Dene October
The Day my Doctor Died: a Child’s Experience of the First Regeneration
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The actor was also part of that matrix of characterisation, initially playing the transient alien, with some reluctance
[x] and then with the assumption that the part would survive the first three stories, before coming to realise he might still be the character after five years, and slowly succumbing to the role, endeavouring to develop it through his considerable experience in playing comic and authority figures. Hartnell found the boundary between stage and life permeable, insisting on softening the role when children responded to his fully costumed public appearances. But he was not immediately the Doctor in the way that Matt Smith is the Doctor, carrying the character beyond the stage door to do interviews, talk shows, press conferences and the like. As writer Mark Gatiss shows us in An Adventure in Space and Time, Hartnell went home of an evening, had a drink or two, a chat with the wife. As the director Richard Schechner has argued, performance is not a discreet activity that can be conveniently replaced on a hanger in Wardrobe, it intersects with the everyday when transitions to acting include doing real things that the actors are not ‘merely playing’[xi] at, like laughing and crying. Hartnell draws from his own socio-psychic identity when he demands to play the role as a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas. [xii] And then there is the less cuddly side to him, his meanness. This also crosses into the production matrix informing his characterisation.

But his impatience with and intolerance of others are not simply his idiosyncrasies but part of the wider discursive environment which informs the writing of the programme over the first two decades, and which there is some attempt to interrogate, not always successfully: that of the collapsing British Empire and the slow transition into post-colonialism. Even in the reboot, it takes Tennant’s Doctor two meetings to recognise he should liberate the Ood from slavery. This is not to offer extenuating circumstances for Hartnell’s intolerance. That is the elephant in the room and there’s no avoiding it, just as there is no avoiding the racism inherent in stories like The Ark (1966).

It is part of the mythology of the programme that Hartnell’s health, which had been deteriorating with the onset of arteriosclerosis, led to his departure. True, his illness meant he could not remember all his dialogue, but you expect a fluffed line or two when you are recording in a couple of long takes (‘as live’), in a cramped tense space and right on the sixpence. Indeed, there were Hartnellisms right from the off, unscripted mistakes and forgotten lines which quickly became part of who Hartnell’s Doctor was. Moris Farhi's unused 1964 scriptFarewell Great Macedon demonstrates the thin line between Hartnell and the Doctor, by scripting in several – perhaps too many – humorous mispronounciations of Ian Chesterton's surname. By the time we get to The Rescue (1965) the joke is well established, thus the Doctor declares, ‘My writing gets worse and worse. Dear, dear, dear, dear, dear’. Billy fluffs were not the problem, they were part of Hartnell’s charm. Even his occasional absences were reasonably well covered by pliable story lines. It wasn’t really a problem that Hartnell’s illness was becoming the Doctor’s illness. The problem was that his illness manifested in temperamental outbursts and frayed nerves all around. Like his health, his relationship with the crew was deteriorating, fuelled by an impression that the programme was no longer being treated with the seriousness he felt it deserved and by the unending and exhausting changes of faces.

Of course, it was Hartnell’s face which no longer fitted. Not for the mid 1960s with its focus on youth, consumerism and hedonism. In 
The War Machines (1966) there is an awkward moment that draws attention to this, his reaction to the hipster reappropriation of his look as ‘fab’[xiii]. It’s a displeasure which is entirely in keeping with the Hartnell-Doctor’s no-nonsense fuddy-duddiness, one which emphasises his place in the old guard. Just as his reluctance to intervene in history made sense initially in Reithian terms, as a pedagogic stance, now it looked standoffish and complacent. This is the way the first Doctor was scripted of course, but it is his increasingly trendy and liberal minded companions, rather than the Doctor, who represented the true face of sixties BBC. Had Verity Lambert been casting her lead actor in 1966, rather than 1963, there is little chance that Hartnell would have got the part.

Not everyone was out for Caeser’s blood. While regeneration is frequently claimed by the programme as itsrevolution, it was not without precedent. The shoes of television characters were routinely filled by others, just as parts in the theatre were played by different actors without credibility problems. The audience knew where the imaginative line was. Indeed, the public had already been treated to a more empathetic (but considerably less alien) Doctor, when the well-known horror star Peter Cushing took the role for Dr. Who and the Daleks(1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). Although these films were well received, there was no debate about the identity of the Doctor. Hartnell had become a national treasure, irreplaceable in the public consciousness.

He was however running out of allies at the BBC, particularly after Lambert moved on and the diegetic inner world of Doctor Who had begun to echo events at the extra-diagetic level. In The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (1966) Steven grows impatient with the Doctor’s non-interference policy and walks out on him. In one of his most poignant soliloquies, the Doctor frets: ‘None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan. Or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton — Chesterton — they were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home. Back to my own planet. But I can't... I can't.’ In The Savages (1966), Steven leaves for good … Peter Purves leaves for good … disillusioned with all the studio fights and the lack of development to his role.

