With so many key moments to celebrate in fifty years of Doctor Who it would be churlish to focus on a personal sadness, wouldn’t it? Yet here I am at the anniversary party sitting in the corner by myself. I was seven-years-old the day William Hartnell recorded his last appearance as the Doctor at 7 o’clock p.m. on Saturday 8th October, 1966. True, he returned briefly in 1972 to give a disembodied performance as the ‘First Doctor’ in The Three Doctors, but his final outing as ‘the Doctor’ was in The Tenth Planet, on 29th October, in a story that marks the debut appearance of the Cybermen. That their paths cross over at this point should have proven serendipitous. For here was my Doctor on his last legs, at the very moment the master transhumanists come scouting for spare body parts.  You will become like us, they promise the Doctor. It’s a prediction with a twist, as it turns out, since each will indeed regenerate but into something distinctly other than their current form. And this means a new Doctor ... for there is no disguising that this is the day my Doctor dies.

. It only really makes sense in the rear view mirror. As you travel into Snowcap Base, there are no signposts announcing this way to regeneration or warnings that the mythology of the programme is about to be irrevocably changed. Regeneration is a time traveller’s term, an interference with the past that gives it the shape and coherence of hindsight. My Doctor does not regenerate. He collapses. Goes white as Snowcap Base. So white his face dissolves momentarily into a blank cyborg mask, that same intense inverted brightness as President Kennedy’s car as it glints darkly in the bright sunlight of that terrible day three years earlier. And then his face is different. Bushy brows. Smooth cheeks. Mop top. A new Doctor, while mine disappears into the past tense.

To bring him back I must also revisit that past. My approach – to give this essay some semblance of perhaps undeserved academic legitimacy – is to interfere, the very thing the Doctor dare not do, by staging a negotiation of his ‘regeneration’ taking an oppositional stance to the authoritative, grand narrative. Those italicised buzz words form the basis of Stuart Hall’s early model of reception theory, which focuses on how meaning is encoded by producers and then decoded by the audience. For Hall, 'distortions' or 'misunderstandings' are the result of 'the lack of equivalence between the two sides in the communicative exchange' [i] which may help clarify two things intrinsic to this paper: it's written as a timey-wimey conceit, as if emotionally contemporaneous to the event, from the perspective of that grief-stricken seven-year-old; secondly, it’s on a collision course with the future revisionist, one whose memories may be exposed by the future discourses that inform them. As the Doctor says to River Song in Forest of the Dead (2008), 'time can be rewritten'. And as she replies, per the Hartnell-Doctor in The Aztecs (1964), 'not one line'.

Reception theory gives me permission to change the past since it attacks the assumption of the passive spectator, installing his imaginative intervention, the degree of agency that enables the seaming of the viewed into the viewer’s life-experience context. This is an approach that challenges the media ideology tradition by focusing on what viewers do with media consumption, the ‘uses’ and ‘gratifications’ of social and psychological needs[ii]. Television thereby relates to issues of personal identity and values. It can be used to help negotiate social identity, or escape from it. There is already clear precedent for recognising the active agency of Doctor Who fans. Hayward and Fitzgerald identified more than 1,400 online short-form videos in mid-2011 that remixed, mashed-up or even composed new musical accompaniments to the programme (Hayward and Fitzgerald, 2013: 145). [iii] And during the show’s hiatus, after it had made the error of playing to the gallery – and hence a very narrow fan-orientated view of the audience – it was fans who came to the rescue, writing new texts such as the New Adventures novels, and playing what O’Mahony describes as a gatekeeper role[iv] (Hills 2010: 57). Indeed, many of these fans moved up a level to that of author/producer, gaining careers on the rebooted programme, thus further obliterating the simple producer-consumer binary.

The audience is also a challenge to the integrity of the fourth wall, the boundary that seals in the diegetic world. The camera tracking through the closed gates of Foreman’s Yard, is the most obvious example of how the experiential ignores the coherent and detached hermeneutic code, and offers the mediated text up as a phenomenological encounter to be accessed ‘through visual, tactile, olfactory and aural interactions, interactions which meet this mediation, as contingencies of subjective experience'[v]. Doctor Who is something to be consumed sensorially; not merely watched but (at the very least) heard as well as perhaps touched, tasted and embodied.

As the first episode demonstrates, the verisimilitude of the fourth wall – particularly prominent in the classic series where cameras literally tracked in from where, in the appropriated theatrical tradition, the audience sat – was never safe from the spectators’ psychic interaction. As the transmedia and intertextual settings of
New Who concede, the ‘world’ of Doctor Who was never likely to remain confined within the cramped space of Lime Grove Studio D. There is a wonderful scene in An Adventure in Space and Time (2013) where David Bradley holds up copy of the first Doctor Who Annual, Bradley-ised as the replacement for the real one in the real world, and jokes about being irreplaceable. I have that book, the original, and was informed about my Doctor as much by it as by the programme itself … if not more so. For New Who-newbies, the transmedia setting of Doctor Who – which includes spin-off shows like Doctor Who Confidential, several regular Doctor Who publications (including Doctor Who Magazine, now in its 467th issue, every copy of which I own – big up DWM!) – is taken-for-granted. The experience of the classic series, particularly the very early ones, was of sitting down to watch one episode at a time once weekly, without the opportunity to catch up if you missed a part, armed with little foreknowledge of the story (or even how many episodes there would be in a given story[vi]) and with only the routine of the cliffhanger to glue one week to the next. Perhaps because of this, Doctor Who Annual, and the irregular press coverage, became a profoundly important paratextual extension to the world of Who. These form part of its experiential setting, alongside the wider social and cultural contexts of the 1960s, and the world of play and posing as the Doctor, enabled or otherwise by the then limited range of merchandise (toys, books, jigsaw puzzles and the like), all opening into the performative matrix for encounters with the programme.

