Fifty three years to the day since the Doctor first appeared on our screens, join me as I examine the high points of the Hartnell era with a look at some of his best televised stories. Serials that entertained then and now, and stories that have had a lasting impact on the show across the five plus decades since its inception.
Remember this is just for fun! I've listed the serials in a top ten but if you disagree with my choices or the order I put them in why not present your opinion in the comments section below?
And we begin with number ten…
10. An Unearthly Child
“Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?”
Imagine watching this one live on Saturday November 23rd 1963.
We are swiftly introduced to history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton, with whom she wishes to discuss unusual mutual pupil Susan Foreman who appears to have an unearthly knowledge of science, inaccurate knowledge of history and impossible knowledge of what was charting in the 1980s (i.e. twenty years later).
They follow her home that evening (undoubtedly they would get fired and possibly even arrested if they tried this today but just go with it) and discover that her address is not a house but a junkyard. Here they meet an old man known only as “The Doctor” who seems to have locked Susan up inside a police box. They fight their way past him to get inside and, well, you know the rest.
The second through fourth episodes of this serial don’t capitalise on the pure genius of the first instalment and devolve into little more than caveman politics and firemaking, but still that first episode gets everything SOOOO very right that I couldn’t justify leaving it out. Essential viewing.
9. The Web Planet
“They were triumphs of imagination. It may surprise you now, but something like The Web Planet lived powerfully and expansively in my head for decades […] I’m glad to say that the Menoptra eventually flitted back into my dreams, where they belong.”
That noise you just heard was the sound of a million fans sharpening their pitchforks and coming after me to make me pay for putting The Web Planet into any kind of top ten. Put down your weapons and let me try to justify my putting it here, if I can.
You’re probably thinking of how the Zarbi, Menoptra, Optera and Animus all look rubbish. You’re right. They do. They’re quite possibly the most obviously Men-In-Rubber-Suits monsters in the history of the programme, which is really saying something in a world where Nimon and Mrykas exist. Much has been made of the wobbly sets, the poor effects and the laughable costumes. The attempt to create an alien environment by putting jelly on the camera never really convinces.
But if you can get past these things and engage with suspension of disbelief – surely a sci-fi fan’s bread and butter? – you’ll find that there’s a good story here. The Doctor and companions find themselves on an alien world of giant insects that worship an oversized tentacle monster. The Web Planet plays out trying to use this to creep out the audience and if you allow yourself to go with it then you’ll find a wonderful piece of television that well deserves a serious reevaluation.
8. The Rescue
“This is Koquillian! Open the door!”
After the departure of his granddaughter Susan, the Doctor gets his first new companion since the show's inception. Vicki is introduced early on in The Rescue and immediately you find yourself rooting for her to get out of her tricky situation: She’s stuck alone in a crashed spaceship as one of only two survivors and constantly menaced by Koquillian and his facemask of terror.
What follows is a lighthearted two-part fluff piece that marks two noteworthy firsts: The first new companion and the first time the series tried to do comedy. When the true nature of Koquillian’s plot is revealed its makes no sense that this is what he would do but you can let it go. Why? Because the cast are all clearly enjoying themselves and the script is so witty and entertaining that you can’t help yourself smiling all the way through! That’s why.
7. The Daleks
“We'd better keep an eye on him. He seems to have a knack of getting himself into trouble.”
After three episodes of caveman in-fighting tedium we finally get to go into space and encounter an alien for the first time. Episode one “The Dead Planet” is an iconic piece of television from start to end. The TARDIS lands on an alien world, Skaro, where a huge metal city can be seen. The Doctor insists that it should be studied for scientific purposes – so off we go to find out what’s there.
What awaits us is the moment that set up the show’s future and ensures that it would live on today, fifty three years later. Barbara is threatened by an unseen menace. She presses up against the wall and can only scream as we see a stick with a toilet plunger attached to it sliding into view. Back in 1963 you'd be left waiting seven whole days to discover that toilet plunger is actually a Dalek! What an entrance for the show's most iconic villains.
6. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth
“During all the years I've been taking care of you, you in return have been taking care of me. You are still my grandchild and always will be. But now, you're a woman too. I want you to belong somewhere, to have roots of your own. With David you will be able to find those roots and live normally like any woman should do. Believe me, my dear; your future lies with David and not with a silly old buffer like me. One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears and no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. Goodbye, Susan. Goodbye, my dear.”
It’s hardly a surprise that the Daleks should be the first ever returning monster in the history of the series. In a trip to the future, some 200 years later than the original broadcast, the crew of the TARDIS discover London is overrun by Daleks. The population of Earth have been brainwashed to become basically slaves and so the Doctor and companions take it on themselves to save the world from the Daleks.
If that all sounds terribly familiar then it should! The Dalek Invasion Of Earth sets the template for every alien invasion story that Doctor Who has done since, whether it be Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, Slitheen or anything else you care to mention. It all starts here.
But the most famous bit has got to be the Doctor’s farewell speech to Susan. This marks the first ever departure of a companion and was a key stepping-stone on the path to the show’s regenerative longevity.
5. The Time Meddler
“That is the dematerializing control, and that, over yonder, is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner; those are the doors; that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy! Now please stop buggering me!”
Fans of the Jon Pertwee years often cite the character of the Master for why they so love that period. Those same fans may be surprised to find the William Hartnell years had already tried basically the same thing over half a decade earlier.
