I was pretty happy when the BBC announced this “docudrama” of the creation of Doctor Who. I mean, I was blown away by all the 50th anniversary programs we got this year, but this was just the icing on the cake for me. Mark Gatiss had his work cut out for him in organizing a film that not only told this “origin story” of the long-lived television show, but did it in such a way that it wasn’t geared solely to the most hardcore of hardcore fans. As the opening card states “you can’t rewrite history, not one line…”, so things had to be altered somewhat for dramatic effect, but it seems like everything in this was within the realm of reality. It’s for this reason, the BBC couldn’t have got a better Doctor Who ambassador than Gatiss to make the program
Mark Gatiss first proposed something similar to An Adventure in Space and Time ten years ago, it was to commemorate the 40th anniversary, or so he thought. BBC higher ups flat out rejected the idea, implying that there was zero interest in reviving the show, and such a drama would be a niche program that the masses would not enjoy. This was still “the wilderness years”, a time when fans had basically settled in the fact that their beloved show would never be back. And so, time passed. In 2005 Doctor Who did come back, and ended up being one of the biggest things BBC could ever dream of. Personally, I’m glad this got made now, and not in 2002. Everything would have ended on the bitter notion that the show was over and we were looking back into one of TV’s most beloved ghosts of the past. By waiting, they were able to really treat everything like how it should be treated – a celebration.
The story of An Adventure in Space and Time is essentially split into two halves that blend together. The first is the story of Verity Lambert, a hard working woman in a “boys club” trying to progress her career in the 1960’s. Lambert was hired by the BBC Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, to create a show based around an idea for a time traveling history program. She was partnered with Waris Hussein, an Indian “art film” director, and thrown out to get things right. They were both inexperienced, and handicapped from the start in the eyes of many at the BBC due to race and gender, but they made it work. After a few false starts, they were able to persuade veteran character actor William Hartnell to take the title role. Then it happened, the show’s second serial, The Daleks, exploded and catapulted Doctor Who into popularity.
The other half is the story of William Hartnell’s role as The Doctor, how it changed his life, and how he didn’t want to give it up. Hartnell was type-cast as “crusty” soldiers in war movies almost exclusively, and this was making him feel unappreciated. He is portrayed as lacking self-esteem, and harboring anger issues due to his career taking a wrong turn. We see his home life being a tad “rough around the edges” as he treats his own family, wife and granddaughter, pretty poorly. Little by little, the role warms his heart, and changes his life. Then just as quickly as it happened, his poor health rips the job away from him.
David Bradley is one of those character actors that always stood in the background of many films that I enjoyed. I always noticed him, but he was never on my “top actor” list. He’s show up in something, like Hot Fuzz for instance, and I’d think “oh hey, that’s Argus Filch!”. Recently, I’ve been really noticing how great this guy is. I think it was when my wife and I started watching The World Without End, and his role of Brother Joseph stood out. He was a villain of sorts, actually quite a horrendous character, but he did such a good job at it. I was excited to see him get this gig playing William Hartnell, and was pretty confident that he’d do okay, but boy was I surprised when he did GREAT. Whenever an actor provides a performance that makes me have teary eyes, like Bradley does towards the end of the film, he’s doing something right. If he doesn’t at least get some sort of nomination at the BAFTA awards something is wrong.
Aside from David Bradley, the casting in An Adventure in Space and Time is amazing. Brian Cox (The actor, not the scientist) does a fine job with his interpretation of Sydney Newman. The loud, boisterous, and almost eccentric Newman is complete with goofy catchphrases and a dark side that show this man saw himself as “the life of the party” and cool, just as long as you didn’t make him mad. Jessica Raine, who fans might remember in the Doctor Who episode Hide, was another outstanding choice, this time for Verity Lambert. While she understates the “piss and vinegar” that Lambert was known for, I feel Raine did an amazing performance. Sacha Dhawan portrays Waris Hussein, and did such a fine job being subtle with much of the man’s life. Hussein was Indian and homosexual in a land where neither was tolerated. Some actors may have played up either trait into the land of stereotypes, but Dhawan did not.
Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that there were quite a few nods the the past within the show. Classic Doctor Who actors like William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Jean Marsh, and Anneke Wills all appeared in short cameos throughout the film. Other people like Toby Hadoke and Nick Briggs also appear, and will be recognizable by longtime fans. These “Easter eggs” are combined with shot for shot remakes of a handful of scenes from various 60’s episodes, and I loved playing “spot the episode”. My favorites were the recreation of the ill-fated “pilot episode”, The Dalek Invasion of Earth scenes and the Cybermen, shown eating and smoking cigarettes in a menacing way.
I was only disappointed with one thing in An Adventure in Space and Time, and sadly it was one thing I was pretty excited about. Reece Shearsmith was cast as Patrick Troughton (The second Doctor), and although he only appears for a few moments, his portrayal as Troughton was disappointing to me. Being an impressionist, Shearsmith mimicked Troughton’s voice and mannerisms pretty well, but it fell flat. I’d rather he played his own version of Troughton, like Bradley with Hartnell, because his impression seemed hollow for some reason.
Earlier I talked about a moment that made my emotions get away with me, well more like two moments. One was a scene involving William Hartnell at home after he was “fired” from the show due to his ailing health. Bradley pumped so much emotion into a relatively simple scene involving Hartnell “breaking down” in front of his bathroom mirror that it was almost hard to watch. With Bradley bawling and saying “I don’t want to go!” one could easily get lost in his performance. The other moment, one that fans were are on, involves Hartnell filming his final scene. At one point he looks up to the empty TARDIS and sees a “future vision” of Matt Smith in the role leaning on the TARDIS console. With a knowing smile, the audience gets the symbolism that this “regeneration” has created a way for the show to go on, and it will live on without Hartnell. I think some people took the scene too literally, and a glance at the internet showed more than a few people asking “Did the Doctor visit William Hartnell?” and other indications of a point well missed.
An Adventure in Space and Time was amazing, and I may have even liked it more than The Day of the Doctor. I’m one of the weird cases in that I grew up a fan of Tom Baker Doctor Who from PBS, but grew attached to William Hartnell episodes in particular. I wasn’t even alive in the sixties, so it’s not like I have nostalgia for the time period, so I can’t put my finger on why I loved this so much. I think I just feel like many overlook the First Doctor, and William Hartnell in particular. He may have had his personal demons, but this respect he has been getting lately is amazing. In closing, I will state it once again, this needs BAFTA nominations – Gattis for screenplay, and Bradley for Acting.