Doctor Who Project: William Hartnell Retrospective

Over twenty-eight stories, spanning three years and four seasons, William Hartnell was not the First Doctor; he was, simply, the Doctor. As such, he played a more significant contemporary role in Doctor Who than his predecessors, if only because the actors who followed were understood to be interchangeable, transient, and ultimately fleeting. Viewers in the mid-’60s, tuning in to the BBC for this show ostensibly pitched to children, had no idea that there would be a Second Doctor, let alone a Twelfth. Hartnell was it.

And, at the end of “The Tenth Planet,” he is gone.

The cliffhanger, with Hartnell’s face dissolving into Patrick Troughton’s, takes place not at the end of a season but at the end of the fourth season’s second story. Only a week of waiting was required for the transition to be explained (and, hopefully, accepted). The change-over did not take place in a media vacuum; viewers knew what was happening behind the scenes even as it occurred, though perhaps not to the extent that William Hartnell had become progressively weaker and, to credit the tales, cantankerous. But all the exposition in the world matters little if the character does not live on in the new actor, and that basic characterization, that ur-Doctor, passed from iteration to iteration, comes from William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor.

So what core attributes derive from Hartnell’s time as the Doctor?

Above all, William Hartnell’s Doctor glides through time and space fundamentally alone. Originally travelling with his granddaughter, Susan, he makes no mention of other family, and indeed, Susan’s provenance remains somewhat murky, to the point where “grandfather” seems more an honorific than a biological title. He rails against being left by companions while not hesitating to lock them out of the TARDIS when he believes it to be in their best interest, usually with a practiced stoicism that suggests he’s left more than one person behind in his indeterminate past. He teeters always on the verge of losing everything and acts with an awareness of this imminent nothingness.

A Pensive Doctor

Some of William Hartnell’s finest moments as the Doctor come when he stands alone, bereft of companions or in the wake of their loss. Granted, story and casting considerations contribute greatly to the procession of companions, but Hartnell imbues each leave-taking with such meaning as to turn real world exigencies into a fundamental component of the character. (Well, except for Dodo, but, without slighting Jackie Lane, the character never gained much traction and was jettisoned for a more Mod version of herself) Even the death of pseudo-companion Katarina, who worships the Doctor as a deity and serves mostly as a plot device, becomes meaningful beyond Terry Nation’s intent in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” thanks to Hartnell’s reaction, transforming her from bit player and comic relief to valued soul.

Somewhat in contrast to this infinite care for individual life, Hartnell’s Doctor also holds fast to a desire not to interfere with fixed moments in time. Depending on the writer, the First Doctor does at times flout this conviction (and then some), but when he is called upon to uphold the integrity of history as he understands it, Hartnell brings forth rather bravura performances, most notably in “The Aztecs” and “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” both written by master of the historicals John Lucarotti. At the very least, one can assert that events which the Doctor knows as History are sacrosanct for him. With the Historical stories soon to be phased out, the question of altering the timeline will drift from focus, but Hartnell’s Doctor addresses the issue quite squarely.

The Doctor never becomes an action hero as portrayed by Hartnell, in keeping with a very determined pacifistic streak. Though not entirely opposed to violence when other avenues have failed—he wields a mean cane at times—he nevertheless prefers to consider other alternatives, including running away. Terry Nation builds an entire, rather overwrought story around the very concept of the Doctor fleeing in “The Chase,” which is notable mostly for the appearance of the Beatles, the departure of Ian and Susan, and the arrival of Steven.

Indeed, it is usually up to Ian, Steven, and later Ben to fill the action hero role, biffing the baddies when needed. Ian and Steven represent the last adult male companions the Doctor will ever have; by the time Ben comes on the scene, it’s young men and mostly-young women for forty-seven years straight. Hartnell’s Doctor could, in his age and dignity, hold his own with Ian and Steven. They certainly fought, but the Doctor maintained effective leadership in spite of the challenge from the other adult men on the show.

The Doctor and Ian

That dignity serves the Doctor well, and while not above joking (see “The Space Museum” and the hollow Dalek gag), Hartnell’s Doctor essentially plays it straight, solemn, and serious; and Hartnell does serious very well. He only becomes slightly mischievous when there’s knowledge to be ferreted out. Very early on, Hartnell’s Doctor contrives to explore the Dalek city by pretending the TARDIS needs repairs, and he almost becomes victim of a mental trap that plays on his desire for learning while seeking out “The Keys of Marinus.”


Hartnell’s twenty-eight stories vary in quality. The stories written by those people close to the production (John Lucarotti, Dennis Spooner, David Whitaker) tend to use the Doctor and his companions best, with an understanding of their motives and purpose, and as such, their efforts lead to some of Hartnell’s finest performances. The one-off writers, and, sadly, Terry Nation after the first Dalek story, serve up tales that use the Doctor as set dressing while pushing some other concept, leading to less successful stories and, not coincidentally, performances. Of “Planet of Giants,” “The Chase,” and “The Celestial Toymaker,” the less said, the better.

For me, the stand-out story of Hartnell’s era has to be John Lucarotti’s “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” for its careful assessment of the real dangers of time travel. The Doctor prevents Steven from rescuing a woman from the mobs in Paris during the massacre, and Steven’s palpable anger at the Doctor resonates quite strongly. The Doctor is, momentarily, alone, after Steven storms out of the TARDIS once they’ve landed elsewhere. The Doctor is barely even in the story, Hartnell playing another character for two episodes, and yet the story stands as one of his finest performances in the series, allowing me to begrudgingly accept the tacked-on ending where the descendant of the woman they left to the mobs (Dodo Chaplet) runs into the TARDIS, proving that she survived despite their non-intervention. No other actor in the series could have pulled off this story with quite such aplomb and dignity.

Hartnell’s sterling performance as the Abbot of Amboise in that story also points out the extent to which his forgetful, Billy-Fluff-full, tongue-tied Doctor is party an act. Stories differ on the degree of Hartnell’s difficulty with the admittedly obtuse speeches the Doctor is occasioned to deliver, but as the Abbot, his delivery is rock solid and forceful.

William Hartnell as the Doctor

I choose to remember William Hartnell’s Doctor as standing in the shadow of the Pyramids near the end of “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” cane from “Marco Polo” in hand, the Daleks soon to be defeated (again), looking towards the future, fully aware of the past.

Post 30 of the Doctor Who Project

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