In a recent diary, Embarking on a Journey into the World of Doctor Who, I discussed my decision to watch the entire 50-year series from the very beginning up to the present, and would now like to check in with some observations after having completed the first of the thus-far eleven Doctors. Here is my spoiler-free analysis below, for those who have not yet watched the First Doctor, and also for those who may want to revisit that part of the show's legacy.
I. The Doctor
The First Doctor was played by William Hartnell, and is a character that draws on a number of classical science fiction archetypes: The often crotchety but intellectually giddy old-man professor who adopts a paternal attitude toward the younger people around him - intrepid but not foolhardy, curious but cautious, and highly moral while still being realistic enough about people not to demand the impossible of others. However, also true to form, he is somewhat given to intellectual distraction, vanity, and irritability when faced with the energy and unpredictability of the young.
He contributes to a long tradition in British fiction of similar characters with roots in the Victorian era - an idealized version of the gentleman-explorer who seeks only knowledge and experience rather than plunder and fame. In fact, the First Doctor is very much a product of Victorian mannerisms on a superficial level, although his ethics are far more advanced and humble than those of the Imperial British aristocrats whom he resembles. Still, he often responds to youthful foolishness with pompous lectures and a stilted conversational style of the form, "What was that, My Dear? Oh, good heavens, I do say that was quite a rash decision! Quite a rash decision indeed!" However, Hartnell pulls it off well enough, so the result is enjoyable though not spectacular.
Moreover, despite the stiltedness, we still see the Doctor show genuine emotional vulnerability at times that is occasionally moving, and these displays are infrequent and restrained enough that they remain credible and potent rather than contrived or maudlin. Also, the range of emotions is interesting in itself, since despite his usually somewhat abstract demeanor, on rare occasions he is truly outraged at some grievous affront to fundamental morality, and on others deflated in resignation at some disaster he was completely powerless to prevent despite all his talents. In a few instances, he is even lonely, and it's easy to feel for him after following him through his adventures.
As this is the so-far only Doctor I have observed thoroughly, I can't yet make any comparisons with the others, but Hartnell certainly did a worthy job in establishing the character and the "Whoniverse" surrounding him. Even if he turned out to be the "least great" of the Doctors, which seems unlikely, that could only mean that the others were superb and not that Hartnell was inadequate in any way. My one criticism of the performance - and it isn't even really that, since it actually tended to add to the enjoyment of the show - is that the First Doctor was at times outshone by his companions.
II. General Observations
Large swaths of the First Doctor's episodes are missing from the BBC archives and presumed lost forever due to a short-sighted studio purge in the '70s, although some that were thought lost have subsequently been recovered from materials loaned to other institutions. However, even the missing ones can still be appreciated since their audio tracks and still photos from the shooting are available and have been assembled into reconstructions of the episodes. While it might sound at first like a paltry way to enjoy a TV show, these reconstructions are mostly adequate and often very effective, including subtitled captions to explain visual events that aren't conveyed by the audio or the stills.
Although Doctor Who was supposedly begun as a children's show, the quality and intelligence of the storytelling is often so pronounced that there's almost no evidence of that fact - not to mention the rather alarming body counts that quickly begin to rack up, as well as politically advanced themes that couldn't possibly have been understood by or appealed to children. However, there are occasionally serials or episodes within serials that are cringe-inducingly juvenile, and also moments where the writers are phoning it in and have the characters behave like imbeciles for no reason.
The journeys of the First Doctor are roughly divided into two categories: Science fiction, which takes place in the future and/or on other planets, and Earth history, which typically takes the form of an educational adventure designed to highlight historically significant events or civilizations. When done well, the former can be stunningly good and engaging, and when botched, the results are a catastrophic B-movie farce replete with such silliness (for instance) as people walking around in insect costumes and villains hamming it up like the most ludicrous comic book characters.
