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Doctor Who Essentials #1: William Hartnell

With the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who approaching in November, Need Coffee Dot Com celebrates the legacy of the show by examining all Eleven Doctors. Every Doctor will be profiled (one each month) as part of the series.

At the end of each overview is a recommended list of commercially available DVD titles from that particular Doctor. For the sake of simplicity only complete stories will be considered.

William Hartnell as The Doctor in the TARDI


When William Hartnell died at the age of 67, he left behind an intriguing legacy. On one hand he was respected family man and a famous character actor who would go on to become a popular culture icon as The First Doctor in Doctor Who. On the other hand, there have been countless stories that the actor was a prickly fellow on and off the set. When filming Hartnell was known as a control freak notorious for clashing with writers, producers and directors. He took his role as The Doctor seriously and set high performance standards for himself and the creative team around him.

[ad#longpost]His co-stars in the TARDIS have provided some keen insight into his character as well. William Russell, Peter Purves, Maureen O’Brien and Carole Ann Ford speak of him warmly. To them he was a paternal figure who looked after their best interests and offered guidance on developing their careers.

However this image gets a bit tarnished when you consider Jacqueline Hill, Nicholas Courtney, Michael Craze and Anneke Wills have made comments over the years to the contrary. They all stated at various times that Hartnell was a bit “conservative,” so to speak, in his views.

However all of this can be washed over if you take William Hartnell on face value as a performer. There is no doubt that his career on stage, television and films was remarkable. He was a trained, working actor who believed that the craft of acting was important as a profession. He also believed in mentoring young performers coming up the ranks. Hartnell was known to have a ferocious work ethic on set, demanding the best performance possible from himself and his co-stars.

But the fame and accolades that befell Hartnell after that fateful November of 1963 did not come easy. By the time he was catapulted to fame by Doctor Who he had endured a very rough and difficult life.

Young William Hartnell
Young Hartnell

He was born in St. Pancras, London on January 8th of 1908 to an unwed mother. She helped raise him along with his aunt Bessie who served as a foster mother. This undoubtedly left an emotional scar upon him. Coming from the slums of London meant that young Bill was in frequent trouble. His teenage years were marked with reckless behavior and undisciplined hooliganism. Although he grew up on the rough streets of London he did manage to get away to Devon with his aunt Bessie and her family. While in Devon he learned to ride horses–a passion he enjoyed his entire life.

In his late teens, Hartnell worked hard to stay out of trouble, taking up boxing at a London youth club as an escape from the streets. In boxing, Hartnell had an opportunity to learn discipline, release his anger and curb his restless nature.

Boxing at a local boys club enabled Hartnell to cross paths with someone who would change his life: the art collector, artist and writer Hugh Blaker. Blaker took Hartnell under his wing. Over time, Blaker and Hartnell formed a bond with Blaker filling in as a father figure for Hartnell. Blaker become Hartnell’s legal guardian in 1924 and trained him to be a jockey.

Blaker loved live theater and this passion rubbed off on an impressionable Bill Hartnell who decided that he wanted to pursue a career as actor. The well-connected Blaker called in some favors and got Hartnell accepted to the Italia Contia Academy of Theatre Arts. Blaker arranged for him to receive some extra lessons at the prestigious Imperial Service College. The school had a reputation for being a tough place to learn drama. Maybe this is why many of his bad habits reared their ugly head again when Hartnell left the school.

In 1925 he got a job as a stagehand, which eventually landed him a role in the stage production of Miss Elizabeth’s Prisoner. It was here where he met the love of his life, the actress Heather McIntyre, whom he married n 1926. In 1930, he appeared in School for Scandal and Say It With Music. In 1932 he was in The Lure, I’m An Explosive–and Follow The Lady in 1933. 1934 saw him in starring in Seeing is Believing with Faith Bennett. His career was taking off.

But by 1942, Hartnell was in trouble again. He was cast in Noel Coward’s war film, In Which We Serve, but blew a golden opportunity when he arrived late to the set for the first day of filming. This drew the wrath of Coward, who tore into him mercilessly while the entire the cast and crew watched. A humiliated Hartnell apologized personally to each member of the company. Nonetheless, Coward still fired him.

