The First Doctor: The Grandfather of Them All


The entire first six years of Doctor Who were shot in black-and-white, and upon first glance with the Doctor’s deep, dark black frock coat and shocking white hair he would appear to be just another old man. However, the First Doctor was a colourful character and a man of many contradictions, perhaps more than any other Doctor; the first Doctor was born of mystery and was far from black and white. He appeared old, yet he was young; cantankerous and kind. He appeared to be human yet he was a traveller from an unnamed time and an unnamed place: a wanderer in the fourth dimension. Both he and his young Granddaughter, Susan, had run away, exiles from their own society. Along the way, they would fight alien forces, helped the oppressed and righted wrongs while getting involved in all sorts of historical shenanigans. The inhabitants of the planet Vortis (The Web Planet) vow to speak of the legend that the TARDIS crew leave behind for generations. They also had some near misses, almost wiping out the future remnants of the human race by infecting them with the common cold (The Ark), then helped them find a cure. These actions didn’t match his renegade status. Who was he and why was he running away from his own people?

There are many things that contribute to our sense of identity and one of those is the society we exist in. Here, however, we have a character that has chosen to relinquish all ties with what defines him and cut himself adrift. Free from burden, free from responsibility and alone save for his Granddaughter. At the beginning of The Edge of Destruction, an unconscious Doctor lies on the floor muttering, “I can’t take you back Susan, I can’t…” Over the years, there has been fan speculation whether Susan was even his Granddaughter or whether he had kidnapped her! – Much like he had plucked Ian and Barbara from the normality of their day existence and then spent two years trying to get them back, even though he seemed unable to navigate his own ship. He showed no hesitation at abducting the two teachers if it prevented his Granddaughter leaving. What would he have done if Susan hadn’t threatened to leave, would his actions have been the same? What would the consequences of leaving Susan’s teachers, where they belonged, have been? Nobody would have believed them. The Doctor’s logic seemed as erratic and arbitrary as his dilapidated old time-machine.


In 1983 William’s widow heather gave an interview to Doctor Who Magazine, this brief quote highlights his feelings about the Doctor’s introduction:

“The only thing that I was sorry about when he started was that they made him a rather grumpy old man. He was furious that the schoolmaster and mistress had discovered the TARDIS and got into it, he was absolutely livid and the fact that he took them off on that first trip was really nothing but spite!”

We can also see from his first encounter with the Daleks that he wasn’t above deceit and manipulation. Using the TARDIS’ mercury link as an excuse to stay on the planet Skaro and explore. Another interpretation would be that he lied in the same way a young boy might tell his parents he has done his homework. Displaying a lack of concern for consequences rather than through any malice, indeed, in The Rescue while Ian and Barbara are exploring there is a short scene in the TARDIS where he ponders to himself whether he can convince Ian that he meant to land in their destination. In the same story, he was also able to comfort Vicki in a way Ian and Barbara were unable to – although Barbara shooting Vicki’s pet may have been a contributing factor to their inability to do so. Either way, by this point in the character’s history we can see that he has changed and in many ways is a different person. One of the most significant changes came at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth when much to the surprise of Susan he left her behind on Earth. Gone was the man who left Totter’s Junk Yard in 1963 because he couldn’t bear to let his Granddaughter go. Now, he denied her the chance to stay with him but for her own good. The early years of Doctor Who were experimental, and many things were tried and changed.

A change of mood is the closest you can get to actually being a different person and the first Doctor has plenty of those; he was often unpredictable and changeable, quite literally. In the third season serial The Celestial Toymaker, Michael Gough’s character (The Toymaker) makes The Doctor invisible, much to the surprise of his young companions Steven and Dodo. Using pre-recordings of Hartnell’s voice and a hand double, for most of the filming of the story, there had been plans to bring back a new actor in Hartnell’s place as the first Doctor. Neither the action of replacing Hartnell or the new actor materialised, with the decision having been vetoed by the BBC’s head of serials Gerald Savory with Hartnell returning and producer John Wiles departing in protest. This, however, was very much a stay of execution for Hartnell and his Doctor. The sole surviving piece of footage from Hartnell’s departure story is a clip of one of the most important scenes in the programs long and illustrious history. Broadcast on the 29th of October 1966, history was created when something previously unimaginable happened, right before the eyes of the nation. In a swirl of light, William Hartnell metamorphosed into Patrick Troughton and that instant the first Doctor was gone, but his effect on the program was far from over all over.

Hartnell returned one last time for the tenth-anniversary story The Three Doctors, albeit in little more than a cameo role due to ill health. While the first Doctor graced our screens one more time for the twentieth-anniversary special, The Five Doctors. Hartnell even had a small contribution to make to the fiftieth-anniversary when Doctor Who researcher and member of the BBC’s Restoration Team Richard Bignell discovered a previously thought missing interview with the actor in 2009. This was eventually announced and released in 2013 on The Tenth Planet DVD as a special feature. At one point the interviewer asks Hartnell: “You’re actually quite a grumpy man. Why do you think that people like the Doctor so much?” To which the actor responded, “…they find me a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas”. Not only that, though, Hartnell was also fondly remembered Mark Gatiss’s An Adventure in Time and Space. In fact, for many it was the highlight of the fiftieth anniversary. A window in time leading back to the events of fifty years previous.

The modern age is sleek and minimalism is the height of fashion for many. Often you hear people asked to sum things up in a single sentence, or perhaps even a single word. If asked to sum up Hartnell’s Doctor a word that most people would leap for is difficult, but to do so would be reductionist and deny us greater insight into his character and the character of the actor who played him.

The first Doctor (The original you might say) was the most contradictory and fallible. His many faults and whims, rather than repelling, made him endlessly fascinating and relatable. He could be erratic and almost cruel at times, yet he was the flawed hero who at times needed the moral guidance of two school teachers and his young granddaughter. For reasons unknown, he was in exile from his own people, and still he craved the company of those close to him. He fought for the oppressed and tried to right wrongs wherever and whenever he found them. As a new and truly unique alien character he was the catalyst for innovation in the form or regeneration and became an anchor for fifty-two years of British science fiction history.

This piece by Steve Traves is part of our ongoing William Hartnell month, where we focus on all aspects of the First Doctor throughout January. Submissions for articles, videos, opinion, reviews, retrospectives or whatever ideas you have for the month can be sent to


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