Doctor Who – The William Hartnell Years

First thought of by Sydney Newman, head of BBC’s department of drama, the series began taking shape in 1962 and the rough outline of the show was created. It was then handed over to producer Verity Lambert and writer David Whittaker and the show began taking the shape we know today. Eventually, after several actors had turned the role down, William Hartnell was attached to the role of the Doctor and he would be joined by Carole Ann Ford as his granddaughter Susan and her two teachers, Ian Chesterton played by William Russel and Barbara Wright played by Jaqueline Hill. The first episode aired November 23, 1963 and that, as they say, was where it all began.

Cast and Producer of Doctor Who 1963
From left to right: Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara (Jaqueline Hill), Verity Lambert, Ian (William Russel) and the Doctor (William Hartnell)

But for those of you expecting to hear how it took off and became a national sensation overnight  you’ll sadly be sort of mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Who ended up becoming a huge sensation but it wasn’t with the first couple  episodes. In fact, very few people tuned in to watch the first episode partly because of the breaking news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Major power outages in parts of the country didn’t help either.

No, it was with the second serial that Doctor Who would truly reach the minds and imaginations of everyone, not just kids, across the UK. Titled “The Daleks”, the serial introduced the iconic enemies of the Doctor… the Daleks, obviously, and helped create a national phenomena.

DaleksSo how will this retrospect work? Will I review all of the episodes, touch upon the big themes and such or just talk like this, reciting fact and blurbs? Well, it’s gonna be a bit of everything but one thing I will not do at this time is review every single episode or even every serial. There’d be little point to it, stories arching through series really didn’t become a thing until the seventies and all serials act like solo adventures for the most part. Some callbacks would happen later, in particular with the Daleks and eventually with the Cybermen as well but the one thing that, to me, defines the First Doctor is that all his stories were pretty isolated.
The events of “The Daleks” do lead directly into “The Edge of Destruction” but the stories are unrelated except for the fact that they take place one after the other. As such the Doctor and his companions encounter the Daleks then prevent the TARDIS from being destroyed only to end up meeting Marco Polo with nothing but random chance connecting their many adventures.

Before I go any further I might have to explain what a serial actually is. I’m not referring to seasons or the series itself but it’s really something we don’t see much of today. Doctor Who itself abandoned the practice in the eighties and I can’t really bring to mind any other series that currently do it. It’s basically… well, seasons within a season. “The Daleks” for instance is seven episodes long, “The Edge of Destruction” a mere two episodes long and “The Aztecs” covered four episodes. In total the first season was 42 episodes long and at one a week, that’s just shy of a whole year.

Season two consisted of 39 episodes and the third season was made up of a whopping 45 episodes. In total, counting the first two serials of Season 4, the First Doctor was active in 134 episodes. But most people see the various serials as singular episodes and as such you don’t really talk about the various episodes of “The Daleks” but rather of the serial as a whole. In the eighties the show would adopt the far more common 45-minute standard rather than the 25-minute format they’d used since the sixties. As such, Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor may only have starred in 42 episodes but you should at least double that to get a more accurate comparison in terms of time and energy spent in the role. Or divide the other episodes by two.

Seventh Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor

But anyway, I only say this to give you a rough idea that when I say serial I mean a number of episode that you could say today would make up only a single episode. And not necessarily in terms of minutes but rather in terms of story. Today the Doctor can easily handle an encounter with the Daleks or Cybermen in a single episode but TV has changed and now every single episode doesn’t need to end on a cliffhanger to make sure viewers come back week after week.

Then again, production of the episodes have also changed significantly, both in the way of how they were recorded and their budget. Rather than what you see on TV today, Doctor Who was very much a small production, relegated to a small set where they for each serial had to build a number of sets to fit into a very small space. This in some ways made them very creative but in other ways it obviously also hampered them significantly. Worse yet, each episode was practically recorded live. Editing was expensive, every cut cost money so the rule was to make everything right on the first try. This meant actors at times had to run from set to set just so they could make the shot in one try and while you may cut for a flubbed line today, back then it stayed in episode.

An Unearthly Child setThis meant planning for camera movement, actor movement, make up and not to forget the restrictions it put on the script. You had to be able to tear down sets and erect new ones in a matter of hours between shooting of episodes and all sets had to fit inside the same studio. And it meant actors rarely got to take vacation as one episode meant one week of work. This is one of the reasons why certain characters seem to disappear for an episode or two at times: the actor needed a vacation. Sets were often flimsy, “automatic doors” were operated off screen by a stagehand, stories were often confined to a few sets and the previously mentioned actors flubbing their lines is all too obvious in the early seasons.

