Regenerations: The Madness of William Hartnell

“One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me I am not mistaken in mine.” – William Hartnell (“The Dalek Invasion of Earth” 1964)

“I don’t want to go.” – David Tennant (“The End of Time” 2010)

There is a certain tension within Doctor Who fandom today; it is being felt on message boards, in fan club meetings and web-rings.  It is tension-filled with dread and dismay, tinged with feelings of hope and excitement.  This tension is a tradition and a rite of passage to generations of Doctor Who fans:  it’s the tension that occurs when one Doctor regenerates into another.  On January 1st, 2010 David Tennant, the current actor to portray the time traveling Time Lord, made his final appearance as The Doctor when he regenerated into actor Matt Smith.  One of the most beloved actors to ever play the Doctor, fan outcry to David Tennant’s departure has been massive.  Through his enthusiasm and sense of fun, David Tennant had managed to create a firm audience for the Doctor, securing the series into the current century.  Much reservation was felt when it was announced that unknown actor Matt Smith would be taking over the conveted role.  At age 27, Smith is the youngest actor ever to play the 900 year old Doctor, but as a broken-hearted audience gets ready for Matt Smith to take over the series in a matter of weeks, one is reminded of the feeling of dread that befell the audience in 2005 when Christopher Eccleston regenerated into David Tennant.  After one season as the Doctor, Eccleston had relaunched and recreated a franchise that had been long thought dead by Doctor Who fans.  Gaining mass approval from both old fans and new fans alike, Eccleston was quickly beloved by the audience as well, but when he quickly bowed out to make room for David Tennant a similar tension was felt:  who was David Tennant?  Would we like him?  Could he ever replace Christopher Eccleston in our hearts and minds?  The answer was yes.  David Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor quickly became the most popular ever, seeing Tennant toppling the mighty Tom Baker in fan polls as viewers’ favourite Doctor.  So if this is the case, why the hesitation in thinking that Matt Smith can do the same?  The truth is, this has been going on for decades.  Regeneration is a unique, but time-honoured tradition that has been going on in Doctor Who for over forty years and, thus far, the franchise still survives.  If history proves itself there is little to worry about:  Matt Smith is going to do just fine.

The twelve faces of Doctor Who

So what is “regeneration,” why is it so important to Doctor Who and how did this all begin?  Doctor Who is a truly unique program due to the fact that eleven actors have played the title character of the series.  The process in which one actor takes the role of the Doctor from another is known as “regeneration.”  The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey and it is explained that when the Doctor’s body is damaged or weakened, instead of dying the Doctor “regenerates” into another body.  Thus, the existing actor playing the Doctor is able to pass the role over to the next actor to take on the series.  With an ever-rotating cast of characters, entire generations of fans can pinpoint their specific era of Doctor Who fandom by what Doctor and which companions were in the Tardis when they were growing up.  As a result of regeneration, Doctor Who is the longest-existing science fiction franchise in the history of television.  Premiering in 1963 on BBC television, the original series ran until 1989 spanning a total of 26 seasons.  To date, no science fiction or fantasy series has managed to have that sort of record (take that Star Trek).  In 1996 FOX television tried to do an American revival of the series and, in order to please fans, attempted to stick with the original continuity.  However the project was a failure.  It wasn’t until 2005 that the BBC dusted off the franchise and brought the Doctor back to television.  Yet, unlike franchise revivals such as Battlestar Gallactica and V, due to the concept of “regeneration” the BBC was able to pick up where they left off barely a decade before.  No need for a revival, thus being accepted by the old fans, but due to a successful revamping, assessable to the new generation of fans.