The history plays, when done well, can be educational even for the educated adult - despite the fact (which must be forgiven due to the era in which it was filmed) that most non-white roles are played by white actors in makeup - and provide insight not only into the past, but into the characters as they engage with utterly foreign cultures. When done in a slipshod way, however, the historical serials are little more than trivial costume capers that rely on movie portrayals of the past rather than what they were actually like, and these can be somewhat annoying.
In both cases, something that strikes one immediately - and requires a strong decision to suspend disbelief - is that effectively every conscious being throughout the universe and throughout time not only speaks English, but reads it too, and the show doesn't even bother with some throwaway techno-magic to explain it like a "universal translator." It's just taken as a given that Kublai Khan, Saladin, Maximilien Robespierre, Catherine de Medici, and post-nuclear mutant aliens a million years from now speak and read English. I've always found such lazy oversights in TV and movie sci-fi to be missed opportunities, since so much could be learned from the struggle to communicate.
One persistent irritant in the show as it has unfolded so far is the occasional reliance on incredibly stupid villains whose behavior is exaggerated beyond all taste and credulity. Part of what makes it so irritating is the fact that the show repeatedly proves itself capable of better, sometimes having villains be very cunning and perceptive - at times seeing through the protagonist's plans the moment they're hatched, which is incredibly unusual in a TV show - but then the writers go and slap some makeup or a silly foam alien suit on some finger-tenting, "I shall conquer ze vorld!"-style stock evill and expect there to be a story there. The people in charge of the show under the First Doctor must simply not have been comfortable letting it achieve its full potential. Still, the good stuff is definitely worth wading through the tripe.
The original crew of the TARDIS consisted of the Doctor, his teenaged granddaughter Susan, and two of her teachers from school, Ian and Barbara. The four of them together gelled very well, creating a kind of nuclear family of explorers occupying three different age brackets with the Doctor as paterfamilias. It was this dynamic that really got the show going and made some otherwise dubious episodes workable, and at least one of them would be worth watching at any given time even if the other three were phoning it in.
1. Susan (Carole Ann Ford)
We're introduced to the Doctor's precocious granddaughter in the first ever episode of Doctor Who, in a remarkably effective performance that made her seem mysterious but cute and endearing. However, in the rest of the series, Susan was often neglected if not mistreated by the writers, making her behave like a whiny, helpless toddler who ignores the obvious, never learns from experience, and responds to the slightest upsetting surprise with inconsolable hysterics. The squandering of Susan's original premise - a preternaturally gifted girl who takes after her grandfather - in favor of an annoying, hysterical weakling for the men to constantly rescue from her own stupidity was the Original Sin of the First Doctor's writers. But there are still moments where we're allowed appreciative glimpses of the character that should have been.
2. Ian (William Russel)
Ian is the intelligent Everyman character - moral but pragmatic, brave but hardly a stock hero, personable but kind of nerdy, and utterly human in his humble ambitions and beliefs. His practical competence and skepticism sometimes puts him at odds with the more ethereal Doctor, but he cares about those around him, knows how much he needs them, and is willing to sacrifice for them - not out of some quixotic ideal, but simply because he's a person who wants to protect others. He is an upbeat fellow, and yet capable of a quiet, focused gravity that at times is stronger than the Doctor's. His main failing is in acting paternalistically to his age-contemporary, intellectual equal, and faculty colleague Barbara, although this can be ascribed to cultural mores of the time rather than a personal character flaw.
3. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill)
Barbara is the shining star of the first half of the First Doctor's run, and frequently steals the show despite lazy writing sometimes forcing her into the same kind of helpless-hysteric role as Susan. She is the perfect feminine counterpoint to Ian's Everyman - a strong, intelligent, and selfless person who looks after the other members of the TARDIS crew, and on several occasions directly challenges the Doctor's authority by launching her own plans to save her friends against his wishes. Invariably the Doctor turns out to have had the greater insight, but her ideas are often brilliant nonetheless, and her decision to undertake them courageous. Moreover, the character isn't just written that way - Jacqueline Hill brings solidity, intensity, perceptiveness, and warmth to a character whose strength could just as easily have come off as shrewishness.
