(from ign.com) “It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
It’s been a mainstay of sci-fi pop culture for well over half a century, and now Doctor Who is about to turn another historic page with its 2017 Christmas Special, “Twice Upon a Time.” Seeing out the latest incarnation of the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi, the episode will have the current Time Lord facing his imminent demise and meeting his first incarnation (as played here by David Bradley, replacing long-gone original actor William Hartnell) when he too is on the verge of regenerating into a new Doctor. Two Doctors are dealing with their mortality, merging past and present while looking to an uncertain future. And for all those viewers that may have become fans long after Hartnell’s Doctor was a distant memory, perhaps it’s a good time to review just what the First Doctor was all about. Yes, hmm!
William Hartnell played the original Doctor from the show’s debut in 1963 until 1966. Mostly perceived today as a crotchety, occasionally doddering old man – grandfather to companion Susan, whose two schoolteachers Ian and Barbara accompany the strange pair in the TARDIS on the first adventures in the show – Hartnell definitely benefits from revisiting his era. It can be eye-opening, because while it’s true that Hartnell’s Doctor is a bit shaky at times – he famously messed up a line of dialogue or two, leading to a more exaggerated perception of him as foolish – he’s also quite commanding, fiercely intelligent, and after some early character development, far more likeable and capable of defending the innocent and embattled rather than ignoring their plight as perhaps he did at first. He may not be a modern kind of hero, but in the context of the late 1960s in England, he was just right.
As far as we can tell, this year’s Christmas Special actually takes place during a specific point in the First Doctor’s story – its very end in fact, the final episode of the four-part First Doctor finale, “The Tenth Planet.” And what was that about? Read on…
Originally aired from October 8 to 29, 1966, “The Tenth Planet” was William Hartnell’s final regular performance as the First Doctor (he returned in a limited fashion in 1973 for the 10th anniversary tale, “The Three Doctors”). The Doctor and his companions, Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills), arrive at the South Pole in 1986 (the future!) just as a race of cybernetically-enhanced humans from Earth’s twin planet Mondas invade our world.
You can find the story these days, more or less, but it had to be partially restored with animation replacing most of the – you guessed it – crucial fourth and final episode, one of the infamous lost installments of the show that still remain elusive from the eras of the First and Second Doctors. While the regeneration bit and some other clips do exist (and the complete audio soundtrack still exists as well), the rest had to be re-created for its most recent home release.
Not only did the story introduce the concept of regeneration (though not by name) that would enable the series to replace Doctors for the next 50-plus years, it also saw the debut of the Cybermen as created by writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The first sock-headed Cybermen seen in this story have even recently reappeared in Peter Capaldi’s final season, but the key point here is that late in episode four of this story, Hartnell’s Doctor goes walkabout on his own at the South Pole, thus providing the perfect “in” for the Christmas Special to shoehorn in a side adventure team-up with Capaldi. (In the closing moments of Capaldi’s last regular episode, which teased the Christmas Special, he encounters Bradley’s First Doctor in what appears to be the South Pole.) The First Doctor is even a bit perturbed about things being “all over,” setting up just the right mutual fear of the future that the special will evidently explore in both incarnations of the Doctor.
As noted earlier, Hartnell’s First Doctor returned for the 10th anniversary special in 1973, but at that time he was ailing, and could only appear briefly, seated and reading off cue cards for a few insert shots to help his fellow Doctors. He died two years later, and when the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” rolled around in 1983, the First Doctor appeared again, but recast with actor Richard Hurndall. Some fans took the recasting rather hard, and still have a less than flattering view of Hurndall’s take on the First Doctor, and now that Bradley is about to tackle the part, the controversy has erupted anew. Bradley may be a bit more qualified, however, having actually played Hartnell himself in the 50th anniversary 2013 docudrama about the early days of Doctor Who’s production, An Adventure in Space and Time.
If you’re interested in experiencing more of the First Doctor’s era, there sure are plenty of ways to go about it. Besides some of the most extensive non-fiction resources available on almost any other intellectual property outside Star Trek, Doctor Who has also presented fans with adventures via novels, comics, and audio dramas, all of which have done their part to expand on the First Doctor’s travels.
How his adventure with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor pans out remains to be seen, but clearly, no matter how much time has passed since the first-ever Doctor – the original, you might say! – left our TV screens, he will always come back one way or another. Yes, he shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to him that he is not mistaken in his. Now let’s go make some cocoa and get engaged!