William Hartnell's Doctor was very nearly the last I got to know. I was born after he had departed the scene, and he died before I had really got into watching it; my exposure to him as a young fan was the early novelisations, the rebroadcasting of An Unearthly Child in 1981, and the records of The Making of Doctor Who and the Jean-Marc Lofficier books (and also the flashbacks from Doctor Who Monthly in the early 80s). Once the new series started, my enthusiasm generally picked up, but my first choice of First Doctor story to rewatch was The Chase, which is a bit unfortunate as it is one of his least impressive. I bought the DVDs of the first three stories as a nostalgia exercise, and browsed a couple of the historicals; but what converted me to appreciating the glories of the First Doctor was the amazing story arc that is The Daleks' Master Plan.
It's still one of my favourite Who stories ever, helped of course by the wonderful Kevin Stoney as Mavic Chen, and also by the grim ploy which sees two and a half companions killed off (Bret Vyon being the half), but also by Hartnell's sheer energy and conviction in the title role - by this stage he was the only one left of the original team, and I guess he must have felt even more proprietorial than ever about the show and his part in it. If ever you have five hours to spare, invest them in listening to the audio with Peter Purves' narration, or watching the reconstructions and the three surviving episodes. (I listened to it during a wonderful drive across Cyprus a year ago, appreciating the Mediterranean landscape while listening to the drama on Kembel, Desperus, and other planets.)
And the core of it all is Hartnell himself. Sure, he did fluff the odd line; but he totally commands the scene, in a very visual way - it is striking that so few of the novelisations of his stories really capture his performance (and it is sad that so much of the visual evidence has been lost). The relevant Missing/Past Doctor Adventures, and more recently the Companion Chronicles, do their best but it's not the real thing. Even his appearance in The Three Doctors, sadly, isn't the real thing - yet it's nice that he is enshrined as the authority figure to whom the two junior Doctors must defer. (Richard Hurndall makes a decent effort in The Five Doctors, but the spotlight is elsewhere.)
I'm a child of the Fourth Doctor era, as I shall explain (all being well) on Thursday, so for me the 'real' essence of the Doctor's nature is in the alien benevolence that Tom Baker brought to the role. The only other actors to approach the part in that way were Hartnell and Ecclestone, and it seems to me that Baker restored some of Hartnell's original magic to the show which the two in between had moved away from.
In a sense, though, it's unfair to compare Hartnell to the others, because there were no other Doctors to compare him to at the time. Watching his stories, you have to get into the idea that this was a moment on Saturday nights when the surreal was still unusual rather than established; even in the worst moments (and there were several, especially among the more sfnal stories) there's a feeling that if it doesn't quite work, it's because it is new, and different, and unexpected for everyone. I find his performance iconic - in the most literal sense, in that his image graces all of my livejournal posts about Doctor Who.
I wouldn't subject a non-fan to any of his longer stories, or anything which is incomplete. But most of the surviving four-parters (and Planet of Giants, The Rescue and The Edge of Destruction, which have only two or three parts) are entirely presentable to people who don't know much about the First Doctor but are willing to give him a try. The only exception is The Space Museum, though even there the first episode is pretty good. I also like treating visitors to the third episode of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, because of the chase across London, though it's a bit light on the Doctor.
So, this series of posts is starting on a high note. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Second Doctor.
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