Hey gang! It’s Andy Larson with a brand new series of monthly articles which I hope will brighten your geek filled days here in 2020. Among my many nerdy vices, I have been known to be pretty hardcore Whovian aka a fan of the world’s longest running science fiction series, Doctor Who. Although my interest waxes and wanes throughout the different periods of my life, it’s always one of those TV shows like MST3k that never mind watching again if it happens to be on.
In particular, I still consider myself to be a pretty big fan of Classic Who aka Doctor Who featuring the first 8 Doctors prior to the soft reboot of sorts that started in 2005 and continues to this day. Although some might give me grief that I include Paul Mcgann’s 8th Doctor among the Classic Doctor count, I consider his TV movie as well as subsequent audio work with Big Finish to be more in the spirit of the original show vs. the newer one…but I digress.
Anyways, one thing I’ve always wanted to do on GotS is discuss some of my favorite episodes of the original Doctor Who TV show in hopes of educating those that may have either watched the more modern show but don’t know where to begin with the classics, or those that just have never really watched the show at all. So over the course of the next few months, I’ll be publishing lists of my top 5 stories from each of the Doctors reign as the world’s most famous regenerating Time Lord.
That means of course I’ll be starting with the original or “definite article” as he has been quoted in the past: William Hartnell, The First Doctor.
Of course, this is one of the more difficult of the classic Doctors to make a list of for me personally. Mainly this is because for three big reasons:
1. It’s been established that William Hartnell was in ailing health for a large chunk of his run on Doctor Who. As a result, especially in the later seasons, he is often times not seen for nearly entire episodes, having his companions do all the “Doctor”ish type things that we have come to expect from the character. It’s hard to have an opinion on a performance if the performer isn’t actually doing anything.
2. Speaking of later seasons, like we’ll get to with the Second Doctors era as well, in the late 70s, the BBC junked a bunch of the First Doctor’s episodes permanently thinking that nobody would want to watch these old shows.
Although many were ultimately saved over the years through duplicate copies, there’s still tons of First Doctor stories that have been lost to time forever, making it harder to choose the very best. As an aside to this, although many of these “lost” episodes have been released in audio versions due to the soundtracks still existing, I am not including any lost or partial lost story on this list as I refuse to watch them until they are restored in fully visual form.
3. Finally, William Hartnell suffers from the fact that they really didn’t have a strong idea of what they wanted to do with the character of the Doctor during this era. He wasn’t a Time Lord back then. In fact, there are some episodes where he’s called “human” and they mean it. The only thing that was consistent was the fact he was just a mysterious old man traveling around in a time machine with a bunch of other characters that were sometimes equally important to the plot as he was.
His companions of Ian and Barbara for example. They did just as much traditional “Doctor” stuff as the Doctor did in those early days, and that dims William Hartnell’s presence as the leading man of the show slightly.
As a result, the inconsistency from story to story in how important the Doctor is to the narrative and his overall characterization hurts the portrayal ultimately.
Still though there are several really good stories out there from the First Doctor era, so I’ll definitely still list them for you. As an aside to this list, I decided to only include the story if I thought it was good from beginning to end, in that all the episodes were dynamite. If I was talking individual episodes, my list of all time favorites from this era would begin and end with the very first episode: “An Unearthly Child”.
That’s the best single episode of William Hartnell’s entire career as the Doctor, and I’d recommend everyone at least watching that one in addition to the 5 complete stories below…
5.) The Aztecs
The First Doctor era was known for having stories which were purely “historical”. This meant that they attempted to tell stories in which the only science fiction aspect was the fact that the Doctor arrived in a time machine. Sort of what every other time traveling program has done in which they just use the series to visit interesting points in Earth’s past.
This one however is probably the best because of the twist in which Barbara, the school teacher “mom” of the Tardis crew is mistaken for the reincarnation of the Aztec goddess Yetaxa, when she “magically appears” in her tomb thanks to the Tardis landing there. Of course, Barbara then decides that she could use her new found influence to attempt to “better” the Aztec civilization by having them do away with some of their more barbaric practices like human sacrifice.
This put her at direct odds with the Doctor who seems strangely adamant that you can’t change history. I mean yeah, it’s a stretch from a character that seems to change history ever chance he gets, but this is early in the shows development so we just accept it. By the way, I think later writers explained that because he’s a Time Lord, the Doctor can see the difference between fixed points in time and fluid points and only changes the fluid ones, but whatever. Long story short, this Doctor doesn’t like to fuss with Earth’s history or at least to the degree that Barbara is suggesting.
Regardless, their back and forth debate over what is one of the most important questions in all time travel stories as to whether you have the right to change history is extremely well done as is the rest of this action packed serial.
Plus, it also gives us a rare peek into the Doctor’s more romantic side as he unwittingly gets engaged to an Aztec woman named Cameca through the course of the events. Although initially awkward, he eventually somewhat warms to the idea of being with her, looking pretty heartbroken when he has to leave her in the end.
4.) The Sensorites
Providing us with our second fully realized alien race and culture (we don’t count the folks from Keys of Marinus…’cause they were extremely vague and not very well thought out), the Sensorites story gave us an opportunity to see aliens not as automatically the villains of the piece, but as their own people similar to humanity made up of individuals.
Although initially they might have used their advanced mental powers to keep the visiting Earth astronauts that were orbiting their planet prisoner, they did so out of fear, not malice. To them, we are the alien invaders, and they did not want mucking around in their affairs, especially after a previous encounter with humanity left them stricken with a mysterious illness.
It was a race that was to be treated with respect for their customs, and so for the first time you get to see the Doctor play the part of humanity’s ambassador. A neutral third party that has the interests of both species at heart and wants them to ultimately live in peace. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the Sensorites had taken the Tardis lock which was at least the initial impetus for the Doctor getting involved.
