As a way of introduction, let me just say that this blog isn't going to be an in-depth analysis of The William Hartnell era. Or a detailed breakdown of the issues around production. This is just my personal analysis of the era. If you want detail then there are many other sources, from Howe-Stammers-Walker's excellent Doctor Who-The Sixties, biographies, and autobiographies of various stars and series like About Time and The TARDIS Eruditorum.
I have, in fact, already written two articles about the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. The first for the Terrible Zodin fanzine and the second for Starburst Magazine so this is my third attempt and hopefully won't be too repetitive, although I can't promise that.
The obvious thing to note about Hartnell is that he wasn't really the First Doctor. He was just THE Doctor. Until those final moments of The Tenth Planet, there were no other Doctors to compare him to. He was the one and only. It's easy from the standpoint of 2016 to assume The First Doctor is The Doctor: the first incarnation of a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey with his two hearts and respiratory by-pass system. That he's part of a powerful and ancient civilisation, but that's obviously not the case.
In An Unearthly Child, you can't even be entirely sure he isn't human. There's no mention of two hearts. Susan says she invented the name TARDIS. There's no Gallifrey (until The Time Warrior), there's no powerful civilisation until The War Games but with the introduction of The Monk in The Time Meddler, we do discover that the Doctor is not alone. I suppose none of this matters except that Hartnell's Doctor isn't the Doctor we now know until almost the end of his time. He's certainly not keen to interfere unless he has to. He's cautious to the point of cruelty - The Massacre - about interfering in Earth's history.
Indeed right at the beginning he's almost an anti-hero but it is Ian and Barbara that gradually seem to draw him out into the light and by the time we get to The Smugglers the Doctor is refusing to leave a small Cornish village because he feels they owe it a duty of care - to steal a line from the Capaldi era.
Hartnell's performance itself is often more nuanced that he's given credit for. The talk of 'Billy fluffs' and his little ticks - the umms & ahs - reduced an excellent performance down to something of a joke. The thing is, based on the way television was made then, it is actually incredibly that there aren't more fluffs and when those little ticks are part of the way he plays the Doctor. I think we tend to assume that Hartnell was an old man at this point but he was 57 when he took on the part. The ticks are his way of showing the Doctor's age. It's a performance choice. It gets dangerously close to self-parody on occasions but only in the same way that Pertwee's neck rubs do.
Hartnell is a good actor supported by able actors as companions and I think he and his era are constantly overlooked. Hartnell often comes low down in the list of best Doctors and whilst I'm not all Colin Baker about these lists I think it is unfair. It's Hartnell after all that creates the Doctor. Everyone else builds on the strength of that initial performance. I think he suffers too from not being the Doctor in the accepted modern sense. He's more distant, sharper and occasionally annoyingly like a toddler when he won't get his own way but then modern Doctor can be like that too. After all, "What's the point in being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes." Hartnell's Doctor is less sympathetic - initially especially - than later incarnations but that's because he's meant to be a mystery. We're not sure whether we're supposed to trust him. In some ways, it isn't the Doctor who is the star of Doctor Who it is Ian and Barbara. It is them we're following. It is them we are supposed to sympathise with. The Doctor is a mysterious figure lurking in the background. It is to Hartnell's credit that this initial portrayal moves nearer to the Doctor we now know as time goes by without losing his alien inner core.
There are issues with the First Doctor's era in terms of pacing and direction but that's the way television was then. If you're going to dip in don't binge watch it - unless you really, really want to. Watch an episode or two a day. Wollow in it. I found that watching it in order helps you get used to the pacing and structure. You get into the rhythm of it.
You also get to meet some of Doctor Who's best companions: Barbara, Ian, Vicki, Steven, Ben and Polly (although I think of them more as Second Doctor companions than first.) Excellent actors who set the standard for companions that will follow.
The Hartnell era also tries everything. Initially - with its pseudo-educational remit - the series seemed to alternate historical stories with science-fiction but gradually the science-fiction stories begin to nudge out the historicals. The historicals often stand-up the best from a production values point of view because nothing ages faster than science-fiction but the straight historicals aren't always seen as the most interesting. I'm biased on this. I'm a historian (or at least I like to think of myself as one) so I adore historicals because I like to dig around and find out how accurate the stories are, which is often not very. So my Top Hartnell stories list might be a bit skewed towards historicals.
But I love the fact that they try everything and pull stories together from all sorts of places. The Hartnell era is ambitious because they're still not quite sure what kind of television series they're making. So you can have The Web Planet and The War Machines, The Gunfighters and The Daleks Master Plan. There's no formula just dump the TARDIS in a situation/genre and let things roll.
Here is my Top Ten Hartnell's based on my arbitrary scoring system*. The Romans is top with 9/10. The other nine are 8/10.
An Unearthly Child
The Web Planet
The Time Meddler
The Myth Makers
The Dalek's Master Plan
The War Machines
So please if you've not watched any Hartnell stories then do so. You'll enjoy it. I wouldn't necessarily want to force you into watching the whole era in order but I don't think you'd go wrong if you started with either The Time Meddler or The War Machines as tasters. They are, I think, the Hartnell stories nearest to new Doctor Who. Or begin with An Unearthly Child, whose first episode is genuinely one of the best pieces of television ever made. I like the whole story but others will tell you otherwise.
The key thing is do it your own way and don't let 'fan wisdom' tell you what to like and what not to like. You'll find your own path like me. I'm lucky - I think - in that I can find something to enjoy in every Doctor Who story. Even stories I don't like have moments. And it's meant to be fun. Not homework.
But please if you have dipped in give the Hartnell era a go. You might find it more fun than you think.
*For those who might be interest below is my utterly arbitrary scores for the whole Hartnell era:
|An Unearthly Child||8|
|The Edge of Destruction||6|
|The Keys of Marinus||5|
|The Reign of Terror||5|
|Planet of Giants||4|
|The Dalek Invasion of Earth||5|
|The Web Planet||8|
|The Space Museum||4|
|The Time Meddler||8|
|Mission to the Unknown||6|
|The Myth Makers||8|
|The Daleks' Master Plan||8|
|The Celestial Toymaker||3|
|The War Machines||8|
|The Tenth Planet||7|