DVD Review: The Doctors – The William Hartnell Years (Koch Media)

Its over half a century since William Hartnell made his last regular appearance in the BBC science-fiction series, Doctor Who.

Hartnell was into his fourth decade as an actor when he took on the role of The Doctor in 1963, having already made his name on stage, television and screen playing a variety of roles from bullish Sergeant Major’s in films such as The Way Ahead and Carry On Sergeant to a corrupt manager in Hell Drivers and a gentle old man in This Sporting Life

It was Hartnell’s role in This Sporting Life that brought his attention to young TV producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein when they were looking for a lead in a new BBC Science Fiction series. 

The lead role, of course, was that of the mysterious traveller known as The Doctor. For the next three years, with a string of companions, Hartnell’s Doctor would travel through space and time in a space ship disguised as aLondon Police Box known as The TARDIS and do battle with alien races such as Daleks, Zarbi and Cybermen and meet historical figures such as Marco Polo, The Romans and The Aztecs. 

Hartnell relinquished the role of The Doctor in 1966, but remained the template for what all his successors would build up on. Although he died in 1975, Hartnell’s portrayal of The Doctor is still celebrated and has been reprised in the Doctor Who series on screen  twice  by two different actors. Firstly Richard Hurndall in the 1983 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors and this Christmas, David Bradley will star as The First Doctor opposite Peter Capaldi in the Christmas Special Twice Upon a Time. There is no better time then, than to look back at William Hartnell’s portrayal of The Doctor.

The release of the two disc documentary set The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years (released by Koch Media)  is a fascinating insight into the early years of Doctor Who focusing not only on Hartnell, but also five key actors that co-starred with Hartnell, William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Peter Purves (Steven Taylor) and Jackie Lane (Dodo Chaplet).

The release is made up of 6 documentaries produced by Keith Barnfather and presented by Nicholas Briggs during the 1980s and 90s for The Myth Makers video series.  The documentaries comprise two tributes to both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill and four interviews with Russell, Ford, Purves and Lane.

Introduced by both Barnfather and Briggs at the beginning of the first disc, the pair, give an insight into how each documentary came about and a cheeky nod to video production techniques of the 1980s and 90s.

Although both Hartnell and Hill had died by the time the documentaries on them were made, there were colleagues and family on hand to pay tribute. In Hartnell’s case it is his biographer and real-life grand-daughter Jessica Carney who gives an honest but warm insight into Hartnell’s life and revealing why, if Hartnell had any skeletons in the cupboard it should have been his family that reveal them. Actress, Maureen O Brien who companion Vicki also pays tribute in a brief but rare interview.

Director, Alvin Rakoff equally gives a good insight into his wife, Jacqueline Hill’s life as an actress, wife and parent. There is also an extra bonus of hearing Hill talk about her role at her only Doctor Who convention appearance during the 1980s.

In true Myth Makers style there are some entertaining interviews too. Nicholas Briggs (now of course, better known as the voice of The Daleks) takes to a variety of locations to interview his subjects, Jackie Lane in a mock-up TARDIS, complete with 80s computer graphics, Carole Ann Ford and Peter Purves in their homes and William Russell on a London bus!

Despite the different approaches to interviewing their subjects, the interviews give honest and interesting insights into the actor’s experiences on and off Doctor Who, divulging familiar and not so familiar anecdotes about The Hartnell years.

Carole Ann Ford, Peter Purves and Jackie Lane all bemoan the lack of character development during their time on the show. All three also state how difficult it was to find work after appearing on Doctor Who, but equally speak of their time on the show with fondness.

Anecdotes are aplenty too, from The Daleks (of whom both Russell and Purves have differing opinions) and the shows lead star, Hartnell.

It has often been said that Hartnell himself didn’t suffer fools gladly and although his co-stars all back this up, they also confirm that they had a good working relationship with the star.

William Russell recalls Hartnell’s portrayal of The Doctor as that of a shifty Magician, and remembers the joy of discovering a cartoon of a foreboding, French President, Charles De Gaulle in a newspaper caricatured as a Dalek. Russell showed the illustration to Hartnell, who in turn proclaimed the series success knowing they had made it.

There are also other tales of Hartnell from his co-stars Peter Purves describes Hartnell’s eccentricity when visiting his home, while Carole Ann Ford describes his protectiveness to his co-stars. 

Despite the seemingly experimental nature of the documentaries (and bear in mind these were created in the years before DVD extras came into being and frequently on limited budgets) these  documentaries still manage tabloid up a picture of the era, Hartnell himself and his co-stars.

Nostalgic for old fans and insightful for those who are new to Doctor Who’s classic era, The Doctors: The William Hartnell Years is a timely opportunity to get an insiders glimpse into the early years of the series through the eyes of those who appeared in it. 

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