Doctor Who: The Strange Legacy of The First Doctor and William Hartnell
Doctor Who turns 50 years old on November 23 of this year, and a massive television special is both in preparation and being kept extremely under wraps. The rumor right now is the Steven Moffat has finished a script that will include all 11 incarnations of the Time Lord. The three Doctors who have passed on, William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee, will apparently return through some sort of cinematic trickery. Hey, if some guy on YouTube can insert One, Two, Four, and Ten into Phantom Menace I'm sure the BBC can pull it off.
Aside from all the hoopla around the special itself, there is another amazing bit of television that we can look forward to. The origin of the show will be explored in a docudrama call An Adventure in Space and Time. Writer Mark Gattis has been trying to get such a project off the ground since before the series celebrated its 40th anniversary, and now it's coming to fruition with David Bradley in the role of William Hartnell and the First Doctor.
It's an interesting story, and certainly not one that anyone could have expected to led where it has half a century later. In 1963 the BBC had its first female producer, Verity Lambert. It was she who convinced an aging William Hartnell, then known for playing gruff military officers and thugs, to take on the role that he would make one of the most iconic in television history. As he said himself in "The Sensorites," "It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it's turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure."
Even though he was the First, in many ways Hartnell's Doctor is the incarnation we know the least about. A definitive history of The Doctor from his birth on Gallifrey to the moment we meet him, aged around 200 years old in 1963, remains shrouded in mystery. Hints have been dropped over the years, especially in the new series, and spin-off novels, audio plays, and comics have touched on the time, but who The Doctor was before we met him and why he fled into exile is more or less unknown.
Hartnell was the oldest actor to play The Doctor, which is odd considering he is the youngest incarnation. Juxtapose that with the fact that Matt Smith, who is over 900 years older than The Doctor that debuted in "An Unearthly Child" was 29 years younger than Hartnell when he was cast and you end up with wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey indeed. It's weird to remember that when Eleven has his conversation with The Heart of the TARDIS about stealing her and running away in "The Doctor's Wife," she's not talking about Eleven. She's talking about that strange, mad old man at 76 Totter's Lane.
Another extremely quirky fact is that The First Doctor has been played by two separate actors. Three if you consider Peter Cushing's Dr. Who Dalek movies from the '60s as The First Doctor. Four if you count Bradley playing Hartnell playing The Doctor. See, what I mean? Whenever you start talking about The First Doctor it all seems straight-forward, but then everything gets curiouser and curiouser.
There is some dispute about why exactly Hartnell left the role he is remembered for so fondly. The schedule was taxing, he was injured multiple times in filming (Even briefly paralyzed), he didn't warm to the production staff after the departure of Lambert, and his salary was a drain on the show compared to his fellow actors have all been supposed.
Aside from all these Hartnell suffered from arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that caused him memory problems. It wasn't too difficult during his run, and he returned to demanding work on stage immediately after ceding the role to Patrick Troughton, but by the time "The Three Doctors" in season ten he could only appear in pre-filmed segments reading cue cards. He died two years later at the age of 67.
The First Doctor wasn't done, though. He would return along with his four subsequent incarnations to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary in 1983's "The Five Doctors." Hartnell was obviously unavailable, but Ian Levine, an unofficial fan consultant, suggested stage actor Richard Hurndall as a replacement rather than using pre-used footage. Ironically, pre-used footage was all of The Fourth Doctor we saw as Tom Baker refused to appear in the series again so soon after his own departure two years prior.
Hurndall ended up bringing his own take on the character, but was also very faithful to the crafty, if acerbic tone of Hartnell. Hurndall was never able to return to the role, though. Like Hartnell, Hurndall's performance in a multi-Doctor special was the last performance of his life, and he died months later without ever cashing the check he earned.
Here's another strange bit of Whoniverse trivia. William Hartnell not only played The Doctor, he actually exists within the same world as him. In January of 2006 Colin Baker took the Sixth Doctor on a romp through 1936 Brighton as part of a Big Finish audio story called "Pier Pressure." The Big Finish productions have been something of redemption for Baker's Doctor, who usually ranks at the bottom of the list of favorites.
The story features Billy, an actor who stars in two films, While Parents Sleep and I'm an Explosive. Both of these are films in which Hartnell, who was often credited as Billy when younger, appeared in in real life. While Hartnell was off filming Doctor Who in the '60s, The Doctor himself was also hurling uncontrolled through time and space in a ship he could barely fly. Fifty years after Hartnell let Lambert take him to lunch to pitch a kid's show about time travel to him, he is still remembered with great fondness, and somehow he still manages to contribute to the eternal mythology of Doctor Who. And like the character he brought to life, he thoughtfully left behind enough mystery so that there would always be more to explore. I have no doubt David Bradley will do both Hartnell and the Doctor proud justice, and The First Doctor's prophecy from "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" will come true once again.
"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events