WITHOUT WILLIAM HARTNELL, THERE WOULD BE NO DOCTOR WHO!
Jennifer Lawrence is a big Louisville movie star. Oscar caliber talent in “Winter’s Bone.” She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But perhaps her most popular roles are in “The Hunger Games” and “X-Men.” Fantasy and science fiction film features.
Well, there is a history to those types of characters. Whether it be the novels of Poe, Verne, and Wells; the movies of Georges Melies, Fritz Lang, and George Lucas; the comic books of Charlton, Marvel, and D.C. Comics; and pulp fiction magazines like: Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, and Analog.
Television, too, got into the genera early, generally through low-budget serials such as “Captain Video and His Video Rangers,” or “Space Patrol.”
The publically owned British Broadcasting Corporation had some early success in the medium with serials such as “The Quatermass Experiment” and “Pathfinders to Mars and Venus.” But, in 1962, the BBC hired Sydney Newman to launch a new type of science fiction show. The network needed to fill a Saturday evening slot between a pop music show and a sports reporting review.
No “Bug-eyed Monsters,” he insisted to the breakthrough female producer, Verity Lambert. The show was to be about a flying police box traveling through time and space. And it was to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. Now that’s a nifty trick. But what great mind came up with its name, the Tardis. It means, “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space!”
The Tardis was flown by a Time Lord, the Doctor was one of them, and one or two companions. No one really got to know much about the Doctor early on, hence his name, “Dr. Who?”
England had a long tradition of actors from which to cast such a role. Not necessarily movie actors, and certainly not from that new television medium. Actors in England generally got their training in Shakespeare. And that is a good thing. So it was not a surprise when Verity Lambert hired an English actor in his 50s to be the Doctor. William Hartnell.
A good choice. Hartnell came up through the Shakespeare corps, and scored critical reviews as a supporting actor in the British movie, “This Sporting Life.” I’ve seen it, and he is good. Different. Odd. But special. The movie starred a young Richard Harris and it launched that actor’s career. Hartnell had also found success, if not a typecasting burden, as a Sergeant Major in the British television sitcom, “The Army Game.”
So Hartnell was what such a low-budget science fiction sitcom needed. An exceptional professional, available at reasonable British actor prices.
And it didn’t hurt when those “Bug-eyed Monsters” were slipped into the script by Terry Nation. The “Daleks.” They looked like trashcans with toilet plunger armament to me, but they terrified and mesmerized English youth.
Add exceptional scriptwriting, and you’ve got a hit. That is as long as the good Doctor is as good as you think.
So work with me here. Pronounce the following words out loud: “Babe, cake, deed, fife, gag, judge, kick, lull, maim, nine, pipe, roar, shush, tut, verve, and wow!”
Each of those words carry double identical consonants. They are vocal exercises to exercise articulation. I learned them from Dr. Jack Wann at the Shelby County Community Theatre each night before we went on stage. I still use them before I pronounce these words for my blog podcast.
So go ahead, try them again, and make sure to enunciate that second consonant. William Hartnell did. He was well trained, too.
In the series, each Doctor regenerates into a new Doctor after an appropriate number of episodes. Over the last fifty years, there have been thirteen of them. But that regeneration may not have been initially intended. Three years into the series, William Hartnell began to show signs of the effects of atherosclerosis. He was losing his lines. That was the reason for the first regeneration. Hartnell had lost his professionalism to disease.
William Hartnell had such a distracted air of indifference. It was fascinating. But was he acting? I wondered if the disease was affecting him even at the beginning. Maybe he was just making it all up back then. Putting on a good face as a good actor can do.
So I got Terry Nation’s first Dalek script, slipped the first 1963 Dalek episode DVD into the player and read Hartnell’s lines along with him.
Spot on! He was a terrific actor within that eclectic, distracted pose.
The “Classic” series ran from 1963 until 1989. Here is a list of the first “Classic” period Doctors and their years in the Tardis: William Hartnell (1963-1966); Patrick Troughton (1966-1969); Jon Pertwee (1970-1974); Tom Baker (1974-1981); Peter Davison (1982-1984); Colin Baker (1984-1986); and Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989).
And here is a list of some of those wonderful “Bug-eyed Monsters”: Autons, Cybermen, Daleks, Davros, Ice Warriors, Macra, Menoptera, Sensorites, Silurians, Sontarans, Voords, and Wirrn.
And as for the companions, they were delightful, too. I will let you list your favorites in your own mind!