Trash Culture’s Dr. Who Reviews – The First Doctor (1963-1967)

by Chad Denton

What’s remarkable about William Hartnell’s interpretation of the Doctor is how much of a lasting foundation it has been, after so many decades and quite a few seismic shifts in culture. Hartnell’s Doctor is an eccentric with an insatiable curiosity and willingness (if not eagerness) to meddle in anything and with anyone; who has a strong anti-authoritarian streak that drives him to talk back to tyrants, petty or powerful, and be personally, passionately outraged by any injustice, no matter how small or “necessary”; and who manages to be both inhumanly detached from events and yet endlessly compassionate, especially to the precious few individuals he deeply respects. With maybe a few quibbles, this broad description is as true for the very first incarnation of the Doctor as it is for the Doctors of this millennium. The lasting appeal of the Doctor rises from what a strong core the character has in spite of passing from writer to writer and actor to actor, and that core is, I think, largely the handiwork of Hartnell himself. Maybe the First Doctor was a crabbier and more sharp-tongued Doctor than what modern audiences weaned on the 2005 series would expect (although he certainly lightened up after the earliest scenes), but Hartnell’s description of the Doctor as “a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas” (with a little mild forgetfulness thrown in) still rings true. 

It’s really quite unfair that the Hartnell stories once in a while get a bad rep as the “slow” and “goofy” (as if “Doctor Who” suddenly became a more “serious” sci-fi endeavor sometime in the ’70s) era of the show. In the same vein as the unchanging Doctor, the First Doctor era really isn’t all that disconnected from what the contemporary version of the show. For example, “The Dalek Invasion of the Earth” and “The Tenth Planet,” in their odd and aggressive mixture of bleak writing with unashamedly campy sci-fi adventure, seem to belong in the same category as the alien invasion epics Russell T. Davies used to drag out of the well so often. However, the First Doctor differed from many of his successors by being more of a traveler than a hero or a protector. I don’t know if it’s a result of Hartnell being physically limited from a more direct role in the action-oriented stories or of the tone he set for the Doctor (personally I believe it’s a little of both, with more of the latter), but either way it often seems like he doesn’t quite fit in the more kinetic serials. This Doctor finds trouble by poking around in the strange places he investigates, which is true for even “The Dalek Invasion of the Earth”, rather than rushes to face it head-on like Pewtree or Tenant’s Doctors will.

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One thought on “Trash Culture’s Dr. Who Reviews – The First Doctor (1963-1967)”

  1. My first exposure to Dr. Who was watching the Tom Baker episodes from the 1970s–I just happened to tune in to my my local PBS affiliate one Saturday afternoon in the summer of ’81 (or thereabouts) and there was this really quirky show on. (I pretty much grew up on three of the “major” sci-fi series of the time: Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and this.) When I finally got to see the original William Hartnell episodes, it really was almost like I was watching a different series, and not just because of the micro-micro-budget and the black-and-white film. It struck me almost as if it were a spacebound Swiss Family Robinson or something…which I guess explains why I found it tough to take when the Doctor chose to simply leave his granddaughter behind.

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