Sunday, September 25, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years

I love the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. It's probably my second favorite era of Classic Who, as my latest rewatch reminded me. It's not that I find the serials themselves consistently strong -- I suspect I like maybe 50% of Classic Who, and the Hartnell era is no exception. (In fact, I don't really like the first season much at all.) And although I'm fond of Hartnell himself, I don't respond to him as an actor the way I do Troughton or Davison. It's the spirit of the Hartnell era that gets to me: it's everything I want Who to be. It's daring. It's unpredictable. It's a show eager to explore its potential and defy its limitations: to challenge itself and its audience's expectations. It never strives or settles for a "formula," except the one that serves as the show's premise: the sheer wonder of traveling through time and space, without ever knowing what your next destination might be.

Some of the complaints I hear lodged at the Hartnell era baffle me. Folks say, "You have to accept it as a product of its time." What don't you have to accept as a product of its time? Technology doesn't merely advance, it accelerates. What was state-of-the-art in 1963 looked antiquated within a decade; nowadays, "cutting edge" becomes "quaint" in about eighteen months. We don't apologize for other beloved series or movies of the 1960's; why do we do so for Doctor Who? Justifications are offered up for the look, for the gaffes that remain on the screen: "It was done on a tight budget and schedule." The tight budget and schedule don't make it cheap -- they make it remarkable. What's tremendous about the Hartnell era is what was invigorating about live TV in the '50s: the understanding that these people were preparing a new show every week, then recording it, in sequence, without pick-ups or reshoots. It's actors, directors and crew working without a net, and impressively, they pull it off week after week, with just a one-month hiatus between seasons to recharge. And the most common criticism leveled at the First Doctor stories: "They're slow." Of course so many shows have picked up the pace dramatically in the last half-century: the world spins faster now; our attention spans are shorter. But the TV landscape remains full of acclaimed dramas much slower than '60s Hartnell (e.g., the first seasons of True Detective and The Man in the High Castle), and no one complains when art-house films take their own sweet time. (One of my favorite films of the past year, the Oscar nominee 45 Years, wasn't exactly a barn-burner.)

What the Hartnell era has to keep apologizing for is not being like every other era of Doctor Who. Most hit shows run a half-dozen years -- a dozen if they're lucky -- and are accepted and adored for what they are. The Hartnell era gets compared to the fifty years that followed it. If you grew up with Pertwee, or Baker, or Davison, or McCoy (or Eccleston, Tennant or Smith, for that matter) -- with faster-paced scripts, better effects, and significant retakes and remounts -- then of course the Hartnell era looks scrappy. What other TV show ever had the misfortune of being compared unfavorably to itself? And if you love Who for the monster stories that became more prevalent during the Troughton years, or for the big scares that had their heyday during Tom Baker's early years, then of course you'll find the Hartnell era disappointing: "monsters" and "scares" weren't its chief priorities. But taken on its own terms -- without apologies or justifications -- the Hartnell era is breathtaking. You don't have to be a student of '60s television to understand, within minutes of tuning in to any episode, the confines of the budget and the shooting schedule, yet despite them, you acknowledge and admire the heady aspirations -- and occasionally, the astonishing achievements -- of the creative team.

Not that there aren't things to take the Hartnell era to task for. For the first two seasons, the directing pool is abysmally shallow. Television was primitive in 1963, but it wasn't that primitive. The early serials, as helmed, frequently betray competence without creativity, or occasionally creativity without competence. Doctor Who was a show devoted to experimentation; it's understandable that it takes a season for the story editor and writers to work out the kinks. But if a show is going to aim for such novelty that the scripts are, by design, uncertain of their effects, how much more important that directors of some experience and assurance be assigned to them. The director most used over the first two seasons was Richard Martin. Martin got his start as a stage actor, and when he was offered his first Doctor Who serial -- the show's second, "The Daleks" -- he had exactly one episode of one TV series to his credit. Ironically, he turned out to be one of the most visually arresting of the early Who directors, but when it came to basic skills -- e.g., shaping or buttoning a scene -- he was lost. (Henric Hirsch, the director assigned to the first-season "Reign of Terror" had two TV episodes to his credit when he came to Doctor Who.)