But understanding all of this is the first step to enjoying the series’ early years. In a way, you have to enjoy it ironically because things have changed so much that their ways of doing things then will appear… well, alien to us or at least primitive. But it’s also in these failings that much of the charm of the series can be found and it also speaks to how strong the stories themselves often were.

Well, in most cases. While the First Doctor did have some legendary stories, there were also some real stinkers in there. My least favorite is possibly “The Edge of Destruction” which was made only because they needed an additional two episodes to fill the BBC order. It takes place entirely inside the TARDIS and the climax is one I dare call awful. However, I can’t even hate this one completely because rather than a grand adventure, they spent the time bonding the characters together, something that had been missing in the series up until this point.

Another aspect of the first three seasons that separate it from the future Doctor Who series was its focus on educational content. The series strove to include either science or history as a way to educate its viewers, primarily the children. One might surmise that this is why two of his first companions were teachers, suspiciously in science and history respectively. This pretty much split the stories into two categories: the historical ones and the sci-fi ones. Though not a 50% split, the serials were fairly evenly divided between the two.

But don’t mistake these for the historical events of the modern series where the Doctor travels back in time to encounter werewolves and ghosts and the like. No, these were pure history lessons were the Doctor and his companion met historical people and took part in historical events before simply leaving, not really accomplishing much of anything.

And I can honestly, with 100% conviction say… that I don’t like the historical ones very much. And this is the biggest reason why the Hartnell years will never rank very high with me. I fell in love with the series greatly because of my love for sci-fi and honestly, the crusades or Marco Polo doesn’t interest me all that much. As such, those episodes, as well produced and researched as they may be, were never going to be my favorites. There were times when the stories really gripped me, “The Aztecs”, which sees Barbara try to change the ways of the Aztecsm is probably one of my favorite serials of the first season but overall I’ve always had more of an interest in the sci-fi aspects of the show. It was the Second Doctor that really began laying the groundwork for how future Doctor Who would be and as such the three first season almost seem out of place today.

The Web PlanetNot to say all sci-fi serials were good either. “The Web Planet” is a legendarily idiotic serial where they really did try too much with the budget that they had and it ended up, even at the time, looking absolutely dreadful.

And as historically important as “The Daleks” and “Tenth Planet” may be, they left me feeling less than excited, almost bored at times. However, part of that, especially in the case of “Tenth Planet”, is that I can’t help but be colored by what I know lie ahead. The Cybermen in this story, while I’m sure they frightened the hell out of kids at the time, are nothing but men with stocking pulled over their faces and various junk bits wired to their bodies. It’s hard to take it seriously and it’s just one of those times where I honestly can’t put myself in the mindset of a child fifty years ago.

The Tenth Planet
Asshole mio!

Of course, taken on their own, many of the serials don’t stand up to scrutiny today and it’s only when you can successfully put yourself in the right mindset that the stories come together. Some require more focus and others are easy to get into even today. “Tenth Planet” would of course lay the groundwork for the much improved “Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen” which really cemented the Cybermen as something to fear but had I not known their importance when I first saw “Tenth Planet” then I doubt I’d ever guess they’d return again.

On the other hand, you have serials like “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” which saw the Daleks invade real life London, one of the first time Doctor Who did location shooting. It was important for many reason but prime among those reasons was cementing the Dalek not only as a real force to be reckoned with but a recurring evil that would continue to haunt the Doctor for a very long time. Another very important aspect of the show was that it was the first time a companion left the show. Carol Ann Ford, displeased that her character never evolved beyond the ditsy fifteen year old despite her many adventures, decided to leave the show and so the Doctor’s granddaughter was left behind to help rebuild humanity and pursue a normal life with someone she loved. Though the first companion to leave the Doctor, she would most certainly not be the last.

Other serials of note are “The Chase”, which saw the departure of Ian and Barbara, “The Rescue”, the first to introduce a new companion, “The Time Meddler”, first appearance of another of the Doctor’s race and “The Ark” for simultaneously being insanely good and absolutely awful. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.
I should note, much like I did in the intro post, that some of these serials are partially missing due to the BBC scrubbing their archives in the seventies. For instance, “Marco Polo” is one of the legendary missing ones where extremely little material has survived to this day, “The Dalek’s Master Plan” is missing nine of its twelve episodes and “Tenth Planet” is missing its final episode where the Doctor regenerates for the first time (though that particular scene was discovered elsewhere). And while they do work in audio form, one must also admit that it doesn’t really convey the original atmosphere.

And speaking of the Doctor, I think it’s time I actually discuss the Doctor’s first incarnation, played by William Hartnell.

