The Archeological Exploration of Doctor Who: Part 1

William Hartnell, “Hmm, Yes.”

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This picture is copyright © BBC.

William, William…

I just spent the last 6 hours desperately trying to finish Sonic 4 while you nattered about in the background. Now, as your final set of episodes plays in front of me, all I can feel about the situation is relief. Relief that finally after 6 months of trying to find something redeeming in your poor acting, your stumbling and bumbling line delivery, and the ridiculous nature of your mannerisms, my struggle is over. I can move on to a new Doctor, and a new hope for a Time Lord worth admiring.

I understand of course that television in the 60s was a different beast. And comparatively, British television was entirely different from my previous old show habit, The Wild Wild West. But the first three series of Doctor Who constitute some of the most pitiful television I have ever seen. I’ll attempt to be circumspect for my review, but please understand how hard it is for me to malign what was at one time my favorite character in science fiction.

William Hartnell portrays the Doctor in the first three series, as well as 2 sets of episodes for the fourth series. He starts off as the older half of a twosome of time lords, the other being his apparent granddaughter Susan. When two of Susan’s teachers stumble upon the TARDIS the Doctor and his companions are flung into the general chaos of time and space travel. Each set of episodes is usually inspired by a new location and the incompetence of the Doctor. He attempts to explain or investigate some area of interest, and ends up making a mess of things. By the end of each set of episodes, everything is resolved and the Doctor takes credit for everything. He usually is the one who explains everything at the end, but his part in the resolution is usually murky at best. He occasionally comes to conclusions that come across as unbelievable and his solutions for problems often break the apparent rules of the universe created by the writers of the show. During his time as the Doctor we are introduced to the Daleks, and of course it is reveals that the reason the Daleks are an issue is because of the Doctor. He was the one who inspired them to attempt domination over the universe. While they are foiled at every pass, the overall feeling is that he is never in control of any situation but rather bumbles about until his end is achieved.

Many of the episodes from this time are missing, and so they have been recreated with production audio and stills. This is tedious to watch, and while listening is bearable, what comes across is that the dialogue is rather silly and useless. So much of the plot of these shows is explained so poorly in the dialogue that much of the time it can’t even be followed. I think that this must be because contemporary television shows are so focused and direct, with any necessary information quickly and easily explained. The protracted explanations of yore seem stupid in comparison. We are also much more technically inclined these days so the terms used, “retriculator” and “metaphonically,” seem ridiculous and tawdry. What it comes down to is that these episodes are so dated that they end up being a pain to watch. While I am glad I have seen them, it is more like a geek merit badge that I worked for than a symbol proudly displayed.

This final set of episodes is interesting. Thinking back on all of the shows up to this point, there are better ones, and worse. But this show seems to be a summation of all that came before. The Doctor and his companions du monde land in 1986 at the south pole, the location of the International Space Command. A new planet appears, and various phenomena begin. Robotic people appear. This is the first time we have ever seen the Cybermen. The Doctor, despite apparently having particularly helpful foreknowledge, does nothing until nearly the end of the show. He spends most of the time unconscious. In fact, most of the action is taken up by the companions, who are much better actors and much more interesting to watch. Actually, one of them dismissively suggests attacking a Cyberman with a (non-sonic)screwdriver. The Doctor awakes, attempts a feeble gesture of peace with the Cybermen, and eventually takes charge of the situation at the South Pole.  It doesn’t go well. In fact, he is imprisoned until nearly the end of the show. When the Cybermen threat is ended and he is released, he begins to act strangely. He goes back to the TARDIS. His companions follow, and they are locked out of the TARDIS. He changes, and William Hartnell is no more. Patrick Troughton’s face appears.

I resent William Hartnell. When I started on this journey, to fill in the gaping hole of knowledge about the origins of Doctor Who I was expecting to learn a lot about why the Doctor is the way he is. To fill in some of the mystery and understand things better. But what I have now is only a feeling of thankfulness that this was not my first experience with the Doctor. I am young. Much younger than the people who started off watching the show with William Hartnell as the lead. Perhaps I will never understand why this was considered good television, but I am okay with that. Because I have Fringe to watch. And when my children or grandchildren sit down to watch what I thought was good television back in the day, maybe I will be a little more forgiving about their derision.

But probably not.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which Patrick Troughton is maligned as well.

5 Responses to “The Archeological Exploration of Doctor Who: Part 1”

  1. RDaneelOlivaw

    For what it’s worth, as one of those who saw many of the early Doctor Who episodes/seasons (although both the first and second Doctors were later views on PBS; I’m not quite THAT old) I have to agree with you. In my opinion the first two Doctors really had little more than the concept to hold their story lines together; it wasn’t until the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)that the essence of the Doctor that we know today started to come into being. If you haven’t seen the Third through Fifth Doctors (Pertwee, Tom Baker, who was by way of being my favorite, and Peter Davison), I think you’ll find your archeological quests into why the Doctor is who he is will bear far more information than you get from the first two. And in rereading your article it seems that perhaps you have seen the Jon Pertwee Doctor, and didn’t care for him either (or perhaps you just didn’t like the production); I’ll be interested in reading (and perhaps debating) your assessment of the Third Doctor.

    My bottom line: While the first two Doctors thematically set the basics of the Time Lord universe (in a way), the seeds of the Doctor as we know him today didn’t really start to germinate until the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who.

  2. Nipar

    First I would like to begin with I am glad that you are watching the original series and kudos to you for wanting to watch them in order. However, I must disagree with you on your “most pitiful television you ever seen” comment and your feelings on William Hartnell and apparently your future dislike in your next review of Patrick Troughton.

