The Doctor Who Roundtable: William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton

Have you thought about what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension?

By Dan Wiencek and Diana Estigarribia
September 16, 2004

orig. November 18, 2003

Dan: What can I say about William Hartnell? I guess my main perception of the Hartnell stories I’ve seen is that they’re much better than I thought they’d be. I expected them to be very fuddy-duddy and silly, but they’re surprisingly dramatic and the good writing was in evidence from the start. And I like the at times utter disagreeableness of the Doctor—they were plainly unafraid to make him a little unlikable, which is cool.

Diana: You know, my PBS station, after repeating the Baker-Davison years ad nauseum, finally got around to showing what Hartnell was available in the early 90s. So I got to see a few. But I felt I was watching (and taping) out of a sense of duty at first. That as Whovian I needed to see this, even though they didn’t appeal on an intellectual level.

It took me a long time to get “into him”—I too had this idea that he’d be an old fart doddering around. But I quickly came to my senses. The thing I like about his Doctor and his stories is that the show is still clearly intended as a children’s program—but one that doesn’t shy away from “adult” themes: relationships/sex, violence, death. Even history! Adding to that of course are his adult companions who actually are teachers.

But as much as I enjoy the historicals like The Aztecs, I love the science fiction still, the best. I just bought the DVD for The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which I’d never seen on TV. I’ve heard about this one for years, being the classic, iconical Dalek story that brings the pepperpots to our shores, where they run rampant and reduce us poor earthlings into Robo-Men. There’s nothing like hearing the Daleks intone, “We. Are the Masters of Earth…We. Are the Masters of Earth.” This story is fantastic; it’s suspenseful, well-acted and directed. I’m an adult now and don’t scare easily, but I can imagine what the kids in 1964 must have felt like, seeing the Daleks chasing their beloved Who characters through a deserted London.

And one of the best moments is Hartnell, almost surprised at the Daleks’ chutzpah at coming to Earth. “They dare … well we shall dare to stop them.” He is a fiery, determined Doctor, as aspect of the character that I think all the actors after him tried to emulate. The core of the character is there, in “Grandfather,” and he’s marvelous.

Dan: OK, Dalek Invasion is definitely going to be my next purchase. For your part, if you still haven’t seen An Unearthly Child, find it on VHS. It’s so different from what I expected: the beginning, where Barbara and Ian follow Susan to the Tardis in a mist-shrouded junkyard in Totters Lane, was brilliantly atmospheric, worthy of a Universal horror film or an old Warners noir flick. The ensuing adventure was great because the interplay between the Doctor and the humans was just as integral as the peril provided by the bad guys, and I loved the way Ian refused to take any guff from the Doctor. And you need to hear the Doctor’s hectoring speech to the humans: “Have you thought about what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you?” Um, no …

Diana: Yes, Unearthly Child’s first part is perfect. The Doctor is so selfish and unreasonable. Unlike later in the show, at this point everyone is a fully-developed character. I like Child’s interpersonal conflict—that Susan wants to experience life on earth, but these wishes, reluctantly agreed to by the Doctor, is what reveals the Doctor’s true identity, and draws Ian and Barbara into the adventure. You get the feeling that without Susan, the Doctor would remain this tetchy, solitary man, a rebel with a cause forever traveling the cosmos alone. It almost makes you pity the guy; yet I’ve always liked that about the Doctor. That so often he resists having these people tagging along. But he couldn’t do without them either, could he?

Dan: So with my knowledge of Hartnell being so paltry, I can’t really choose a Best and Worst story, though I liked Unearthly Child best of the ones I’ve seen. How about companions? Susan is kind of Hartnell’s iconic companion, his Jo or Sarah, and she’s certainly adorable in a 60s-pixie little way. But I find myself responding more strongly to Ian’s determination and confidence; I like how he stands up for himself and assumes the leadership if he feels the Doctor isn’t doing the job.

Diana: As cute and mod as Susan is, and as much as I agree with your sentiments about Ian, if I have to pick a favorite, it goes to Babs.