One of her independent initiatives in the first season serial The Aztecs gives rise to the single most insightful serial of the First Doctor, completely makes the story, and in a way establishes the entire moral and philosophical foundation of the series. The character is so compelling that it's actually kind of offensive when the writing in some serials forces Barbara into the role of the helpless scream queen. You think, "That's not how Barbara would react - that's just some stock princess waiting to be rescued." If I had been alive to see this series as a kid, it's easy to imagine having a crush on Barbara.
After the original three companions have all left, the turnover in new companions starts to accelerate, with seven new characters alternately entering and then leaving the crew of TARDIS in the final one-and-a-half seasons of the First Doctor - two of whom we never really get to know before they die violently (once again, really not a kids' show), and one of which is only present in a single serial. Only three of the remainder are with the Doctor long enough to develop characters worth discussing:
4. Vicki (Maureen O'Brien)
Vicki shows a remarkable vitality, energy, and humor - a presence that is both substantial and yet light, perceptive and yet easygoing. The performance is almost an innocent kind of sardonic, like a young Diane Keaton role in a Woody Allen movie. If the stars had aligned to allow it, Vicki could have carried the entire rest of the First Doctor's run, but it was only for a limited time. Given the lazy randomness and improbability of the reason for Vicki's departure from the TARDIS crew, I can only imagine it was a casting issue rather than a deliberate sidelining of the character. Such is television.
5. Steven (Peter Purves)
Unlike Ian's intellectual version of the ideal Common Man, Steven is more realistically ordinary - not quite a dumb jock, but more of a cavalier blue-collar type who makes up for relative cluelessness by being personable and clever in a pinch. He doesn't make much of an impression, but still seems present and credible.
6. Dodo (Jackie Lane)
At first Dodo's springy cheeriness seems endearing, but pretty quickly you realize there's no there there - it's exactly the same vibe as a live-action character on Sesame Street: Affectedly chipper and superficially cute, just like the character's name. It was hard to care when Dodo suddenly disappears from the show without plausible explanation, in an abrupt book-end to the equally nonsensical circumstances under which she first joined the Doctor. Dodo belonged on some puppet show targeted at 3-year-olds, not Doctor Who.
As a completist, I want to recommend seeing the entirety of the First Doctor in order to fully appreciate it. But for those who prefer to be more selective, here is a spoiler-free quality-breakdown of all the First Doctor's serials:
An Unearthly Child is the introduction to the series, and as such cannot be skipped. Also, it's very good in its own right - especially the first episode. The remainder of the serial takes place in a prehistoric cave culture, and delves into some pretty involved and surprisingly believable Stone Age politics that contains insights about fundamental human nature. It's also pretty dark and morbid, and immediately makes clear that "kids show" really is not an adequate description for the series even at its inception.
The Daleks introduces us to a villainous civilization that will be an ongoing staple of the Whoniverse throughout its development. It's a remarkably well-constructed and self-contained story covering a number of different environments, with the protagonists and their allies solving a wide variety of problems both practical and moral along the way. There is some silliness to it - e.g., the monstrous villains look like slowly-roving trash cans and speak like Hitler after inhaling helium - but the performance of the story is so sincere that you really can't hold the lack of technical credibility against it. The message of the story is shockingly racist and shallow, but once again, sincerity makes up for it.
The Aztecs, as mentioned before, provides some of the key foundational philosophy of Doctor Who, and allows Barbara to shine brightly. The tone of the serial is elegiac as it addresses such clearly non-child-friendly topics as human sacrifice in the humble terms of tragic history without judging the people who lived it. Of course, the "Aztecs" are white Englishmen in brown makeup and jaguar costumes, but the performances aren't insulting or stereotype-driven, as far as I can tell.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth extends the mythology of the Daleks to a future occupation of Earth occurring in the distant past of their introductory serial. The logic of that chronology is never adequately explained, and because they look exactly the same as in that introduction, plainly contradicts the origin story it establishes for them. However, it is an enjoyable serial with good acting and worthwhile moments that represents a pillar of the early Whoniverse.
