Saturday, 31 August 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the First Doctor


On Saturday, 23 November, 1963, Doctor Who aired on BBC television for the very first time. Twelve weeks from today, it will be Saturday, 23 November, 2013—fifty years to the day after that original airing, and the show is still going strong. It’s had its ups and downs, of course, including sixteen years during which only one new television production aired. But even during that time, it continued in other forms. Doctor Who is the world’s longest-running science fiction television series, and also holds the Guiness World Record for most successful sci-fi series in the world. It has become an enduring icon of British television, and in recent years, has achieved phenomenal success in the rest of the world as well. According to a recent international trailer for the 50th anniversary, the show has over 77 million fans worldwide, a number that seems to be continually growing.

Doctor Who has also had a huge effect on me throughout my life, both growing up and as an adult. While other TV shows—many of which I fondly remember, while others lie forgotten—come and go, Doctor Who lives on constantly in my mind and thoughts. It has shaped me in very perceptible ways. I became a full-fledged fan at the age of ten, but I was well aware of the show for years before that—scared stiff of it, yet somehow intrigued and drawn to it.

In recognition of all this and of its upcoming 50th anniversary in November, I’d like to take a look back at my own history with the show. A couple of years ago, when I wrote my review of The Sarah Jane Adventures episode “Sky”, I also wrote about my introduction to Doctor Who. Last year, on the 49th anniversary, I mentioned that I might write a more detailed account of it this year. Well, that’s what this is—and more. Over the next twelve weeks, I’m going to examine my life with Doctor Who one Doctor at a time, one per week, and then on the final week, a look at the spin-offs and expanded universe. I will look at my earliest childhood memories of the show, how and when I fell in love with it, and all the way up to my current experiences and how I struggle with loving a programme that I now find so problematic. Of course, my exposure to Doctor Who wasn’t in order. After all, the show is older than I am. However, the Doctor is a Time Lord. He doesn’t have to do things in order, so neither do I. So I will look at the Doctors in order, even though it’s not in the order of my life. It just seems fitting somehow. So naturally, I begin with the first Doctor, William Hartnell.

The show was nearly ten years old when I was born in August of 1973. William Hartnell had already left the programme. So had Patrick Troughton. Both Hartnell and Troughton had already returned for the 10th anniversary story, “The Three Doctors”. Jon Pertwee was the current Doctor and the first Doctor I ever saw, although (as I’ll get to in my reflections on the third and fourth Doctors) Tom Baker later somehow insinuated himself into my original memories of Jon Pertwee. As such, for quite some time as a young boy, Tom Baker was the only Doctor I was aware of. I had never heard of William Hartnell. The first I ever heard of other Doctors was when a school teacher (I can’t remember the context) mentioned that there had been several Doctors. However, my young mind at the time rationalized that as meaning there were different Doctors for different countries in the world. Here in Canada, we had Tom Baker. Yeah, I was really young.

That mention of other Doctors went out of my mind—I forgot it entirely—until several months after I became a fan in full. That year, my parents bought me the Doctor Who Annual for Christmas and it had a picture of Peter Davison on the cover. I looked at it and my first reaction was, “That’s not the Doctor! Who’s that?” I was confused, but at my mother’s urging, I opened the book and looked inside. The first thing in the book was a short article about the five Doctors, complete with artwork of each one. For the first time, I began to learn the history of this show that I had recently fallen in love with, and this was my first ever exposure to William Hartnell.

At the time, that exposure was little more than a name, a picture, and a few very brief details about his period of the show. It would be a long time before I actually got to watch any episodes with the first Doctor. Until then, there were the novels. During my early years of reading Target Doctor Who novels at various local libraries, I often gravitated very quickly to any that had pictures of the earlier Doctors on the cover, as I really wanted to know about the early years. It often bugged me that not every book pictured the Doctor on the cover. Since I didn’t have access to any episode guides, I often had no idea which Doctor a story might involve if there wasn’t a picture on the cover, and the back cover blurbs never specified which Doctor. Sometimes, a companion might be mentioned on the back cover and I’d recognize which Doctor that companion travelled with, but often, no companion was mentioned, or I didn’t recognize the one that was. At that time, I knew of Susan, and I soon came to learn of Ian and Barbara, but the first Doctor had a lot of other companions that I knew nothing about.