William Hartnell - the first Doctor (1063 to 1966)

William Hartnell – the first Doctor (1963 to 1966)

Yet, when Doctor Who was first created by TV writer Sidney Newman in 1963, “regeneration” was never a part of the original concept of the series.  Sidney Newman’s original series was about a mysterious old man who travelled through time and space in a police box with his grand daughter and her two school teachers.  Originally designed to be a children’s show, the BBC hoped that Doctor Who might have a lifespan of five years at most.  It had no idea that it would become a British television institution.  It wasn’t until 1966 that the Doctor Who writers came up with the concept of “regeneration.”   Despite being beloved by the audience, in August 1966 the BBC released a statement saying that William Hartnell, the 58 year-old actor who originated the role of the Doctor, would be leaving the popular series. For all intents and purposes, the announcement made it sound like a mutual agreement between the BBC and its star.  However, in reality, it was not William Hartnell’s decision to leave the program: he was quietly being forced out of the part.  Why would the BBC want to force a beloved actor out of its top rated children’s program and take such a huge risk by replacing the central character in one of the BBC’s biggest shows?  The hard cold truth was that the biggest monster on the set of Doctor Who wasn’t the Dalek, the Cybermen or the Ice Warriors.  The biggest Doctor Who monster was William Hartnell himself.

In order to understand the history of “regeneration” it is necessary to understand William Hartnell, his strengths, his weaknesses and his madness.




William Hartnell publicity photo

William Hartnell publicity photo

There is no way getting around the fact that William Hartnell was a very difficult man. Even the people who admired him, and those who he got along with, saw a number of sides to him.  Stubborn, elitist and short tempered, Hartnell was also known to be bigoted.  However, he was known in acting circles for being professional, talented and for taking his work seriously.  For better or for worse, his professionalism and dedication to his craft made him a respected actor within British stage and film circles.

When William Hartnell met producer Verity Lambert and director Warries Heussein in July 1963 to discuss Doctor Who he was quite torn over whether to take the role or not.  A veteran of both stage and film, Hartnell had been involved in acting for the majority of his life.  Entering the theatre at age sixteen, Hartnell had worked his way up from the bottom.  Doing everything from pantomime to Shakespeare, Hartnell considered himself a farcical actor and loved doing comedy.  However, Hartnell ound himself caught in a trap which kept him away from comedic roles.  After making a war film called The Way Ahead in 1944, Hartnell had found himself being typecast in scrappy tough guy roles.  He was forever playing hard-boiled military men, bartenders, thugs, hoods and detectives.  Most recently Hartnell had just finished a comedy series called The Army Game for Granada Television, and had appeared as an eccentric rugby coach in a Richard Harris vehicle called The Sporting Edge.  It was his performances in these two productions which brought Hartnell to Lambert’s attention.  She felt that Hartnell’s ability to play both a gruff and eccentric, yet patriarchal, role was exactly what was needed for the role of the enigmatic Doctor.  After the hectic schedule of The Army Game, Hartnell was reluctant to go back to television so soon, but he looked upon the role of the Doctor as an opportunity to not only break him out of the existing stereotype that burdened him, but also to have a unique character that he could shape as his own.  He reluctantly agreed to take the role and a week later he was off to London to start production on Doctor Who.

The Doctor Who cast in 1963 - (left to right) Carol Ann Ford, Jaqueline Hill, proudcer Verity Lambert, William Russell and William Hartnell

The Doctor Who “family” in 1963 – (left to right) Carol Ann Ford, Jaqueline Hill, proudcer Verity Lambert, William Russell and William Hartnell

William Hartnell was joined by actors Carol Ann Ford, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill to make up the principal cast.  There was a great deal of optimism surrounding the group, and when Doctor Who premiered on British television on November 23rd, 1963 it was an instant hit.  Five weeks later, with the introduction of the dreaded Dalek, Doctor Who was a nationwide phenomenon, making William Hartnell both a household name and an instant television icon.

William Hartnells Doctor was dark, mysterious and tempermental.

William Hartnell’s Doctor was dark, mysterious and tempermental.