Conversely, there were a half-dozen directors (including associate producer Mervyn Pinfield) who could manage the basics, but seemed armed with little else: when scripts cried out for ingenuity, their cries went unanswered. The directors' failings wouldn't be so maddening if the show's first serial hadn't displayed both craft and artistry: Waris Hussein (who also did "Marco Polo") sets the bar so high, it's irritating to see the lack of finesse or inspiration that follows -- and when a master like Douglas Camfield arrives in Season 2, he put his predecessors to shame. Classic Who is full of second-rate directors (some used again and again), but by the Troughton era, TV had advanced enough -- and Doctor Who had grown assured enough -- that also-rans didn't do much damage. But they do in the Hartnell era. One reason Season 3 seems so strong is that the directors are so much better: the top of the season is a run of serials helmed, in turn, by Derek Martinus, Michael Leeston-Smith, Doug Camfield, Paddy Russell and Michael Imison. It's a far cry from a time -- just a season earlier -- when Richard Martin was considered the show's ace-in-the-hole.

The other thing that takes some getting used to: Hartnell's memory issues. History tells us that, as Hartnell's arteriosclerosis worsened, his grasp on his lines became more tenuous. There's no reason to think that story -- told and retold -- isn't true, but in that case, you have to commend the Who production team, because his memory doesn't seem any worse in Season 3 than it does in Season 1. It was never good -- at least not compared to his companions. Everyone stumbled in early Doctor Who -- it's the nature of nearly-live TV -- but Hartnell did it more. And the sci-fi adventures particularly plagued him. Historicals like Season 2's "The Crusade" or Season 3's "The Massacre" come off with hardly a Hartnell hitch, but the first-season "Keys of Marinus" proves vexing. And it's not just the scientific jargon that trips him up in the futuristic serials; sometimes, it's throwaway lines. The historicals came easier; they were a genre with which he'd had more experience, and he mastered the scripts more swiftly. (And by Season 3, when the memory -- by all accounts -- was truly failing, the series worked mightily to disguise it: playing to his strengths, and allocating the more challenging material elsewhere.)

When the serials first aired, it's doubtful that Hartnell's difficulty with his lines mattered much to audiences; although most television was no longer filmed live, viewers had grown up accepting and enjoying the peculiarities of live TV: where gaffes and glitches were part of the shared experience, a reminder that the actors were performing the material -- in real time -- especially for them. It's that aspect of '60s television -- more than issues of budget or pacing -- that's hardest to recreate for today's audiences. Hartnell's flubs are now distracting in a way they never were when the episodes first aired. But you forgive him, because when he's having a good day, he's so good. And the good days far outweighed the bad. The Hartnell episodes were filmed on consecutive Fridays; typically, if Hartnell had a tough time one week (e.g., "The Keys of Marinus" Episode 1, "The Web Planet" Episode 1), he rallied the next. You see him determined to do better; his resolve is visible and admirable. And the transformation that the Doctor undergoes over the first few seasons is part of that; Hartnell disguises his memory issues by morphing from a Doctor so decisive that even the slightest hesitation reads as a mistake to a Doctor so eccentrically self-amused that he can giggle endlessly while searching for his next line. And fortunately, that transformation -- an act of self-preservation -- seems very much in keeping with how the show presents the First Doctor: as someone smug and superior, who -- through his interactions with his companions -- gains humility, empathy and a sense of humor.

As noted, I don't care for maybe half the Hartnell serials, particularly the earliest ones. I see Doctor Who as a series that takes a season to get its bearings -- but that's true of so many shows I love, from I Love Lucy to Everybody Loves Raymond, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Madam Secretary. For me, it doesn't really hit its stride until early in the second season, and from there, the batting average is much higher. (The string of four stories beginning with "The Rescue" and ending with "The Crusade" is, for me, the high point of the era. It's my favorite string of serials until "The Abominable Snowmen" through "The Web of Fear," three years later. It's over a decade until I again love four consecutive serials.) I had thought about doing serial-by-serial reviews of the Hartnell era, but I fear I'd be restating the same points: my dislike of so many of the early directors, my lack of interest in the Hartnell Dalek stories. (My affection for the little pepperpots only spikes once David Whitaker begins scripting them in the Troughton era. I reflect on that a bit in my write-up of Pertwee's "Death to the Daleks.") And I'd spend too much time slamming writer Terry Nation. (I pull out my hair thirty seconds into Nation's "Keys of Marinus" when Barbara, the schoolteacher, sees a giant body of water on the scanner and asks, "That's the sea, isn't it?" The rest of the hair comes out three episodes later, when Susan sees a rope-bridge and exclaims, "Oh look... a rope-bridge!") So instead, I'm doing capsule reviews of my top Hartnells, and filling them not merely with impressions of those particular serials, but with some broad-stroke feelings about the First Doctor years.

