“One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me I am not mistaken in mine.” First Doctor Who.
The first incarnation of Doctor Who was played by the character actor William Hartnell; and Doctor Who was a very different show in 1963 – to the one we know and love today.
Firstly, none of the established backstory was present, we didn’t know he was a Time Lord from Gallifrey, that he could regenerate – or that he only had 12 regenerations.
The initial incarnation of the Doctor, was a mysterious alien time traveller who carted his granddaughter Susan around, through many historical periods in earth’s history. Susan was a gifted individual with knowledge and abilities beyond her formative years.
Occasionally, they would stop somewhere long enough for Susan to continue her education, (she was particularly fond of 20th Century Earth). There was the odd sojourn to alien worlds also and first meetings with classic villain’s – the Dalek’s.
The Doctor’s character was uniquely multifaceted, in that he could be crotchety and cantankerous but could also be guiding and warm. Some of this came from Hartnell himself adjusting the character over the first few episodes.
The very first episode - An Unearthly Child -1963, showed Susan’s teachers Ian and Barbara – from Coalhill School, following Susan home to a junkyard after school – as they were curious about her. There, they witnessed Susan go into an old police telephone box and met her crotchety old Grandad – The Doctor. Who then promptly kidnaps them both – to go along on their adventures, for the next 2 years.
The first time the Tardis dematerialized, it was like the Doctor had spiked everyones tea with acid, as the Tardis buckled and groaned and the lava lamp effects kicked in and everyone passed out. Thankfully, later journeys would be much more efficient and quicker featuring the trademark noise.
Little was revealed about the background of the Doctor and Susan, only that they were exiled and that they were born in another time and another world. It is also remarked in the first episode that Susan coins the name TARDIS based on the term “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”. Later, thr Doctor makes reference to having built the Tardis himself in The Chase – 1965. Both of these revelations were later shelved as the more accepted lore was brought out in the Troughton era.
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” First Doctor – An Unearthly Child
The original scripts had the Doctor written as a “Time renegade” from the year 5733 whose home planet had been invaded, although this wasn’t included in the final show. The first Doctor had the biggest number of different companions to date. Beginning with Granddaughter Susan and her teachers : Ian and Barbara. Later, the Doctor was joined by Vicki, Stephen, Dido, Ben and Polly.
The early show kept an air of mystery around the Doctor and the main part of its draw was Ian and Barbara finding out a little bit more – every week, about their alien kidnappers.
The Doctor was played by William Hartnell – a 40 year veteran of stage and screen at the time he took the role of the Doctor. His acting credits included the very first Carry on film Carry on Sergeant – 1958 and the TV series The Army game – 1957-61 .
Hartnell was used to playing tough characters throughout his career, he seldom got to play the “good guy” usually cast as heavies or Army types. He had some grounding in the latter, having seen action in WWII – serving in the Tank corps.
So the role of the Doctor was a major departure for him. He could be crotchety, arrogant and aloof, but he also showed a more gentle, playful nature, especially with his Granddaughter Susan. He could be humorous in his own way and yet authoritative and intelligent. He could also be scatter brained and unintelligible, as if he had lost the plot.
Indeed, his Doctor had the many emotional facets later Doctor’s tried to capture and each episode seemed to bring out a different emotion in him, depending on the situation the Doctor faced.
Hartnell’s Who can be split into two distinct types of adventure. The period historical romp which meant that the Doctor visited many famous people in Earths history : Marco Polo, Emperor Nero, Richard Lionheart and Wyatt Earp.
And then the futuristic science concept episode, where the Doctor journeyed to many far flung planets to meet many different species. Notable creations were the Dalek’s but the Doctor also came across the Cybermen, psychic Sensorite’s and the Reptilian Monoid’s.
“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure!” First Doctor – The Sensorites
The Doctor didn’t have his sonic screwdriver to aid him in his jams, but he did have a ring which he could use in a similar way to control his Tardis console, open doors and break hypnotic trances.
The Time Meddler – 1965 introduced the first idea of a recurring “Master” style antithesis to the Doctor, in this episode the battle of Hastings is disrupted by a meddling time traveller who is trying to tip the balance of history using future technology.
Hartnell was 55 when he took over the role and his health was always a problem for him. He would frequently forget his lines and he didn’t always get on with his fellow actors or production staff, he was also rumoured to be very intolerant of other races – and could be very difficulty to control.
In later serials, he sometimes went whole episodes without speaking (or even appearing at all) – and alot of the dialogue and action was handled by the companions themselves.
It was decided, 3 years into his reign that his time had come but rather than end the show – as it was still highly popular, a brilliantly conceived idea had the Doctor “regenerate” into a completely different individual.
This would become a central part of the show, (with the Doctor regenerating every 3-4 years into a different actor) upon which the show could be taken in a different new direction.
So the Doctor, having vanquished the Cybermen but being mortally wounded in the battle, fell to the floor in episode 4 of The Tenth Planet – 196and changed into Patrick Troughton in front of everybody’s eyes.
Sadly, some of Hartnell’s episodes were lost in the BBC Archive – including the pivotal regeneration into Troughton serial – “The Tenth Planet”. Epsiodes continue to surface to this day, so one day there may be a full collection.
Hartnell briefly reprised his role (as a cameo due to illness) in the Third Doctor’s episode The Three Doctor’s -1975 before he died. Richard Hurndell took over the role of the first Doctor in the 25th Anniversary serial – The Five Doctor’s -1983 .
Hartnell’s legacy was to begin the mythology which would be taken much further by the future incarnations and fleshed out into the lore that we know today.
In many ways, the idea of bringing in an established actor to set the scene was repeated in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston helming the Doctor – for one season.
Hartnell’s 10 of the best
The Unearthly Child, 1963 – First ever episode.
The Daleks, 1963 – First ever Dalek appearance, it caught the public’s imagination in the 1960′s.
Aztecs, 1963 – One of the better period pieces, with a moral message.
The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, 1964 – The first invasion of Earth involving the returning Dalek’s – bigger budget, pushed the Dalek’s into even bigger popularity.
The Chase, 1965 – The Dalek’s pursue the Doctor in a time machine. Companions Ian and Barbara leave and Stephen joins.
The Ark, 1965 – Humans in a spaceship fleeing earth and Dodo brings the common cold aboard, which kills some of them.
The Time Meddler, 1965 – Doctor’s first meeting with a dastardly fellow time traveler – an early Master.
The Celestial Toymaker, 1965 – Mad toymaker makes the Doctor complete some trials to save his life.
The War Machines, 1965 – The Doctor lands back on earth to face the fearsome WOTAN computer.
The Tenth Planet, 1966 – Sadly incomplete, the Cybermen make their first appearance and the Doctor regenerates.