Once upon a time, there was a very old man who lived with his granddaughter. One day, he fell out with his family and colleagues and was made an outcast by his society. With no reason to stay, he left his home planet with his granddaughter in a disused, antique TARDIS.
The TARDIS was a space-time machine, the amazing technology developed by the Doctor’s people. Escaping his world and his time in a vehicle that they could barely control, the Doctor and Susan travelled through the Fourth Dimension before happening upon Earth, where they would learn of its history and make new friends.
The genesis of Doctor Who in the early 1960s was one which has been revised over and over – both the onscreen development of the character and the behind-the-scenes production. Above are the basic facts. Various people over the years have been awarded – and claimed – credit for the shows initial success, such as Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman and Waris Hussein, as well as Terry Nation, John Lucarotti and Anthony Coburn. One man, however, can claim and be awarded the biggest accolades for ensuring the show’s initial success. Who? Doctor Who – William Hartnell.
The actor’s previous credits – running back to 1932 – involved the typecasting of cockney hard cases and servicemen. Popular and rarely out of work in the British movie industry during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Hartnell’s career-defining moment came when producer Verity Lambert saw the actor in the Richard Harris picture “This Sporting Life” (1963). While not a dead-cert for the role (there were apparently other contenders), William Hartnell nevertheless took the part of Doctor Who, and defined the character for all time.
We first met the mysterious traveller on a miserable November evening in 1963. It was a Saturday night – a day that would become synonymous with the show. We meet the Doctor as his granddaughter Susan is followed from school by her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. They encounter him in his bizarre police box, which appears to be larger on the inside than on the outside! For viewers in 1963, this introduction (An Unearthly Child) was bizarre and chilling – who was this mysterious Doctor, and how did his granddaughter know so much history and maths?
It wasn’t until the following month of course that the show became the stuff of legends, as the Doctor and his three companions stumbled upon the Daleks on their home planet of Skaro. It is often reiterated that Verity Lambert was under strict instructions not to employ anything that could be described as a Bug Eyed Monster or BEM, yet here they were in what was ostensibly a children’s television drama with an educational bent. Perhaps the early episodes strayed too far from the original aim of the show – but viewers tuned in week in and week out to watch the irascible, grumpy old Doctor defeat despots across time and space!
Moments of pure brilliance are found in the middle of Hartnell’s run as the Doctor. Experimental stories (Inside the Spaceship, The Web Planet) were taken in his stride, as were the introduction of numerous companions – eight permanent and a few short term – and weekly one-take recordings, as well as the recurring appearance of the Daleks that might have overshadowed the actor and his co-stars.
So much however exists in Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor that subsequent actors have all been able to draw on various aspects, such as costume (almost all of them), idiosyncrasies (“Hmmm?” – most often employed by the Fourth and Fifth incarnations) and developing whole personas from off the cuff phrases such as
“I am a citizen of the Universe, and a gentleman to boot.”
William Hartnell, The Daleks’ Master Plan
How much of this is apparent in Pertwee’s interpretation of the role? We should steer away from thinking that Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Jon Pertwee in any way directly built the Third Doctor around this remark – the shape of the Doctor’s character was already in place by 1970. It is safe to say that as the series progressed and the production team and star decided how the character was to be played each week, that the character and his morals sunk into the British consciousness.
But what of his morals? The First Doctor is recognised above all of the others (until the war-weary Ninth) to be a little ambiguous in that department. Most of this is due to his actions early in the series – in the first serial in fact. An Unearthly Child is followed by three episodes of a story commonly known as 100,000 BC (although there are other titles in use). In this, the TARDIS crew are transported to the Palaeolithic era and at one point the Doctor begins the act of “putting down” an injured caveman. This type of action would have been unthinkable for the Doctor just 3 years later, but here at the beginning of the show he is a man cast out alone, with trust for no one.
William Hartnell’s talents as an actor were unquestionable, and his portrayal of televisions most popular anti-hero ensured that he would be remembered for generations to come. Perfectly at home in space adventures (The Daleks’ Master Plan), comedy (The Gunfighters), historical drama (Marco Polo, The Crusade) and Earth-based takeover stories (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The War Machines), Hartnell not only forged an unforgettable character who was endeared to millions of children, but also took those same children on fantastic journeys through time and space.
While David Bradley’s interpretation of Hartnell’s Doctor has drawn some criticism from some quarters (more caricature than homage?), we can at least be reassured that the original (you might say) continues to be available to enjoy on DVD and streaming services.