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William Hartnell - Part One

PrintE-mail Written by Tony Cross Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Journey Through The Whoniverse - by Tony Cross

Writing about the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who, with all the (almost) 50 years of baggage that comes with it, is like trying to listen to the Beatles fresh. It's almost impossible. Imagine watching that first episode totally fresh: that theme tune; the title sequence and the mysterious gates that open as the Policeman walks away summoning inside the junkyard; then the interior of the ship and this menacing, mysterious white-haired figure. It’s all so bizarre and completely different to anything on television at the time and television then was a very different beast.

It feels like a long time ago in a country far, far away. There are only two television channels & everything is in black & white. Television looks like theatre in a box; it is slow and there are still a lot of RADAesque posh people giving it the Noel Coward. As L P Hartley once said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Then we've got all the clichés about Hartnell himself: he is grumpy; he 'hmmmms' & 'ha's' a lot and forgets his lines - the ones that make it sound like he can barely act. Hartnell is a better actor than he gets credit for now. If you don’t believe me look at his performances in The Bells Go Down,Brighton Rock and This Sporting Life to see what he's capable of. Then look at his Doctor. How much of the First Doctor’s apparent foibles are Hartnell’s and how much is deliberate acting choices? Show me how many lines David Tennant or Matt Smith would fluff if they were doing television 'as live' week in week out.

Does any other Doctor have Hartnell's spot on comedy timing? Watch The Romans & ask yourself if any other Doctor could carry that story with such panache.

But this is the First Doctor. When The Doctor steps out of the mist in that junkyard no one has any idea that they are creating television history or taking the first steps in the creation of a series that would still be made in 2011. Because of that there is no Doctor quite like Hartnell’s Doctor ever again. He's the first. Never again will the Doctor be what he is at the beginning: a dark, forbidding, alien presence. He's not meant to be a hero.

He kidnaps the real 'heroes' Barbara & Ian. He's willing to kill a caveman to escape, if Ian & Barbara didn't stop him; he selfishly risks everyone's lives so he can explore the Dalek city and then forces the Thals to go to war to get his fluid link back; in a fit of pique he threatens to abandon Ian and Barbara immediately the next time they land. The Doctor is not nice and he is selfish. He’s certainly not the mythical “I’m the Doctor. Look me up” of new Doctor Who. He’s not really even an anti-hero to begin with. He’s just there, a mad man in a box.

The story of the Hartnell era is the story of the Doctor's emergence as hero. Colin Baker gives one of the best descriptions of The Doctor: "He believes in the essential 'rightness' of things", and by the time we get to The Tenth Planet The Doctor is that figure and Doctor Who is a different series. The Doctor is the hero. Travelling the Universe, interfering and discombobulating his enemies. He insists that the TARDIS team stay to prevent a massacre in The Smugglers and in The Savages he seems to revel in bringing down a bad regime in the shortest possible time; exposing and undermining the Elders plans despite their early fawning over him. This is not the same Doctor, that argues with Barbara in The Aztecs that you can’t change history, or even the Doctor of The Massacre whose apparent willingness to abandon Ann Chaplet so disgusts Steven and leads to one of Hartnell’s best little scenes.

The First Doctor changes because of his interaction with humanity: Ian & Barbara; Vicki; Stephen Taylor; Katarina; Sara Kingdom; Dodo Chaplet; Ben & Polly.

But this is all baggage picked up from our knowledge of the series. Does it matter in the great televisual scheme of things? Possibly not. What it does do is contribute to us generally under-estimating how wonderful William Hartnell's Doctor is.

Hartnell is the First Doctor. His performance - for all its oddities - carved a place in the psyche of the British TV watcher. It made Patrick Troughton fearful about taking the role on.

All of this is forgotten because it took place in a slower black & white universe taking place nearly 50 years ago.

As Doctor Who fans we often pay lip service to Hartnell's place as the First Doctor whilst hardly ever giving him the true credit he deserves, which was why I found watching Hartnell’s Doctor more of a surprise than any of the others. Partly because I was less familiar with the whole era than I was with one or two stories in it and partly because watching it all allows you to observe the changes in the Doctor (and in Hartnell’s performance).

I am not going to dwell at length on the story of Doctor Who's creation except to note that it was supposed to be educational as well as entertaining. Hence Ian & Barbara were teachers, although Ian's science was left looking a bit out of date by the TARDIS. Barbara’s historical knowledge at least proves useful on one or two occasions, even if it leads her to make rash choices in The Aztecs.