William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor was unlike the heroic Doctor that viewers are familiar with today.  Donning a white wig and wearing a Victorian cut suit, Hartnell played  an old man decades older then he actually was.  Dark, mysterious and pompous, Hartnell’s Doctor seemed to have his own agenda in all that he did, but still had a strange paternal quality that endeared him to viewers. The Doctor also had a sense of morality, demonstrated when he aided people in need throughout his travels in time and space.  Hartnell quickly embraced the character, and was overwhelmed by the reception that he received from young fans.  His love for his viewers, and especially children, has become legendary: he would make public appearances at fairs and charity events without accepting any money, or donating all appearance fees to his favourite charity – guide dogs for the blind.  Children would literally follow him around as if he was the Pied Piper, and he would entertain them with stories and magic tricks that he had picked up at the pub.  Although his fan mail was handled by his wife, Heather, William Hartnell would personally sign hundreds of Doctor Who photographs by hand on his weekends away from the Doctor Who set.

Ticking time bom waiting to go off?

Ticking time bomb waiting to go off?

Yet back at the BBC a different side of William Hartnell was brewing.  Hartnell had his own attitudes and biases that could make him quite difficult to deal with.  As a result of his long career in the entertainment industry, Hartnell did not trust younger or inexperienced directors, actors or writers, and to Hartnell’s disadvantage he was the oldest one in the Doctor Who camp.  However, in the early days of the series, the people around him had proven their worth to him and gained his acceptance and the Doctor Who team had become a tight little family with few disruptions or blow ups.  Yet, this was nearly a miracle because William Hartnell had developed a star complex.  In his mind he WAS the Doctor and HE knew what was best for his character and the show.  Due to his respect for Verity Lambert, his attitude was kept in check for the first few seasons of Doctor Who, but time would prove that William Hartnell was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.

The second Doctor Who “family” – Maureen O’Brien, William Hartnell and Peter Purves

William Hartnell did not deal well with change, and worked best with a comfortable group of people that he knew and trusted.  It was well-known that he had little to do with episodic actors and was often cold to even experienced guest stars.  However, as the original cast started to fall apart, William Hartnell’s disposition began to slowly worsen.  He was quite upset when Carol Ann Ford was written out of the series in 1964, but eventually accepted Maureen O’Brien as her replacement.  When William Russell and Jacqueline Hill left the series at the end of the second season, Hartnell and O’Brien had had a firm hand in picking Peter Purves to play their new co-star, once again creating a tight little family.  The real storm would occur when Verity Lambert announced that she was leaving the series as well.  Lambert was really the calming force that held William Hartnell at bay and her replacement, John Wiles, would be the dynamite that would light Hartnell’s fuse of madness.

William Hartnell did not like John Wiles.  He felt that Wiles did not take the show seriously, he did not like the direction that Wiles was taking the series in and he did not like the way that Wiles handled actors.  On the other hand, Wiles did not like the fact that he was directing what was considered a children’s program and he didn’t care if Hartnell was the star or not, he refused to be pushed around by an actor.

The filming of The Myth Makers proved to be the stresser that finally set William Hartnell off.

The filming of “The Myth Makers” proved to be the stresser that finally set William Hartnell off.

It was during the filming of the third season serial, The Myth Makers, that trouble on the set of Doctor Who exploded.  The first blow came when Wiles informed Maureen O’Brien that she was to be written out at the end of the story.  O’Brien had no idea that her time on the show was coming to an end and was understandably distraught.  Hartnell, who had taken a protective paternal role towards O’Brien, looked at Wiles as the villain that was breaking up his screen family.

Yet Hartnell had his own set of issues to deal with:  while filming The Myth Makers he received word that his beloved Aunt Bessie, who raised him as a boy, had died, and due to his schedule on Doctor Who he could not attend the funeral.  But most importantly, unknown to the fans, the BBC and even himself, Hartnell was suffering of arteriosclerosis which affected him both physically and mentally.  Due to his condition Hartnell began to have a difficult time concentrating and remembering his lines.  Becoming frustrated and aggressive, Hartnell began to grow paranoid and would lash out at everyone except himself.  Hartnell had a series of confrontations with guest star Max Adrian, which were rumoured to be based around the fact that Adrian was Jewish and Hartnell was known to have anti-semetic attitudes, although other sources say that Hartnell was jealous of the close working relationship that developed between Adrian and Maureen O’Brien.  By the end of The Myth Makers the tide had turned completely.  William Hartnell was a paranoid mess who had an “Us vs Them” attitude.