One year later Hartnell’s luck got a bit brighter when he was cast in he lead in Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead. He was well received in it and a stream of bit parts and supporting roles followed. He did carry his weight as a leading actor, starring in 1944’s The Agitator.

William Hartnell from The Way Ahead
Hartnell in The Way Ahead (1944)

During World War Two, William Hartnell served in the British Royal Tank Regiment. The rigors of military service took a toll on Hartnell, who after a year and half of service suffered a nervous breakdown. Discharged from the military, he found himself again working as a professional actor.

Upon returning to the business, Hartnell often found being offered similar parts. He always seemed to wind up playing a heavy, be it soldier or cop. It was steady work but William Hartnell wanted bigger things. In 1958 he was cast in Carry On Sergeant. He joined the great Peter Sellers in 1959 in The Mouse That Roared and again in 1963’s Heavens Above. That same year he portrayed Dad Johnson in Richard Harris‘ first film, This Sporting Life.

His performance in that film got the attention of a young BBC producer named Verity Lambert, who developing a children’s program named Doctor Who. When it was time for casting she offered Hartnell the lead in the new show. The veteran actor was tentative at first but accepted the role, not knowing that it would be the part of a lifetime.

Playing The Doctor was a refreshing event for Hartnell. He was popular, he escaped the typecasting that relegated him to supporting roles for decades and he had some power over production decisions.

William Hartnell as The First Doctor in Doctor Who

The First Doctor was an enigma. He was a tempestuous, aloof and mysterious traveler in time and space. But he also was a crusader who believed in fighting evil at all costs while preserving the eventualities of recorded history. He also was combatative and infuriatingly stubborn.

William Hartnell had the luxury of creating multiple aspects to the character. As a result, The First Doctor is a complex hero whose curiosity almost always got the better of him. Some of his own life experiences were incorporated into the role. The Doctor was disciplined and serious. He also used the TARDIS as a means to satisfy his desire for escapism. Hartnell’s portrayal led us to believe that The Doctor was indeed a man on the run.

As the First Doctor would discover, traveling in time and space is dangerous. There were Monoids, Sensorites, The Meddling Monk, The Celestial Toymaker and ongoing battles with The Daleks to contend with. The death of Sara Kingdom in The Dalek Master Plan brought these dangers to the forefront on the small screen.

From 1963 to 1966, William Hartwell brought an atmosphere of privacy to the character that still remains a vital component of the show today. With each story The Doctor became more and more of mystery to those he came in contact with. The icy demeanor first exhibited in this premiere season was gradually rubbed down and reshaped into a more grandfatherly figure. The Doctor was still strong willed, but as time passed he became less insufferable. Hartnell made the character likeable by gradually opening him up to the strangers he traveled with.

William Hartnell as The First Doctor from Doctor Who, in front of the TARDIS

Hartnell loved the fame the role gave him. He loved the personal appearances and opportunities to meet the fans of the show. While many critics were surprised by the success of Doctor Who, Hartnell’s confidence never wavered. He was very proud of Doctor Who and worked hard to make it a success. He almost willed into being so by his faith in the show and his supporting cast.

It may seem like hindsight now, but I just knew that Doctor Who was going to be an enormous success. Don’t ask me how. Not everybody thought as I did. I was universally scoffed at for my initial faith in the series, but I believed in it. It was magical.

It is said that William Hartnell left Doctor Who in 1966 for health reasons. This is a bone of contention since there are claims that Hartnell was forced out of the TARDIS by a change of attitude within the production team. Thus, by the start of his third season it was obvious that some sort of change was in the air. As the season went on the situation became tenser as Hartnell had a harder time remembering his lines and keeping pace with the fast production schedule. It is true that his health had deteriorated gradually over the last two years. Whether this was exaggerated to push him out no one can say for sure.

What we do know it that he carried on doing the show as best as possible–even to the point of exhaustion–until he vacated the role at the end of The Tenth Planet. It was a sad time because he would never again star as The Doctor on his own. Hartnell was heartbroken to leave the show.

