The Hartnell Era

“I have been a stranger in a strange land” Exodus 22:2

Here’s the thing: I used to – even until quite recently I’ll admit, believe that a deep and enduring interest in Sixties Who was the last refuge of the ageing fan. When all fascination for the action and wit of the Seventies, the flash and sting of the Eighties and the promise of the Nineties had dried up, the retiring and increasingly embittered Who enthusiast would at last turn his or her dried and cynical self away from the recent past and find solace in the fuzzy monotone folds of the Hartnell and Troughton years, there to shuffle themselves to an endless sleep or, worse, bitterly reject the innovations of later Who – that of my generation and those immediately following, as cheap and flimsy, lacking the weight and interest of the Early Years. My suspicions were deepest when fans younger than myself started the same drift – easy enough to explain in older followers, I thought, who might have genuine memories of the black and white show as televised on various local stations or even in the Mother Country, but younger fans? Surely this was just an attempt to be cool and rebellious? A wilful spurning of the values and energy we’d enjoyed as teens and later?

I can’t speak for those fans, but I can speak for myself. In the past two years I’ve become a Sixties Who lover. Of course I’ve got older, having crossed the boundaries of middle age. I love the Seventies and Eighties no less, I hasten to add; but I now love the Sixties more than I ever did. To me they are indeed broader, deeper, and more intriguing. They are the innovative years, and their Doctors are fascinating and alien, their companions all the more human for the contrast. Sixties stories with their reduced score and longer episodes are drawn out, contemplative, with nervous pauses and great moments of silence. They are of an era of stage, both in location and performance – their performers (Hartnell in particular) are more clearly cut from the stage and occupy the studio floorspace with an eye to an intimate audience. There’s little that’s post-production here; the special effects are either practical or in-camera, the spaceships are models and the monsters makeup and costume. It is low-tech, but I really don’t mind that. It was known to be low-tech in its own time; its success was due to its imagination, as it has ever been.

And what imagination! The idea of space and time in the Hartnell era is markedly different – the Doctor and Susan refer to themselves as outsiders, travellers, and (because of course the term hadn’t been invented yet) there is no mention of either of them being masters or Lords of Time. They don’t even have control over their Ship – pointedly so in The Edge of Destruction where the machine (for it is in this era) turns on them in a strange attempt to warn them of a more imminent and external danger. The threat from outside is a recurring motif – the alien, the distant world with an unnatural ecosystem, the altogether unfamiliar. The Universe is an immediately unfamiliar and sometimes hostile place, something for all companions to first explore, then negotiate with week after week, before finally finding their place in it – there’s no overfamiliarity with the cosmos or knowing meta-commentary of the new series companions here; the likes of Ian and Barbara, Vicki and Steven are themselves interlopers, small figures on an enormous and threatening landscape. There’s little cosiness here at all, I find – no recurring old friends to reconnect with or rely on for comfort, and there’s every reason to believe that when the Doctor promises Susan he’ll return to her at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, he really won’t. And then there’s history, an extra dimension to be explored and negotiated, where the series’ early lessons of interference and free will are exercised (The Aztecs) and the Doctor’s morality – perhaps then a reflection of his own helplessness to turn the wheel of time, is brought to the fore (The Massacre.) To accompany a mad man in his time travelling box may be one thing, but to be effectively trapped in one beyond the control of its mercurial and sometimes aloof owner is quite another. For the first few stories of Doctor Who’s first year the adventures of Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor are as much about surviving their journey in the Ship itself, and of course in doing so, surviving each other.

I’ve been saying for some time now that when this formula is applied correctly, classic Doctor Who can be astonishing, akin more to the theatre of its age presented in challenging locations, where the drama is as much caused by human conflict, madness, fear, paranoia, intolerance than its bizarre circus of humanoid aliens, who often work best as a reflection of the darker side of human nature: avarice (the Voord), intolerance (the Daleks), revenge (the Monoids). Sixties Who is humanist drama, and, bereft of Time Lords or a Doctor who sees the Universe of time and space as his plaything, it is an existential one as well. Like the best Science Fiction it speaks of the human condition, and like much of the media of its decade the Hartnell Era is informed by Britain post-war, it is by nature and to its credit a product of its time.

If you want to see where Doctor Who began and where it could yet go, you should watch its beginnings.


One Response to “The Hartnell Era”

  1. Al Says:

    Great article. Scholarly and serious without being dry and almost impossible to argue with – probably a lot like Old Oney and Hartnell themselves.
    It’s a good message for the fiftieth anniversary too – we should be celebrating it all, and not just the most recent flash and bang, or even the Who we personally grew up with.
    And speaking of celebrating, we should all try and do something this year – there’s still a lot of Doctor’s eras still to cover in this particular series of posts, for example…

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