives, Andrew writes...

Photo: BBC

William Hartnell does not rank highly in the ‘Best Doctor’ polls. His reputation is somewhat lessened by the notion that his successor was the first modern Doctor, that he often forgot his lines and was simply a cantankerous old git, not the energetic hero the character would eventually become.

I’m here to say that this is simply wrong. He is the Doctor. He is a cantankerous old git and the energetic hero.

Okay, so he doesn’t do much running around, but he still commands the screen. He’s sharper of mind than many a Doctor, to the extent that he seems wiser than his older selves. At the same time, he’s an aggressive, mysterious old man who’s quite capable of taking a sudden strop. Oddly, this seems to put people off Hartnell, but in younger Doctors it’s seen as a mark of good acting. And Hartnell is full of good acting.

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He was able to summon a sense of mystery, mischievousness and danger that none of his successors managed to the same degree, while also giving off a particularly avuncular vibe, by surrounding himself with a surrogate family. Hartnell’s Doctor felt like he could genuinely do something magical at any given moment.

So, personally, I feel that this idea of Patrick Troughton laying the foundations of the modern Doctors is rubbish, even if Troughton remains ‘the Doctors’ Doctor’. (Witness the interview with Christopher Eccleston on the Series 1 DVD, or the Tennant/Collinson/Raynor commentary on The Five Doctors).

Troughton built on the foundations laid by Hartnell, as did everyone who followed, but everything that the character is comes from the First Doctor. A friend of mine put it perfectly when he said, “We talk a lot about people defining the role. Hartnell defined it first.”

Everything a Doctor has ever done is somewhere in a Hartnell performance. His range is staggeringly good. Romance? Check. Anger? Check. Sheer unadulterated wonder at the universe? Check. Understated despair? Check. Action? Well, the stunt double will do that. But, otherwise, this range of acting that only the 9th to 11th Doctors are supposedly allowed to do has already been done, a mere forty-five years ago.

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The pace of the Hartnell era is slower, yes, but no slower than some Pertwee stories.

The issue of Hartnell forgetting his lines has been covered with varying sensitivity. What we know is that he suffered from a memory-infecting disease, that his shooting schedule for Doctor Who was for forty-right weeks per year, and that each episode was recorded ‘live’, meaning that, unless an actor swore, or the scenery actually fell over, only one take of each scene was usually recorded.

Consequently, it’s hardly surprising that people forgot lines, especially a lead actor with a punishing schedule. To his credit, however, Hartnell played the Doctor as being slightly doddery, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell which mistakes are deliberate and which are not.

His ability is clear from the minute he walks on screen in An Unearthly Child and asks, “What is going to happen to you?” to Ian and Barbara. The single most important question in the show’s history.

Ah, An Unearthly Child. It’s almost unfairly good. And it’s the first episode ever. This is Doctor Who. Standards are high. Even Russell T Davies was wary of starting with a belter, so put forward foundation-setting Rose as a quite good opening, before getting a few episodes in and going for a ‘classic’ episode.

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If we’re going for a rough summary of the RTD era, Series 2 to 4 are reminiscent of the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era, and Series 1 is based on the Lambert/Whittaker/Hartnell series.

Or, to put it another way, the original start to the show was pretty much spot on. You have a mysterious traveller, his home planet is inaccessible, and he’s aggressively weird. The Ninth Doctor goes on a very similar journey to the First in his transition from outsider to hero.

What differentiates the Hartnell era is that it’s inconsistent. It goes through several production teams and it isn’t until the Troughton era that the series starts to develop something resembling a format. The Hartnell era is all new, so each new style that it adds to the series is a major development. It moves beyond its remit to educate and entertain children very quickly.

What I also like about this era, as well as its leading man, is the scale of the stories. Here an epic story is par for the course, with the events unfolding over long periods of time. If you want massive Dalek invasion stories that sprawl across the universe, where everyone cries at the end, then the era invented them. But that’s just Dalek stories.

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In The Romans, Barbara nearly gets molested by Nero, the Doctor inadvertently causes the Great Fire, and Ian ends up a galley slave. The galley sinks. Ian escapes with a friend, only to get captured and get enrolled as a gladiator. The story takes place over the time period of a month.

I like the scale of these stories, and the sense of ‘epic’ being a gruelling slog rather than a fast-paced attempt to overcome overwhelming odds. Sound harrowing? Right, of course it does. The Romans is Doctor Who‘s first ever comedy, by the way.

It’s hardly surprising. Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner are both former comedy writers who turned their hand to sci-fi, and Hartnell was a veteran of various film comedies, including the first Carry On movie. The series was bound to get round to doing an out-and-out comedy eventually.

This era is also home to purely historical stories, including The Aztecs. It’s up there with the series’ best work, and Hartnell is integral to this. It’s not his show, it’s Jacqueline Hill as Barbara who gets the bulk of the drama, but Hartnell shines in his role of romancing an older Aztec woman to gain access to the tomb the TARDIS is stuck in. He accidentally gets engaged to her, bridles, and then casually mentions it to Ian, as if it isn’t a big deal. This is after his argument with Barbara in which he delivers one of the series most famous lines: “You can’t change history. Not one line!”

Get hold of the DVD and watch it. His performance is varied, note perfect, and exceptional. Or, as my friend put it, “He’s a Doctor with all the flashes of brilliance we’ve come to see before, but at the same time completely inscrutable.”

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If you want a sign of the ineffable qualities he brought to the role, watch The Three Doctors. Hartnell is sitting down in a minimal set, evidently reading his lines from cue cards. He never appears with any other actors except via the TARDIS screen.

When The Three Doctors was recorded. William Hartnell was dying. And he’s brilliant. He’s utterly spellbinding. Sheer poetry, in fact…