William Hartnell is the original Doctor. He had nothing to compare to and he probably had the hardest job out of any actor who has played the role. With that considered, he did an exceptional job of kick starting a character who has remained a favourite of millions for over half a century.
In the first ever episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, Hartnell’s Doctor was quite a spiky and unlikable character. Before the show broadcast, the plan was to make Ian Chesterton the main character, with the Doctor just supporting. You could easily understand why after watching the first episode. Ian seemed perfectly nice, brave and loyal. The Doctor came across as unfriendly and verging on cruel. His wicked laugh as he locked Barbara and Ian inside the TARDIS did make you question the Doctor’s intentions. Looking past the first episode and throughout the rest of the serial, the Doctor hardly improved, he was still quite a prickly and dry character and it was difficult to see how he could possibly sustain a personality that lacked any charisma and make the show work.
This was quickly fixed though. Both the writing and the acting improved for the Doctor in time for the debut of his arch enemy. The Daleks was the second serial the show produced and it was clear there was an attempt to make the Doctor a more viewer friendly character. Although he spent quite a bit of time unconscious, the Doctor endeared himself to fans as a truly caring person, the character we know and love today. Not only did he care for Susan’s wellbeing throughout, he consistently made sure new companions Ian and Barbara were alright too. This was a turning point for the Doctor as we saw him putting himself before others on several occasions and it was the first story where I loved this incarnation.
Throughout the rest of his tenure, Hartnell’s Doctor remained one of the grumpier versions, but he also had an immense amount of charm. His farewell speech to Susan is undoubtedly one of his iconic moments and in my opinion, it’s one of the finest speeches any Doctor has made in the show’s history. Giving Susan no option but to remain on Earth and giving her the identity she craved was a noble goodbye for the Doctor to his beloved granddaughter and it’s one of my favourite companion exits.
Hartnell’s last appearance in The Tenth Planet doesn’t feel like a regeneration story. Of course, regeneration wasn’t even a word that was used in the show then. The Doctor was just changing his face and that was it. It’s a shame because it would’ve been fitting for Hartnell to get a more deserved goodbye. The story itself is strong but the change from Hartnell to Patrick Troughton was extremely quick. Nowadays we see Doctors given farewell tours and exit speeches. It would’ve been nice for Hartnell to be given the chance to say goodbye. An Adventure in Space in Time by Mark Gatiss is a biopic that beautifully shows William Hartnell’s time in the TARDIS. Released in 2013, near the fiftieth anniversary of the show, the production gave Hartnell the appreciation he deserves. If you haven’t seen it, I high to reccomend you watch it to understand the sacrifices the actor made to succeed in the role.
Although actors have enjoyed more success and received more love than William Hartnell as the Doctor, there’s no doubt that without such a stellar first actor, the show wouldn’t still be around today. Hartnell did superbly to quickly adapt his character into a sparkling and mysterious man who cared greatly for his friends and family. Gatiss’ biopic makes you truly appreciate how far Hartnell went and how desperate he was for the show to succeed. As a Whovian, I can only thank him for how hard he worked. Without such a dedicated and talented actor, the show wouldn’t have worked and we wouldn’t have had the fifty years of Doctor Who since. Despite some wrong lines and an iffy start, William Hartnell’s Doctor deserves love and demands respect from all fans.