Given the above, perhaps I have established the right for the small child in me to speak. But a word of caution. Set against this experiential agency is the admission that Ill be using my own time machine, which is not only to rely on memory with all its foibles, 'distortions' and 'misunderstandings', but also to speak hesitantly against the impressive volume of the anniversary party now in full swing. And partly, I admit, this hesitation is the adult mediator taking the young child aside and reflecting, perfectly reasonably, that Hartnell may well have saved Doctor Who by leaving when he did. Had he stayed, the part may indeed have remained his until the show was cancelled in – what?? – another year … another two? Not that my grief-stricken younger self wants to hear any of this.

William Hartnell came to be the Doctor partly through the decisions of a committee set up to create a show to fill the slot between the football results and Jukebox Jury – the main protagonist was to be an older man with a mysterious past and scientific bent – and partly through producer Verity Lambert’s intuition that he was just perfect for the part. She saw in his recent roles a duality that excited her, humour and petulance, although Hartnell had struggled with being typecast as the acerbic sergeant-major figure. This flexibility became a problem almost immediately when BBC Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, pulled the ‘pilot’[vii] describing Hartnell’s character as mean and unsympathetic. The reshoot considerably mellowed him and for the next three years different producers, directors and writers journeyed back and forth, almost as many times as the TARDIS, in their construction of the Doctor. It is not too much of a stretch to say that Hartnell’s Doctor embodied the duality of the two strikingly different opening episodes darkening in one story and becoming childishly silly the next. Such was the production matrix[viii] of Doctor Who: writers coming and going, with rather a loose authorial control being exercised at the top, certainly nothing like the all-seeing all-knowing showrunner figures of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat.

Hartnell’s Doctor is all the more enigmatic and rounded for this openness of authorship, a sharp contrast to those who follow. Christopher Eccleston plays a troubled Doctor, Tom Baker laughs his enemies into destruction[ix] (until he meets his real nemesis in the figure of producer John Nathan-Turner). Each inhabits their character in relation to the Doctor’s past. Thus Matt Smith’s Doctor is both quirky and frenetic. But Hartnell’s Doctor doesn’t have a single defining characteristic and there is no past to build on. In the same way that he is constructed as a mysterious absence in the fifteen-or-so minutes leading up to his entrance in An Unearthly Child – with characters speaking in proxy for him; props, sets and darkness describing the empty space he is yet to inhabit, and even metaphysical allusions being drawn (the dark and mysterious fog) – so the studio matrix constructs him as a void, each writer projecting his ideas onto the character until these projections become superimposed atop each other, contradictory and dissembling, pointing only back to the absence, if to anything. And that is what worked. That is what stopped his Doctor immediately becoming the heroic figure we recognise as today’s Doctor. It is also what kept the Doctor’s identity reflective of imaginative studio and viewer authorship.

Dene October: The Day my Doctor Died: a Child’s Experience of the First Regeneration

Regeneration. It only really makes sense in the rear view mirror. As you travel into Snowcap Base, there are no signposts announcing this way to regeneration 


[i] Hall, Stuart “Encoding/Decoding,” Critical Visions In Film Theory. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, P. White, M. Mazaj. Boston: Bedford St. Martins 2011: 54

[ii] Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler, and Michael Gurevitch. The Uses of Mass Communication, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, (1974). Mazaj. Boston: Bedford St. Martins 2011.

[iii] Philip Hayward and Jon Fitzgerald in Music in Science Fiction Television: Tuned to the Future, K.J. Donnelly [Ed] Routledge 2013: 145

[iv] Afterword: Scholar-Fandom’s Different Incarnations, Matt Hills, in Impossible Worlds, Impossible Things: Cultural Perspectives on Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah lane Adventures Ross P. Garner [Ed] 2010 Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 57

[v] October, Dene. Adventures In English Time and Space: Sound as Experience in An Unearthly Child. Mad Dogs and Englishness conference, London. 2013

[vi] Up until The Savages (1966) each episode was given a title. The Savages was the first instance of the title representing the story, which was then subdivided into parts (part 1, part 2 etc)

[vii] The ‘pilot’ recorded a month earlier than the version that actually aired

[viii] Dene October, Doctor who? What's he talking about?: Performativity and the First Doctor, pending publication Scarecrow Press 2014

[ix] Wood, Tat and Miles, Lawrence. About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who - Seasons 1 to 3, Mad Norwegian Press 2006: 15