An Adventure in Space and Time

2013_part_3_adventure cover altThere is the wish list of gifts one might wish to receive for a birthday, things which are predictable and anticipated, but often it is the unexpected gift which is most fulfilling. The fiftieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who has been inching closer since the unprecedented success of the show’s revival in early 2005, the march of time in the real world neither wibbly nor wobbly, with the media and fans speculating and discussing the possibilities of the inevitable celebratory episode.

What was not known until late last year was that alongside The Day of the Doctor capping that half century of travel in the TARDIS would be a one-off docudrama focusing on the other end of that five decade span, the genesis of the Doctor as guided by BBC executive Sydney Newman, producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein.

2013_part_3_adventure 2Yet An Adventure in Space and Time is so much more than that, principally the story of William Hartnell’s association with the show through the three years he played the Doctor, from his casting prior to An Unearthly Child to his departure forced by deteriorating health in the second story of the fourth season, The Tenth Planet.

Written by Mark Gatiss, a long time aficionado of the show who in addition to his numerous scripts (among them the period pieces The Unquiet Dead, Victory of the Daleks and The Crimson Horror) and two guest roles on the show also wrote four novels in the years following the cancellation, the proposal for the show actually dates to the more subdued fortieth anniversary celebrations in 2003 when it was turned down.

2013_part_3_adventure 3Times change and fashions come and go; at that time the profile of the Doctor was probably at the lowest ever since 1963, but now at the lofty zenith of the fiftieth anniversary we are fortunate indeed that the persistence of Gatiss and the current position of a show conceived as “something to fill the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury” as the cornerstone of the Saturday evening BBC lineup allowed the project to proceed.

Real life and drama are two different beasts, and fifty years after the fact, with the majority of the key players gone, memories fading and accounts contradictory, it is inevitable that there will be dramatic licence and compromise in order to streamline the complicated events of the birth of the show in a way which is entertaining and informative both to those dedicated to the show and those casual viewers who the BBC have courted so heavily this year.

2013_part_3_adventure 4Behind the scenes, the key players are original producer Verity Lambert, played by Jessica Raine, fighting the corporate attitude that an inexperienced woman was wrong for the job (“There’s a women in space, why not in the producer’s seat?”), and co-creator Sydney Newman, played by Brian Cox, Lambert’s champion at the BBC.

With Cox often playing serious to the point of grim (he was the original and to many the best Hannibal “Lecktor” in Manhunter) it is delightful to see him enjoying the larger than life role, though at time his performance overshadows Raine; her ability and determination are promised in the dialogue rather than her underplayed demeanour, leaving the relationship unbalanced.

2013_part_3_adventure 1The key role of William Hartnell is seized by David Bradley, fifteen years senior to Hartnell at the time he was cast as the Doctor though he played the part older, with both the script and his performance drawing from many sources beyond the surviving episodes including the recollections of his co-stars and his family. An actor who had struggled against typecasting (“It’s all they offer me, crooks and army officers”) who was at first reticent to become involved, he finds that the recognition and adoration it brings him, particularly from children, changes the way he views the show.

As Carole Ann Ford, who played the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, Claudia Grant’s resemblance to Ford (who makes a brief yet unmistakable cameo; Time Lords are known to age much slower than humans) is striking, and of the key cast she fares the best, with Jamie Glover and Jemma Powell as William Russell and Jacquline Hill who played Susan’s teachers and fellow travellers Ian and Barbara largely superfluous. Later companions of the Hartnell era are represented solely by photoshoots, though other original cast members including Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom) and Anneke Wills (Polly) make brief but welcome appearances.

2013_part_3_adventure 6While the main filming location is the BBC Television Centre, one of the final productions to be created there, the repeated use of the fish eye lens used to capture the size of the facility is intrusive, and better handled are the struggles of the team in the primitive Lime Grove studios and an iconic trip to Westminster Bridge.

Most striking are the recreations of many moments of the show, sets, props and costumes, particularly the astonishing TARDIS interiors, beautifully recreated, and the Daleks, reasserting their menace when shot from below, with the stories An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, Marco Polo, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet among those visited before inevitably coming to the simultaneous arrival of the Cybermen and the departure of Hartnell at The Tenth Planet.

2013_part_3_adventure 5As accustomed as the Doctor is to saying goodbye, Hartnell found it difficult to let go of the companionship of his colleagues, and with the physical demands of the show and his difficulty in learning his lines exacerbated by his increasing frailty and his drinking, on set he was sometimes uncooperative and confrontational.

Preparing to be replaced by Reece Sheersmith’s Patrick Troughton, not as physically convincing though with the correct mannerisms, Bradley is at his best when faced with the end of his involvement in the show he unexpectedly came to love, a final indulgence of dramatic licence creating a moving finale which gives truth to the opening announcement, “You can’t rewrite history, not one line. Except perhaps when you embark on an adventure in space and time.”

The comprehensive DVD contains a brief tribute to William Hartnell, a behind the scenes feature narrated by Carole Ann Ford, deleted scenes and numerous recreations not included in the broadcast, including writer Gatiss’ own whimsical appearance as Jon Pertwee; while it would have been an indulgence within the show, when he has contributed so much, this small reward is well earned.

An Adventure in Space and Time is currently available on DVD and on Blu-ray only in the 50th anniversary box set




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