By 1966 William Hartnell was still loved by the public, but feared and despised by the cast and crew of Doctor Who.

By 1966 William Hartnell was still loved by the public, but feared and despised by the cast and crew of “Doctor Who.”

In the weeks that followed, William Hartnell had the Doctor Who team walking on eggshells.  He refused to engage with his new companions, who seemed to follow through the Tardis in an endless stream  Unable to remember his lines due to his illness, he would have breakdowns on the sets followed by fits of rage and cursing where the production would have to stop until Hartnell could calm himself down and filming could resume.  Eventually Hartnell approached the Doctor Who writers and made a demand that he be allowed to write, or even improvise, his own dialogue, stating that he knew his character better then any scriptwriter could ever hope to write, and he knew what was best for the series anyhow.  His demands were, obviously, turned down but in the process he had made enemies with the scripting department.  Even Peter Purves, who Hartnell thought of as his only ally at this point, decided that he had had enough and departed the series by the end of the season,.  Yet, as badly behaved as William Hartnell was on the set of Doctor Who, the public still adored him and Hartnell appeared as a wise old uncle in the press.  Doctor Who was one of the BBC’s highest-rated programs and the Dalek craze was in full effect in England.  Doctor Who merchandise was being sold by the boatload, and the series had even been spun off into two feature length films starring horror icon Peter Cushing as the Doctor.  Doctor Who was a massive franchise, but William Hartnell was impossible to work with.  Something drastic had to be done if the show was to survive, but continuing with William Hartnell was becoming impossible.

Character actor Patrick Troughton arrives to save the Doctor Who team from the wrath of William Hartnell

Character actor Patrick Troughton arrives to save the “Doctor Who” team from the wrath of William Hartnell

With Hartnell’s contract about to expire, producer Innes Lloyd, who replaced John Wiles, brought together story editor Gerry David and writer Dennis Spooner to come up with a way to believably write William Hartnell out of the show.  Together they came up with the idea that since the Doctor was an alien they did not need to play by conventional rules to replace an actor, thus they came up with the concept of “regeneration.”  The show would continue and the Doctor would live on, although he would have a new face and personality.  Innes Lloyd had the best relationship with Hartnell and took it upon himself to let Hartnell know of this decision.  Lloyd sat Hartnell down and gently explained to him that he thought it was the best interest to the show, and to Hartnell himself, if he “had a rest.”  Hartnell calmly agreed and a press release was put out to the papers that made it look like it was a mutual agreement between Hartnell and the BBC that he leave Doctor Who.  However, in reality William Hartnell was deeply hurt and vindictively doubted that the show could last without him.  As it is today, the public outcry to William Hartnell’s departure was intense.  Fans could not imagine Doctor Who without William Hartnell.  How was that going to work?  The BBC itself was unsure about the future of Doctor Who.  Nothing like this had ever been done before.  Would the public accept a new actor as the Doctor?  Character actor Patrick Troughton was hired to replace William Hartnell in the role.  Hartnell and Troughton had a respect for each others work and filming the regeneration scene went fairly smoothly.  Troughton respected Hartnell’s feelings and Hartnell did not step on Troughton’s feet.  At the end of the day Hartnell quietly left, ending his rein of terror on Doctor Who.

Poster for William Hartnells first post-Doctor Who appearance in a Christmas pantomime, crediting him as The Original Dr. Who and featuring a Win a Dalek contest.

Poster for William Hartnell’s first post-Doctor Who appearance in a Christmas pantomime, crediting him as “The Original Dr. Who” and featuring a “Win a Dalek contest.”