    Mr. Hartnell may not have been a stellar actor but I found his performance especially in the beginning to be amazing. I did not see a mention of watching the original pilot of the show (this may have just eluded me as I was reading your argument) In this I saw a very mysterious and at times sinister alien which was toned down and re-shot. (which in itself is pretty amazing for a show at that time)
    Mr. Hartnell was able to take the role and make the character less scary just by bringing a different approach to the lines. You get to go along with a fantastic journey of seeing a selfish, scared, cantankerous, and often childish character learn to be a hero. Granted at times, Hartnell flubbed lines and got confused but could this have simply been due to his illness. Much of what I have read regarding that time period children adored the Doctor (Hartnell) precisely because of his faults and knowing that he would solve things more or less. There is a scene towards the end of The Tribe of Gum where one of the caveman is hurt and the Doctor is kneeling beside him. You are not sure of his action will he pick up to harm the injured man or will he help, then with the voice of conscience (Ian Chesterton) solidifies the Doctor’s path by confronting what his choice would be. I just recently re-watched this episode and saw the subtleties of just a quick expression.
    As to you mentioning the Daleks and the Doctor, 1. it is a great way to one insure that you could have these creatures be in further stories if you wanted by not leaving them planet bound; 2. It is a tool much used in fiction to have the hero be responsible in some way for his greatest adversary. 3. And as a fan it set the Doctor on his course to take an active stance against evil.
    In the “Time Meddler” you get to see an almost impish Doctor who does know what’s going on and is able to save the day in his own way. I love when Hartnell enters the Monk’s TARDIS and steals the dimensional control! What fun, you get to be on the joke with the Doctor.
    As to your feelings on the last episode of his reign “The Tenth Planet”, a little knowledge the shows production history can be a good thing, Hartnell was being replaced due to his increasing health problems and the show was still very successful. It would have been great to see how a healthy Hartnell might have performed in this episode. It at times is jumbled but overall is a neat episode. A terrifying race introduced the threat of the Earth being destroyed (only thing missing was a Gene Roddennbery or Irwin Allen need for the ship to be in danger).
    So do not resent Mr. Hartnell because without him there would have been no Doctor Who and nor revival with cool special effects because they can be computer generated. I can appreciate you not liking his episodes but to resent him and consider these pioneer seasons as pitiful is harsh.
    And mostly remember that this was a kids show, and the concern for things like continuity and great sets and admittedly great scripts were not always the main concern.
    As to your mention of Fringe (personally I do not find it remotely interesting party due to how many times alternate/parallel universe stories are used in Sci-Fi, but I do not resent it nor think it pitiful and rejoice at the fact the genre that we love still has a place) Thanks for reading.

  3. Nipar

    I will not comment on Troughton until after I read what you have to say about his tenure.

  4. fool.of.history

    Thank you Mr. Nipar. I had been putting together a good argument in defense of Mr. Hartnell; however your rebuttle made my argument a mute gesture as I agree with you point for point. Your argument was also much more organized and well written. I personally have seen all the way through the end of the Time Meddler and have enjoyed it completely. So again, thank you.

  5. Well, that is an interesting perspective. Let me try to explain a little more clearly my position on a couple of points.

    1. Hartnell Himself: I don’t care about William Hartnell. I know that sounds callus, but regardless of Hartnell’s illness or personal issues his poor performance as the doctor cannot be explained away so easily. Of course he isn’t the only one to blame as the producers saw fit to leave in the mixed up lines and confusion over what he was supposed to be doing. When that happens the world of the story is broken. That is just plain not acceptable in television where scenes can be reshot and edited, and often were.

    2. Hartnell’s Doctor: I truly think that your perspective on this is skewed. You are thinking about it from a perspective which takes into account all of the stories that came after, which changes the story as you see it. The funny thing is that these episodes were not about the Doctor. They were not about who he is, how he changes. They were about the journey. Which is fine, but the focus is not on the Doctor. You mentioned Ian as the voice of conscience, which I think is a stretch. I re-watched the scene just to be sure, and I am certain that what is happening there is not good acting. It might be confusion about what he is supposed to be doing, but it is not good acting. An actor is defined by their performance and Hartnell’s performance was poor.

    3. Popular For Children: I don’t care. Whether the show is popular or not has no impact on its worth as far as I am concerned. Most people enjoy the big name shows on television, whether they are Man Men or America’s Next Top Model. In evaluating the show, and the Doctor portrayed by Hartnell, the feelings of the people who originally watched the show don’t affect my opinion.

    4. The Daleks: I understand that many heros in fiction of all sorts are responsible for the force that opposes them. That is not what I take issue with. The problem I was illustrating was that this first Doctor come across as an imbecile most of the time. You are right, he is a selfish, scared, cantankerous, and childish character. That is why it took so long for me to get through his shows. I don’t like him, and what is worse, I don’t care about him. He isn’t interesting, he isn’t compelling, he isn’t a character I care to see stories about.

    5. Special Effects: Don’t matter to me. What I look for in any science fiction is a good story. I am sorry but while there are interesting seeds planted in this set of episodes, this is not good storytelling. During this time period there was so much good science fiction being written! Burroughs, Ellison, Herbert, Bester, Lieber! With so much to work from I expected more from this series.

    Here is what it comes down to I think. Everything we humans create seems to follow a life cycle. Science fiction is the same, and while this series was created during the enthusiasm of the adolescence of sci-fi, its potential was not met at that point. It is like a young person who decides to learn guitar, but really sucks for a while. This television really sucked. I haven’t gotten far into Troughton, but the suck isn’t quite gone from the episodes I have seen so far.

    Thanks again for your comments! Because we aren’t recording this week I needed a chance to stretch my podcast muscle. Look for a Walking Dead post from me next week!

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