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Review: AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME

We’ve been talking a lot about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who lately; God knows I have. In most of it, though many are mentioning the previous Doctors, a lot of our discourse has been about “The Day of the Doctor,” and quite rightly; it’s going to be a multi-Doctor-splosion with (at least) three Doctors teaming up for the first official time since 1983. But, it’s also important to look back at the very beginning, because let’s face it: Without the beginning, there’d be no 50 years later. This is why the BBC docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells of the creation and first three years of the series, feels like a breath of fresh yet familiar air.

Written by uberfan of the series Mark Gatiss, the drama focuses mainly on the first man to play the mysterious “Dr. Who,” William Hartnell, and his relationship with the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert, who was also the youngest and first female producer at the BBC. Also important are the Head of Drama at BBC at the time, Canadian Sydney Newman, and the show’s first director, the young Indian director Waris Hussein. The four of them are depicted as the most important people in the show’s history, and in a great many ways they were the most atypical creators of British television in history.

An Adventure Cast

David Bradley portrays Hartnell, a grumpy character actor relegated to shouty military roles in movies and TV. He begins the narrative embittered and gruff towards his granddaughter, but that would change. Brian Cox plays Newman as the slick, fast-talking showman from Canada who has big ideas but leaves them to other people to realize. He created The Avengers, you know (the British TV show, not the comic books), for BBC rival ITV. He needed a 25 minute program to span a gap in programming on Saturday evenings and came up with the basic premise of a science fiction show called Doctor Who. His one mandate was: no bug-eyed aliens or men in rubber suits. That was kind of it.

He hired a former assistant, Lambert (Jessica Raine), to take control of it and shape it into something they could put on the air. Verity didn’t get taken seriously, as she was a young Jewish woman and the BBC was a middle-aged man’s world, but she has an ally in director Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), a young, gay Indian man. Their goal was to find the right lead actor for the tricky but iconic role and going through many applicants, they decided Hartnell is the best choice, though he took some convincing.

Naturally with a story like this, which did feature many, many other people who were either not mentioned, barely mentioned, or absorbed into another historical person, you’re going to have to simplify things. Gatiss does a really admirable job of focusing the film on the core relationships while still getting the overall gist of some of the other parts. For instance, Delia Derbyshire and her amazing work arranging the theme tune with the Radiophonic Workshop could be a movie unto itself, but here is a mere cutaway.

An Adventure Raine

The film is at its best when it focuses on these relationships, specifically the bond between Lambert and Hartnell. While he’s very unsure about whether or not he should take the part at the beginning, Hartnell is ultimately convinced by Lambert’s positive attitude and sheer force of will, even though she’s anything but supremely confident in reality.

From the disastrous pilot taping to the show nearly getting the ax after the first four episodes to the introduction of the Daleks and the beginning of the cultural phenomenon they became (Terry Nation is mentioned but never seen), An Adventure in Space and Time, sort of only grazes the surface of the timeline, and I wish we could have somehow gotten more into the 90 minute feature, because I just wanted more of it.

At a certain point, the film which we thought was about Verity Lambert becomes about William Hartnell, in the best of ways. With Doctor Who, Hartnell experienced his first instance of real fame and really felt compelled to keep going, even as Hussein and eventually Lambert decide to embark on different careers. He felt the pressure of being the Doctor and of keeping Doctor Who going, though he simply could no longer memorize the lines or take the long hours.

One very moving scene occurs when a very gruff and stroppy Hartnell begins berating the new staff of the show as they set up for the next shot around the TARDIS console. He doesn’t like the new director and it seems like no one really cares about the show the way they once did. His final straw comes when he has to be the one to turn on the console mechanism because no one else knows. At that moment, he is the man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Bradley assaying that role is perfect.

An Adventure Bradley 2

As much as the film celebrates the beginning of the little show that could, it also bittersweetly eulogizes the man who was the definite article. Amid all the winking nods to fan-known futures or characters espousing things said in episodes not yet made, the movie focuses on a man’s realization that he’ll never again be what he once was and the fame he’ll no longer have. It’s very moving, and the special cameo during the filming of the first regeneration only served to bring more of a glisten to the eye. It’s a show we all love, but no one loved it more first than its original star.

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21 comments

  • @ Mack, I think that just reflects the real life situation, though – Verity moved on to other things, and Hartnell and Who was just to continue on.

    I think what they were trying to say was that ultimately everyone is replacable, but that ultimately doesn’t have to necessarily be a bad thing. So Verity’s story is never wrapped up, and there’s this gap when she rather suddenly disappears from the show (even more for Wasir!), but that’s the point – there is that real sense of loss and leaving something behind, but then there’s the elation of the show continuing, of others moving into the gaps to continue the same story.

    I think there’s supposed to be that dissonance that you seem to point to in terms of the Verity/William stories, but I think that’s important, because it seems to me that dissonance was and is real.

