Posted in TV Stuff

Calling for a Doctor: William Hartnell part 1

Doctor Who started with the remit of putting something on telly between the sport and Juke Box Jury on a Saturday night in the early 1960’s. This was a bit of a gap where families were sitting down together after a day doing whatever and this could cause them to move to the other channel and cost the British Broadcasting Corporation millions of viewers in this nascent field of television.

Produced by Verity Lambert, it was conceived as a show that could be fun, exciting and educational, showcasing science and history in a new and engaging light. It had a modest budget to go along with the modest capacity of special effects of the time, but it had so much heart it pulled it together and produced something a little bit special.

Episode 1: An Unearthtly Child aired on 23 November 1963 and told the tale of school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Lewis, who were discussing an odd student they both teach called Susan Foreman. She seems at odds with current fashions and concepts, yet is far advanced in science and in history. She seems amazingly bright and yet also lacking the most basic of knowledge that children her age should know. To make matters worse, her home address is just an old junk yard. Feeling concerned and yes a bit nosey, Ian and Barbara go to check it out. Through misunderstandings, they force themselves inside what appears to be a Police Box, a common enough sight at the time, but inside is a large room, too large to fit inside the box. (The first depiction of “it’s bigger on the inside”)

Susan’s only family member is her abrasive and mysterious grandfather who only identifies himself as the Doctor. He gives no name and precious little other information either. Whilst the teachers try to get answers off him, hearing only that he is from neither this place or time, their argument is ended when this ship, which Susan calls TARDIS lights up and with an eerie noise vanishes from the junk yard and appears in a wasteland. The TARDIS is still a Police Box, which concerns the Doctor greatly.

What follows is a story with people from the future interacting with cave people, desperate to learn the secret of fire. Ian raises himself up as an early leader of this group, whilst the Doctor is not shown as friendly, or even really a good man. At one point, he considers killing a captive they have to help them move more quickly and stay safer. Finally this motley foursome make it back to the ship and travel away, finding themselves on a world and time unknown to all of them and as they leave to explore, the Geiger counter (or whatever TARDIS have in its place) shows an alarming amount of radiation outside. They may not be in the caveman era, but they are neither home, nor are they safe.

What was the Doctor Like?

With no particular mould to fit into, in a show that hasn’t really settled on the Doctor as your protagonist, there was no reason to treat the Doctor as a hero and he isn’t. In the first episode he wants little to do with humanity, his staying on Earth in the 1960’s is simply to indulge his granddaughter. He wants to be left alone and as a result is very combative with the two stowaways. Ian and Barbara are in the way and he wants rid of them and I suppose that makes him just as much as stowaway as they are once all of them are forced together through circumstance. But despite his prickly and abrasive demeanour, he is devoted to his granddaughter. Their interactions are genuine and loving. Hartnell doesn’t make his Doctor particularly likeable, but he does give you hints that there’s a good man in there. He’s far from the jovial 4th Doctor, or the charming 10th, but you imagine you can see how to get from one to the others.

What is the story like?

The problem with TV from years gone by is length. Modern Doctor Who operates on a 44min 1 episode story model, at most an 88 minute 2 parter, whilst classic Doctor Who was based on a 25 minute episode, 4-6 part story model and this creates some pacing issues in comparison. They group are captured several times and the main themes and ideas are laid out for the audience several times. It was jarring, but you re-think that as a problem when you realise it was a show that had to appeal to children and maybe a bit of spoon-feeding of plot might not be such a bad thing.

Outside of that, there’s the dialogue, which as for the time is clunky and expositional and the performances are often melodramatic, but in this heightened world that also fits in. William Russell is a good leading man, trying to be both a man of action as well as a thinking man, trying to take care of these people he’s found himself marooned with. The jeopardy feels real and earned and each character has a moment to take the spotlight.

It’s not Doctor Who as I know if, but if there’s anything the show can do it’s reinvent itself. All you need is the basics, a traveller in time and space, a blue box, trouble and people who need help. Everything else can be changed.

I am going to carry on with his and hope to see where this character goes and more importantly what happens next.


Liverpool based family man and unrepentant geek, trying to understand what's going on in my own head, which is not always being a good place to be. Remember always, we live in a world of wonders.

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