TV Lists

Doctor Who: The First Doctor – The Best and Worst

In the leadup to the Doctor Who 60th Anniversary next year, we thought it would be fun to do a little retrospective on each Doctor, and their five best and worst stories.

First up, we go back to 1963 with William Hartnell’s First Doctor. The first incarnation had one of the biggest evolutions of character, going from a grumpy and at times violent old man, to a more caring and joyful time-travelling granddad fighting evil. By the time he regenerated in 1966’s ‘The Tenth Planet’, he was becoming the Doctor we know and love to this day.

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Of course, this wasn’t possible without his companions, and Ian and Barbara are fundamental to shaping the Doctor (and the show) in the direction it has taken today. Evidently, they aren’t the only companions within this era, but they are undeniably the most important. Characters like Susan and Dodo end up less highly regarded and a bit more shunned at times, despite Susan’s connection to the Doctor. However, Katarina and Sara Kingdom are notable for being short-lived, and also the first companions to die in their travels with the Doctor, something not seen again until Adric in 1982.

But what of the Doctor himself? This Doctor goes through a lot of development from start to finish. He begins as a crotchety and sometimes nasty old man, who has no qualms about kidnapping and killing. Ultimately, he settles into a much more easy-going and joyful grandparent, who shows his friends the universe and stands up for what he believes in, in a way that the Doctor we see in the first few stories would not have been capable of doing.

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But what of the stories themselves? Spanning 30 individual stories across four years, the First Doctor had a wide range of adventures, from repeat encounters with the Daleks, and tales in Earth’s history and bizarre alien worlds, to grand epics full of bloodshed and peril, and his final story where he encounters the Cybermen for the first time.

Here then, are the five best and worst stories from his era.

The Best

5) ‘The Ark’

Perhaps a more unconventional choice than a serial like ‘The Aztecs’ or ‘The Time Meddler’, ‘The Ark’ has a lot going for it.

It hitches on the concept of Noah’s Ark in space, which was fizzing out of fashion at the time. It creates a great sense of dilemma for the TARDIS crew, especially Dodo; for the first half of the story the Doctor and companions are the villains, having accidentally infected the crew.

The serial is a story of two halves, and we get a classic ‘slaves rebel against their masters’ plotline. There is some suspension of disbelief needed that the TARDIS would immediately take them back to the titular ark, but other than that, we have a lovely monster design in the Monoids, a great jungle setting at the start, and new companion Dodo debuts in brilliant fashion.

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4) ‘The Rescue’

Again, not the most obvious of choices, but this story is more notable than people give it credit for.

Not only is it the first story without Susan, it’s the first companion introduction since the very start of the show and allows Hartnell’s

Doctor to really step up and have more of an active role in the stories than he did before. At two episodes, it’s a quaint little piece, that surprisingly allows for undertones of commentary on abusive relationships between Koquillion and Vicki, before wrapping up with a classic Scooby-Doo monster unveiling by the Doctor. Great stuff.

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3) ‘The War Machines’

© 1966 BBC Studios.

People often say that The Invasion is the template for the Pertwee years and they’re correct to an extent.

But if you really look at it, ‘The War Machines’ deserves the title.

The Doctor and his companions land on modern day Earth, and fight against evil that wants to take over the planet (and an artificial intelligence to boot). It’s utter joy. Sure, Dodo’s departure is a bit hasty, as Jackie Lane’s contract ended midway through the serial, but the introduction of Ben and Polly acts as our first audience surrogate since Ian and Barbara.

And who can forget the iconic line “Dr Who is required”?

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2) ‘The Chase’

I’ve come round to it a lot more in recent years, and how fun this is!

Kids in the 60s likely loved this serial; the Daleks with time travel chasing the Doctor and friends throughout time, meeting a whole host of enemies and friends along the way. Notable highlights include Dracula, the robot duplicate of the Doctor, and the Mechanoids, who go on to menace the Daleks further in the comic strips.

Companion wise, the story is particularly memorable for the departure of Ian and Barbara, finally making it back to their own time in London 1965, and the introduction of Steven Taylor.

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1) ‘The Keys of Marinus’

Certainly not the most expected choice for the top slot by any means, beating out fan favourites such as ‘Marco Polo’, ‘The Daleks Master Plan’ and ‘The Tenth Planet’, but like ‘The Chase’, this one is so much fun.

Terry Nation’s second script penned for the show, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ is like a mixtape of what Doctor Who can do, after trips to the past and future, allowing for a wide variety of plots to be told in this anthology story.

