Back in 1963, Doctor Who was a very different show. Nowadays it’s frenetic, showy, loud-in-a-good-way. Back in the day… Well, it was a sixties TV drama aimed at educating children. Sure, there are common elements – it’s still a show about running away – but it was a whole different world back then.
Nowadays, the role of the Doctor seems tailor made for a younger actor – it’s a leading man part, with plenty of action and romance, both unrequited and, well, requited. Back in ’63, this wasn’t the case, and so the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell (who was born on this day in 1908) was an altogether more ambiguous figure – in the first few episodes, you find yourself wondering if he’s even a good guy. Bad tempered, superior, occasionally amoral (at one point he looks capable of murdering an injured caveman in cold blood, largely out of convenience), Hartnell’s is the ‘difficult’ Doctor. This is compounded by reports that some of the actor’s attitudes were, well, bigoted. I’m a long-term Doctor Who fan, but I’ll admit it, I sometimes prefer to focus on the Second Doctor onwards.
That was before I read the fantastic TARDIS Eruditorum blog, which points out the obvious – the First Doctor isn’t really a hero simply because he hasn’t yet learned how to be one – he’s more concerned with his own safety and that of his granddaughter and hang the consequences. Suddenly the whole thing ‘fits’ a bit easier.
Hartnell died in 1975 – by that point, Tom Baker was running around, owning the screen as the Fourth Doctor. And yet despite the radical changes that occurred in the show between those eras, and all those that have come since, it cannot be denied that we owe William Hartnell a tremendous debt of gratitude. He paved the way for everyone who followed – it seems an incongruous word to use in context, but he was a trailblazer, and nowadays, when Matt Smith emphasises that the 11th Doctor is an old man in a young man’s body, you can see the First Doctor looking out of his eyes.
The Doctor is always running, but it was William Hartnell that took the first step. The toys, the posters, the exhibitions and concerts, all started with him. On what would have been his 104th birthday, I think that’s worth remembering.
Happy birthday, Mr. Hartnell.