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The Hartnell Era: 101

“I am so constantly outwitting the opposition, I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the gentle art of fisticuffs.”  That quote, from “The Romans,” pretty much sums up the attitude and behavior of the First Doctor.  William Hartnell’s Doctor had no doubts as to his superiority to everyone and was generally going to outwit his opponents and leave the fighting and heavy lifting for his male companion to handle (although he liked a good fight now and then).  Now that I’ve seen all of the episodes of the First Doctor, I feel that I can reflect a bit on the era as a whole.

The Doctor

doctor-who-william-hartnell

I have to admit that I didn’t really take to Hartnell’s Doctor right away. The Doctor that we first meet in “An Unearthly Child” bears little resemblance to the Doctor we see today.  At the start of the series, despite being the title character, the Doctor is most definitely not the hero of the show.  That role clearly falls to Ian, while the Doctor is basically an obstacle blocking Ian’s path back home. Hartnell’s Doctor begins as a cantankerous, rather anti-social old man who cares little for anyone except himself (and a bit for his granddaughter).  In the second story, he is even willing to leave Barbara behind when the Daleks capture her.  However, more than any other Doctor, Hartnell’s Doctor grew and developed as the series progressed. In “The Aztecs” we see him care about someone he meets on his travels for the first time.  He also develops a fondness for his companions, and is upset when Barbara and Ian leave.  When Vicki joins the travelers, his grandfatherly side really emerges.

By the end of the first season, the Doctor is starting to become more heroic.  By the time Ian and Barbara leave, the Doctor is finally ready to become the hero of the show.  He always needs a male companion to handle any of the physical demands placed on him (hence the need for Steven, and, later, Ben), but he starts to outwit his opponents with greater regularity (just look at “Reign of Terror” or “The Rescue”). He always remains a bit short-tempered and seems to criticize people more than is necessary, but he takes a more active interest in the concerns of others.  By the time we reach “The Savages,” we see the Doctor become much more like the one we know today; he is concerned with the way a society is functioning and deliberately gets involved to correct the situation.

His Companions

Susan, Barbara, and Ian

Barbara, Susan, and Ian before their travels together

In my opinion, Hartnell had the best companions of any Doctor in Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton.  Although, I do have to admit that I didn’t love them immediately.  In the early episodes, I found Ian to be a bit of a know-it-all and Barbara just seemed to panic and do whatever Ian said.  However, it didn’t take long for the relationship between the characters to develop into a more equal partnership.  Ian and Barbara do some pretty amazing things while with the Doctor.  They are companions who don’t need to rely on the Doctor to get them out of tough situations.  They have a great deal of knowledge from their teaching backgrounds, Ian of science and Barbara of history.  Ian also is a remarkable fighter, although I’m not sure where he developed that skill, unless teaching was a very dangerous career in the 1960’s!  They also have one of the best exits of any companion, as we get to see them joyfully celebrating their return home as they romp around London.

While Ian gradually becomes less of a know-it-all, it is Barbara who really transforms.  After a few episodes, she begins to step out of Ian’s shadow and starts thinking for herself.  The woman who started out constantly looking to Ian for guidance argues for the opposing side in “Reign of Terror.”  And just look at how easily she takes to being a god in “The Aztecs.”  She tries to change the beliefs of an entire civilization.  There’s also a moment in “The Web Planet” where Barbara is basically in the role of a general, planning a military strategy for the rebels.  Who’d have thought the somewhat mousey schoolteacher from the first adventure would develop into a brave woman who could handle any challenge thrown at her?

My second favorite companion was Vicki.  She had a great relationship with the Doctor, and was able to bring out his more caring side.  He was far more grandfatherly with her than he was with Susan, his actual granddaughter. The Doctor was always trying to protect her from any danger, although she was never helpless, like some of the other companions. Vicki was always enthusiastic and loved to be in the middle of the action.  She was another companion who knew how to handle herself and didn’t wait around for someone to come and save her from trouble.  While not quite as independent as Barbara and Ian, she was brave and took initiative when faced with a challenge.

At first I found Steven rather nondescript as a companion. He was clearly there to fill the action hero role left open with Ian’s departure, but I had a hard time getting a handle on his personality. Since he was a space pilot, he was supposed to be someone who could challenge the Doctor with his knowledge, but he just came across as a bit stubborn and as someone who should listen more to the Doctor instead of arguing with him. However, I grew to like Steven more after listening to the audio for “The Massacre.” I started to see Steven as a character who had a very black and white moral code.  He didn’t always see the big picture, but he cared very deeply for the people who he met in his travels and had a hard time accepting that they couldn’t all be saved.  It’s no wonder Steven challenged the Doctor so much when you look at how many people died in “The Dalek’s Master Plan” and “The Massacre.”  He also gets a great exit in “The Savages.”  How many other companions were given a planet to rule?

Susan had the potential to be an interesting character, but she was never really developed by the writers.  Unfortunately, her character spent most of her time being either hysterical or whiny. She was more of a hindrance to her companions than a help.  She was used in a more interesting way in “The Sensorites,” discovering that she was the only one who could communicate in the telepathic manner of the Sensorites, but, sadly, that was the only time a writer seemed to have any clue what to do with her other than have her scream and/or cry.

I never felt like I got a good handle on Ben and Polly during their time with the first Doctor.  They are only in three Hartnell stories, but they seem to be rather generic characters so far.  They are definitely very much young people of the late 60’s, and in that respect are a bit different from the other young companions, who always seemed to be loners with nowhere to belong.  Polly apparently knows all the London hotspots and is attractive and fashionably dressed.  Unfortunately, Polly seemed to be simply the damsel in distress, constantly needing rescue.  Ben is in the Royal Navy, but his personality is not developed very much.  Ben cares about people and is always quick to get in a fight to defend others, but basically he is the new male companion there to do anything physical that needs to be done.

