Why I love the First Doctor

While William Hartnell isn’t my all-time favourite Doctor, he’s certainly one of my favourites. It’s interesting watching the early years of the show and seeing how different not just the show is, but also the Doctor himself. He doesn’t start out as the hero we all know and love, in fact, how he ends up with human companions in the first place isn’t exactly the most sociable of methods – he kidnaps them, pure and simple. Fans more used to the newer Doctors may be shocked at seeing how nasty the Doctor can be in his, er, youth. He’s considerably more reluctant to save the day, at this point. He’s keen to explore and discover, even at the risk of his companion’s safety, but he’s certainly not interested in saving anyone, not if he can leave any world or time behind as soon as things get dangerous. Of course, escape is always the most difficult option in the early stories, as the very moment the Doctor and his crew leave the TARDIS, they always immediately end up in trouble. Admittedly, this is a story trope that remains pretty common to the series to this day, but whereas the Doctor will later regularly make a stand and choose to help someone in trouble, the main focus that drives nearly all the stories in the first season is the crew being separated from, locked out of or generally just having difficulty with the TARDIS for the entire story and not leaving until they find a way back or learn how to fix it.

I’m not gonna lie, there’s something charming about this common trope, but that’s not the only reason why I enjoy the first season. It’s more the little thread of development that runs throughout these stories, particularly with the Doctor. Gradually, over time, we see him start to warm up and become more proactive, until finally, in the second serial of season 2, he makes a conscious decision to stand up and fight.

It has recently occurred to me that there are quite a few reasons for this, and each of them leave me itching to rewatch the first season, due to the Doctor being a very different man compared to the legend he grows to be.

Firstly, the most obvious reason why he gradually grows better is what has always made him better: human beings. The circumstances that have forced him with them may not have been the best – kidnapping two curious schoolteachers to protect him and his granddaughter – but, over time, they do show him a better way. That sometimes, it’s important to stand up and fight. (A rather important example: in the second story, The Daleks, Ian Chesterton convinces the Thals to fight the Daleks. Not for himself, not for his friends, and certainly not for the Doctor, but because, when dealing with something as evil as the Daleks, it’s ultimately the right thing for the Thals to do. It says a lot both about the Doctor’s character and how much he’s not the lead hero at this point when it’s Ian making this speech, not him.) It takes a long time for that change to come, of course, but it really pays off when it does.

There is another reason why the Doctor starts out as differently as he does that’s also companion related, but for very different reasons. Because the First Doctor has something in his earliest days of travelling through the cosmos that he doesn’t have in all his other incarnations: family, specifically of the flesh and blood kind. It’s easy to think that many of the Doctor’s actions at this point serve his own interests. In some cases, admittedly, that is true – his curiosity at seeing a city on an alien world not only put his companions in danger, purely through deception and selfishness, but it also lead him to meeting the Daleks for the first time – but a great deal of them could also be attributed to being greatly over-protective.

For example, there’s some really great character driven drama in season 1 story The Aztecs. When Barbara makes a decision to try and change history. The Doctor is screaming at her when it badly backfires on all of them; more than that, he is furious, the most we’ve ever seen of him up to that point. Which isn’t too surprising when you consider the fact that he’s separated from his granddaughter and is therefore completely unable to protect her in a primitive culture on an alien world (to him, at least). And of course, there’s the fact that the reason he initially kidnapped Ian and Barbara was because he was afraid of one of two things happening – either he and his granddaughter would be exposed to the world as aliens, or Susan would leave him.

Perhaps his methods in protecting his granddaughter are extreme (to say the least), but then again, there’s one more thing to consider – he’s only just starting out on his journey. He’s not a man who’s fought many monsters, not the man who’s seen it all or done it all, not yet. Oh, we hear about a few travels that he and Susan went on before they met Ian and Barbara, but overall, it’s clear that in the grand scheme of things, he’s really only just beginning his journey, both literally as well as spiritually. As I mentioned earlier, Ian is essentially the ‘hero’ of the story, the one who always fights back when he needs to, while the Doctor is more keen on exploration and gathering knowledge while occasionally trying to escape from trouble with his friends or protect Susan.

Bit by bit though, he does learn to become more and more involved in larger ways. In The Sensorites, he helps to cure a plague that had affected the title race for some time, and while this was really to help save Ian’s life, it’s a nice sign of progression from the man who threatened to throw him out of the ship not that long before. This is the biggest reason why I love the first TARDIS team – Ian and Barbara, fantastic characters in their own right, arguably leave the biggest impact on the Doctor. They change him from someone who’s a traveller at best and a selfish old man at worst, to becoming the hero we all know and love, with perhaps the key moments occurring in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Not only does the Doctor make a choice from the start to directly fight the Daleks rather than try and escape (and fighting them as a consequence anyway), he also makes a conscious choice to leave Susan behind and let her start a happy life of her own. It’s only recently occurred to me how big that moment is. Yes, it’s emotional and heartbreaking. Yes, it’s the first companion departure ever on the show. But more than that: it’s the Doctor cutting off any remaining family ties to Gallifrey. Not out of spite, but because it’s the right thing to do. And, while he still does his best to look after his companions, it’s no longer just about him and Susan anymore. It’s about exploring the universe while still doing the right thing: saving planets, stopping alien monsters, doing what he can where he can. The Doctor once said to Ian that their destiny was “in the stars”. In his first incarnation, very gradually, we see him take his first steps towards it.

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