But before I do, in case I don't have proper room later, I have to focus briefly on one of the Hartnell companions. Stories have been written for years about who was "responsible" for Doctor Who. No one person, obviously, but tales of the show's early success typically boil down to some combination of BBC drama head Sydney Newman's vision, producer Verity Lambert's faith and tenacity, and the instant popularity of the Daleks. (Mark Gatiss's An Adventure in Space and Time certainly spotlights that particular triumvirate.) Me, I'm more taken with a person I think was quietly responsible for the series continuing: Peter Purves, as companion Steven Taylor. As I watch Purves's year-long string of serials -- a revolving door of companions, producers and story editors, with Hartnell frequently sidelined -- I do wonder if the series might have simply shut down sometime during Season 3 if Purves hadn't been able to dutifully expand his role with such humility and authority. I can't say that Purves is the "unsung hero" of Doctor Who; his stint on the show is much admired. But still, he doesn't quite get his due. Of his nine serials, only three survive. (Only Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, as Ben and Polly, have it worse.) And missing serials are sadly overlooked by a faction of fandom. Ian and Barbara seem far more vivid than Steven, not just because they did twice as many episodes, but because four times as many are still around.

But the truth is, I can imagine a Doctor Who without William Russell or Jacqueline Hill -- painful as that would be. I'm unsure how the show would have fared without Purves. I'm sure there were many other versatile performers available at the time he was cast -- but Lambert and story editor Dennis Spooner couldn't have suspected, when they hired Purves, all that he'd ultimately be called upon to do. As companions came and went, as Hartnell disappeared from more and more episodes, as his lines started getting reassigned to Purves (e.g., the last two episodes of "The Daleks' Masterplan"), if Purves hadn't turned out to be such a charismatic chameleon -- equally adept at making heroics look convincing and exposition sound interesting, at managing both the high comedy of "The Myth Makers" and the tense drama of "The Massacre," at alternating (seemingly without ego) between sidekick and co-star, all while mastering the technobabble that was increasingly handed him -- would the show have survived?

That's not to denigrate or diminish any of the other Hartnell companions. I love them too, especially Ian, Barbara, Vicki and (yes) Dodo. I think they're extraordinary, but I love most that they're extra-ordinary: bright, gifted, but determinedly unglamorous. They look like everyday people. Once Ben and Polly arrive, the aesthetic shifts. (Compared to their predecessors, Ben and Polly could have been models.) And not that Jacqueline Hill couldn't look stunning when the script called for it (e.g., "The Aztecs," or the start of "The Romans" or the end of "Marco Polo"), not that William Russell and Peter Purves couldn't look dashing, but the more enduring images of the Hartnell era are of Ian and Barbara, ever the schoolteachers (him fussing over his Coal Hill tie, her in her prim suits and wide-neck sweaters), of Vicki in her waistless frocks and Steven in his oversized cardigans. And Dodo in anything "fab" she could pull from the Doctor's closets. (And pretty much everyone, at some point, suffering a very bad hair day.) They were the most wonderfully ordinary group of people, fortunate enough to be invited on the ride of their lives.

As were we.

Next, my top ten Hartnells.


  1. I love the Hartnell era too and Purves now works for audio company Big Finish giving Steven more adventures (and a good impression of late era Hartnell to boot). I really enjoy the historicals, especially The Aztecs, and I also love Ian and Barbara. You say Steven saved the show to an extent but remember that William Russell was actually the star and lead of the show at the beginning and did a brilliant job. The fluffs don't bother me either - loads of people mix up their words, it just makes the First Doctor that little bit more real. Really looking forward to your individual reviews!

    1. I wasn't claiming that Peter Purves "saved" the show: more that he was a solid, dependable presence at a time when the series desperately needed one. I adore William Russell, but the parameters of his role didn't change much from his first appearance to his final one. But Purves was forced (by all the Season 3 turmoil, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera) to perform above and beyond what he was hired to do, to do and be whatever was required of him that week -- and because most of his serials are missing, I'm not sure he gets his full due.

    2. The Massacre would be a great find if it ever resurfaces and I wish we had The Savages too. Alas, what we do have is less successful - The Celestial Toymaker - sheesh! Did you know there was a plan by the producer in that story to get rid of Hartnell (who had been rendered invisible) and have the Toymaker change the Doctor?