This brings me to my least favorite companion: Dodo Chaplet.  Aside from the fact that she has a terrible, yet appropriate, name (who really wants to be called Dodo?), she was a horribly inconsistent character. When she first joins the Doctor, she has a strong cockney accent that disappears after the first episode of “The Ark.”  She doesn’t contribute much during adventures except spreading her cold virus and nearly wiping out all remaining humans (“The Ark”), being duped by ridiculous tricks (“The Celestial Toymaker”), or falling under the control of WOTON and then disappearing, never to be seen again (“The War Machines”). I know she was supposed to allow the Doctor to have a grandfatherly relationship again, but I don’t ever feel a connection between her and the Doctor. She’s just dead weight that the Doctor has to carry around with him.

The stories:

The Aztecs

Barbara and the Doctor in “The Aztecs”

During Hartnell’s time, there was a particular type of story that often got repeated. The travelers would arrive in a place where one group was oppressing another. They would, of course, always be on the side of the rebels, helping them stage a rebellion that would allow the travelers to return to the TARDIS and be on their way (see: “The Daleks,” “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” “The Space Museum,” “The Ark,”…).  However, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t a lot of great stories during the Hartnell era.  In terms of the writers of the era, I really don’t think you can go wrong with anything written by John Lucarotti or Dennis Spooner.

Many of my favorite stories are the historicals, with “The Aztecs” being my favorite story of the era, and one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time.  “Reign of Terror” was another interesting historical.  Although “The Crusade” and “The Massacre” are partially and completely lost respectively, they are both compelling stories as well.  One thing that is often done well in the historicals is that since the Doctor and his companions cannot affect the way events will play out, they are surrounded by very interesting characters and often end up in very interesting ethical dilemmas.

When it comes to the more traditional science fiction stories, “The Time Meddler” really stands out. (but I’ll talk more about it in the next section).  “Planet of Giants” is quite enjoyable as well. I know the “Keys of Marinus” seems to be a bit of a love it or hate it story among fans, but I quite enjoyed it.  The idea that each episode takes place in a different location keeps the story moving along. I know many people wouldn’t agree with me, but I think it’s the best of Terry Nation’s stories during the Hartnell era.  I’ve always found Terry Nation’s Dalek stories for Hartnell to have too much filler in them.  They all feel overlong and drag at points, although “The Daleks” is pretty good.  Aside from the fact that Dodo is in it, “The Ark” is underrated and is one of the rare stories that really makes use of the concept of time travel in its plot. One of the most interesting stories in this category is the completely lost “The Savages” which looks at a dystopian world and should be regarded as one of the possible lost classics.

Where to begin:

The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven find a Viking helmet (or is it a helmet for a cow?) in "The Time Meddler."

The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven find a Viking helmet (or is it a helmet for a cow?) in “The Time Meddler.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the Hartnell era and looking for an episode to start with, there are several options.   Obviously, you can’t go wrong with starting at the beginning.  The first episode of “An Unearthly Child” is a perfect start to the show, you just need to be prepared to see a different kind of Doctor than you’re used to seeing. Some people, however, are put off by the remaining three episodes which send the Doctor and his companions back to the days of the cavemen. If you like the historicals, “The Aztecs” is, in my opinion one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, but if you’re looking for a more traditional sci-fi story you might be disappointed. “The Daleks” is also a good place to start, if you want to see the first appearance of the Doctor’s most iconic enemy, although the story itself is a bit too long, in my opinion.

My choice for the best introductory episode, however, would be “The Time Meddler.”  It’s a great story, and the first to use the now familiar formula of the Doctor meeting an alien trying to interfere in Earth’s past.  The Doctor has had plenty of time to mellow, since this episode is in the third season, so he’s more recognizable as the Doctor as we now know him.  The companions are Vicki and Steven, who have a great chemistry and the Meddling Monk is an interesting opponent for the Doctor.

The Doctor with Ben and Polly in "The Tenth Planet"

The Doctor with Ben and Polly in “The Tenth Planet”

When I started watching the Hartnell era, I wasn’t sure I could ever grow to really like his Doctor; he seemed so mean and selfish.  However, Hartnell’s Doctor is the Doctor who grows and changes the most.  Through the influence of his companions, he becomes a much more compassionate individual, although he remains rather cantankerous until the end. By the time I had reached “The Tenth Planet,” I was genuinely sad to see him go.  Despite the differences, his Doctor put into place many of the characteristics that have come to define the Doctor: his curiosity, his intelligence, his loneliness, even his sense of humor.  Now I guess it’s time for me to move into Hartnell’s replacements, “a dandy and a clown,” as the First Doctor himself so memorably said.

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2 responses to “The Hartnell Era: 101

  1. Thanks for posting this, and I agree with just about all your sentiments. Jackie Lane, who played Dodo, definitely got a raw deal, being brought in by one outgoing production team (after being in the running for Susan two years earlier) and then being quickly dumped by the incoming one. Plus, the idea of having a character who didn’t speak in RP was quickly squashed by management, which didn’t leave her anywhere to go as a character. When Virgin Publishing got their hands on her in the mid ’90s, however, they took out a degree of frustration on the character that Ms. Lane certainly didn’t deserve!

  2. ayearwiththedoctor ⋅

    Completely agree with you about “The Keys of Marinus” being Terry Nation’s best contribution to the Hartnell era. And “The Time Meddler” would be my choice as well for someone just starting the show because, like you, I was initially put off by Hartnell’s Doctor. I still suspect he won’t end up being one of my favorites, but after going through all his serials I have to appreciate all he did for the role/character.

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