William Hartnell would never be the same again.  With the public unable to separate him from the Doctor, Hartnell’s next appearance was in a pantomime version of Puss n’ Boots where he appeared in a costume and wig similar to his Doctor Who garb, with even the posters and programs advertising him as  “The Original Doctor Who” and featuring a “Win a Dalek Contest.”  Shortly after, as William Hartnell wrote in later correspondence, he had what he considered to be a nervous breakdown.  Spending most of his time drinking, as well as having an affair on his wife, Hartnell was trying to fill the void in him that was left in him from being dismissed from Doctor Who, especially when he saw that the series was thriving without him.  The public had taken to Patrick Troughton and the show was more successful then ever.  A few more stage and television appearances were marred by his growing illness, and his inability to remember lines or concentrate and his growing paranoia.  However, the aging actor refused to retire, but due to his growing illness directors were hesitant to work with him.

1973 photo shoot featuring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee for the 10th Anniversary serial The Three Doctors: “So this is what I’ve come to – a dandy and a clown.”

1973 photo shoot featuring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee for the 10th Anniversary serial “The Three Doctors”: “So this is what I’ve come to – a dandy and a clown.”

Yet Hartnell would get one final shot at being the Doctor for the tenth anniversary Doctor Who serial The Three Doctors.  With actor Jon Pertwee now in the lead role of the Doctor, the producers sought to bring back Hartnell and Troughton for an adventure featuring all three of the Doctors together.  Hartnell happily agreed to reprise the role that he missed so much, but his wife Heather knew that he was not well enough to make the trip to London to do the show.  She called producer Barry Letts and told him of her husbands’ feeble and weakened condition.  Letts and screen writer Terrance Dicks changed the script so that the could film Hartnell’s parts in his home.  Troughton and Pertwee also travelled to Hartnell’s country home to shoot a beautiful set of publicity shots for Radio Times.  Hartnell’s part was reduced to three scenes where he would appear on a monitor screen giving wise advice to the other Doctors, where he read  from massive cue cards just beyond the camera.  It was apparent to viewers just how ill Hartnell really was.  But his scenes weren’t without its own sense of bitter humour.  First appearing on the Tardis monitor, Hartnell greeted Pertwee and Troughton by saying “So this is what I’ve come to – a dandy and a clown.”  The Three Doctors would be his appropriate swan song.  William Hartnell would never make another screen or public appearance again.  His health quickly deteriated soon after the filming of serial and he died quietly two years later on April 23rd, 1975.

Although it was a risky chance to take, replacing William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton paid off well, allowing the series to continue and thrive for decades to come.  By creating the concept of regeneration, actors were not pinned down to a role, and the BBC was not pinned down to a particular actor, creating a history of rotation and change in the Doctor Who line up.  But what of the other Doctors?  What where the situations surrounding their departure from Doctor Who?

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  1. Thomas Riggins’s avatar

    Thanks for a very interesting article and the sympathy shown for the First Dr Who and his breakdown.

  2. john Marshall’s avatar

    An excellent article…William Hartnell was my Doctor…was obviously a sad ending, but “all good things…”

    Thanks for the memories…

  3. Stevepryce’s avatar

    Some interesting comments, but not sure if Peter Purves would agree with the image you are trying to represent. You do know that William Hartnell suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942/43, which left him with a stammer. Also, he was the only one of the cast and crew when the series started, to see it’s potential longevity.

  4. Jérémie Conan’s avatar

    An excellent and concise account. Yet, I would be pleased to know more about your sources, more especially concerning Hartnell’s biased views on Jews and accusations of racism. I do know Hartnell’s insight on this point is overtly admitted today (e.g. Nicolas Courtney’s revelations on Hartnell, as can be found on the 1st Doctor’s wikipedia page). But information related to testimonies and so forth may be useful to me.

  5. Josephua Hirsch’s avatar

    It’s worth noting that the viewership of Doctor Who was considerably lower in every season after Patrick Troughton took the lead, so to say “…the show was more successful then ever” is factually inaccurate. It went from an average of about 7-10 million with Hartnell to around 6 million with Troughton. Still very good figures, but not the “more successful than ever” you postulate.


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