|Maybe I'll just sneak inside....|
The first time I saw William Hartnell playing Doctor Who, I wondered why they had chosen to build a show around him. The first Doctor seemed so old, so gruff and irritable, that I couldn’t imagine people bonding with the character. But over time, as I watched more stories, I began to understand his appeal. He hadn’t wanted to go anywhere with Ian and Barbara, the two meddling schoolteachers who forced their way into the Tardis. He had just wanted to travel with his granddaughter Susan. He might have been a loner by nature, but he made allowances for Ian and Barbara, and gradually accepted them into his life.
His companions would come and go, and William Hartnell’s first Doctor would gradually accept them all. In his own way, he came to love and care for them. He might have been old, but he never lost his child-like awe of discovering new places and meeting new people. He might been moody and precious when events didn’t go his way, but tenacity and wisdom helped him navigate through whatever obstacles beset him. When faced by danger, his first thought might be to return to the Tardis, but once he got to know the locals, he risked his life to help them. I suppose some of the same things could be said about all the Doctors, but William Hartnell had his own, unique flair. As I watched his stories, I bonded with his portrayal of the Doctor.
A journey that began over twenty years ago has now ended. Earlier this week, I watched “The Smugglers.” This particular story came my way from Loose Cannon, a company that recreates lost Doctor Who stories with production photos, photos taken off the TV during the original transmission, and whatever video (from snippets to complete episodes) that still exists. These images are married with audio that fans recorded during the show's original transmission, using their home cassette players. While they cannot recreate the lost video, these reconstructions (also known as telesnaps) offer an approximation of what once existed, and allow the mind to fill in the rest.
Over three series (and the first two stories of the fourth), from September 19, 1963 to October 8, 1966, William Hartnell appeared in 29 serials. This adds up to 134 twenty-five minute episodes. My journey with William Hartnell started with home-recorded videotapes of stories edited together for sale to the American market, progressed through official BBC VHS and DVD releases, and was completed with reconstructions made by die-hard fans of the show. Occasionally, the sound and video quality of a reconstruction wasn't so great. Sometimes, the story fell flat for me, or the production values of those old Black & White episodes distracted from an otherwise compelling show. But most of the stories were noteworthy for one reason or another, and now I can appreciate them all for what they were.
While I feel a certain satisfaction in having accompanied the first Doctor on all his journeys, I've also enjoyed watching the story arcs of his companions. I’ve seen the Doctor leave his granddaughter Susan behind in devastated London with her husband-to-be, David Cameron. (No, not that David Cameron). I’ve seen Ian and Barbara journey back to Earth aboard a Dalek time machine. I watched the Doctor invite Vicki aboard the Tardis when she was left stranded on the planet Dido, and watched her remain behind, married to Troilus, in the sacked city of Troy. I watched Steven sneak aboard the Tardis, prove to be one of the first Doctor’s most stalwart companions, and leave in “The Savages” to help rebuild a world where the aristocracy once fed off the life energies of the poor. Now, in "The Smugglers," I watched Ben and Polly, his last two companions, travel with him back to 17th century Cornwall. It was my third journey with them, but their first aboard the Tardis.
William Hartnell was the original conception of the Doctor. His portrayal served as the foundation upon which nearly fifty years of video, audio, and print adventures have been told. If you haven’t seen any of his stories, I suggest you do so. You may not choose to pursue the Complete William Hartnell Experience as I did. But you never know. One good story sometimes demands another. And another. And….
This post is dedicated to Gene, who helped get me reconstructions of all the lost William Hartnell stories. Thanks so much, Gene!
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