Purves had been offered the opportunity to take the initiative in The Celestial Toymaker (1966), while the lead was ‘rested’, often a euphemism for ill health, but here a ploy for the new producer, Innes Lloyd, to check out what Doctor Who would be like sans Hartnell. The same opportunity is presented to the cast of The Tenth Planet (1966) when bronchitis leaves Hartnell’s Doctor ‘unconscious’ for the entirety of episode three. In his final story, the health discourse becomes the lens through which everything is explained: the story arc, the Doctor’s failing body, Hartnell’s departure.  Yet the original script does not culminate in the Doctor’s departure[xiv], a fact that should engender a very different review of the story where the regeneration is tagged on as a rather clumsy afterthought.

The producers had managed to get Hartnell to agree to total rest, and were therefore able to gloss over the fact he was being dumped, presenting the decision as mutual, one that gave the star the much needed opportunity to recuperate his health away from an exhausting work schedule. The issue of the Doctor’s health came to a head in the very story that reflects on advances in healthcare, as well as moral and ethical debates about the body-practices promised at the medical and scientific horizon. It was as if planet Mondas truly was Earth’s twin, for there was our cybernetic future presented in a story where both Hartnell and the Doctor’s bodies were failing, the latter informed by the former, but also informed by the general malaise that now infected Hartnell’s performative matrix. The Tenth Planet is a terrible swan song for the already sidelined Hartnell-Doctor, whose role is reduced to sniping vociferously and sometimes irrationally from the wings, making little attempt at coherence or exposition. The Doctor seems to know a priori that the Cybermen are coming to Snowcap Base, but he isn’t saying why. It is General Cutler (Robert Beatty) and, to some extent, companion Ben (Michael Craze), who get the best lines and action. And even as he bows out of the story, there are no fireworks, no bathing halo of light from the Eye of Harmony, just the mundane asides of the ailing Hartnell-Doctor as he mumbles that his companions should ‘keep warm’, for truly his finale has been frosty.

Three months later he is playing Buskin the Fairy Cobbler in the pantomime Puss In Boots On the 17th January 1967, he gives an interview to Roger Mills for Points West television and with typical bluster announces he is sure to bounce back into an even better character role[xv] and when asked whether pantomime is something he will pursue further he grumbles: 'Ooh, no, no, no, no, no [...] I'm a legitimate actor.'[xvi] There it is, the best and worst of Hartnell, single-minded and bigoted and now, as the programme bill declared, only the original ‘Doctor Who’ … someone living in the past tense.

From the moment he appeared, and embodied all the mystery of the universe, I had been captivated by him, even as he kidnapped teachers, and grouched about, and attempted to kill off nuisance cave men, I was fully with him, this old man who was older than television, but who in reality was only the age of Peter Capaldi, the age I am now. My first memory of Hartnell is vivid, more so than anything else that might have piqued my five-year-old curiosity, so when the TARDIS materialises for the first time, and the audience is suddenly cast outside into the desolate unnamed landscape, trapped there while a menacing shadow steps between me (us) and the TARDIS, I am already anticipating the greater loss I will feel when I am seven, and when my Doctor leaves me for good. This becomes the template for our relationship. Getting separated. Having an adventure. Being reunited with the Doctor. Only to be separated once again. It was the routine of the TARDIS family, comfortingly familiar, but too slow and discursive for producers beginning to learn storytelling from cinema. And so they killed him off. And he left me for good.

According to my Mother, one of my favourite habits as a five-year-old was sitting down to the Six O’Clock News to find out how many people had died. In the 1960s, death was everywhere and nowhere baby … while you’re watching TV.[xvii] Child mortality rates had fallen by the start of the decade, now 70% would survive to become pensioners, and infectious diseases were scary television dreams. Death was the monochrome memory of wars that happened before I was born. It was the fleeting announcements of an unthinkable conflict in faraway Vietnam where, until the mid 1960s, television crews had barely turned up. Death was easy, ubiquitous in television drama, particularly if you were an incidental character. Even Katarina andSara Kingdom, two brief companions of the First Doctor, died. Death was a shiny car in Dallas, spectacular and unreal, its referent unimaginable.

the lead was ‘rested’, often a euphemism for ill health, but here a ploy for the new producer, Innes Lloyd, to check out what Doctor Who would be like sans Hartnell

[x] Hartnell didn’t really want the part. He was a film actor who’d just had a successful television role. He was between roles but was hoping to hold out for the big screen.

[xi] Schechner, R. Between Theatre and Anthropology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1985

[xii] William Hartnell Interview 1966 on The Tenth Planet dvd, BBC 2013

[xiii] See Piers D. Britton's excellent FBISPY article, “Oh, I Dig Your Fab Gear!”: Costume, Fashion and the Doctor – A Brief History, on the fashion consequences of this event

[xiv] See Michael Seely, The Quest for Pedler: The Life & Ideas of Dr Kit Pedler, Miwk Publishing 2014

[xv] William Hartnell Interview 1966 on The Tenth Planet dvd, BBC 2013

[xvi] Researcher Richard Bignell talking to the Daily Mirror about finding the film (46 year old filmed interview with William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who, is discovered, August 2013) Accessed October 2013

[xvii] Hi-Ho Silver Lining, written by Scott English / Larry Weiss, recorded by Jeff Beck, 1967