William Hartnell is the Doctor. Whilst he may not have been the longest running, and he certainly isn’t the most popular in most polls held, he originated the role, bringing his own irascibility and grumpiness, but also his lovability and charm. His wit and sardonic humour radiate from him endlessly, and even in the direst of situations, his “hmm”s and tuts warm my heart.
Of course, he is renowned for his ‘Billy fluffs’ –invariably at least once an episode, Hartnell can stumble on a line. These are often cited by some as a reason for disliking his portrayal. That said, for a man of his age and in his condition, we can only sit and sigh in awe at the durability of him. Rehearsing almost every week of the year, on a dreadfully tight budget and schedule, Hartnell and his crew managed admirably. Considering his disease, he actually fared surprisingly well – there are bit-part players who fluff as often, despite only having the script for two-four weeks. In the 1960s, as we know, only one take was often allowed – due to time constraints, the show was filmed ‘as live’, and retakes were only allowed for the most catastrophic of reasons. As such, he endured being dropped on camera cranes, being hit in the face, and any number of terrible things – yet throughout everything, he managed to hide most of this, behind his genius characterisation of the Doctor as a doddery old man.
He is unfairly criticised as being too inactive – all of the ‘heavy lifting’ was left to his (admittedly more than) capable companions, Ian, Steven and Ben. Certainly, we don’t see him prat-falling around like McCoy and Baker, or energetically throwing himself around like Davison, or moving with a nimble, child-like glee like Troughton, or even karate-chopping henchmen like Pertwee. But that doesn’t make him any less the Doctor.
We must remember, though, that he is the First. He is the archetype of the character, the originator of many of the character’s attributes which we still see today. Without Hartnell (and the Daleks, admittedly) the series may never have run for three years, let alone 49. He took the essence of a character created by writers and made it his own. He actively changed scripts if he thought them inappropriate for the children watching.
What Hartnell does is encapsulate all that later Doctor’s embody in one go – he is loveable and miserable, grouchy and snappy, funny and clownish, abrupt and deceitful, all at once. His stories helped in that each script allowed him to bring a new trait to the fore – from the antihero liar of The Daleks to the lovable pragmatist and historical hero of The Aztecs, from moral peace-keeper in The Sensorites to the heroic old man who battles adversity in the face of illness in The Tenth Planet, he managed to create the template which is still being used to this very day. Many unfairly ignore Hartnell, and claim that it was Patrick Troughton who created the role as we now know it, and whilst Troughton is far and away my favourite Doctor, he simply took Hartnell’s lead.
The joker of The Romans and The Myth Makers is the ball that Troughton, Tom Baker and early Sylvester McCoy picked up and ran with. The stoic pragmatist and heroic action man of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Tenth Planet is the template upon which Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, David Tennant and Matt Smith modelled themselves on. The unapproachable and aggressive Doctor of An Unearthly Child and The Daleks seems to be the template for Colin Baker’s interpretation – admittedly one which should have gone full circle to encapsulate all of his traits rather than just those irascible ones. The darker and more dangerous characteristics of Hartnell’s Doctor are the template upon which later McCoy, Christopher Eccleston and later Smith will utilise.
Of course, the series itself had no consistency as such to speak of, so it is unsurprising that there seemed to be little or no consistency to the character or the stories he was involved in. And that is also the crux of what makes Hartnell so great – put him in any era, on any planet and against any foe, and he thrives regardless. In the face of any adversity, he steps forward, a new trait comes out, and he faces the challenge admirably. As each new brush came in, carving a new way with the accompanying production team, the style changed. Whilst later Doctor’s eras are renowned for Base Under Siege style drama, or the earth-bound UNIT tales, before settling back into a hotch-potch method like in Hartnell’s time, the earliest incarnation thrives on the unknowability of what is around every bend– from historicals to sci-fi, Earth-under-threat to stories of warring factions on desolate planets, there is rarely anything similar. From the quiet, self-contained stories like Marco Polo to the epic sprawling battles of The Daleks’ Master Plan, you could never settle down knowing what was coming.
Some of these adventures work – indeed, most do. Some were wild experiments which are ambitious but sadly fall short for me due to the budgetary limitations. Whilst The Daleks’ Master Plan works wonderfully despite its epic scale, the same cannot be said for earlier attempts at this level of ambition such as The Keys of Marinus and The Chase, where multiple sets were demanded for short filming periods, resulting in shoddy-looking set pieces on shoddy-looking scenery. Likewise, ambitious projects like The Web Planet suffer, although that is principally down to the rather formulaic plot underpinning the extremely avant-garde production idea. Again, weak costuming and set design also mean that some of these projects suffer.
During his tenure, there was a wide variety of companions, too – again, since there was no tried and tested formula for them, they vary hugely in effectiveness. Whilst Ian, Barbara and Steven are particularly well-rounded, with a variety of idiosyncratic characteristics, others, such as Susan and Dodo sadly end up hitting wide of the mark. The characters themselves were too unreliable, varying wildly from alien school girl to shrieking hindrance in the case of Susan, and from idiotic and pointless white noise to engaging and mature young woman in the case of Dodo. From story to story, these characters were given no solid framework, and each writer took on the role as the script demanded, whether for better or worse. Always present is the boy’s own hero, perfectly embodied by Steven and Ian, and hinted at in Ben’s brief stint with this incarnation. With Hartnell’s health questionable at the best of times, this style of assistant was always needed – someone willing to roll their sleeves up and get physical. The young counterpart to Hartnell’s Doctor should have been perfectly embodied in Susan, a granddaughter of the same heritage with the same character quirks. Sadly, many of the ‘alien’ ideas were lost, and only serials like The Sensorites allow us to fully appreciate how wonderful her character could have been. Her replacement Vicki worked wonderfully, but in turn she was replaced by Dodo, whose very stupidity was so poorly sketched out that she was almost unbearable.
The rarest of companions, though, is Barbara, and it is a role that we will never see again – morally speaking, she is the Doctor’s equal, if not better. She sets him right, and helps to maintain a sense of balance. Jacqueline Hill’s performance in The Aztecs is why it is still one of the greatest Doctor-lite stories, and her ownership of her role in history, and her personal growth throughout, makes her one of my favourite companions ever.
We also have the ‘not-quite’ companions – characters like Katarina, Sara Kingdom and Bret Vyon who briefly travel with the Doctor – and again, it is testimony to Hartnell’s characterisation that at least two of these were shown to mature and grow thanks to his company. Katarina, sadly, was something of a wasted opportunity – but given that the part was originally intended for Vicki, that is unsurprising.
So all in all, with Hartnell we can see greatness – he is not one-dimensional, ever, and provides gravitas and mystery to the role, despite us finding more out about him through his character growth than we ever will with any other incarnation. He grows from his miserly first appearance, through his experiences with his companions, into a loveable, unknowable rogue, able as he is to flit between personas at the drop of a hat. Speaking of hats – on with Troughton...!