Saturday, June 13, 2009
And so it comes to this - the first ever changing of lead actor in Doctor Who history (I hasten to not call it a "regeneration", as this term wouldn't be used for years after this, nor will I deem it a "rejuvenation" or a "renewal" as no one can decide if it's called either of those terms, as well). I'd like to know what was going on in the heads of the viewers at the time while watching this in October 1966. It had obviously been announced in the press that Hartnell was leaving the show, so there were no surprises there. Whoever was using his 8mm film camera to record snippets of the action on screen (thus resulting in most of the only known surviving footage from Episode Four) was clearly focusing on Hartnell's appearances, probably hoping to chronicle the event as best he could for all time.
It can not be exaggerated how monumental a step forward the changeover was at the time. Other TV series or films might recast their leading actor, or another prominent character, but no attention would be paid to it. I think of James Bond and the several different actors who have portrayed him (although an argument could be made that there have been several James Bonds/007s, which is the code name for MI6's top secret agent). I also am reminded of the recasting of one of the main villains, Travis, in between Seasons 1 and 2 of Blake's 7. But to actually change the lead actor, and, essentially, the lead character, was such a bold and risky decision for the programme. No longer buoyed by the Dalekmania of two years previously, the main focus of the show was now completely on The Doctor. At this point, The Doctor was merely aloof and different, with only his TARDIS and his past, unseen, experiences differentiating him from the rest of his human compatriots. Once he displayed the ability to change his entire physical appearance, he truly became an alien in both the viewers' eyes and those of the characters around him in the story.
And, of course, the risk paid off. The biggest testament towards the brilliance of this creative decision was how little it has been "retconned" as the years go by. Although flashier special effects and shooting techniques have come along in the years and decades since The Tenth Planet, the process and the end result are exactly the same. From Hartnell to Troughton, from Eccleston to Tennant, from Tennant to Smith - it is the exact same thing.
And all this is thanks to producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis. John Wiles before them may have suggested the idea of replacing the lead actor, but it was Lloyd and Davis who actually did it. This decision virtually assured the show's longevity for years to come, as it can guarantee an entirely fresh outlook on stories that may have been tried and tested before. With each new Doctor being, basically, a new character, but with the memories and experiences of those that came before him, the programme could get away with presenting what might be similar stories in different eras because the actions and reactions of the leading character would change their outcomes.
On the flip side, changing the lead actor also meant that the programme could change its format to suit a new Doctor. One couldn't think of William Hartnell's Doctor being exiled to Earth in the 1970's and have the programme work. With Jon Pertwee, it did. Can you imagine Tom Baker dancing around the TARDIS console, playfully flirting with Rose while singing along to a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads? No, but it would work with David Tennant. This combination of the programme being able to repeat itself without repeating itself, and forging bold new directions upon the paths of the familiar meant that there were now any number of combinations of interesting stories to tell.
Let's also not forget the contributions of William Hartnell. I feel he's unnecessarily slagged off as a bit of a joke in Who circles these days, more famous for fluffing his lines and being belligerent on set. If anything, this little marathon of mine has reappraised Hartnell for me. From dark (An Unearthly Child) to authoritative (The Daleks' Master Plan) to poetic (The Dalek Invasion of Earth) to funny (The Gunfighters) to tragic (The Massacre), the man could do it all, perhaps in a more convincing and cumulative way than any Doctor actor to come after him. Any combination of the stories listed there would go far in displaying William Hartnell's fine talents.
As a final tip of the hat to the era of the First Doctor, I present to you my picks for the best story, the worst story, and my favourite story (which might not always be the best story. For example, a sumptuous four-course meal might be technically better prepared, but it wouldn't be as satisfying as a few slices of pizza). So :
Best Story : The Aztecs
Worst Story : The Chase
Favourite Story : The Gunfighters
Over to you, Patrick Troughton...
Posted by Steven at 10:21 PM