She’s intelligent, by virtue of being an educator, but also I love her pluck. Good old fashioned chutzpah that comes not from actual brawn, but from brains. In the second story, The Daleks, she’s all around woman: she keeps going in the face of crazy odds and she even finds time to have a little romance with a Thal! She makes an otherwise mediocre story, The Keys of Marinus, work. In one episode, the crew is literally brainwashed by devices placed on their foreheads as they sleep. Barbara’s doesn’t take, so the next day she’s the only one who realizes that everything is an illusion created by the bad guys. Needless to say it’s difficult trying to convince the others that what they see with their own eyes is not really there. But she keeps hammering away because she’s got to protect and save her friends. And in The Aztecs, she really shines: it’s “a Barbara story,” and one of my favorite historicals.

I wish my area had shown more Hartnell; as I got older I realized I actually quite like the old boy more and more and I can see how sophisticated his stories are. And now that we have the magic of DVD, I’m going to fill in the gaps in my Who experience. But what I’m really feeling the need for is more Troughton, even though there’s so little of his stories that survive.

Dan: Like you (it seems), I’m woefully unversed in Troughton. But I love him anyway. He has the most fantastic charm: unthreatening, yet not insipid; completely odd, yet very comforting. I think while Hartnell set the template for part of the Doctor’s personality — call it the intellectual, impatient, occasionally arrogant side — it was Troughton who established the all-important whimsy and sense of mischief that ran through every Doctor to follow him. And of course, he was a great physical comic—hell, he could even walk funny.

Diana: I feel the same; in fact, Troughton inspires in me this crazy sense of joy and an immediate outpouring of affection. I just love the guy. And it kills me—kills me!—that the BBC destroyed so many of his stories. It’s one of the biggest travesties in modern media history. Besides the lost historical value of the program, we also miss out on what must be fabulous acting from Patrick.

With such a radical change in the program—a new actor playing the same character—you have to go with a something different, and Troughton’s transition into the role is the most important in the show’s history as he is the first one to do it. He has to make the idea work, that someone’s physical appearance somehow also alters, however slightly or radically, his personality. You have to be a very intelligent actor to pull this off, which he does. His sense of humor, fun, and indomitable spirit is so endearing. And his humility is very important to. It’s very easy to fall into a “well I’m a Time Lord and much smarter than yourself” kind of thing with this character, but he manages to be brainy but not annoying.

Dan: Right. Just the audacity of that is still amazing, that they actually had the stones to recast the main character. Makes you wonder: what if Bill Hartnell had remained healthy, and had gone on to play the role another 2, 3, or 5 years? By the end of the run, Doctor Who probably would’ve gone off the air. Think of all we would’ve missed!

But I hear what you’re saying here. Troughton was faced with a task unlike any other: not just stepping into a character begun by someone else, but an alien character whose inner life was still largely a mystery. Replacing Dick York in Bewitched was one thing, but this would’ve been something else altogether, you know? Troughton had to size up Hartnell’s take on the role, then consciously bring something new from himself to it, without upsetting the established tone of the series or the essential goodness and decency of the character. What an achievement.

Diana: He is my favorite Doctor. Since I started watching the show, when I was 12 or 13, my opinion on my fave Doctor has fluctuated like the TARDIS guidance systems. (There is possibly one other doctor who could challenge Patrick’s supremacy in my book, but we’ll get to him in due time).

Dan: I’m a little more cool where the stories themselves are concerned, however. People keep calling Troughton’s era the “monster era,” and sure, you had some classic stories with Yeti and Cybermen and what not.

Diana: He does have a lot of the marquee names in his tour of duty, but what era isn’t “the monster era” really? I’ve seen a lot of what we have available, and I love the stories. The settings are very alien, which as a hard sci-fi lover I enjoy immensely. Even Earth-centric stories like The War Games, has the alien edge to it. And I think Who works better when the stakes are higher. I like the broader all-of-creation-threatened rather than just brushes with evil or historicals with a minor baddie. I think it serves to contrast with Troughton’s Doctor, who is more of an “everyman” than Hartnell was, who I view as larger-than-life.

Dan: But I think we lose a little something in the characters around this time. We go from strongly-sketched individuals like Ian and Barbara to slightly flatter, more cartoony characters like Jamie and Victoria, characters who are more obviously there to ask questions and get into trouble. I enjoy watching Jamie, but I don’t feel I got to know him very well, and getting to know the companions is one of the show’s best long-term pleasures.

