The First Doctor Retrospective

This was hard – it’s taken me weeks to write this but I finally settled that this will be video-heavy to illustrate as best I can about the formative years of Doctor Who…

Here I hope to give my retrospective on The First Doctor. Sometimes a Doctor needs defending, while other times they need criticising and it’s my job to do both. When one discusses their favourite Doctor, discussion points fly from all angles. A general trend is often a grudging respect for the predecessor and a distaste for the successor.

Fans generally regard Hartnell with a “counterpointed” opinion… A “patronising reverence”, if you will. To clarify, Hartnell cannot be a bad Doctor to a lot of the most long-term fans as he was the original. The patronising comes in because of the show’s infancy.

Now the only pieces of “lore” are The Doctor, the TARDIS and the companions. At this stage in the show, our lead shows very little in the way of a way of being, other than that of being a scientist gifted with the ability to travel through time and space.

… And then you read what I just wrote and realise that a premise so broadly put should ultimately create an overarching figure of wisdom. Screenwriters will see that with wisdom, age should come and thus the grandfatherly figure was born. This post will explore the first three (point something-or-other) years of Doctor Who with a real focus on The First Doctor.

Can I first suggest that if you haven’t seen it yet, you must watch the Docudrama produced by the BBC for the 50th anniversary special: “An Adventure in Space and Time”. It takes a few liberties with the truth that only the most eagle eyed fan would spot but by and large is accurate to accounts. It tells the story of both Verity Lambert, the first producer of the show, and William Hartnell, throughout the latter’s tenure and is an absolute treat to watch:

The last clip contains a lot of true stories down to the use of a set of keys against piano wire to create the sound of the TARDIS.

If you have followed along, The First Doctor’s tenure began with the fleeing from Earth with his Granddaughter Susan, and her school teachers Ian and Barbara. The first episode of the first story is a piece of television history, which by right should be seen by every fan of the series. The remaining episodes, while setting up a theme, are a little dull but perhaps enough to capture imagination.

The real catalyst (as you all know) of the shows popularity came from the second story. With all scripts being either turned down or impractical in the early days, the second story had to fall to a script by the writer Terry Nation. He created a villain that had to be designed by the BBC. A designer named Ridley Scott (yes, the very same) was assigned to create the monster but sadly due to a scheduling conflict, he was unable to do so. I say unable… Perhaps it was for the best that Scott didn’t create this particular villain:

The Daleks captured the imagination of everyone and it’s no surprise that Dalekmania took hold of everyone shortly after. Forget the Doctor for half a moment: magazines, annuals, models, stories set on Skaro – all poured out from the original phenomenon very quickly and the country was obsessed… The first two Dalek stories from the show were actually adapted into feature films starring Peter Cushing… but that is not for here. I’m sure we’ll look at those when mopping up the gravy of the Doctor Who feast.

So with the The Doctor and the Daleks leading the way, the show ran through it’s first season as a family of four in the TARDIS and set a precident for fanciful worlds and lovely concepts. As with all of the first six seasons, some stories are missing but I would argue that we have kept the better ones. The Doctor starts as an grumpy old man but over the course of a couple of good stories, softens to a character that really respects and loves his life with his TARDIS family – a trait that by and large continues and we get to enjoy the world through the eyes of an wise yet mercurial Grandfather. Just take a look at this scene from (possibly) my favourite story of Hartnell’s era, The Aztecs:

So we move on to Season 2, which introduces a new dynamic that ultimately forges the show’s longevity, it’s ability to change. The Doctor’s companions begin to leave and this ultimately creates the idea that the show can progress without the stalwarts that could have defined, yet dated, everything. In the second episode The Doctor’s granddaughter leaves, being forced out of the TARDIS in one of the most emotional scenes in the series, perhaps yet to be matched:

It’s a lovely piece of acting and based on the premise that The Doctor cannot control where he lands, lends a finality to the scene that is perhaps unmatched in modern standards.

Susan is replaced by Vicki and by the end of season 2, Ian and Barbara manage to find their way back to Earth. Oh dear… I am skimming… Season 2 is the most complete of any pre-colour Doctor Who and has some fantastic stories in it. From The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which we have just seen a clip from; to the comedy of The Romans; to the bizarre, ahead-of-its-time, laughable-in-modern-day episodes such as The Web Planet.

The season builds up to the eventual departure of our original companions, Ian and Barbara, with the replacement by Steven – who is a character that carries the weight magnificently. It is reported that Hartnell tended to take new actors under his wing the portrayers of all the characters (thus far) have nothing but glowing reports to give about the man. What is clear is that the main actor cared and only became truly irascible in the face of those that he thought were damaging the show, or later, his part in the show. The tale is bittersweet one.

Hartnell was ill with a condition that meant (among some disabling physical symptoms) he was suffering memory problems. His tenure could not continue and this was known by all. With this sadness, I have to mention something positive… The shows back then were recorded more or less “as-live” with all of the the script flubs being recorded and yet recovered by the actors. Fans have dubbed Hartnell’s deviations as part of the absent-mindedness of the character and they are affectionately known as “Billy-fluffs”. Basically we all know that it sounds wrong and yet that is how the character bumbles along…

Season 3! The most changeable series in the show’s history (THUS FAR) and the production team is beginning to mix-up behind the scenes. Perhaps a bit of grandeur had crept in when the departing producer (Verity Lambert) ordered a 12 part Dalek story. It sapped the budget of her successors and yet was dark and truly turned the show into the direction of “epic threat”. By this I mean a threat beyond our regular cast and current guest stars in their localised setting. Season 3 brings a whirlwind of new companions, having Vicki depart and having two characters join only to be killed off in the aforementioned “Master Plan” serial. Eventually the Doctor gains one final regular companion in Dodo before losing both her and Steven to the new wave of the progressive 60’s – basically women need not be damsels in distress… So finally the two new companions join in the form of Ben and Polly who join The Doctor for one more tale before a glorious finish in a battle with the Cybermen.

Hartnell had grown too ill to carry on and it is the shows crew that write him out. He provides a stirling performance to the end but the show has reached the point of continued growth. The actor was not happy with leaving but ultimately accepted and respected the idea of his successor – whether this is merely etiquette or respect, it should be noted that he was heartbroken at losing the roll. The next clip is poignant merely for the projection of the show’s future and also it’s first major character handover:

So we see the first regeneration, whether for good or ill on the main actor’s part, he agreed to hand over to a new actor and we have to show the video again:


So what will happen with the legacy of the First Doctor? Well it isn’t forgotten – indeed it isn’t ever the last time that Hartnell would play the role, though I won’t spoil anything with clips. He will be back for the tenth anniversary multi-doctor special. After this Hartnell will have died. He is portrayed by actor, Richard Hurndall, who had an appearance on a similar sci-fi show Blakes 7. The actor makes a great try at recreating the character and should be honoured. The First Doctor doesn’t appear again (really) until 2017, when the actor who played him in the docudrama (David Bradley) would take on the role of the First Doctor – the actor is wonderful but the writing gives pause. The most important thing, however, is the legacy lives on…

Final Thoughts

I love the First Doctor for so many reasons.My prime reason is the subtle character evolution from an angry old man to a lovable character. Oh yes… Hartnell was the first and the original and I cannot take that away from him.. Doctor Who was defined by this man in the beginning and what he finished with was well worth that which writers expanded on in the future.

It is now time to continue my reviews with the Second Doctor and for anyone who knows my sci-fi tastes, he’s my favourite… let’s continues with the episode Power of the Daleks…

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