The Space Museum is essential mainly for its first episode, where a number of avant-garde ideas are initially explored (although they're largely neglected by the rest of the serial), as well as for a particularly sudden and unbidden act of levity that is highly memorable. Also, Vicki shines especially brightly in this serial, and it's enjoyable overall even if nothing is especially accomplished.
The Chase is a grab-bag of widely varying episodes and environments that, as a whole, add up to a whole lot of fun. It's not really an idea story, but it is very engaging and adventurous. One interesting tidbit about it: Vicki makes a shockingly specific prediction about the long-term historical popularity of The Beatles, and this in an episode aired just a year and a half after their first performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Just imagine how ballsy that is: Try to picture sifting through real TV performances by new bands last year and then saying on a science fiction TV show that one of them is going to still be important generations later...and being right. Moreover, footage from a real Beatles performance is used in one of the episodes that is the only surviving footage of that performance because the TV show that originally aired it lost the tape, so it's not just historically significant as a Doctor Who story - it's historically significant to real history.
The War Machines takes place in the present of 1966, but is amazingly compelling and intense through most of the story. The plot resembles that of the classic science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project that was put out the same year (I have no clue if there was any relationship between the two), and actually replicates some of the same thrilling tone and sense of urgency. Part of it is achieved through the style of the serial, with action-oriented camerawork that hadn't been seen before on Doctor Who as well as genuinely menacing electronic sounds that are actually hypnotic rather than annoying. It is truly a classic episode.
Marco Polo is the first of the reconstructed episodes, and the rebuild works well enough, particularly since the audio is very clear and the stills have been colorized. It's not especially entertaining, but one does appreciate the level of effort that went into it.
The Sensorites combines elements of spookiness and psychological terror with a character study of a civilization with an unusual approach to government. Kind of peters out near the end, but is worth seeing.
The Reign of Terror is another historical piece, although only parts of it have had to be reconstructed so there is plenty of real television. Its take on the French Revolution is engaging and somewhat educational, with a distinctly balanced eye, as well as providing an interesting perspective on Robespierre.
The Rescue is a two-episode mystery that actually becomes obvious not long into the first episode, but the way it's handled and the quality of the characters - particularly since this is our introduction to Vicki - keeps it engaging nonetheless. It kind of squanders an opportunity to educate about superficial judgments, but it's a forgivable failing.
The Massacre of St. Batholomew's Eve delves into a notorious 16th-century ethnic cleansing event when the Protestants of France were virtually exterminated by mobs of Catholics at the behest of the French Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. It's an event Americans typically don't learn much about because it hasn't had much of a direct impact on our history, and has never been adapted into a Hollywood movie (although a very good French movie exists, La Reine Margot, based on the Dumas novel). The Doctor Who treatment of the event is pretty good, with some characteristically honest moral reflection.
The Tenth Planet takes place on Earth of the then-future 1986, and isn't all that bad a prediction as far as it goes: Although the details are all wrong, the over- and under-estimates balance each other out well. The villains at first seem goofy, but are soon found to be legitimately creepy and interesting. The premise is utter nonsense, but you don't notice much.
3. Acceptable / Noble Effort
The Web Planet is a case study in how sweeping literary ambition can become a train-wreck when attempting to interpret it through the medium of B-grade visual logistics. You see what they're trying to do and appreciate them for it, but can't help grimacing at what actually happens - people in insect costumes and foam-rubber-and-tissue progenitors of the baddies from Metroid. I figure if you watch Doctor Who to any thorough degree, you owe it to them to watch this - this episode suffered on the Cross of early television for your sake.
The Crusade is kind of a trifling interpretation of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Holy Land - not that the dismal reality was any more profound. Doesn't really add anything, but doesn't take anything away either.