But while the Master is in it for the EEEEEVULLLLSSSS, the Monk has much less clear motives. He goes around changing history just for the fun of it as an experiment. What would happen if the pivotal events of 1066 played out differently? The Monk is here to find out! He’ll do this by destroying the lesser-known Viking invasion of the year, thus when King Harold II fights off William’s Norman army he’s a stronger force to be reckonned with and doesn’t lose the battle. That’s the idea anyway. Suffice to say that the Doctor puts a stop to it!
As the story plays out you realise that The Time Meddler is both a dark drama and a cracking comedy. While the sights of pillaging Vikings is as dark as anything (complete with scenes of implied rape), the interactions between the Monk and the Doctor are played for laughs with both subtle and slapstick humour. Peter Butterworth, of Carry On fame, plays the Monk so expect to have a bit of a chuckle when he’s on screen. This is also the story that features Hartnell’s “space helmet for a cow” line so bonus points for that.
4. The Aztecs
“Yes, I made some cocoa and got engaged.”
This is a marvelous depiction of ancient Aztec culture in Mexico, which just so happens to be one of history teacher Barbara’s specialist subjects, that dwells on the idea of Barbara trying desperately to convince the people not to sacrifice one of their own to some pagan deity. This savagery is portrayed in direct contrast with the beauty and majesty of this civilisation and it all makes for a compelling example of period drama.
No, really, period drama is the best way to describe The Aztecs! Look no further than the thoroughly convincing sets and costumes. There’s not an alien to be seen either, and that’s a good thing. I wish they’d make more stories like this today. Now the Doctor can’t go anywhere in the past without finding some kind of alien/robot/monster waiting for him there.
The plot is a surprisingly grim one too. Barbara, having been mistaken for a goddess, tries to convince the people not to engage in further human sacrifices but would, if successful, be changing history. The Doctor’s passionate plea to her to let history take its course has been reproduced many a time in the revived series – the concept of fixed points in time started here – and adds a fascinating moral element to the story. When the sacrificial victim ends up allowing himself to be sacrificed anyway it brings The Aztecs to a sad conclusion but also a satisfying one.
3. The Massacre Of St Bartholomew's Eve
“My dear Steven, history sometimes gives us a terrible shock, and that is because we don't quite fully understand. Why should we? After all, we're all too small to realise its final pattern. Therefore don't try and judge it from where you stand. I was right to do as I did. Yes, that I firmly believe. Even after all this time he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions. He did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors. Now they're all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan, or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton, Chesterton, they were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can't. I can't.”
The Massacre Of St Bartholomew's Eve is a fascinating story and also one that happens to be entirely missing from the archives in all four episodes, with only the soundtrack surviving. That’s a shame but luckily it doesn’t hurt the story since it works so well anyway.
The plot sees the Doctor and Steven, fresh from a particularly difficult encounter with the Daleks, arrive in France on the eve of a religious genocide. By pure coincidence the villainous Abbot Of Amboise looks just like the Doctor, so we have a beautiful twin performance from Hartnell in both roles. He never lets his Doctor slip into his Abbot or vice versa. If you want proof that Hartnell was an amazing actor compare his two characters here.
When the story concludes with the Doctor refusing t0 stop the massacre or even to save a single life we get all the bubbling tension between the Doctor and Steven out in the open at last, all the death and destruction he’s witnessed finally takes its toll and Steven tells the Doctor exactly what he thinks. The speech the Doctor gives at this point stands as one of the high points of the William Hartnell years.
2. The Romans
“Now then, there's one thing you've got to learn about me. When I say we go to Rome, then we go to Rome.”
While the series made its first attempt at comedy in The Rescue it was really the following story (i.e. this one) where the genre was mastered. The Romans plays out like a farce, but a good one that never feels as cringe-worthy as it reads on paper.
Part of that is down to the marvelous script that’s filled to bursting point with hilarious lines and blisteringly funny setpieces, it's also part down to the way the cast deliver it. Hartnell goes back to his comedy roots here as the Doctor is mistaken for a famous harpist and tries desperately to avoid having to play the harp because he doesn’t know how. Meanwhile Ian has to escape the gladiator games and Barbara becomes a slave. At one point the Doctor inspires Nero to burn down Rome.
It’s strange really that The Romans should stand as my number two favourite Hartnell story seeing as it’s the kind I usually don’t like. That said it couldn’t be further removed (tonally speaking) from the serial which claims the number one spot...
1. The Daleks’ Master Plan
“I am a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot!”
Describing what makes The Daleks' Master Plan so bloody brilliant is tricky because it’s so versatile. With a huge jungle planet, a swamp of invisible monsters, a spaceship chase across space, two or three dead companions (one of them is ambiguous if he counts) and a plot to sell out the solar system by the villainous Mavic Chen working in league with the Daleks, this story has it all!
Clocking in at a whopping 12 episodes and over 5 hours’ worth of footage (of which only 3 episodes remain) this is not for the faint hearted but it’s well worth taking the plunge and giving it a go. Hartnell’s performance here is the highlight of his career and Kevin Stoney gives the best performance ever by a guest star as Chen.
Above all else though, The Daleks Master Plan marked the first time that the Daleks were seen as the universe conquering threat we know them as today. The whole thing stands as a true achievement in the show’s long production history that every fan should experience at some point. After the recent success of The Power Of The Daleks, the campaign to animate this serial starts here.
Happy Birthday Doctor Who, here's to the next fifty three years!
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.