William Hartnell
William Hartnell as the First Doctor

In 1963’s London, Susan Foreman attends the local school. However, her teachers become worried about the young girl and her strange ideas and follow her home, only to discover she lives in a junkyard. Though things are not what they first appear to be as its soon revealed she actually lives inside a blue police box together with her grandfather. That isn’t the strangest part, even, as the police box is bigger on the inside. When Barbara and Ian discover this, the old man kidnaps them and takes them on a journey through time as well as space. Unknown to either of the four travelers, this would be the start of a journey that would capture the imaginations of children for fifty years and counting.

William Hartnell played the Doctor as a surly, grouchy old man who believed himself quite superior to most other people he met. And in fairness, he probably was superior to most people he met but that didn’t stop people from disliking him. He was a solitary man, only relying on his granddaughter for company though nothing much was ever stated about their family or why they traveled. He journeyed through history more for his own amusement than education or adventure. However, all of this changed when he was forced to kidnap Ian and Barbara to keep his own secret. Though unwilling companions at first, eventually they grew to enjoy their travels with the Doctor just as he learned to care for his new friends.

Eventually the Doctor would open up more to his new companions and he would learn some humility when Ian and Barbara time and time came to his aid. Together they stopped the Daleks multiple times, survived the French revolution and almost become exhibits in a space museum. More than anyone else, the Doctor realized that it was in the company of his friends that he lived the most and when they left his side he mourned it with all of his heart.

When we look at the First Doctor, we must understand that he had yet not taken the shape of the Doctor we know and love today. In fact, that’s one of the greatest things about the first three seasons, seeing the Doctor slowly becoming more like we all know and love him. At first dismissive and callous, he again learns to be caring and welcoming. Sadly, he never really shakes off the persona of the surly old man and his habit of keeping secrets really do get tiring. Often the serials are stretched out only because the Doctor refuses to share his knowledge with his companions at a time when it could’ve been useful. And while he learns some humility, his air of superiority never becomes charming but rather infuriating.

And I think that that problem is one you can link to the actor who played him: William Hartnell. In more recent years, other cast members were none to shy about their description of him and somehow you get a sense of that through his portrayal of the Doctor. Hartnell really had two sides to him and which one you saw depended on how much you appeased him. If you got on his bad side, he’d be a vicious, bitter old man whereas if you were on his good side, he’d be the sweetest man alive. Things had to be a very specific way for him to feel at peace and the slightest bit out of order could send him over the edge. And he was apparently a racist or at least harbored some such thoughts. The actors who played Ben and Polly, the First Doctor’s last companions, felt quite uncomfortable at times when Hartnell expressed his dislike about a black person being cast in a prominent role.

But one also has to take care to think about the man himself and his circumstances. He was 55 when he started as Doctor Who and was already suffering from arteriosclerosis, affecting his ability to learn the script. While the cast and production team did the best they could to support him, supporting cast covering for his flubbed lines to the best of their ability, I think most people, including Hartnell himself, knew that his time on the show was coming to an end. It was discussed already in season 3 though it didn’t come to pass until season 4. Citing his deteriorating health and troubles working with the new production team, Hartnell was written out in “Tenth Planet”, a decision that cast members said upset him to the point of tears. William Hartnell would eventually return to Doctor Who in the seventies and in a somewhat comforting coincidence, it would be the last thing he ever recorded. William Hartnell passed away April 23, 1975.

William Hartnell 2
William Hartnell (1908 – 1975)

In many ways, Doctor Who was his swan song and I think he knew that. Afraid to let go, afraid he would be bullied out of the show, afraid to be compared to his younger peers. I think it’s best to remember him for the fact that he was the First Doctor and without him, who knows if there’d even be a show. He helped establish the legendary Daleks in one of his first outing and on his last show he introduced us to the Cybermen, however idiotic they may have looked. He gave us a glimpse into the world of the Doctor and set the stage for the coming Doctors to take us even further beyond the stars. He would partake in some of the most imaginative stories and some truly groundbreaking serials before the universe conspired to send him out.

Ian and Barbara
Ian and Barbara

Well… that got a bit depressing so let’s move on. What else do I want to discuss? Well, the companions are a big, fat target of course but discussing all of them would simply take too long. At least if I went into depth about all of them. In general, however, I found that the women were the worst of the bunch whereas the men pulled through reasonably successfully.

