29
Mar
2013
Running with the Doctor
The First Doctor: William Hartnell
Jordan
Running with the Doctor is an occasional feature in which we will explore each iteration of Doctor Who's titular Time Lord, the way he approaches the universe, the companions he travels with, and the way the show developed while he was its face.

"When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it'll never end."-River Song (Alex Kingston)

"You can't rewrite history! Not one line!"-The Doctor (William Hartnell)

The Doctor: The First Doctor (William Hartnell)

Stories: 29 (134 episodes)

Series: 1-4 (1963-1966)

Companions: Susan Foreman, Barbara Wright, Ian Chesterton, Vicki, Steven Taylor, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Dodo Chaplet, Polly, Ben Jackson

When I first began watching Doctor Who just last summer, I started with the 2005 revival, as I had been told. I had resisted watching the series for years, due to a problem we find ourselves discussing fairly often on this site: my compulsion to completism. I did not want to begin watching Doctor Who, because the show had been around for 50 years, had produced more than 30 seasons of television (and one TV movie, which we will get to way down the road in this space), and not all of it even existed anymore. It was a massive undertaking, and one I did not think I had the time for, nor the ability to avoid once I dove in. At first, it was fine. I watched the show's current run, and that was that. I liked the show a great deal, even if I was never able to love it unreservedly.

But something gnawed at me. At first it was subconscious, a subtle desire to get the bigger picture, to place things in greater context, to know Who like the true fans did. It finally bubbled over when the show aired its 2012 Christmas special, "The Snowmen," an episode that consciously referenced the show's history and was rife with in-jokes about episodes from its original run. I am, it seems, very bad at not being in on the joke. And so here we are, in the very first installment of Running with the Doctor. This feature won't work like most at Review to Be Named. There is no regular schedule, which means there are no deadlines for me. A new installment will appear whenever I finish watching an actor's tenure in the role. There is a lot of great criticism out there surrounding the classic run of Doctor Who (I have been supplementing my viewing with this excellent blog
, which also provides further resources for those interested), and this isn't that. Running with the Doctor aims to be something more informal, something more off the cuff. I want to talk about each Doctor. I want to talk about the era of the show that Doctor represents. I want to talk about the good, the bad, and the weird. And I want to talk about what it all means. But mostly, I want to provide a quick rundown for the curious about what each era of the show is like, and what they can expect to find, should they decide to take a run with any particular Doctor. Consider this a primer on each era of the show, a chance to get a feel for what it was like when each Doctor was at its center.

Each installment will begin, as this did, with the basic information on the era, and will then be divided into four sections: "The Madman with a Box" will focus on The Doctor himself, his personality, and how he developed over the course of his tenure; "Born to Run" will discuss the various companions who travelled with The Doctor and what they brought to the show; "Time Being Written" will discuss developments in the show's mythology over the course of each era, and "Fantastic! Brilliant! Geronimo!" will talk about essential stories featuring each Doctor. With all of that out of the way, let's get to it, shall we?

The Madman with a Box:



William Hartnell was the first, and to a serious extent, everything The Doctor ever becomes is present at some point in his run. He gets a reputation for being "the grumpy one," an irascible curmudgeon with a startling capacity for cruelty, and he is that, but he's so much more. Whether it was intended or not (and it was almost certainly not), Hartnell's Doctor has a distinct emotional arc over his run on the show, and that arc is the development of The Doctor as we know him. When we first meet The Doctor, he is living on earth in 1963 with his granddaughter Susan (more on that in the next section). He has, by all indications, only recently fled his home planet of Gallifrey in his TARDIS, and he is unaccustomed to adventure. Early Doctor Who stories aren't about a madman on a constant adventure through time and space; they are stories of a man who is lost and scared, far from home, and just trying to survive.

