Monday, October 23, 2017
The Doctor: A Look Back at the William Hartnell Era
Phil Sandifer's observation about the end of The Tenth Planet that "what is about to happen is not the end of the First Doctor's tenure. No. It's the end of the Doctor. William Hartnell only played the First Doctor once, in 1973. Otherwise, he was always simply the Doctor. And what is about to happen is not the replacement of the first version with the second. It's the replacement of the only version with something completely new" is quite important. Because Hartnell labors under the utterly unfair burden of being judged in comparison to all those who came after him. But they, you see, had the advantage of seeing his three distinct versions of the Doctor, and being able to pick and choose from his templates--or create something utterly new.
But the show itself had a certain form that allowed for tremendous freedom, while delivering certain expectations.
Not so when it first began. That early rush of stories, the first two seasons, what I like to call Auntie Verity's Pandemonium Shadow Show, kept you guessing. The Doctor: friend or foe? Daemonic or demonic? Was the TARDIS a place of refuge, or a dimensionally transcendent madhouse, where an eerily mature Susan stalks the corridors, scissor blades protruding from her clenched fist? Were these travels meaningful or could you not rewrite history, not one line. Along the way, Barbara and Ian played a key role in transforming selfish, sometimes cowardly old man into a hero, and the show mixed hard sci-fi with BBC costume dram, or even the Carry On series, with perverse invocations of s Méliès's 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. Balletic ants, a magic police box, and a grumpy wizard?
Who knows what could happen?
After Ian and Barbara leave, we get the middle period. The Doctor is more of a straightforward hero, albeit a deeply flawed one: the 12-episode long arc, The Dalek's Masterplan, leaves us surrounded by death and loss: Bret, Katerina, and, most agonizingly of all, Sara. All gone. The epic tragedy aside, it's an effort to do Auntie Verity's show without her, and its flashes of genius can't hide the fact that the show needs a paradigm shift.
Finally, we get the Doctor who shows up at the OK Corral, crashing into the Western genre, and shaking it up, who comes to contemporary earth's aid, takes a hero's stand against WOTAN, and, finally, falls in the wake of Mondas's destruction.
Hartnell managed to make it all seem consistent, but in fact his performance anchored the show through a bewildering series of changes and formats, from Verity Lambert's free-wheeling Hall of Mirrors to he more straightforward sci-fi of the fourth season.
When I was a teen, I loved the idea of Hartnell as conveyed in the Target novelizations. Then I was disappointed by the dying old man in The Three Doctors, and Richard Hurndall's evocation of the original. After I'd seen a handful of the original Hartnell eps, before stumbling on BritBox's far more complete catalog, I thought I had the measure of the man. I was wrong.
It's hard to rank him now, with so many successors riffing off his contributions, but i want to say this: I enjoyed him far more than I thought I would, I loved Jacqueline Hill's rapport with him, and her ability to up his game, and I found his comic episodes stand up even now.
If you enjoy any version of Doctor Who, Hartnell deserves a sincere thank you for pioneering so many ways to be the Doctor, for making the character and the police box the epitome of English magical realism.