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  • William Hartnell
  • David Rolinson (bio)

The legacy of the late William Hartnell, the first Doctor, featured particularly strongly in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year, even though all the previous television Doctors appeared either live or in repurposed archive footage. Indeed, lead writer Steven Moffat would have loved to have brought Hartnell back to ask, ‘In the name of God, what have I become? And why?’ (B. Cook 19). In the backstage docudrama about Doctor Who’s early years, An Adventure in Space and Time (21 Nov 2013), Matt Smith’s cameo enables Hartnell (David Bradley) to acknowledge the future longevity of his programme as he faces the end of his tenure. This docudrama reminds us that – as current television scholarship is keen to stress – dramas are shaped by the industrial and production spaces in which they are made. Therefore, I will focus on one aspect of the Hartnell era: its foundational televisuality.

As John R. Cook noted, Doctor Who exploited what Head of Drama Sydney Newman saw as ‘the quality of TV itself’, this ‘personal technological wonder’, to ‘be a kind of time machine’ (‘Adapting’ 116). ‘An Unearthly Child’ (23 Nov–14 Dec 1963) opens with a policeman patrolling foggy Totter’s Lane; the camera, seemingly unmotivated, pushes open the gates of I.M. Foreman’s junkyard to discover a police box, which would be a reassuring presence but for its odd location and a strange humming sound. The lettering of the box’s door blurs, and we mix to the notice board of Coal Hill School.1 Teachers Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) are concerned about their gifted yet strange pupil Susan (Carole Ann Ford), the Doctor’s granddaughter. The investigation of youth, and authored visualisation of grimy settings, echo social problem films or British New Wave films (the latter heightened by Hartnell’s recent excellence in This Sporting Life (Anderson UK 1963)), [End Page 217] and Barbara rightly suspects that something life-changing will happen. This was a period on the cusp of social change, according to Arthur Marwick’s description of 1958–63 as a ‘First Stirrings of a Cultural Revolution’ subperiod of the 1960s (xii). Ian and Barbara traverse two separate spaces like our earlier movement from junkyard to school, bursting through the police box doors into the impossible space of the Doctor’s TARDIS. This is the new white heat of the technological age and they, like the programme, begin a journey into Marwick’s ‘High Sixties’ (1964–8). ‘An Unearthly Child’ explores what David Butler called the ‘tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, or making the known strange’ (24) that would characterise the programme’s next 50 years. This tension is conveyed by televisual means at a time when television was vital in defining social and cultural spaces. Appropriately, the Doctor explains the TARDIS with such phrases as, ‘By showing an enormous building on your television screen you can do what seemed impossible.’

Television is part of the series’ modernity; as Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles note, ‘The Daleks’ (21 Dec 1963–1 Feb 1964) – Hartnell’s second story – fulfilled Newman’s request that his Drama Department ‘use television’ (26). The use of television spaces, including mostly as-live techniques in the multi-camera electronic studio, make the Hartnell era a vivid test for debates on television aesthetics and the possibility of medium specificity. Ian Potter shows how the eerie ‘howlround’ light patterns of the opening titles and such signature visual effects as Dalek exterminations and the Doctor’s regeneration in ‘The Tenth Planet’ (8–29 Oct 1966) result from ‘the abuse of the electronic studios’, and television spaces build a distinctive ‘texture’ (172). The era often retains mistakes because editing was restricted, but Waris Hussein’s distinctive direction of ‘An Unearthly Child’ is surprisingly near to the Moffat–Smith era’s enunciative camera movement and incorporation of written text into narrative space.

Jonathan Bignell’s observation that ‘institutional imperatives shaped decisions made about the format … its characters, kinds of storyline, serial structure and its tone or mode of address’ (44) remains true. Doctor Who was created by committee as a loyalty programme to hold the different audiences of such...


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pp. 217-219
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