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William Hartnell as the First Doctor
William Hartnell as the First Doctor

Note: we’ll be covering all eleven Doctors over the following eleven months, ending with the Eleventh Doctor in time for the big 5-0 in November. 

Make no mistake, for all that the early years of Doctor Who occasionally look a little less sophisticated than the show does now, for all that the stories sometimes take their time to be told and perhaps betray the technology with which they were made, the only reason there is a Doctor Who to talk about today is down to William Hartnell’s portrayal of the First Doctor.

Back then, of course, he was just the Doctor. A flinty old man with a sharp tongue and the demeanor of an eccentric scientist that had been standing too close to dangerous chemicals for too long, but an unmistakeable zest for new experiences. Kind eyes too, and a propensity to call people “my boy” or “child” in a patrician, affectionate manner. Whatever situation the First Doctor finds himself in, whether faced with this new peril called a Dalek or being shrunk to a tiny size, he’s always the root of authority in the room. And sometimes this causes him more trouble than it’s worth.

Subsequent Doctors will have had to replicate this model of leadership by acting the clown, sneering from behind a ruffled shirt, long scarf or celery stick; or, as is more common these days, by being the most talkative and eccentric person in the room. The First Doctor was different. He had the same quality you’d see in a Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi. Not much use in the running down corridors stakes (although he had his moments), but always able to see the crucial detail everyone else missed, deft with the solutions, and quick to form a strong moral judgement, while all the time appearing to be a little doddery and frail.

Or to put it another way, he’s the only Doctor who has the demeanor of a physician. He has gravitas. He knows things. When they made The Three Doctors, the story where Three meets Two in the flesh and they immediately start bickering, it’s the First Doctor that puts them in their place, through a TV screen. He calls Three a dandy and Two a clown, and shuts them up immediately.

No other Doctor since could have quelled his own rebellious selves as effectively, with the possible exception of Nine. And you have to conclude that part of the reason these two sing out as being uniquely authoritative is that their history is unknown to us, the viewers. Most of the Time Lord, Gallifrey, two hearts stuff that we now accept as being intrinsic to Doctor Who was fairly embryonic during the First Doctor’s tenure, if it even existed at all. Viewers accepted that here was a man that had seen some things, and had good reason to keep himself to himself.

Similarly, when Nine first appears, his absence – the Time War – is as much a part of his character as his presence. The other Doctors, while bringing all sorts of different and brilliant elements to the character, have their past rooted in the history of the TV show Doctor Who, which we’ve all seen, and carry the conventions of that show with them like luggage packed by the show’s fans. The First Doctor’s luggage is unknown, and yet clearly his wisdom comes from hard-won experience. It’s written all over his face.

And that’s all down to William Hartnell. He’s the reason there was a mania for Doctor Who right from the very first story. He made it perfectly normal that they’d all be traveling around in a defunct telephone box, because the TARDIS was under camouflage in a junk yard. He made it normal that his machine sometimes didn’t work, mad scientist that he is. He dressed like a man out of time because he was an old man and it was 1963. That Edwardian frock coat, while definitely old hat, would have come from his youth (if he’d been human in the first place).

Put a different actor in the same get-up – say, Peter Cushing in the batty Dalek movies from the ’60s – and you lose that gravitas, and suddenly the Doctor is reduced to being a daft old man with a funny time machine. And while he sometimes IS a daft man with time machine even now, the fact that we know that’s just a pose comes from the immense weight of authority with which the First Doctor strides about.

A Companion To The Doctor’s Companions: Susan Foreman

Life Outside The TARDIS: William Hartnell

BBC America will present The Aztecs on Sunday, January 27 at 9pm/8c as part of Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited featuring commentary from special guests David Tennant, Neil Gaiman, Steven Moffat, and more!

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By Fraser McAlpine