A few years later he did reflect on his time in the TARDIS:

We did Doctor Who for forty-eight weeks a year but I loved it. I couldn’t go out into the street without a bunch of children following me, like the Pied Piper. People used to take it terribly seriously. I’d get letters from boys swotting for exams, asking me complicated questions about time ratios and the TARDIS. I couldn’t help them. A lot of the scriptwriters used to make The Doctor use expressions like “centrifugal force” but I refused. If it gets too technical, the children don’t understand and they lose interest. I saw The Doctor as a kind of lama, one of those long-lived old boys out in Tibet who might be anything up to eight hundred years old but only look seventy-five.

Ill health limited his face time in tenth anniversary special, The Three Doctors. He was originally slated for a larger part in the special but he was in and out of lucid moments. As a result he filmed all of his part in a day session while sitting down in a chair and being recorded. Tt was his last appearance. He died on April 23rd, 1975. He was just 67.

William Hartnell

Essential Viewing

Here are five complete First Doctor stories that you should watch to get a feel for Hartnell’s Doctor. These stories also go a long way towards setting the tone and feel of that era.

An Unearthly Child

This is the very first episode of Doctor Who from 1963. It sets up a lot of the things that we have come to know five decades later. Episode One sets the table for a full adventure in prehistoric times. (In this case, it’s acceptable to watch just Episode One to get the basics. Episodes 2-4 do drag a bit.) (Available on DVD from Amazon. But pricey.)

The Keys Of Marinus

This six parter from 1964 sees The Doctor and his companions at risk from a monster in a wet suit. Actually it is the Voord and they were hoped to be very scary. The Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara must save Marinus after The Conscience of Marinus–a computer developed two millennia earlier as sort of justice machine–is compromised by The Voord. To save the day the travelers must traipse all over Marinus to collect the five keys required to make the thing work right again.

It’s an inventive plot that takes a really bad set and runs with it. It is well written with interesting characters and some inventive ideas. Its ideas that things could go south with computers and technology is surprisingly accurate upon hindsight. The plot also means the cast gets to change sets and move around a bit more, which was refreshing. For 1964, it was bold and ambitious. (Available on DVD from Amazon.)

The Aztecs

Also from Season One, this is the second historical story of that year. The TARDIS crew face ethical issues and blood sacrifices in fifteenth century Mexico. It is a great story for Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) since she has many clashes with the Doctor over changing history and saving lives after she finds herself in a position of power whereby she can end human sacrifice…and the morality battle begins.

This is a very good story with lots of philosophical elements. The Doctor’s ideas about meddling in time are cemented further here and we are introduced to the idea of fixed points in time that we would see so much in the rebooted show. The entire cast is great in it and this is one of their best ensemble pieces. Hartnell is in fine form and settling comfortably into the role. (Available on DVD from Amazon.)

The Chase

The idea of going from place to place on some sort of quest that worked in The Keys of Marinus is recycled here but with the added elements of the Daleks and time travel. The Doctor is faced with loads of trouble when he learns they are being chased through time and space by The Daleks. From a jungle planet to the Empire State Building, our heroes must outwit The Daleks at every turn in order to live. The Chase is an attempt at a bold space epic, a theme used later in The Dalek Masterplan. This is a fun story fused with both comedy and sci-fi. We discover a bit more about The Doctor and The Beatles make an appearance. (Available on DVD from Amazon.)

The Time Meddler

Season Two closes out with the Doctor meeting one of his own kind, The Monk, in 1066 on the eve of The Battle of Hastings. The Monk likes to tamper with historical accuracy to his own end and The Doctor will simply not have it. Peter Butterworth plays The Monk and he is amazing. This classically trained comedic actor is arguably the best of the First Doctor guest stars and his character’s arrival really does open the show up by allowing us to wonder even more about just who The Doctor is and where he comes from. It is also the first time we learn that there are other people out there with a TARDIS of their very own. The Time Meddler also cleverly juggles the two main facets of the program–traveling in time and space–and meshes them into one story. (Available on DVD from Amazon.)

Young Hartnell image. Way Ahead image.

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