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He’s Just Not That Incompetent: Reflecting on David Bradley’s First Doctor

Yes, there is a bee in my bonnet. There are certain instances where I feel the record must be set straight. I’m sure there’s an entire psychological work up that needs to be done on me anyway for so many reasons but I have to say something. 

I’m not a fan of the David Bradley’s continued portrayal of the First Doctor.  

Oh, I loved him in An Adventure in Space and Time, as I thought he did a wonderful job capturing William Hartnell during his time on the show. The biopic gave extra weight to Hartnell’s ill health and why his run on the show was cut short. In communicating this, there was an emphasis on Bill fluffing his lines throughout his tenure. It made it seem as if that were the most prominent aspect of his performance. Put in perspective of that story, it made sense for the most part and was somewhat understandable. But it didn’t stop there.

Peter Capaldi had the idea to bring in Bradley to play the first incarnation again in Twice Upon a Time, his swansong. Maybe it’s because Twice Upon a Time was somewhat of a last minute add on to at least give the fans a Doctor Who Christmas special that year (the last of its kind). Maybe it was Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss teaming up and they just couldn’t resist needling the old guy, and his old fashioned views from a very different era. Either way, the First Doctor was mostly played for laughs, as an old guy who was hopelessly out of touch on every front. He had a moment or two to shine but the die was cast. The 1960s television (and social) mindset was just too tempting a target for Moffat to ignore, so we got plenty of cringe-inducing ‘grandpa’ comments to contend with.

Steven Moffat is one of the most gifted writers in the history of television. I guess I thought he might take a slightly different tac. Ah well. 

At this point, there seemed to be an acceptance that Bradley’s portrayal was only synonymous with a befuddled old man who famously fluffs his lines, so they ran with it. Or a least, it’s that aspect that Bradley and other writers have taken from his time in the role. If that’s the most prominent thing to grab hold of, I guess as a writer, you might pounce on it.

There was a lockdown audio presentation featuring all thirteen Doctors performed by impersonators. I couldn’t tell you most of the impersonator’s names but they brought Bradley in to play Hartnell. By and large, it was very entertaining, and they seemed to really nail the personalities of the different incarnations. But instead of the First Doctor being imperious, commanding, and argumentative — “Will you please shut up, sir?!” — as we might expect in all the chaos, he was, instead, the mumbling, befuddled old duffer who couldn’t figure out how to work the camera. 

Bradley has done some work with Big Finish as well, but I have not listened to them. Maybe he’s sharp as a tack in them, I don’t know, but that would be a nice change of pace, and closer to the spirit of Hartnell. Perhaps most folk don’t mind the bewildered, confused portrayal, but I think it set a dangerous precedent.

Now, Bradley’s going to be featured in a new Doctor Who immersive theater experience, Time Fracture. On one hand, it does seem very interesting that they’re engaging the First Doctor to represent the character. Under normal circumstances, and in every similar venture over the years, it’s usually been the current incarnation that represents the show. Not so this time. Curious. Nonetheless, they’re getting in loads of other actors, including classic Doctors, which is always a treat. 

There’s zero chance I’ll be in a position to witness this experience first hand, but I do hold out hope that this time, we’ll see the quick witted, imperious, tetchy, no-nonsense First Doctor. That they’ll focus on the positives and not the easy jokes. The alien who saves people, planets, universes, and not the old duffer who fluffs his lines. 

There are many 21st Century Who fans who don’t much care about the classic era; even fewer who will “lower” themselves to — shudder — watch black and white episodes. There’s a vocal contingent that condemns the classic show as a misogynistic, racist, sexist representation of the worst of humanity’s entertainment. Pretty much like every other show of the time. The part where the show was more enlightened than most others is conveniently ignored, and frankly, Twice Upon a Time didn’t help. 

And finally, some think that the First Doctor wasn’t that impressive or important. Oh, and of course that segment who no longer thinks he even was the first. 

I think he was very impressive, hugely important, and yes, he was the first. 

Most important of all, he was not a joke.

Rick Lundeen

He’s Just Not That Incompetent: Reflecting on David Bradley’s First Doctor

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 3 min
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