Fifty Years of Doctor Who: Part 2, The First Doctor – William Hartnell
Starting in 1963, the first Doctor played by actor William Hartnell, who described his character as something of a “wizard” and a cross between “The Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas.” While fellow Doctor, Paul McGann (the 8th), said Hartnell “seemed like a Victorian, someone kind of stern and paterfamilias about him, something kind, but scary”. I can’t really think of a better way to sum up this particular Doctor, not that I would desire to sum any of them up in such a brief description. While John Paul Green (author of The Regeneration Game: Doctor Who and the Changing Faces of Heroism) said the first doctor “…explicitly positioned the Doctor as grandfather to his companion Susan.” and he reflected a “definite sense of Englishness”. However, The Doctor would not have identified himself as an Englishman, but rather as a gentleman and a citizen of the universe. Further, BBC script editor David Whitaker described The Doctor as “frail-looking but wiry and tough as an old turkey” in his writers’ guide for the show. All these add up to a fairly accurate, yet thoroughly confused and complex description character that, at the time, was still developing. William Hartnell, being the first to step into the Time Lord’s shoes helped shape the path this character would follow. Along with teams of writers, directors, and producers, he gave us a dynamic hero, and a friend.
Founding producer Verity Lambert offered Hartnell the role by after his performance in This Sporting Life. The series was originally, and some could argue still is, intended for children, and this reportedly caused Hartnell some apprehension as he didn’t seem to feel he was right for such a program. He ultimately accepted the role with the hope of breaking free of the coarse military typecast in which he found himself. Although it could certainly be argued he did carry many aspects of that brusque military type through to his performance as The Doctor, I being one that would make that argument, he also brought a soft grandfatherly center to the role.
Hartnell’s Doctor was not at first grandfatherly or sympathetic; He was tetchy, dictatorial, abrasive, patronizing and occasionally ruthlessness. Frequently sarcastic towards those around him, displaying an overt sense of superiority, and was prone to criticize those who he felt were naive or primitive. He would get particularly snippy with those who insulted the TARDIS. However, he also displayed compassion, warmth, and wit that made up for his egocentric nature. The character mellowed as he grew closer to his companions, and he soon became popular, especially among children.
He defended established history, except when he decided it was better, to meddle. The Doctor’s ideal that it was okay to save people who were not directly contributing to historical events was his primary excuse for his habit of interfering. Although he was adamant that history should not be changed, he seemed to understand that minor changes were inevitable, and unavoidable. At this stage, he was more of an observer of history than a participant.
The Doctor, although he possessed seemingly infinite knowledge had frequent troubles piloting the TARDIS effectively. Susan, his granddaughter, first wrote this off as his being “a bit forgetful.” However, in subsequent years it was revealed the TARDIS was designed for six pilots, and later yet we found the TARDIS was sentient and delivered the Doctor where she wanted him to go. TARDIS aside, the character trait of forgetfulness was a major trait of Hartnell’s Doctor.
This trait was Hartnell’s idea, a performance choice that allowed him to work with a hidden disability. At the time Hartnell was in the early stages of arteriosclerosis, which is the hardening the arteries, and will gradually restrict blood flow to the extremities downstream. In the case of William Hartnell, that extremity was his brain. He frequently had trouble remembering his lines, or how to pronounce words, or even just stumbled over his own tongue. The choice to use this was of great benefit to the production. In the early days of production, there was little time for additional takes, and a flubbed line could mean hours or days of lost work. Given the character had this same memory problem as the performer; it allowed producers to use these otherwise unusable takes. This is also the origin of some of the persistent quarks of the Doctor. The memory that seems to slide fluidly in and out of lucidity, assigning epithets to everyone he meets, and punctuated speech with “hmms” sighs and snorts and gibberish. Unfortunately as the seasons, progresses so too did Hartnells condition. Once the physical strain was becoming too great, they made a decision that allowed this series to withstand the ages. They decided it was time for The Doctor to regenerate.
William Hartnell is revered, not because he was the best doctor, but because he was the first. He paved a path for our imaginations and set the TARDIS in motion. For that, I will forever be grateful.