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The First Doctor Who


The first Doctor Who was William Hartnell, a well known and highly regarded British film actor. He made his first film in the thirties, but came to prominence playing an Army sergeant in the 1943 war film The Way Ahead, in which he gave a quite superb performance. Subsequently, he appeared in such notable films as Yangtse Incident, Brighton Rock, Hell Drivers and This Sporting Life. Perhaps due to the success of The Way Ahead, he was often cast in "tough guy" roles. Doctor Who offered the chance to do something different. He portrayed the Doctor as a semi-senile old man, bad tempered and grumpy one moment, quite child-like in his enthusiasm the next. He was quick-witted and cunning, and a brilliant scientist - yet very absent minded and forgetful, and he often hectored his companions to cover this up. What is interesting is to note the way that the Doctor changes from an impartial observer in his early stories, to someone who will take a more proactive role in combatting evil, which develops still further in the subsequent portrayals. It is impossible to watch Hartnell's episodes in this age of CGI special effects, and not see the technical deficiencies in them. Hartnell does appear sometimes to forget his lines. We can't really tell how much of this is the absent mindedness of the Doctor, and how much is the actor himself messing up. I think to an extent that Hartnell, coming from a background in films, might have found the tight production schedule of early Doctor Who a bit gruelling. It was almost like a live performance, and retakes were an expensive luxury, and rarely allowed. It is also true that Hartnell was starting to suffer from a debilitating disease that affected his memory. His frustration with himself led to him becoming more difficult on set, which ultimately is why he was dropped from the series. Hartnell does not seem very highly regarded by fans today, which is a shame. I think he suffers from underexposure, though this has been rectified to an extent in recent years as more of his episodes become available on video. Even so, you'll usually see the myth perpetuated that the first Doctor is a sinister and almost malevolent anti-hero figure. This image comes from just a few scenes in the first three stories, yet it seems to be the overwhelming impression of Hartnell held by the majority of fans. The giggling, child-like side of his nature is actually far more apparent, and yet usually gets downplayed. Again, it's underexposure - ironically, Hartnell actually comes over better in the missing episodes, if the soundtracks are anything to go by.

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