William Hartnell, “Hmm, Yes.”
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.