Sunday, June 16, 2013

The First Doctor Era: A Summary

The First Doctor (William Hartnell)
At the close of each Doctor's respective era, I'll be taking a look at their time in the TARDIS, focusing specifically on their performance as the Doctor and on all the things I loved or hated about their time. I'll be ending each of these summaries with my picks for the five best stories, as well as the three worst. This is obviously going to be completely subjective and more informal than my critical analyses, so feel free to leave some comments raging at my stupidity or praising my acumen!

When you look at polls asking people to name their favourite Doctors, you're not going to see William Hartnell top the list. In fact, he'll more likely be near the very bottom, often accompanied by Colin Baker, which is notable in that Baker is the only subsequent Doctor that I've ever heard mention he based part of his interpretation on Hartnell's Doctor.

Why is this? Why is the Hartnell era frequently the least loved by fans and almost unseen by casual viewers?

First, the era in which the series was produced is far, far removed from our modern one. These stories are now half a century old, and television and indeed storytelling in general has changed significantly. The pacing in the best of Hartnell's stories is leisurely by our standards, and in the worst ones it can be downright glacial. That in and of itself can put off even dedicated fans.

But if you can put aside 21st century expectations and let the stories themselves take over, watching the Hartnell episodes reveal their own unique pleasures. I was surprised at how enjoyable watching (or for the missing stories, listening to) these stories were. Most of that was due to the variety of the stories themselves. In no subsequent era would the series offer such a wide differentiation of style and tone. Part of this was undoubtedly because the series was still testing the limits of what it could be, trying to find the core ideal of what a Doctor Who story was. But that wasn't the entire reason. Once The Daleks aired, it became pretty clear what type of story best showcased the series, but the production teams continued to experiment. It didn't always work, but at least they tried. When I move on to the Troughton era, when the production team thought they had figured out the perfect Doctor Who "formula" and just repeated it, I expect I'll be wistful for the constant experimentation of the Hartnell years.

Ian (William Russell), the Doctor, Barbara (Jacqueline Hill),
Susan (Carole Ann Ford)
What about the Doctor himself? I think it's fair to say that we will never see him played the way Hartnell played him ever again. That's largely due to my belief that we'll never see this old an actor play the part again. But while there's much to enjoy about Hartnell's performance, I never found it warm. Reportedly, Hartnell never saw the Doctor as a scientist, he thought of him as a wizard. Once you know that, his combination of befuddlement, wily craftiness, and stern authority makes sense. However, I'd never describe his performance as warm. And I wouldn't call the First Doctor kindly either. Grumpy is a good word. Eccentric, certainly. There's a sense of humour to the performance as well, but it's more batty and kooky than warm and witty. He's a prickly character, and that makes it hard for me to love him. I've heard some fans describe him as grandfatherly, but I don't know that I'd want him for a grandfather, necessarily! He's too tetchy, too impatient.  All this serves to make him a complicated, interesting, unpredictable figure, but not one that's as easy for me to embrace as later Doctors.

When I watched the historicals, particularly the comedic ones, this view softened a bit. Hartnell clearly enjoyed those stories the best, and it's here where I thought he shined brightest. He seemed to enjoy playing up the wily trickster aspects of the Doctor here, and I do wish he had more opportunities to bring this into the role. I would never ever call his performance bad, and indeed there are many moments throughout his run that I thought he was brilliant. It's simply that his vision of the Doctor is not one that breeds affection in my case.

I can say that I love the variation of his era, the way that one felt that Doctor Who could tell any kind of story and that aspect was one of the central things that made the show so amazing. But I can’t say that I find the Doctor as engaging a presence as he would be for me in subsequent eras. Again, this is not to say Hartnell's performance is bad, it's just a vision of the lead role that doesn't quite click for me. I can appreciate him intellectually, but the First Doctor never quite worked his way into my heart.

Next, we jump in the Second Doctor's era with The Power of the Daleks!

Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), the Doctor, Steven (Peter Purves)

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