Galaxy 4 is a reconstruction, but has a some notable elements, unconventional villains, some interesting sound effects, and one of the more engagingly exotic-looking aliens - one who wasn't just a guy in a costume. It's also got a moral, although one of the more obvious ones rather than anything requiring philosophical reflection.
The Myth Makers is kind of a departure in that it doesn't depict actual history, but rather Homeric myth - specifically, the Iliad. Still, it's enjoyable enough.
The Ark is at first a little formulaic on the "trouble in paradise" model, but then it radically switches gears and the TARDIS crew are faced with the one of the most ludicrously hilarious villains ever. It's very, very funny, albeit unintentionally so.
The Gunfighters is the only First Doctor serial that takes place in the United States (apart from a very brief scene in another serial where they only stop in the US for a few minutes), and is set in the events surrounding the gunfight at the OK Corral. It has zero historical value - because seriously, how important is any Old West gunfight to anyone other than the people who fought in it? The time and place were chaotic - other than that, there's not much to learn from it. But it is fun, and has an original song that's actually pretty entertaining (although critics reputedly despised the everloving hell out of it). And while the American accents affected by the British actors are cringeworthy, I actually found the awfulness kind of fun.
The Savages is competent and nontrivial, and has a moral about exploitation.
The Edge of Destruction is a pointless, tedious bottle episode that literally makes no sense.
The Keys of Marinus is a whole lot of nothing, happening over many different kinds of scenery. However, the second-to-last episode might be worth watching for its believably Eichmann-like heartless totalitarian bureaucracy.
Planet of Giants is Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with some stupid murder mystery plot that makes no sense and Barbara written as an idiot.
The Romans is a complete trivialization of Nero's Rome, with the "serious" parts being little more than Cecil B. DeMille tropes and the "light-hearted" moments basically Mel Brooks slapstick. It's neither fun nor educational, neither philosophical nor thrilling.
The Time Meddler is boring, senseless, and inexplicably contradicts key tenets of the Whoniverse that had been established in earlier serials while introducing a pointless, superfluous, and unengaging new character. Nothing to see here.
Mission to the Unknown is a random "cutaway" prequel single-episode to a subsequent serial that doesn't involve a single regular character of Doctor Who. Besides that, the episode is missing and has to be seen as a reconstruction - and a shitty reconstruction at that, which begins abruptly in medias res with inexplicable behavior by unknown characters who mean nothing, have no personalities, and are never heard from again.
The Daleks' Master Plan would be acceptable if not for the main human villain - a white actor in "Asian" makeup to look Chinese who is cartoonishly arrogant, exaggeratedly devious in ways that could not possibly fool anyone, and utterly stupid, yet is supposedly the highest-ranking human official in the solar system. Every scene with him in it is just awful, and the rest is painfully ridiculous. The Daleks and a council of other conspirators from other species has come together to plot the conquest of the universe with a super-weapon created from a mineral found only on...Uranus. Seriously. (sigh)
The Celestial Toymaker is some artsy-fartsy community theater interpretation of a fantasy skit or something. Utterly boring, pointless, implausible, unpleasant, stupid, silly, unimaginative, and unproductive.
The Smugglers...apparently there were pirates and unscrupulous tax officials in the 17th century. Who knew?
If you haven't yet seen it and wish to get started on seeing the First Doctor, the first half of the first episode is available on Youtube here, and was compelling enough when I saw it to get me started on the series:
Anyway, if you're interested in the complete surviving material of the First Doctor - not including the pointless and hollow Peter Cushing movie adaptations of The Daleks1 and The Invasion of the Daleks2 - they're available for torrent download if you don't have any ethical quandaries about that sort of acquisition (and you shouldn't, since they're half a century old, and anyone claiming copyright that long is probably just a corporation suckling on the works of the dead for all eternity). Here's a link to the description page:
The first seven Doctors are also available for download in their entirety here:
If you are interested in more official sources, good look finding and affording them all.