I remember reading Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks at some point early on. I had found a hardcover copy in my school library. I had never seen a hardcover Doctor Who book before, so this one particularly intrigued me. It was also written in first person, which was utterly strange for Doctor Who novels. Of course, I now know a great deal more about the mysterious book. It was written by David Whitaker, Doctor Who’s first script editor, and was a novelization of the original story featuring the Daleks. Originally published in 1964, it was the first-ever Doctor Who book (although I have no idea if the copy I read from was a first printing or not).

Through reading those old Doctor Who novelizations, I slowly started to piece together a bit of the show’s history, and I slowly started learning about the earlier Doctors. But it was a very incomplete view. The majority of the novels always seemed to feature the third or fourth Doctor, and ones with the first seemed to be exceedingly rare. And while I know now that Doctor Who episode guides existed, along with other behind-the-scenes material, such things were nowhere to be found where I was growing up. It was hard enough just finding old copies of the Target books. My knowledge of the first Doctor remained at the level of two Dalek stories (“The Daleks” and “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”), and maybe one or two other stories. That was about it.

It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that I finally got a more complete impression of the early Doctors. My great uncle wrote to the BBC on my behalf asking for background information on the show. In return, they sent me a complete episode guide! For the first time, I knew the names of all the William Hartnell stories (and Patrick Troughton and so on), including how many episodes each one had. On current Doctor Who, it was rare for a story to be anything other than four episodes, so I was quite surprised to see all sorts of bizarre lengths: seven episodes, three, even twelve! Unfortunately, this episode guide had no information beyond titles, number of episodes, and brief notes on companions joining and leaving, but it was a start. Over the next few years, I would finally start to find copies of various information books (the local book stores were finally starting to carry them), such as Peter Haining’s books: A Celebration, The Key to Time, and 25 Glorious Years.

Throughout all this time, however, I still had never actually seen a William Hartnell episode. How could I have? The only TV station we got that carried Doctor Who was TVOntario, and they never repeated sixties stories. They even skipped “The Five Doctors”, so I didn’t get to see Richard Hurndall’s version of the first Doctor. Home video was only just starting up. The very few Doctor Who stories released locally were exclusively Tom Baker stories. In recent years, I’ve heard fans reminisce about passing around bootlegged, multi-generational copies, but I certainly knew nothing of that at the time. I doubt it was going on in my home city of London, Ontario. In London at the time, it was incredibly difficult to find anyone who would even admit to watching Doctor Who (or any science fiction other than Star Trek), never mind anyone who might actually possess copies of episodes! Nevertheless, I did manage—quite unexpectedly—to acquire a VHS copy of “The Seeds of Death” before it was released on video in North America. That story became the first sixties story I ever watched. But I’ll go into details about that next week when I talk about the Second Doctor.

My first ever viewing of William Hartnell finally occurred when “The Five Doctors” was released on VHS in North America. A friend and I specially ordered copies from a local comic book store, which carried some science fiction videos. We were initially looked at unbelievingly when we said we wanted Doctor Who videos. We didn’t specifically order “The Five Doctors”. We were just interested in getting any. The store staff said they’d look into it. Well, a few weeks later, they got three stories in (the three most recent releases at the time), and carried them exclusively for close to a year, refusing to order any other stories (because the other stories weren’t “as popular”). One of those was “The Five Doctors” and I grabbed that one first. The story opens with a brief clip from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”—the Doctor’s famous departing speech to Susan. For the first time ever, I heard William Hartnell’s voice and saw him move. I was ecstatic. He was the only Doctor I hadn’t seen yet, so seeing him briefly in this story was like the fulfilment of a long quest. There was still so much more I hadn’t seen, but at least I had seen something! I also had Richard Hurndall’s performance to go by, since I had read that he had given a remarkable William Hartnell impersonation in the story. Alas, that’s something I actually disagree with now. I don’t think Hurndall did a very good Hartnell impersonation at all, which is disappointing as, for about a year or so, his performance was virtually all I had to go on, and it coloured my initial impression of William Hartnell.

