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Revisiting William Hartnell and the origins of ‘Doctor Who’

A retrospective on the era of the First Doctor, 1963-66.

Doctor Who William Hartnell
Credit: BBC
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The Doctor is darker in the pilot episode

Doctor Who William Hartnell
Credit: BBC

Yes, deciding to go the whole hog and experience every single episode requires the commitment of watching the untransmitted pilot episode. It’s twenty-five minutes of innovative, shaky, brave television. Although there are notable similarities, it’s the differences between the first attempt and the episode that would actually be transmitted that stand out the most. Of starkest contrast is William Hartnell’s performance. In the pilot, he is moody and unhelpful. You may even say sinister, right from his first appearance as he lies to Ian and Barbara about his granddaughter Susan’s whereabouts. Has he kidnapped her? Viewers may legitimately ponder the question. Somebody, and presumably not director Waris Hussein, but perhaps the powers that be on the BBC’s Sixth Floor, must have given the directive for the star to soften his performance, taking into account the intended younger viewing audience. By the second take, Hartnell’s interpretation of the same lines is much lighter and more comedic, already introducing the silly giggles that would become such a trademark.

How might ‘Doctor Who’ have evolved, had Hartnell not been told to tone down the darkness of his initial instinctive portrayal?

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