The Voord are the first proper ‘man in rubber suit’ monsters, and remain iconic in that way to this day, while even William Hartnell’s absence in episodes three and four don’t detract from the fun that we’re having. A particular highlight is the courtroom trial in episode five, allowing the Doctor to show some defence attorney skills. All round, a great way to spend a rainy afternoon!

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The Worst!

5) ‘An Unearthly Child’

© 1963 BBC Studios.

The very first Doctor Who story ever made is sadly not the best.

Episode one in isolation is fantastic: a perfect build-up to introduce the companions and the Doctor, the TARDIS and the concept of the show, and it remains one of the best intros to a Doctor there is.

Unfortunately, the latter three episodes are a bit of a snooze fest. There’s nothing overly harmful about these episodes, they just end up dragging and allowing for one moment of the Doctor about to bash someone’s head in (an indication of just how he started).

Still, there are worse debuts for a TV show.

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4) ‘The Smugglers’

I’ve never been the biggest fan of pure historicals, and that sadly reflects in my overall ranking of these stories.

‘The Smugglers’ is one of the lesser ones in my eyes, not exactly offensive, but again just rather dull, which is the cardinal sin of a Doctor Who story. Give me a bad one over a boring one any day.

This story also suffers from being completely missing, which does it no favours. It’s a run around pirate plot that ultimately goes nowhere.

Shame, as it was really Hartnell’s last chance to shine, considering the logistics of ‘Tenth Planet’.

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3) ‘The Massacre’

What really gets me about this one is the huge lack of the Doctor.

Vanishing midway through the first episode and then reappearing at the start of the fourth, this really is Steven’s story. The idea of the Doctor having an evil lookalike is fun and has been returned to many times over the years, but Hartnell being away during episode two means the Abbot only really gets episode three to shine.

Peter Purves does a great job here, navigating his way through the calm-before-tragedy, but this just doesn’t do it for me. Couple that with a fumbled entrance for Dodo, and an unfortunate lack of shown massacre on the budget, and we’re left with something that is hard to click with.

It does get points, however, for Steven’s dilemma with Anne, and the Doctor’s brilliant speech at the end of episode four.

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2) ‘The Daleks’

This one will probably ruffle a few feathers.

The start of Dalekmania and the story that ensured the success of the show, ‘The Daleks’ is a victim of its runtime. The first two and a half episodes are brilliant, with the exploration through the city, and the Doctor’s selfishness as he tampers with the TARDIS before they come face to face with the titular icons.

But once we leave the city and meet up with the Thals, we get about three episodes where not much happens and they just mull around, which is a huge shame. It really impacts the story, and it’s frustrating how Terry Nation then just kept milking this format over and over again, meaning other stories suffer similarly, notably ‘Planet of the Daleks’.

The conclusion is decent, but overall had it been shorter, then it might have worked better.

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1) ‘The Crusade’

© 1965 BBC Studios.

Not only is this my least favourite First Doctor story, but this also happens to be my least favourite Doctor Who story. Ever.

The tediousness of it grates from just a few minutes in.

Add to that a very serious tone that treads water for four episodes and it has all the makings of a disaster. Hartnell’s fine in this one, the companions are okay, but I have nothing good to say about it, other than the fact Ian gets deservedly knighted.

The guest cast are serviceable, but the villains here are just awful. An unfortunate dud in an otherwise great season of the show.

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For fans who are more well-versed in the lore of the show, here are the best book and audio adaptations of the First Doctor.

Best Book: Ten Little Aliens

What originally started out as a pitch for the Eighth Doctor, Ten Little Aliens is one of the most dark, grim and traumatic Doctor Who novels out there.

Don’t go in expecting fun; this novel is murky and never lets up, killing off characters just like that. To then have the First Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive is a clash that works brilliantly. Doctor Who meets Space Marines, some serious trauma is suffered, and this Doctor will never be the same again. And to top it off, there’s one chapter which becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure and who could ask for anything more?

Sadly, the majority of comic stories for this Doctor reside in the TV Comics of the 60s and are fairly inaccessible these days. As such, I have failed to pick one; however if you can indeed track them down, you’ll get some lovely early action Who with the first original companions, John and Gillian Who.

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Best Audio: The Suffering

Selected from Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range, The Suffering is a top tier story.

Set in the Suffragette movement, Vicki gets a lot of agency and development over the course of the story, while Steven and the Doctor have their own adventure concerning a mysterious alien skull.

You can’t go wrong with picking this one.

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