At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I was watching Doctor Who before it was cool. It was back in 2003, well before Russell T. Davies’ sexy reboot, when the ABC celebrated the Doctor’s 40th year by showing every episode. I was quite young at the time, and, as I recall, reluctant to watch the first episode. I’d heard grown-ups stories of hiding behind the couch from whatever terror the Doctor was dealing with that week, and I had no desire to experience that for myself.
With some difficulty, my parents convinced me to watch the first episode, An Unearthly Child, where the Doctor made his first appearance. I must have liked it, because I watched the next one, and the one after, enthralled by the Doctor’s first adventures with cavemen, Daleks, and two bewildered schoolteachers. A few years and several hundred episodes passed, from Hartnell to McCoy. And in the meantime, the snazzy new reboot had started up too, a far cry from the old episodes with its telegenic stars, convincing special effects and sets that didn’t wobble. And I watched them all.
So, having seen nearly every existing episode of this cultural behemoth, which Doctor would I say is my favourite? Which of the eleven actors to play the Doctor (so far) is the best? Before I answer that, I’d like to put forward a theory I’ve come up with while pondering the question.
Hypothesis: Your favourite Doctor is the one you first saw.
The first doctor you see is the original. He’s the one who first invited you into the TARDIS, the one who first introduced you to the wonders of time and space. He’s the one who sets your expectations, and the yardstick against which you’ll compare all the others. A completely unscientific survey, consisting of my dad, supports this theory. His favourite Doctor is Jon Pertwee, the first incarnation of the Doctor he saw. This is, of course, far from conclusive proof. I invite readers to try themselves to prove, disprove, or find alternatives to, my hypothesis.
Anyway, I’ve prattled for long enough. My own favourite is William Hartnell, not only the first Doctor I met, but also the first madman in a little blue box to grace our TV screens.
My reasons? Firstly, he’s the original, from which all future incarnations spring, and not bogged down by the massive internal mythology the series has gone on to develop. And then there are the Daleks. Like Hartnell, they were there from the first series. The first Doctor to defeat the Daleks holds a special place in history.
Secondly, unlike his prettier, charming and all-knowing regenerations, god-like in their powers, he is a vulnerable figure – an old man in a faulty time machine, wandering through time and space with a wayward granddaughter in the vain hope he can find his way home. Yet he’s also, to put it bluntly, a cantankerous old bastard who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Of all the Doctors, I find Hartnell the most fascinating: He’s capable of acts of great sensitivity and immense coldness, often at the same time. No other Doctor could bear to leave his granddaughter behind on a ruined planet, as the first Doctor did. This complexity of character intrigued me.
And finally, there are his travels themselves. There’s none of the overblown melodrama of more recent adventures, no monster of the week to be defeated, no endlessly saving the world/galaxy/universe. For Hartnell’s Doctor, merely spending a week in the French Revolution, Nero’s Rome or the Aztec Empire and living to tell the tale was adventure enough. The old episodes went beyond cartoonish fights against bug-eyed monsters, and for that, I was grateful.
For these reasons, I say William Hartnell was the original and the best.