1963 to 1966
William Hartnell played the first Dr. Who and there can be no doubt he defined the role.
“Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.”
William Hartnell, Dr. Who, 1963.
William Hartnell occasionally forgot his lines, and those slips occasionally show up on the screen. The show was recorded live and filming only stopped if something truly catastrophic went wrong. Hartnell’s Doctor was light years away from the energetic, youthful hero the character eventually developed into. Hartnell was elderly – in his late fifties – so he didn’t do much running around, but his Doctor did have a sharper, more enquiring mind than any of his later incarnations – and he commanded every scene with his presence. Above all, he was… a wise old man.
Children trusted him because he was the sort of grandfather we all secretly wished we had, and parents trusted him because they were old enough to forgive his faults and trust his values – and secretly wanted their children to understand and embrace them.
The Hartnell episodes were filmed in black & white (colour television was almost unknown in Britain in 1963) but this added to the murkiness of the story of a time-traveller and his granddaughter, hiding from the universe, living anonymously in an untidy London scrapyard. William Hartnell’s Dr. Who carried the narrative with the assistance of very few special effects, and thus forced us to use our own imaginations.
For me, Dr. Who will always be William Hartnell – irascible, cantankerous, impatient and eccentric, sometimes devoid of empathy, yet also a kindly and lovable figure who commanded respect. Unlike his successors, Hartnell’s Doctor was always an impenetrable, unfathomable enigma – sometimes aggressive, suspicious and irritable and interested only in scientific discovery, he held an almost childlike wonder at the universe that none of his successors managed to the same degree.
The first ever episode – An Unearthly Child – a copy of which I have on DVD – is a beautifully crafted piece of work and sets the scene for a story that has run for more than 50 years. In 1963 we had never seen anything quite like it as for the first time we were introduced to the Doctor, to his companions, to the TARDIS – and to the Daleks – all completely novel and astonishingly original. And we were enthralled.
William Hartnell was already known as a brilliant and accomplished actor – casting him in the role was a stroke of genius on the part of producer Verity Lambert. He had a natural ability to conjure up a sense of mystery, mischievousness and danger. In short, William Hartnell defined Dr. Who, and although imitated by a dozen actors since, he set a standard so high, I do not believe it has ever been equalled.
An Unearthly Child established the character perfectly – a mysterious and secretive traveller unable to return to his home planet… an outsider… and unashamedly odd.
Quite accidentally, a programme designed to entertain and educate children (some purely historical storylines saw the TARDIS materialise in the Stone Age or in Roman times or in the French Revolution) became a favourite with adults too. The Aztecs, contains one of the series most famous lines… “You can’t change history. Not one line!” Hartnell’s performance is varied, note perfect, and exceptionally brilliant.
The first thee series of Dr. Who went through several production teams – each new production style represented a major developmental shift in the show. Only when the Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton did the programme start to follow any kind of format.
The Hartnell years developed truly epic stories in which events unfolded over long periods of time, for instance the massive Dalek invasion stories that spanned more than the vastness of space and time. When the Daleks appeared on screen, they aroused our deepest fears and emotions – and we hid behind the settee.
When granddaughter Susan left the show, parting company (forever?) from her time-travelling grandfather, we realised in that episode that she was grown up enough to fall in love and decide her own future, as one day we would have to do ourselves. When William Hartnell left the show (due to declining health) we were sad because we knew there could no one who could adequately take his place – and that his exit marked the end of an era.
The scale of the stories, and the sense of a gruelling slog rather than a fast-paced attempt to overcome overwhelming odds were harrowing – and they were meant to be. This was undoubtedly a reflection of the times – in the 1960’s our lives were nowhere near as comfortable and secure as they are today! The only exception was The Romans – Dr. Who’s only comedy. Writers Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner were both former comedy writers before they turned their hand to science fiction, and Hartnell was a veteran of various film comedies, including the first Carry On movie, Carry on Sergeant.
Such was the success of Dr. Who, the BBC was allowed to close off part of London early one Sunday morning to film the Daleks Invasion of Earth.
In his private life, William Hartnell was a kind, unassuming and gentle man. Although sceptical at first about the concept, he soon embraced his own invention and threw himself into it. When illness forced him to retire, he was genuinely disappointed at having to give up a role he loved.
If you ever have a chance to see An Unearthly Child or any of the early William Hartnell programmes, you would do well to seize the opportunity. They are more than just BBC TV museum pieces – they reflect a better, more honest time.
“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 that I am not mistaken in mine.”
William Hartnell, Dr. Who, 1966.