My gold star for this era definitely goes to William Russel who played Ian Chesterton, the very first male companion the Doctor would take in. He and Barbara were the first and acted as the audience surrogates and they did so splendidly. But Barbara got very few chances to shine which is a shame, her stint as a God during “The Aztecs” was an amazing performance by Jaqueline Hill that really played to her strengths but she rarely got the opportunity to really showcase them. Ian, on the other hand, often got to show that he was no stodgy history professor and would on more than one occasion battle the many monsters heroically. Hill and Russel had fantastic chemistry together and they, quite honestly, broke every single expectation I had on them. They pretty much saved the first two seasons when I was still struggling with Hartnell’s Doctor and… well, the other companions.

I’ve already mention that Carol Ann Ford left the show, taking the character of Susan with her. It earned her the title of the first companion to leave but  it also gave her the title of the first companion to be replaced. And my award for least interesting character this era goes to Vicki, Susan’s replacement. But again, this can easily be down to the fact that she didn’t get enough time to shine, none of the women ever really did. She had no real personality of her own, sort of just filling in for Susan but not having the personal connection with the Doctor that Susan had, her one saving grace. Though she stayed on for nine serials, I can’t really remember much that she ever did.

Steven Taylor
Peter Purves as Steven Taylor

On the flipside, Ian’s replacement had to fill in for all the time the girls were kidnapped and did so in a particularly manly fashion worthy of any Hollywood hero. Steven Taylor almost feels out of place in Doctor Who as he’s never far away from throwing a punch or using a gun to defend himself. Yes, the Doctor may be above killing but his companions most certainly do not share this particular virtue. In that way he very much reminds me of a sixties Captain Jack Harkness, a military man to the core but with a heart of gold… or, something. Not gay, though, pretty sure of that. If he was gay he probably wouldn’t dress like such a colossal twat. A stripy shirt, really?

Anyhow, unlike most of the girls who left for silly reasons like love or their own mental health, Steven confidently stayed behind to lead a civilization to greater things, becoming their benevolent (???) ruler. Did I mention this series was pretty sexist in its day? The girl companions were really not all that good and acted more like set dressing or the lazy plot excuse for getting the Doctor involved in danger by having them captured all the time. At times they escape from their captivity at the beginning of an episode only to be captured again at the end, pure padding in other words. Susan, Vicki and Dodo constantly managed to get themselves captured and when they weren’t, they screamed. Good lord do these girls scream.

As far as I’m concerned, BBC’s decision to keep companions for only a year was a mistake but a bigger mistake was their desire to appeal to a younger audience, casting younger and younger actors in the part. It changed the dynamic of the crew from one that traveled as equals (mostly) to one where the Doctor rather irresponsibly kept dragging young men and women into danger for the sake of adventure. After Ian, Barbara and Steven, the companions are none too eager to oppose the Doctor or even call him out on much of his bullshit. Steven defiantly left the TARDIS after calling the Doctor a callous brute who thinks nothing of human life though he returned to warn the Doctor of impending danger. Later companions would fall over themselves in an effort to do his bidding and it’s very tiresome, hearing them grovel before the Doctor.

Verity Lambert
Verity Lambert, 1935 – 2007

Had the surly, ludicrously proud and at times utterly obnoxious Doctor had some decent companions consistently to level it out, I might’ve come away from the Hartnell era with a more positive opinion. The departure of Verity Lambert in Season 3 signified a distinct shift in the show and for a while it was worse for it. Her vision of the show went with her and it took the series an additional season and the departure of William Hartnell to set the show straight again. But given how much she had to fight for the show, not to mention being a career woman in the sixties, I’m not surprised that she eventually felt she had to leave.

 

Now, I want to remind you that this is what it is: my own rambling. I might have gotten some dates wrong, misheard interviews and so forth but the idea was just to give those of you who don’t care to watch fifty year old television a quick idea of what the show was like. In closing, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the First Doctor, it’s not the Doctor I fell in love with in the revival. I do see the building blocks on which they’d build the fifty year legacy and towards the end you could definitely see fragments of what it would one day become. But the mismanagement of cast as well as characters drag this down too much and the failure to return to many of the characters who departed to check up on them is very unfortunate. Yes, I know they did revisit some of them in audio, comics or books eventually but I’d love to see what kind of civilization Steven built or the life Ian and Barbara end up leading, knowing what they knew.

Sadly, time has not been kind to these seasons and even I, at times, had a hard time adjusting my expectations. I’d only recommend this to dedicated Whovians as it’s so different in nature compared to the new series that it’s hard to reconcile. That and the fact that so many episodes are simply gone, existing in audio form only, makes it a difficult era to swallow. There’s a definite charm and you can tell a lot of love went into this show from everyone involved. It was brutal work, for sure, but that just proved that they knew what we know today: that Doctor Who is awesome.

The First Doctor by Andy LambertFirst Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)

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