Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: The Hartnell Years


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: The Hartnell Years

By T. Scott Edwards

William Hartnell is the Doctor. Whilst he may not have been the longest running, and he certainly isn't the most popular in most polls held, he originated the role, bringing his own irascibility and grumpiness, but also his lovability and charm. His wit and sardonic humour radiate from him endlessly, and even in the direst of situations, his "hmm"s and tuts warm my heart.

Of course, he is renowned for his 'Billy fluffs' – invariably at least once an episode, Hartnell can stumble on a line. These are often cited by some as a reason for disliking his portrayal. That said, for a man of his age and in his condition, we can only sit and sigh in awe at the durability of him. Rehearsing almost every week of the year, on a dreadfully tight budget and schedule, Hartnell and his crew managed admirably. Considering his disease, he actually fared surprisingly well – there are bit-part players who fluff as often, despite only having the script for two-four weeks. In the 1960s, as we know, only one take was often allowed – due to time constraints, the show was filmed 'as live', and retakes were only allowed for the most catastrophic of reasons. As such, he endured being dropped on camera cranes, being hit in the face, and any number of terrible things – yet throughout everything, he managed to hide most of this, behind his genius characterisation of the Doctor as a doddery old man.

He is unfairly criticised as being too inactive – all of the 'heavy lifting' was left to his (admittedly more than) capable companions, Ian, Steven and Ben. Certainly, we don't see him prat-falling around like McCoy and Baker, or energetically throwing himself around like Davison, or moving with a nimble, child-like glee like Troughton, or even karate-chopping henchmen like Pertwee. But that doesn't make him any less the Doctor.

We must remember, though, that he is the First. He is the archetype of the character, the originator of many of the character's attributes which we still see today. Without Hartnell (and the Daleks, admittedly) the series may never have run for three years, let alone 49. He took the essence of a character created by writers and made it his own. He actively changed scripts if he thought them inappropriate for the children watching.

What Hartnell does is encapsulate all that later Doctor's embody in one go – he is loveable and miserable, grouchy and snappy, funny and clownish, abrupt and deceitful, all at once. His stories helped in that each script allowed him to bring a new trait to the fore – from the antihero liar of The Daleks to the lovable pragmatist and historical hero of The Aztecs, from moral peace-keeper in The Sensorites to the heroic old man who battles adversity in the face of illness in The Tenth Planet, he managed to create the template which is still being used to this very day. Many unfairly ignore Hartnell, and claim that it was Patrick Troughton who created the role as we now know it, and whilst Troughton is far and away my favourite Doctor, he simply took Hartnell's lead.

The joker of The Romans and The Myth Makers is the ball that Troughton, Tom Baker and early Sylvester McCoy picked up and ran with. The stoic pragmatist and heroic action man of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Tenth Planet is the template upon which Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, David Tennant and Matt Smith modelled themselves on. The unapproachable and aggressive Doctor of An Unearthly Child and The Daleks seems to be the template for Colin Baker's interpretation – admittedly one which should have gone full circle to encapsulate all of his traits rather than just those irascible ones. The darker and more dangerous characteristics of Hartnell's Doctor are the template upon which later McCoy, Christopher Eccleston and later Smith will utilise.

Of course, the series itself had no consistency as such to speak of, so it is unsurprising that there seemed to be little or no consistency to the character or the stories he was involved in. And that is also the crux of what makes Hartnell so great – put him in any era, on any planet and against any foe, and he thrives regardless. In the face of any adversity, he steps forward, a new trait comes out, and he faces the challenge admirably. As each new brush came in, carving a new way with the accompanying production team, the style changed. Whilst later Doctor's eras are renowned for Base Under Siege style drama, or the earth-bound UNIT tales, before settling back into a hotch-potch method like in Hartnell's time, the earliest incarnation thrives on the unknowability of what is around every bend – from historicals to sci-fi, Earth-under-threat to stories of warring factions on desolate planets, there is rarely anything similar. From the quiet, self-contained stories like Marco Polo to the epic sprawling battles of The Daleks' Master Plan, you could never settle down knowing what was coming.

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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