What’s remarkable about William Hartnell’s interpretation of the Doctor is how much of a lasting foundation it has been, after so many decades and quite a few seismic shifts in culture. Hartnell’s Doctor is an eccentric with an insatiable curiosity and willingness (if not eagerness) to meddle in anything and with anyone; who has a strong anti-authoritarian streak that drives him to talk back to tyrants, petty or powerful, and be personally, passionately outraged by any injustice, no matter how small or “necessary”; and who manages to be both inhumanly detached from events and yet endlessly compassionate, especially to the precious few individuals he deeply respects. With maybe a few quibbles, this broad description is as true for the very first incarnation of the Doctor as it is for the Doctors of this millennium. The lasting appeal of the Doctor rises from what a strong core the character has in spite of passing from writer to writer and actor to actor, and that core is, I think, largely the handiwork of Hartnell himself. Maybe the First Doctor was a crabbier and more sharp-tongued Doctor than what modern audiences weaned on the 2005 series would expect (although he certainly lightened up after the earliest scenes), but Hartnell’s description of the Doctor as “a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas” (with a little mild forgetfulness thrown in) still rings true.
It’s really quite unfair that the Hartnell stories once in a while get a bad rep as the “slow” and “goofy” (as if “Doctor Who” suddenly became a more “serious” sci-fi endeavor sometime in the ’70s) era of the show. In the same vein as the unchanging Doctor, the First Doctor era really isn’t all that disconnected from what the contemporary version of the show. For example, “The Dalek Invasion of the Earth” and “The Tenth Planet,” in their odd and aggressive mixture of bleak writing with unashamedly campy sci-fi adventure, seem to belong in the same category as the alien invasion epics Russell T. Davies used to drag out of the well so often. However, the First Doctor differed from many of his successors by being more of a traveler than a hero or a protector. I don’t know if it’s a result of Hartnell being physically limited from a more direct role in the action-oriented stories or of the tone he set for the Doctor (personally I believe it’s a little of both, with more of the latter), but either way it often seems like he doesn’t quite fit in the more kinetic serials. This Doctor finds trouble by poking around in the strange places he investigates, which is true for even “The Dalek Invasion of the Earth”, rather than rushes to face it head-on like Pewtree or Tenant’s Doctors will.
So it’s no surprise that the strongest episodes of the First Doctor era are considered to be the historicals, or at least the earlier historicals. On the whole, they tend to exhibit stronger and more ambitious writing, more sharply defined characters even among the day-players, and more three-dimensional backgrounds. Perhaps the historicals declined because the showrunners quickly ran out of ideas of how to force the Doctor and his companions into sticky, history book-friendly scenarios, but honestly overall the show never found its footing again after the departures of Susan and then Ian and Barbara. After “The Chase,” there were arguably three attempts to seriously revamp the show, with companions having very short stays on the TARDIS. That’s not to say that there are no good or at least entertaining serials following “The Chase,” but it was definitely a classic case of creative chaos and uncertainty behind the scenes seeping into the screen. I’ve seen one casual reviewer suggest that fans should consider the First Doctor era as only consisting of the Doctor-Susan-Ian-Barbara crew. If that didn’t leave out my favorite serial from the entire era, “The Time Meddler,” I’d be tempted to agree with them.
Must Sees/Best Introductions to the Era
The Time Meddler – This list is in no particular order, except for this serial. It’s simply Hartnell at his best, playing off against the goofy mastermind that is the Meddling Monk (that he never became more of a recurring enemy I consider to be the greatest missed opportunity in the history of the show). It’s one of the very, very few serials from the era that actually builds on the Doctor’s backstory as well as one of the relative few where the Doctor is really allowed to get involved in the plot without relying almost entirely on his companions. Plus, just by being the first “pseudo-historical,” it lays quite a bit of groundwork for the show’s future, but at the same time it captures what made Hartnell’s tenure unique and enjoyable. I can’t recommend this enough for anyone even slightly interested in the First Doctor.
The Aztecs – Arguably the strongest of the historicals, it does at least exemplify the thoughtful writing that characterized the early First Doctor era. Besides an interesting backdrop and a genuinely complex plot, the serial confronts one of the most basic and yet most interesting hypothetical issues raised by time travel in a way that highlights Barbara and, in a way, places the viewer in her shoes.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth – It definitely has some flaws; it drags out a bit too long in parts and the surprising darkness and realism in the serial’s post-apocalyptic scenario are undercut by the sheer goofiness of what the Daleks are planning, but it still stands as the ultimate rebuke to anyone who assumes that Hartnell’s stories would be dull or completely childish.
The Web Planet – This is where I get controversial. Maybe “must see” isn’t right for this phrase, but I just can’t leave this weird, off-key, and gloriously overambitious serial unmentioned. Do give it a shot, but at least watch The Time Meddler first.
Road Work Overseer: I suppose you must think you’re very clever.
The Doctor: Well, without any undue modesty, yes! (The Reign of Terror)
What are you doing here?!
…and Last Words
The Doctor: It’s over, it’s all over. That’s what you said. No, but it isn’t all over. It’s far from being all over! […] I must get back to the TARDIS…immediately! […] I must go now.
Ben: Don’t you want to go back and say goodbye or anything?
Doctor: No, no, I must go at once.
Ben (handing the Doctor his cloak): Oh well. Better wear this or you’ll catch your death of cold.
Doctor: Oh yes. I forgot…keep warm.