Much is made of the fact that, in the very first serial, "An Unearthly Child," The Doctor considers murdering an adversary, not because he poses any particular danger at that second, but because he will slow The Doctor down and get in his way. This happens, and it makes sense without forcing modern viewers to strain much to create context where none readily exists (since almost none of what has become the show's mythology existed when it began, a lot of things must be grafted on for fans of continuity). When The Doctor first started travelling, he had (presumably) spent his whole life as a member of the cloistered society of the Time Lords. He is strongly against intervening, and the idea of "saving" the people he comes across barely occurs to him. He cannot control where or when his TARDIS will materialize, and once it does land somewhere, he is almost immediately trying to get back in it and get away from whatever life threatening situation he confronts. In other words, The Doctor is new.

Yet over the course of Hartnell's tenure, this cruel indifference (which is still very much a part of the character; if you don't believe me, look at Matt Smith's portrayal, which mixes absurd comedy and grave drama quite adeptly, leaving plenty of room for The Doctor to be insensitive and even cruel) softened, and he became first accustomed to, and then excited by life as a traveller. The softening of The Doctor made room for Hartnell to stretch his comedic chops (he could be very funny, and his devilish giggle became a signature of his portrayal), and also made him the star of the show (a fact that was initially debatable).

The Doctor was abrasive, he was patronizing, and he was often ruthless (as we all well know by now, The Doctor lies). Yet he developed a familial bond with his companions over time, and that emotional journey made him immensely likable as well. He was brilliant, resourceful, and witty. He was also an old man, forgetful, absent-minded, and occasionally tongue-tied (the show was initially shot live, and William Hartnell, being quite old himself, often flubbed his lines, to the point that it became a character trait for The Doctor to call people by the wrong name, say the wrong words, or jump ahead of his companions by several steps, forced to explain his logical leaps only once prompted by another cast member to get back on script).

In my limited experience with the show (Hartnell is my fourth Doctor, as I have already seen the runs of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith, all of whom we may discuss later in this feature, should I choose to extend it into the show's revival), I have found its difficult not to love each Doctor, especially when you are immersed in their run. Initially, The First Doctor is too hard-edged to have much affection for"”he is a mysterious and abrasive figure, quick-tempered and impatient. But over the course of his run, he becomes grandfatherly and hard not to adore for all his flaws.

As I said earlier, Hartnell is the template on which every other iteration of The Doctor is based, and virtually everything the character will ever be is present at some point during his run. The temper, the sense of righteousness, and the fact that The Doctor lies are the things people most associate with The First Doctor. Yet the child like sense of wonder, the quips in the face of danger, the deep affection for his companions, and the loneliness at the core of the character are all present here.



The First Doctor's physical limitations mean he must be mentally sharper than any of his opponents, and its clear throughout his time that he is a genius. He is brilliant, he is funny, and eventually, he cares. In short, while he hasn't fully become the man we know and love, he is, in every important sense, The Doctor.
Born to Run:

The First Doctor had (arguably) more companions than any who would follow him (there is debate over exactly who in Tennant's run counts as a companion, and if you count every one-off guest in each Holiday special, he ends up with more, but to me, that's crazy talk), and he is the only iteration to travel with a member of his own family. Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford) is The Doctor's granddaughter (details on her parents are never mentioned here, and I assume, never mentioned period within the show, though only time will tell), and she is his first companion. For a lot of reasons, though, her character doesn't work. For one thing, Ford tends to overact, emoting to the rafters at every turn, and generally making Susan into a histrionic wreck. For another, having his actual granddaughter tagging along means The Doctor tends to feel more responsible for her and more protective of her, leading to a lot of "we can't go to that awesome looking place or do that awesome sounding thing because this one might get hurt." Susan only lasts ten stories (she appears in 51 episodes over the first season and the first two stories of the second), and she couldn't leave fast enough for my liking. She becomes the first companion to depart, and thus sets an important template in that way as well.



The show got it right with the other two initial companions, though, and they are my favorites from The First Doctor's run: Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). Introduced as Susan's science and history teacher's, respectively, the two were initially very clearly there as part of the show's educational mandate. Yet they developed far beyond those initial roles, and along with The Doctor, Susan, and Vicki (who entered the picture once Susan departed), formed a family unit that it was easy to root for. Ian was the show's man of action, and, during its early episodes, its arguable star. He was a point of view character, new to the TARDIS and to time travel, but also a moral man who was willing to stand up to The Doctor and fight for what was right. Before The Doctor learned how to be a hero, Ian was the show's champion for truth, justice, and the British way.