There were supposed to be no bug-eyed monsters by command of Sidney Newman but the success of the Daleks - who aren't bug-eyed monsters to be fair - put paid to that pretty sharpish and Doctor Who in its first season settled down into alternating pretty straight historicals with more outlandish science-fiction stories. So that first Hartnell season still shows traces of that original ‘ed and ent’ plan.

The Daleks is the strongest of the science-fiction adventure stories in Season One but it is the historicals that stand the test of time best, partly because nothing ages faster than science-fiction; partly because historicals play to the BBC's strengths & partly because they are generally better written and better acted.

The initial TARDIS line-up is pretty damn good to. Why Ian & Barbara never feature higher up the 'best companion' polls is one of life's little mysteries. William Russell's Ian is the action hero; Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara the conscience. It is Barbara's confrontation with the Doctor in Edge of Destructionthat makes him realize what Barbara & Ian have done to help him and how many companions get as good and meaty a story as Barbara does in The Aztecs?

On the other hand poor old Susan is the first companion in Doctor Who history to suffer from not living up to the promise of the part on paper. I will refer to this in future as ‘Susan Syndrome’, just to warn you in advance. Only in The Edge of Destruction and The Sensorites does Carole Ann Ford get any chance to demonstrate her acting chops. It is no wonder that it was Ford that was the first of the regular’s to leave. Whatever Susan had promised as a character when first drawn up never came to fruition as the series developed. Left on a post-Dalek Invasion Earth with David Campbell to cause all sort of continuity questions further down the line she was a missed opportunity.

The truth is Hartnell's is blessed with some of Doctor Who's best companions, though often forgotten. Not just Ian and Barbara but Vicki and Stephen Taylor (Peter Purves). I'm a particular fan of Maureen O'Brian's Vicki. She's young, feisty & funny. She brings something a little extra out of William Hartnell too. She’s the highlight in The Space Museum giving the rather wet and weedy Xerons the kick up the backside they require to start the revolutionary ball rolling.

The only companion that never seems to take off is Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane). She’s both a tad over-exuberant and irritatingly stupid (which you can see demonstrated perfectly in The Celestial Toymaker). Whether this is Jackie Lane’s fault or that of the writer’s and directors is a moot point. Dodo certainly gets one of the least impressive departures of any Doctor Who companion, disappearing with a whimper in The War Machines.

Her replacements are Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) who are the most 60’s of Doctor Who companions. A breath of contemporary fresh air on their arrival, they stay to travel with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and are almost always remembered as Second Doctor companions but it is Ben and Polly who are in the TARDIS to witness that first regeneration.

We know now, of course, that the regeneration was the result of the then Doctor Who production team trying to rid themselves of an increasingly troublesome actor who (allegedly) disapproved of the direction the series was taking.

There were certainly more science-fiction adventures and their tone seemed increasingly dark. The straight historicals seemed to be phased out, replaced mainly by comedy ones: The RomansThe Myth Makers and the much, much maligned Gunfighters (which along with The Web Planet I shall talk about in more detail in my next column…consider this a teaser.)

As time moved on and the various production teams seemed to gain in confidence, Doctor Who ran through various types of story and the realisation that the format had the flexibility to ‘do’ almost any other kind of story within the overall envelope of Doctor Who led to some of the series more radical experiments: The RomansThe Web PlanetThe Time MeddlerThe Dalek’s Masterplan and The War Machines, which laid the foundations for the series going forward. If a series has a format that allows you to run from comedy to contemporary set science-fiction whilst passing through weird alien world’s occupied by a variety of bugs; the introduction of another member of the Doctor’s race and do an epic, dark and deadly space opera then it is a series that can do anything.

Including change its lead actor.

So if this column has achieved one thing I hope it makes you want to sit down and watch William Hartnell’s Doctor. I’m not suggesting it is perfect (no Doctor’s era is) but I do believe it is underestimated and a little underappreciated. I also think we fail to credit William Hartnell for both his performance and the role that performance had in helping make Doctor Who a success. It’s almost taken for granted.

I will run through some specific stories next column and hopefully that might lead you to dig out a DVD or two. I should warn you in advance though: I love The Web Planet.

I often wonder how William Hartnell would feel to know that the part he created would still be being played 48 years later and by an 11th actor. I like to think, after the surprise had passed, he would be quite proud of his part in proceedings and so he should be.


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