Diana: That’s very true. The companions got younger, and stayed young, during and once we left Hartnell’s era. It’s especially true in that the actors playing these kids are younger than Hill and Russell. I think after Ian and Barbara leave, we begin to get the young’uns like Ben, Polly, Dodo. That’s definitely one thing that’s going to affect performance: younger actors. Even Susan was a mature young lady (a young mother even, if I remember correctly) playing a teen. I have this theory that older actors can bring something extra to a role. Not that Frazier Hines is a bad actor; he’s fabulous, and it’s quite a feat keeping up that level that Jamie inhabits and not making him a dumb oaf.

When I watch Troughton’s Doctor with his companions though, and especially Jaime, I do feel there’s development there. I feel I do know Jaime: he has a strong ethnic identity, he has “poy-so-nality” in spades and he’s a good friend to the Doctor. There’s a great deal of affection there, as well as a love-hate give and take thing.

But I do see what you mean. All the companions get into trouble, and all the Who girls scream and shriek, yes, even the smart ones, like Zoe, who’s a scientist! But there simply isn’t time to flesh out these people very much, unfortunately. Even the Doctor’s character isn’t developed, which is why I think actors go into it thinking, “I’m doing this for 3 or 4 years and then I’m leaving the role.” The companions we have gotten to know better I think benefited from superior script editors and luck of the draw in terms of stories. And also, chemistry with their Doctor. I think that happens later on, with other Doctors. I think the greatest level of chemistry we had, the greatest since Baker-Who/Sarah Jane, is McCoy-Who/Ace. And despite Ace’s young age, she was very well defined plus a lot of the episodes revolved around her “origin story” and life on Earth (I’m sure we’ll have a lot to say when we come to Sylvester’s era.)

Do you have a favorite Troughton, of what you’ve seen? I love The War Games and The Mind Robber. The latter is a “minor story,” but I love any episodes that revolve around an “idea.” The Mind Robber is a character piece, and it works a lot within the dynamic of Doctor/Jaime/Zoe. For a companion-watcher like yourself, I’d recommend it to you.

Dan: You took the words out of my mouth. The Mind Robber is my favorite. One thing I like about Doctor Who is its courage to go completely surreal, to put stuff on the screen just because it’s cool or baffling and not worrying too much about whether it makes sense. Obviously too much of this would be a bad thing, but in small doses it’s very cool. There’s just something about seeing people walking through an empty void that’s compelling and frightening; no wonder they did it again in Warrior’s Gate! And you gotta love how they contrived to give Frazier Hines a week off by having the Doctor put his face back together the wrong way. If only someone would do that for me at work …

So, to sum up: My fave story is Mind Robber; I’ll recuse myself from voting for worst, owing to inexperience; and my favorite companion — no surprise here — would be Jamie. Despite his being not the most well-rounded of characters, he and the Doctor definitely had a lively rapport with each other. But I have to give special kudos to Zoe for that catsuit she wore in Mind Robber … oh muh gawd …

Diana: Funny. Well, for the girls I guess we had Frazier in his kilt, which isn’t bad. He was (and actually still is!) a cute guy. And sooo funny. Everyone knows how important a sense of humor is to a woman when assessing a man’s attractiveness.

Have you seen The Two Doctors (Colin Baker)? It features of course, one of the two “reunions” of Frazier and Pat. Much more extensive than the short scene in “The Five Doctors” that reunites Pat with Jaime and Zoe. When you have a good team, you try and use them as much as possible!

Dan: I saw it many years ago, shortly after it was first transmitted in fact. I confess I was a bit shocked to see how much grey had got into Patrick’s hair by then; that stretched the plausibility envelope a bit. But I loved watching him and the Androgum loping along arm in arm, talking about all the grisly things they wanted to eat … he was such a great comic.

Diana: I’m looking forward to more “miracle finds” like the discovery of Tomb of Cybermen. I have hope that more of Troughton’s era will turn up somewhere. And I’m going to start investing in the BBC Audio releases of his stories, which are extant. Even if I can’t watch these old episodes, I can listen to them: kind of like radio serials. I’m especially looking forward to Fury from the Deep, which Who-storians consider not just a great Troughton outing, but a classic of the entire program.

Dan: I hope you’re right. They seem to keep finding little bits of a minute or so … take a while to compile a complete story at that rate!