Doctor Who Profile: The First Doctor

William Hartnell as the First Doctor, Doctor Who

William Hartnell as the First Doctor, Doctor Who

The First Doctor

Portrayed by: William Hartnell

Companion(s): Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, Vicki, Steven Taylor, Katarina, Dodo Chaplet, Ben Jackson, Polly

Tenure: 28 stories, from An Unearthly Child (Nov, 1963) to The Tenth Planet (Oct, 1966). The First Doctor would later return in The Three Doctors (Dec, 1972) and, played by a different actor, in The Five Doctors (Nov, 1983)

Signature look: Edwardian ensemble, complete with frock coat and cane. Along with his coat, he also often wore a long grey scarf and distinctive black hat

Catchphrase: “Hmm?” Also, calling Ian by the wrong name.

Personality: The Doctor begins the series as a rather violent, gruff old man. As the Tenth Doctor later says in Time Crash, “Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important like you do when you’re young”. In the pilot, he kidnaps Ian and Barbara, whisking them off to parts unknown (by him as well as them) when they discover the TARDIS and in his early stories, he nearly clubs a caveman to death, commits genocide gleefully, and lies to his Companions whenever it suits him.

The First Doctor is incredibly shrewd, but is often short with his granddaughter Susan, which he seems to regret once she leaves the TARDIS (or more accurately, when he abandons her for her own good). Afterward, he softens noticeably, and due to the influence of Ian and particularly Barbara, he becomes a much kinder and involved man, unwilling to remain detached when injustice arises. By the end of his tenure, he’s much more of a lovable curmudgeon and occasional kook. The First Doctor’s development is the most dramatic in the series’ run.

Best TARDIS team: Ian, Barbara, and Vicki

Worst TARDIS team: Dodo, Ben, and Polly

Signature foe: The First Doctor faces the Daleks several times, making them his signature foe, but his most memorable enemy is the Celestial Toymaker.

Best Stories: “An Unearthly Child” kicks things off very nicely, though unfortunately the rest of the story doesn’t live up to the first episode. The Daleks is great, as is The Aztecs, and it’s hard to argue with the silly fun of The RomansThe Celestial Toymaker, and The Gunfighters

Worst Stories: Everything besides the first episode of An Unearthly Child is pretty painful, and while it was a very interesting experiment, The Web Planet is ultimately a failure.

Highlights of tenure: Acting as defense council in The Keys of Marinus, romancing Cameca and accidentally getting engaged in The Aztecs, arguing morality with Barbara in that same story and with Steven in The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, playing a disembodied Trilogic Game with the Celestial Toymaker, and saying goodbye to Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Lowlights of tenure: Well, nearly committing murder to make his (and his Companions’) lives a bit more convenient in his first story and actively committing genocide against the Daleks in his second story (without a second thought) is pretty low. The main lowlight of the First Doctor’s tenure though is that due to Hartnell’s failing health, he was forced to appear in fewer and fewer episodes, until his regeneration in The Tenth Planet

First Words: [to Ian and Barbara] “What are you doing here?”

Death/Final Words: The Doctor collapses due to his failing health once he gets back to the TARDIS with Ben and Polly after facing off the Cybermen in their first appearance, The Tenth Planet, and seemingly dies of old age. His final words are, “Ah, yes! Thank you. It’s good. Keep warm.”

Memorable quotes:

– “You can’t rewrite history. Not one line!” The Aztecs

– “Our lives are important — at least to us — and as we see, so we learn… Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.” The Reign of Terror

– “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. … One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, 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.” The Dalek Invasion of Earth

– [to the Second and Third Doctors] “So you’re my replacements- a dandy and a clown!” The Three Doctors

Other notes: William Hartnell had a long career playing first comedic roles and then tough guys before starting on Doctor Who. Though he was initially reticent to take the role, doing so to help steer his career away from the military roles he’d been typecast in, he came to love playing the Doctor and being a beloved figure to children across Britain. When producers came up with the idea of regeneration, Hartnell gave his suggestion for who should be his successor, reportedly saying, “There’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton.”




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