Review: An Adventure In Space And Time

Well, here it is, Part One of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Extravaganza.  So fire up your TARDISes, and let’s head back to the swinging 60s…

An Adventure In Space And Time

Starring David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, Lesley Manville, and Brian Cox
Screenplay by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Terry McDonough
Originally Aired: 22 November 2013, BBC & BBC America

I’ve always been slightly fascinated by how television shows come together; the intense collaboration behind the scenes, the compromises made to get the show on the air, the talent on and behind the cameras. It can be heady stuff to watch if done right. And while I do have a few complaints about it, An Adventure In Space And Time does it very right.

Ever since the hoopla began for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, I have been patiently waiting for Mark Gatiss’s retelling of the origins of the show (which was originally pitched nearly a decade ago to coincide with the show’s 40th Anniversary). And much like The Road To Coronation Street (a film drama about the creation of the great ITV soap opera), this dramatized retelling of a British television empire fills in some of the details of its legendary past. In a way, An Adventure In Space And Time, and the creation of Doctor Who itself, is the story of four misfits banding together to create television history. It starts with Canadian-born producer Syndey Newman (Brian Cox) who left rival ITV to become head of drama at BBC and had an idea for creating a children’s science fiction show. He then recruits newbie producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) to serve as executive producer and British-Indian director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) to direct the first serial. And together they recruited character actor William Hartnell (David Bradley) to play against type from his usual gruff roles in the part of an old man (“C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas” as Lambert describes him) from a distant planet who travels around in an old police box. This unlikely quartet would manage, in less than ideal circumstances, to create one of the longest-running franchises in television history.

An Adventure In Space And Time gets so many things right. The film is a visual treat, from shots of the legendary BBC Television Centre to the infamously rickety Lime Grove Studios where the episodes were filmed (complete with the sprinklers going off at random moments, a fact that the film recreates) to the spot-on recreation of the interior of the first TARDIS. In a way it called to mind the late, lamented BBC series The Hour in terms of detail to the period and production design. It also managed to get many of the important details about the creation of Doctor Who right. Looking back at the First Doctor’s adventures, there are a lot of production gaffes that ended up staying in because there was no way to re-film the scenes (including the gaffes made by Hartnell himself, due to a debilitating medical condition that was making it harder for him to remember his lines). In addition, the film captures all the internal politics of the BBC at the time. No one wanted to make Doctor Who, and Lambert, in particular, had to fight to get everything she needed for her show. It was Lambert who, upon realizing that the show was debuting the day after John F, Kennedy’s assassination, demanded that it be repeated the next week. Furthermore she also demanded that the second serial be a story by a writer named Terry Nation about a race of murderous aliens trapped in upside-down wastebaskets inspired by the Nazis (read: The Daleks), even though it was against Newman’s edict about no “B.E.M.s” (bug-eyed monsters). It would be this decision that would help make the show a smash hit that captivated England. And when Hartnell’s deteriorating health was making it difficult for him to film, it was Newman who came up with the notion of the Doctor regenerating into a new body to allow another actor to take over the role.

Furthermore, the cast is universally terrific. And while Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, and Brian Cox are terrific (as is the great Lesley Manville as Hartnell’s doting wife Heather), the film belongs to David Bradley and his breath-taking performance as William Hartnell. What makes his performance so great (aside from his eerie resemblance to William Hartnell when he is in full Doctor costume) is that he manages to capture the strange push/pull dynamic that made Hartnell’s Doctor such a unique creation. In watching the First Doctor’s episodes, there is always this strange sense of anarchy about The Doctor that you never know what he is going to say or do (thanks to Hartnell’s acting choices and his delicate medical condition), and Bradley nails that unique nature about Hartnell’s performance. He also manages to encompass all of Hartnell’s massive contradictions; the sickly man who by force of will was sprightly on camera, the crotchety actor who would get tetchy with his colleagues but reveled in his new-found role as children’s idol, the man who pushed people away but hated to see his colleagues go. And when Bradley gets to sink his teeth in recreating some of Hartnell’s iconic moments (such as his famous farewell speech to Susan at the end of “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth”) it’s breath-taking and heartbreaking.

Of course, there are a few flaws in the film. While I appreciate the flashback nature of the story and all the visual callbacks peppered throughout the film, and while the film is loaded with cameos by many people who appeared during the First Doctor’s time, I felt there were a few moments that were too cutesy to be taken seriously (including one cameo at the end that made me roll my eyes heavenwards). My biggest complaint however was that it felt too brief. The actors are so good and so engaging with one another, and there is so much material in the story that it could easily have blossomed into a full-on mini-series.

But these are minor complaints. Like the show it is telling the history of, An Adventure In Space And Time is an emotional, heart-first story about a disparate quartet that went on to create a show about another disparate quartet traveling through time and space in a big blue box. And it’s a fittingly heart-felt tribute about the start of a television legacy.

Photo Credits: BBC

Originally Published on 25 November 2013 in “The Idiot Box,” my column for l’étoile magazine.

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