On 23 November, 1963 BBC-TV introduced us to a wonderful new world; the world of Doctor Who. The first episode was called An Unearthly Child” and was aired in a four part serial. In part one of An Unearthly Child, surprisingly, The Doctor isn’t the first person we meet. We're introduced first to Coal Hill School (remember the name of that school, my clever friends) and two of its teachers: Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell); who are voicing their concern for a mutual pupil of theirs named Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). In an attempt to both help and investigate Susan, Ian and Barbara follow her to an old junkyard, where she claims to live. There they meet an old man; a very private, and temperamental old man. That old man is none other than Susan’s grandfather - or as we come to know him, The Doctor (William Hartnell).
Following Susan’s voice into an old police box, Ian and Barbara discover the old police box is not what it seems. It is rather, as The Doctor tries to explain, a ship that can travel in the four dimensions. This is when we get our first taste of this mad old man called The Doctor. He has very little patience for these human intruders named Ian and Barbara. He blames Susan for their discovery and mocks them in almost every sentence. He tries to explain a box that is bigger on the inside to Ian by comparing it to TV, but when Ian fails to understand, The Doctor laughs and belittles the man saying ‘You don’t understand, and I knew that you wouldn’t so never mind.”
Such is our introduction to the hero of our story that will span the next 50 years: A snide, condescending, private old man, who with his granddaughter are a pair who claim to be exiled from their home planet in a ship called the TARDIS (Susan explains that it stands for Time and Relative Dimension In Space). For fear of being outcast on the Earth as well, The Doctor proclaims that he cannot let the pair of teachers go and the four of them must leave the 20th Century all together; he kidnaps them (yes, my fellow Whovians -The Doctor, our precious Doctor, started out as a kidnapper as well as a thief!) and takes them back in time to the stone age.
When the TARDIS lands, Ian still doesn’t believe that they have traveled - so The Doctor opens the doors and shows them. Being new to the TARDIS himself, he is unable to determine when they are. As they begin to explore, both Susan and The Doctor notice that the TARDIS didn’t adjust its disguise. Susan explains that it has the ability to disguise itself no matter where it goes, but it doesn't seem to be working. The Doctor is not happy that his ship is malfunctioning, especially in front of these humans, to whom he is bent on proving himself the better man.
This is where the secondary story sets in. It is also where we begin to see the true nature of Hartnell’s Doctor. He is referred to as Doctor Foreman by Barbara, but Ian corrects her, reminding her that The Doctor said his name was not Foreman… but if not Doctor Foreman then who? Doctor who? It is in this scene, in this first serial, that the puzzle as to The Doctor's name is first addressed. As the episodes delve into the storyline, the travelers are faced with attacks from cavemen, who are intent on The Doctor making fire. He is more than willing to give them what they want if it means his freedom and his return to the TARDIS. The Doctor shows himself to be not only arrogant, self centered and stubborn, but also open to change and suggestion, when he realises that the four of them are reliant on each other to survive. Hartnell’s is a young Doctor in an old man’s skin, who still has much to learn about the universe and the beings in it. Despite his stubbornness, The Doctor shows that he does care for his human companions and that, while he doesn’t want them to know it, he knows he needs them. He is their protector as much as he is Susan’s. With The Doctor not knowing yet how to pilot the TARDIS properly, their escape from the Stone Age brings them to yet another strange land.
Unfortunately this first impression of The Doctor is not what many know. Overshadowed by the previous day’s events (The assassination of US President John F. Kennedy) the launch of this new series was rocky. The serial that followed An Unearthly Child actually gained the show more of its initial viewers, both because the first serial was hailed as slightly boring and because the following 7 part serial introduced us to a new type of horror: Terry Nation’s Dalek creatures. And we know how popular they have become, don’t we?
At the age of 55 Hartnell was (until the casting of Peter Capaldi) the oldest actor to play The Doctor. For three years Hartnell’s Doctor grew both in character and in popularity, especially with children - much to his delight. Unfortunately his deteriorating health became an issue and in 1966 he handed over the controls of the TARDIS to Patrick Troughton. For the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who (1972-1973), he reprises his role as the first Doctor in The Three Doctors. Unfortunately this was to be his last work as an actor. William Hartnell passed away on 23 April 1975; but in the hearts and minds of Whovians the world over he will always be the first Doctor.
Tomorrow: The series continues as TGT writer Mike Erickson shows us The Power of the Daleks.