If Ian is the show's muscle, Barbara is the show's heart. A deeply compassionate woman, Barbara softens The Doctor, mothers Susan, and develops an easy intimacy with Ian (the two clearly develop a romantic relationship, though the show never comments on it). Ian may throw the punches, but its usually Barbara who figures out what needs punching, and she is also the first character to try to rewrite history (in one of the best serials of this era).



Once Susan leaves, she is replaced by the far more suitable Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), and the core four of The Doctor, Vicki, Ian, and Barbara become the center of the show during the best run of episodes of the era. They form a wonderful family unit, with an ease and chemistry that creates the first cast of characters its easy to invest in and difficult to say goodbye to. When Susan left the TARDIS, it was all I could do to keep from cheering. But when Barbara and Ian decide to return to their time near the end of season two (in an story as absurd as this run of the show ever got), it's the first real tear-jerker the show has produced.



Once Ian and Barbara leave, the show is sort of at a loss for a workable set of companions for the rest of Hartnell's run. The period directly after they leave (from season two's final story "The Time Meddler" through season three's "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve") is the darkest for the show, and its actually possible to read much of season three as an extended arc about how The Doctor loses. From "The Myth Makers," which sees Vicki's departure, through the end of "The Massacre," two companions die (Katarina, a Trojan girl who is completely unable to cope with the time travel and assumes she is already dead, and Sara Kingdom, a futuristic bad-ass who dies at the end of the epic "The Dalek's Master Plan") and Steven (Peter Purves), the companion who manages to survive, storms out after The Doctor refuses to avert the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (the clip of The Doctor's tragic speech when it looks like Steven is leaving him, is above). Steven returns for several more stories, but its clear his character was always just a flimsy stand in for Ian Chesterton as the series' man of action. As for Dodo Chaplet, the less said the better.

The Doctor's final companions, Ben and Polly, actually seem very promising, but sadly, they are just getting their start when Hartnell's tenure comes to an end (they make their first appearance in the final story of season three, "The War Machines," and appear with Hartnell in his final two stories, the first two of season four), so I imagine we will speak more about them in the next installment of this feature.

Over the course of Hartnell's run, the show defined what it means to be a companion of The Doctor, even if it seemed to forget that definition as often as it remembered. At their best (again, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki take the cake here), the companions are wonderful additions to the show. But many of the rest are catastrophic failures (Susan, Dodo, and Katarina, the companion the show introduced then immediately proceeded to write out because, well, she's from the Trojan War era and doesn't know what a fucking key is, much less how to handle a Dalek), interesting misfires (Steven, who is well acted by Purves, but never really becomes more than a plot device, doing all of the action-y things the decrepit Hartnell just couldn't handle, and Sara Kingdom, who seems like a very modern conception of a companion, only to die at the climax of her first story), or characters waiting to be developed (Ben and Polly).

Time Being Written:

This is the beginning of the show, so mythology-wise, it probably does the heavy lifting. What's truly impressive about Doctor Who is just how fully formed it is out of the gate. The very first story, "An Unearthly Child," has the essential elements that will power the show through the subsequent five decades: The Doctor, his companions, and a mysterious blue box that can travel anywhere in time and space.

The show also establishes that The Doctor and Susan are aliens, though the phrase Time Lord is never heard, and their planet, Gallifrey, is not named. Little is revealed, in fact, about The Doctor's history. All we know is he left his home and cannot return, that he has had a few adventures in various periods before we meet him, but not many, and that he knows everything about pretty much everything. Eventually, in the final story of season two, "The Time Meddler," we meet another of The Doctor's species, a man simply called The Monk who believes in changing history for the better, but while he has a TARDIS, there is nothing else about him that makes him particularly distinctive.