Luckily, I would soon get to see the first Doctor stories for real. In 1989, YTV acquired the Canadian license for Doctor Who. The very first episode they aired was, oddly, “The Happiness Patrol” part one. They were starting with season 25 (season 26 was just starting in England), but aired “The Happiness Patrol” and “Remembrance of the Daleks” in reverse order. They did this with every future repeat, too. I have no idea why. Anyway, the voice-over during the closing credits of “The Happiness Patrol” part one suddenly announced that not only were the new episodes airing on Sunday evenings, but on weekday evenings, they would be airing everything, starting with the very first Doctor—every episode in order (well, minus the missing episodes, but they didn’t actually announce that).

I rushed home from school the very next day and, to my pure delight, got to see “An Unearthly Child”. Not only that, I taped it! It annoyingly had commercial breaks. It took a while to get used to that on YTV, as TVOntario didn’t have commercial breaks, but it was a minor annoyance. I had finally gotten to see a William Hartnell episode of Doctor Who! And over the next few months, I would get to see (and tape) all the William Hartnell stories that still existed in their entirety. Of course, I knew all about the missing episodes by then, but I often wondered during that time what less-informed viewers thought about what seemed to be unexplained jumps. The first two seasons were fairly complete, so it probably wasn’t as noticeable, but starting in the third season, companions would suddenly change from story to story. YTV made an announcement when the second Doctor stories started up that seasons four and five would “not be seen outside of the U.K.”, but other than that, there was no information ever offered about the missing stories. To be honest, I’m not really sure what they could have said.

Although I had finally seen all the complete William Hartnell stories, there were still the episodes from incomplete stories—stories where only some, but not all the episodes were missing. Eventually, those started to become available on home video releases such as The Hartnell Years. But even once those were available, the missing episodes remained unseen. Naturally, they remain unseen, apart from the very few that have been rediscovered in recent years, such as the third part of “Galaxy Four” two years ago. But nonetheless, there’s still a way to experience those episodes: the audio recordings. In much the same way that I taped Doctor Who on VHS in the 80’s, fans in the 60’s taped them on audio cassettes. Those have all been gathered and professionally restored and made publicly available.

It’s actually only in the last couple of years that I’ve finally been able to acquire the audios of all the missing episodes and listen to them. Although there’s added narration to fill in the missing visual details, it’s not quite the same experience as watching the episodes. Nonetheless, it’s still a way to experience these episodes, and many of them have left me hungering to see them one day for real. I hope against hope that all those episodes will one day be recovered and I’ll be able to watch stories like “The Myth Makers” and “The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Eve”.

Animated stories is another way to view missing episodes. The two missing episodes of “The Reign of Terror” have been animated, and the final episode of “The Tenth Planet” will soon be available in animated form on its DVD release. There are telesnap reconstructions as well. Many 60’s Doctor Who episodes were professionally photographed during transmission. If watched in succession, timed to the audio, they can provide another way to experience the episodes. Nothing will ever quite measure up to the real thing, however. Rumours of the recovery of a large haul of missing Doctor Who episodes have been circulating for quite some time now. While I remain cautiously sceptical, I sincerely hope some part of those rumours turns out to be true.

William Hartnell was immensely important to Doctor Who. Without him, there would be no show. His Doctor laid down the foundation from which all other Doctors have sprung. His importance in the show’s history should never be understated. However, I can’t deny his time on Doctor Who is not the time that has most affected my life as a viewer and fan. His period on the show is a highly enjoyable one, but it didn’t shape me the way other periods have. This isn’t any sort of indictment against Hartnell. He was a brilliant actor and a damn good Doctor. However, he wasn’t my first Doctor. He was actually my eighth Doctor, and discovering him was so piecemeal, it’s not surprising he’s had less of an impact on me and less of an influence. Still, I will never forget the thrill of seeing that opening moment of “The Five Doctors” or watching “An Unearthly Child” for the first time. Moments like those are priceless.

Next week, I’ll look at the Patrick Troughton years, which in many ways, came into my life in an even more piecemeal way than the Hartnell years.

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