Review: An Adventure in Space and Time / Cert: PG / Director: Terry McDonagh / Screenplay: Mark Gatiss / Starring: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, Brian Cox, Lesley Manville / Release Date: December 2nd
Mark Gatiss’ love letter to the creation of Doctor Who is a beautiful, evocative period piece which effortlessly bottles that special alchemy which caused the world’s longest-lasting sci-fi series to arrive on screen at a time when the BBC was still the domain of “a sea of fag-soaked tweed and sweaty men.” But history records that Doctor Who wasn’t the work of one person, there was no ‘light bulb’ moment where the idea popped, fully-formed, into Sydney Newman’s head allowing a team of BBC worker drones to bring his vision to the screen. Fans familiar with the finer points of the creation of Doctor Who in 1963 will watch An Adventure in Space and Time and wonder why there’s no mention of C.E. ‘Bunny’ Webber, Anthony Coburn and Ron Grainer, and why the vital contributions of Delia Derbyshire and Terry Nation are sidelined. Faced with the difficult task of pruning the story of the origins of Doctor Who into an easily digestible ninety minutes, Gatiss sensibly opted to focus his narrative on the core dramatis personae fundamental to the show’s birth; William Hartnell, the testy actor chosen to play the Doctor, Verity Lambert, the show’s ground-breaking young female producer, Waris Hussein, the inexperienced young director; and the ebullient Newman himself. Gatiss has done what the Doctor can never do – he’s rewritten history – but in doing so he’s crafted a heart-warming tribute to Doctor Who and its legacy, a warm and engrossing drama which touches all the real cornerstones of the origins of the series whilst sidestepping some of the less essential detail and, perhaps, some of the less memorable individuals involved in the creative process.
In truth the genesis of Doctor Who really wasn’t anything all that dramatic. The creation of most TV series are surely fraught with similar personality clashes, charm offensives, doubts and insecurities, and whilst Doctor Who was undoubtedly a revolutionary type of series in and of itself – and, thankfully, still is fifty years later – its journey to the screen wasn’t really beset with any extraordinarily unique difficulties. Sydney Newman had the idea, others developed and scripted it, a producer and directors were appointed, actors cast, sets built, episodes recorded and screened. Pretty much the life of every TV show ever made. Fan history tells us of producer Verity Lambert’s struggle to become accepted in the traditionally man’s world of the BBC in the early 1960s, William Hartnell’s notoriously spiky and petulant nature (and casual racism and homophobia, airbrushed out of history for the purposes of Space and Time), but, historical importance aside, there wasn’t in any real sense much of a ‘story’ to be told here. Typically of many biodramas there’s no developing narrative as the script is required just to present a series of memorable moments, stepping-stones, and the viewer is left to sketch in the missing fine detail. Gatiss knows the history of Doctor Who intimately and he knows the bullet points fans will be expecting to see dramatised; Newman creating the series to fill a gap between the football results and Juke Box Jury, Lambert’s controversial appointment and her struggle to make a name for herself in the stuffy BBC of the early 1960s, Waris Hussein’s insecurities as a freshman gay Indian TV director, Hartnell’s unpredictable, irascible nature and the illness which precipitated his ‘removal’ from the series which had become his life. Gatiss gleefully remounts the pilot episode and its original broadcast production, and there are nods to Daleks on Westminster Bridge, the historical opulence of ‘Marco Polo’, the butterfly-men of 1965’s ‘Web Planet’ and the revolving-door succession of companions who replaced the original triumvirate of Ian, Barbara and Susan. Lambert herself moves on to greater glories, leaving Hartnell stuck with a less perfectionist production team and a sense that the series was drifting away from him.
An Adventure in Space and Time oozes ‘labour of love’ from its opening credits. As the last drama to be filmed at the BBC’s now scandalously decommissioned Television Centre, it’s a tribute to the building itself and its heyday as a thrusting, innovative powerhouse of creativity in broadcasting. The film may play fast and loose with recorded Doctor Who history but it never drops the ball in its depictions of its key players. David Bradley is almost unnaturally good as the unpredictable Hartnell and his performance gets right under the skin of a frustrated legitimate actor whose career never attained the heights it deserved and who seized this opportunity to create an iconic character and to reach out to a whole new audience. Brian Cox virtually becomes Newman, the larger-than-life Canadian showman who brought a dash of showbiz colour to the cold grey of the Corporation, and whilst the script treats the resistance Lambert met as more of an inconvenience than a genuine problem, Jessica Raine imbues her portrayal with the fire and determination Lambert was famous for throughout her life. With Lambert and Hussein (Dhawan) bowing out of the drama – Lambert as the second season of Doctor Who came to an end and Hussein once he’d completed work on his second serial, ‘Marco Polo’ - the film’s balance inevitably skews towards Hartnell as his ill-health undermines both his confidence and his ability. The actor clearly feels that the role of a lifetime is slipping away from him as the show’s constant format and cast changes take their toll. Hartnell’s ‘little chat’ with Newman, ostensibly a request to lessen his workload, turns into the beginning of his exit – surely a simplification of the real chain of events which led to the show’s first change of lead actor – and Hartnell returns home to tell his concerned wife Heather (Manville) that he’s given up the role he’d come to love. Gatiss can be forgiven for creating the sequence where Hartnell breaks down and sobs, “I don’t want to go…” Now where have we heard that before?
An Adventure in Space and Time is a project Gatiss had been trying to get commissioned for over a decade and only now, in this 50th anniversary year, does it seem entirely fitting and appropriate that it should finally reach the screen. Purists will baulk at the liberties taken with history, the airbrushing, the comic inventions (clumsy cavemen in the first serial) and, perhaps, the over-sentimentality of current Doctor Matt Smith smiling benignly across fifty years of television history as Hartnell prepares to take his final bow. But, with the help of some handy rose-tinted spectacles, this is a gorgeously mounted, sympathetically directed production which is, in so many ways, the icing on an already rich 50th anniversary birthday cake.
Extras: William Hartnell tribute / 10-minute behind-the-scenes featuring Carole Ann Ford / Two brief deleted scenes / Pilot reconstruction sequences – and Mark Gatiss as Jon Pertwee!