Also featured are The Doctor's two greatest enemies: The Daleks and The Cybermen. The Daleks are actually part of what I mean when I say the show arrives fully formed; they are the villains of the second story (aptly named "The Daleks"), and appear four times over Hartnell's three-plus seasons (in season two's very solid "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and completely ape-shit "The Chase," and in season three's twelve-episode epic serial "The Daleks' Master Plan"). They are very clearly The Doctor's greatest nemesis, and also the characters that transformed the show from an educational children's program into a nationwide phenomenon. I wasn't aware of this until I started researching the era, but "Dalekmania" was a thing at the time (to the point where a song called "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek" became a hit in England, and Dalek-creator Terry Nation actually tried to sell a Dalek spin-off in America).



The Cybermen are much less prominent in this era, appearing only in Hartnell's final story, "The Tenth Planet," though they make quite an impression. They are starkly different from what they will become, both in look and in vocal characteristics, but they are still deeply chilling monsters, and its no surprise they return to become some of The Doctor's greatest enemies.

Finally, we should spend a minute on "the rules" of time travel during the Hartnell era. Spoiler alert: there aren't any. Doctor Who has always played pretty fast and loose with the science, and this is true of this era as well. When the show begins, as the quote at the top of this feature proclaims, one of the core things that has become true of the show is adamantly not: time, it seems, cannot be rewritten, and history cannot be changed. This makes sense when you think of the show's educational mandate"”we don't want the characters swooping in and messing up things instead of teaching the kids what happened"”but makes absolutely no sense from a narrative perspective. If every other story is a "historical" (and in the show's first season, it alternated between futuristic stories to teach about science and historicals to teach about history) in which our characters can't change anything, there's not a whole lot they can do except say things like, "Hey, that's Marco Polo!"

So the show quickly discarded the idea that time can't be rewritten, though when, exactly, it does so is unclear. The series also totally botches The Daleks' timeline from the get go (odd, considering their creator, Terry Nation, wrote or co-wrote every story featuring them during this era), to the point where its best to just nod your head and say "Ok, there are Daleks here." As for the "timey wimey" stuff the series eventually plays with, its mostly absent here, except in one of the era's best episodes (the first episode of "The Space Museum," which has a brilliant, trippy time-travel concept the rest of the serial almost completely ignores) and in one of its worst serials (the Dalek-centric "The Chase," which posits that The Daleks are going to chase The Doctor through time. Think about that for half a second and it completely falls apart. Also, there's an episode in the middle of the serial where Dracula and Frankenstein show up for 20 minutes, and when you get to the show's "clever" explanation for this, it makes even less sense).

Fantastic! Brilliant! Geronimo!:

If you're looking to watch the essential stories from this era, I will weigh in on which are worth your time, and why you should watch them. These are not the best episodes (though I will include those in this list as well), and in fact, a few of them are pretty bad. But they are the episodes that are the most interesting, important, and essential from the era:

"An Unearthly Child""”the first ever Doctor Who story. So, yeah, you should probably check it out. The serial's first episode is actually astonishingly good, establishing the premise, introducing the characters, and developing a strong sense of mystery that makes you wonder just what exactly is happening and where all of this could be going (spoiler alert: it's a fucking time machine. This is going everywhere). The remaining three episodes are a fairly standard prehistoric story, but what's interesting is how bleak it all is. Our heroes are immediately in mortal peril, and the episode spends most of its time showing just how close to dying they are at every second.

"The Daleks""”the second serial and the introduction to The Doctor's greatest nemesis (or so fans of Daleks keep trying to convince me). The plot cribs heavily from HG Wells' The Time Machine, and at seven episodes, it drags considerably near the middle. But the first episode's cliff-hanger is one of the most iconic in the show's history, and, as if it needs repeating, this is the first Dalek story. So I'd check it out.

"The Edge of Destruction""”it's a bottle story! It's a two-parter! Its actually kind of scary! The ending makes absolutely no sense, but for most of its runtime, this is a deeply tense, unsettling story about something going very wrong in the TARDIS and the crew turning on each other. Its also the first time The Doctor seems to realize he cares about Ian and Barbara, so its worth it for that as well.