However, as soon as the Doctor starts to work on the problem of figuring out why the Sensorites have been dying since the Earthmen’s first visit, you can see that he’s wholeheartedly embracing the role of a Doctor for everyone, alien and human alike. He’s there to solve everyone’s problems, and it’s an important part of his characterization that would serve him well for years to come.
Besides, this story also is one of the first to really point out the fact that the Doctor and his granddaughter are something more than just “human looking” by highlighting Susan’s telepathic abilities. Even this early on, before the term “Time Lord” even entered the lexicon of the show, these important scenes they share in this adventure indeed show they are a race apart from the human school teachers they travel with.
3.) The Daleks
And here come the Daleks! If you think for a moment that this Top 5 list wouldn’t at least contain one of the four stories from the Hartnell era that feature ultimately the most iconic villains from this shows’ history in these devilish pepper pots of hate then you certainly don’t know Doctor Who.
However, if you also wondering why this particular story featuring the first appearance of these eye stalked intergalactic facists isn’t number one, it’s because honestly I do have major issues with it. In fact, this 7 part story is almost a tale of two halves. The first 4 episodes where the Doctor and his companions contract radiation sickness, are taken prisoner by genocidal mutant survivors of a horrific centuries long war in their dead city, and must escape back to the Tardis is as gripping as any of the First Doctor stories could be.
The last 3 episodes where the Doctor rallies the planet’s other surviving race in the beautiful blonde pacifists, The Thals, into storming the Dalek city and defeating them once and for all is honestly great sounding on paper, but lacks a lot in the actual execution. Especially the climatic last battle with is somewhat of haphazard affair on a single sound stage with obviously not enough money to actually depict the grandeur that was scripted.
It’s really the same way I feel about the Dalek’s second story as well, The Dalek Invasion of Earth. That too starts extremely strong only to putter out as the story continues until it eeks out a pretty lackluster ending.
The real shame is that what could be the best First Doctor/Dalek story in the Dalek Masterplan is one of those lost stories I mentioned above, with only 3 of its 12 chapters current available. That one with its incredible ending depicting a Time Destructor aging an entire planet to dust before your eyes sounds like it delivers a solid conclusion to the overall story arc. Oh well…maybe someday it will be returned or animated so that fans can see it in all its glory.
Until then, the original Dalek story is the best one available…
2.) The Rescue
On the surface, this short 2 part episode which serves to introduce a new companion to the Tardis crew, may not seem like the stuff of TV legends. It’s just a simple story about a criminal named Bennett who crashes a spaceship full of explorers on the planet Dido and subsequently adopts the guise of the menacing Koquillion to kill all the survivors to escape justice. That is all the survivors except for a young woman named Vicki whom the Doctor rescues after ensuring Bennett pays for his crimes.
However, what we get in this tale is one of the few real stories from the First Doctor in which he actually behaves like the Doctor we would get in later incarnations from the beginning to the end.
I mean this Bennett guy is a downright sicko of the highest order. A serial killer who adopts an creepy alter ego to psychologically torment a recently orphaned teenage girl into submission. I mean that’s what it is. Whether they say it or not in the episode because it was the 60s, you know what’s the real reason Bennett kept Vicki alive for when all the rest of the crew were murdered. Maybe not today, but he had one reason to ensure she was emotionally and psychologically broken and dependent on him, and it wasn’t so she could make him sandwiches.
But then the Doctor arrives, and quickly figures everything out. But unlike other First Doctor stories, where he might have let Ian deal with the baddie, The Doctor handles this confrontation himself, with all that righteous anger and moral authority that you would expect from this character. It’s a brilliant scene between Hartnell’s Doctor and Koquillion, one that really sets the table for the kind of near super-heroic ability he would develop in later regenerations of putting the villains in their place.
Yes, this is the one of the best examples from the First Doctor era of why you don’t mess with the Doctor. Plus, to see him then turn on a dime and deliver such warmth and kindness to the orphaned Vicki in saving her from a life of misery, this is the purely heroic Doctor we have all come to know and love.
1.) The Time Meddler
The story that changes everything. Yep, even more than the Daleks.
Why you ask? It’s because this is the adventure that establishes that the Doctor and his Tardis are not unique. It’s not a one of a kind machine the Doctor built one day that let him travel around time and space. No, no. This story makes it clear that there are others like the Doctor with their own Tardis machines. Some of them might be good, some of them might be bad, some of them might just want to meddle in another cultures affairs.
Honestly, compared to the overwhelming evil character of the Master which we would be introduced to later in the series, the Monk from this story is pretty tame. He does seem to have good intentions at heart in helping repel the Norman conquest of England in 1066, even if he’s going to use completely anachronistic neutron bombs to do it. He just wants to speed up humanity’s advancement and he thinks changing this event will do it.
Of course, as pointed out in the Aztecs, the First Doctor does not take kindly to people attempting to mess around with major points in Earth’s history, and sets out to not only stop the Monk, but teach him a lesson in the process. What results is a terrific little cat and mouse game between the Monk and the Doctor, who again aren’t so much enemies, but more rivals with opposing view points.
And boy o boy is William Hartnell on his game in this one. Irascible, mischievous, yet sharp as a tack in staying once step ahead of the Monk at every turn, even though he’s had the advantage of preparation time and planning. It’s again the type of behavior we’ll see time and time again from the Doctor in future stories where he crosses wits with those equally as intelligent as him, and it fits him like a glove. Oh and that scene where the Doctor tries to hide his obvious jealousy over the Monk having a newer model Tardis to his…pure genius!
Yes sir, what starts as just a purely historical story featuring a space helmet for a cow quickly transforms into the most enjoyable of all the First Doctor stories. A definite must watch in my books!