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The Shifting Archetypes in Early 'Doctor Who'

We have seen in earlier articles that the Doctor began his life on the television screen in a role approximating that of a villain: he was an aggressive, mysterious old man who suddenly and impulsively kidnaps the two teachers who stumble into the Tardis, innocently seeking an explanation for the odd behaviour of one of their students. Experienced actor William Hartnell was able to convey the mystery, threat and mischievousness of that initial appearance while somehow retaining our sympathies as an audience. But there is no doubt that the character was fundamentally antagonistic in the beginning: fictional antagonists as a rule seem universally incapable of recognising genuine human needs for what they are - and Barbara’s and Ian’s concern for Susan is purposefully mistaken by the Doctor for an intrusive and antipathetic act, to which he reacts quite savagely.

Trying to suppress a real and underlying need only worsens things, though. In fictional terms, this means that those characters who deny or can’t see reality, and are thus doomed to be antagonists in any story, are giving a clue to their greatest weakness: they expose themselves to defeat as soon as the tiniest crack in their armour is located. Think of Miss Havisham; think of Sauron. Any denial of need or attempt to conceal it with substitutes, any manic building of worlds around them, eventually crumbles and collapses. All it takes is the smallest sign of real emptiness, and the whole edifice crashes to ruin. So it is with the Doctor. He has clearly been attempting to create some kind of stable existence for himself and Susan in the 1960s, prior to the show’s first story, hiding the Tardis in the junk yard, sending Susan to school, keeping a low profile. When the intruders blunder through the Police Box doors, however, they discover the ‘gap’ right at the heart of his little 'empire', the thing that he will use to try to overpower the people around him if he needs to: the Tardis itself. Just like the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Death Star in Star Wars, the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter, the Zola algorithm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the witches’ prophecies in Macbeth, the Athenian law in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and countless other examples, antagonists have a powerful weapon held in reserve which is both their strength and their weakness.

Protagonists represent, from the antagonist’s point of view, the growing need which is eventually going to expose and destroy the weapon which the antagonist has created and which they hold close to their hearts.

And yet, long before the notion was confirmed by Hartnell’s regeneration into Patrick Troughton, laying the foundations for the next fifty years, all these signals had changed: the centre of gravity in the show had shifted irrevocably towards the Doctor as protagonist. As our perspective as an audience also shifts, we begin to see the Doctor not as the outsider whose empire is crumbling but the ‘insider’ - literally inside the Tardis - who will bring resolution and victory to any number of scenarios that he visits. The Tardis, instead of the enemy weapon it was shaping up to be, becomes the vehicle (literally) for re-creating those scenarios.

Hartnell’s genius as far as the character is concerned is that everything that happens afterwards can also be seen to have come from the First Doctor. We see the romantic and poetic side of the Doctor; we see anger and wonder; we see misery and action. Part of this is because the show in these early years was unremittingly experimental and had not yet fallen into a set format: we have historical/educational episodes blended with pure science fiction, mixed in with some psychological drama and bits of comedy too. The whole thing is finding its feet: the character of the Doctor is at some points totally opaque, a wise old man who sees beyond the viewer to the heart of the mysteries, and at other points a light-hearted family-orientated figure who can turn to the camera and wish television-watching families a happy Christmas. We have Dalek invasion stories that evolve over months; we have the Doctor inadvertently burning down Rome, and as a galley slave and then a gladiator in ‘The Romans’. The programme is full of life and ideas, a strange mixture of potentials, like its central character.

As things settle down, we see a standard format develop: Troughton is the friendly and funny protagonist, without question; the stories will be about him and his attempts to bring order and justice to various times and places. Genre is no longer in flux; archetypal roles are established. But it’s fascinating to think of what might have happened had the Doctor continued to be the story’s villain rather than its regenerating hero.

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