"The Aztecs""”the first great example of a historical finds Barbara trying to change history so the Aztecs won't be obliterated by the arrival of the Spanish. This is a deeply tragic story where the ending is obvious from the beginning"”Barbara cannot rewrite history, she cannot save the culture she loves and respects, and everyone is going to die badly. Also, for a weird emotional counterpoint, The Doctor finds himself engaged to an elderly woman, in the first (and roughly the only) instance of The Doctor engaged in romance in the original series. Dark, depressing, well staged, and well-paced (an accomplishment during this era), "The Aztecs" is one of the highlights of Hartnell's run.

"The Dalek Invasion of Earth""”the second Dalek story finds them ruling over a post-apocalyptic London. Once again, what's most impressive here is how bleak this children's show from the early "˜60s is willing to go with its depiction of a human society that has crumbled under Dalek rule. If you can ignore the Daleks plan (which, seriously, involves hollowing out the Earth and using it as a giant space ship), this is a pretty good story, one of the first times The Doctor willingly takes on the role of the hero, and features the first departure of a companion, as Susan leaves the TARDIS, and we can all stop actively hating her.

"The Web Planet""”this one is a bit of a tough sell, seeing as, story wise, its pretty awful. But "The Web Planet" features by far the most alien aliens the show attempted during this era, and the whole thing is a deeply weird, trippy experience as a result. From a story perspective, its pretty bad. From a sound design perspective, its fucking awful (The Zarbi, ant-like creatures who are all over the planet, make awful beeping noises that will make you wish you could watch on mute. Here's the thing: you pretty much can). Yet from a production design perspective, this is the height of the Hartnell era, creating a planet that feels unearthly and a variety of strange and hypnotic creatures to populate it.

"The Space Museum""”watch this one for its first episode, which has probably the best premise of this entire era: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki arrive in a planet-sized museum, but things are very off. When Vicki drops a glass, it jumps back into her hand, reassembling itself. The crew leaves no footprints, and no one on the planet seems able to see or hear them. Then they come across a room and find themselves on display. Its all deeply unsettling stuff, and the resolution is weird, smart, and wonderful. Its too bad the serial's remaining three episodes do little with its brilliant conceit, and instead devolve into the kind of "The Doctor helps a revolution" story the show did a lot when it has the mod Vicki around.

"The Daleks' Master Plan""”the longest serial the show ever did, this is a twelve episode epic that sees The Doctor brought to his lowest point in the series. There is a lot of filler here (The Monk shows up for a few episodes for no apparent reason, and there's a Christmas episode in which everyone just kind of forgets about the Daleks), but when its on, it's the best Dalek story Hartnell ever took part in, and its emblematic of the darker run of episodes the show was producing at this point.

"The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve""”another very solid historical, set right before the titular massacre, finds William Hartnell playing two parts, and Steven facing the consequences of The Doctor's refusal to rewrite history. This is a solid story throughout, but it is at its best in its final moments, the culmination of the show's "The Doctor loses" arc that finds Hartnell alone and as close as we ever see him to just giving up, packing it in, and heading home. It's a beautiful, sobering moment, and one of Hartnell's best pieces of acting on the show.

"The Tenth Planet""”The first Cyberman story and the last Hartnell story. Essential viewing for those reasons, its also a great story on the merits: The Doctor, Ben, and Polly land at the South Pole in 1986, and though he's reluctant to admit it, The Doctor knows something momentous is about to happen: Mondas, the Earth's long-lost twin planet returns from a journey to the "edge of space" (just go with it, ok?) and brings with it The Cybermen, who have replaced themselves over time with bionic parts until they have removed all feelings entirely. They have come to make everyone on Earth just like them, and its deeply creepy stuff. And when Hartnell collapses in the TARDIS at the story's end, its more than just the death of The First Doctor, it's the death of Doctor Who as we know it. The times, they are a-changin', and with them, so must the show.

Next time on Running with the Doctor:

We look at Patrick Troughton's run as the Second Doctor, which sees the show head in a much more action-oriented direction and introduces the Time Lords.
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