  • I really liked the show – it had a good cast and impressive production values. I just felt it was a bit unfocused. I think the film makers needed to decide if they were telling the story of Verity or Hartnell. The way the story passes from one to the other just didn’t work for me. It made me feel like they hadn’t really decided what they were trying to say. Still really liked it, just didn’t quite love it.

  • I’ve been out of the Who loop for a season, and was never a hard core Whovian, but this biopic had me weeping, and wanting to reach for some classic Who. I agree with other posters – the Smith cameo took me out of it – the only moment! – but I was already so moved at that point that it didn’t matter much. Would have preferred something else, maybe a dissolve to a modern Who set, perhaps with someone looking at a Bradley-as-Hartnell photo, or a wall display of all the doctors, or something, where they could finish with the Smith cameo on set about to shoot, and then someone saying ‘action’ or similar. Would have been better than what they had, IMO.

    But besides that, this was one of the best things I’ve seen that’s Who related in a while. What really grabbed me was the stillness. The stillness and the drama on a Who set, where Hartnell – both as Bradley and in archive footage – would deliver lines, where there was some gravitas, no big soundtrack, no action, just a bit of simple poetry. Kind wish there was a bit more than that – not sentimentalised, no bombast, no big reveal, just a bit of stillness, some old school stage acting pathos. The scene when Steve leaves – both in this film, and in the archival footage – just sends a little shiver up my spine. “I can’t, I can’t.”

    Kind of makes me want Gatiss and McDonough to have a proper extended crack at modern Who. McDonough has done episodes of Breaking Bad and Wire in the Blood, so has the chops and can do electrifying stillness, while Gatiss already has Who and Sherlock under his belt. Give them a go at shaking the formula once again.

  • It was very moving. Doctor Who represents such a socially-responsible entity, but I liked that the sad beauty on display in the Hartnell character was a very male issue: the desire to create something that can affect people on some deep level, and a lament over the inevitable things that can suppress our potential.

    Don’t get me wrong; some might see that statement as sexist and say that women can be driven to create as well, and while that’s entirely true, I think there are two different motivations at work there; it’s well-recorded that testosterone correlates to ambition–not just the desire to achieve, but the absolute need to achieve and affect others, or else fall into a depression or become unable to function–and in a compassionate human being who understands people, that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I see in Hartnell, in the scene where he realizes that “the Doctor makes people better.” I think that sort of male ambition–exhibited perfectly in the Doctor and all eleven of his real-world “vessels”–is kind of an elusive thing that isn’t often openly discussed, but it’s evident in the history of cinematic directors and men of great imagination. I feel that same thing and face those same struggles, whether I actually manage to achieve anything or not, and for some reason I just identify that as a very male thing… one of few that I think we can be proud of.

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  • This was way better than I hoped it would be. What a beautiful story. It made me tear up 3 times; when she kissed on the cheek (it was like his companions were leaving), when he said he wasn’t ready to go (much like the Tennant scene), and finally at the end with Matt Smith looking back at him as if to say ‘it still lives and thank you so very much’. It was truly a love letter to Hartnell, the fans, and the great history on one of the most beloved shows in all of time and space. See what I did there.

  • I really enjoyed this. I am ashamed that I didn’t know one of the show’s first producers was a woman! That’s pretty badass. David Bradley was really great in this, too. And I also got teary at his “I don’t want to go” lines!

  • Gatiss clearly has a vast but intimate knowledge of the production history of Doctor Who, but he has fashioned that vast knowledge into a practically perfect 90 minute docudrama . The cast where brilliant the production was lavish and this is probably Gatiss’ finest hour… and a half

  • Gatiss clearly has a vast but intimate knowledge of the production history of Doctor Who, but he has fashioned that vast knowledge into a practically perfect 90 minute docudrama . The cast where brilliant the production was lavish and this is probably Gatiss’ finest hour… and a half

  • I’m only posting to say that I didn’t cry a single tear watching this :-) but the park scene made me smile for a while.
    I’ve also think they could dedicated more time to the theme music history, because it’s as iconic as Hartnell, if not more.

  • I was crying throughout, nearly non-stop. Thing was, the show means SO much to me, and I was always fond of the First Doctor. I love how with each doctor we can see a bit of the personality of each actor that portrays him. Which also allows us to love the actors as well. Which also was the reason I got so teary…just visually seeing a piece of life of people who, without them, we wouldn’t have such a powerful, epic show that literally means more to us than ‘just a show’. Not to mention the struggle Hartnell trying to bring to life this character that was also a part of him, because he knew how much it meant to others while he was fighting his health failing. So, yeah, I was crying. The only time I DIDN’T cry was when ever the Daleks were around or mentioned, Daleks almost always crack me up XD And the park scene was too cute. <3

  • I think it was planned. I cried when Bradley (as Hartnell) said those lines… Things only got worse when it came to the regeneration shot at the end and Matt appeared in the screen next to Bradley’s character. I was a mess!

  • I loved it. It made me remember watching the Doctor when I was young and seeing how it inspired childrens imaginations from the start. The end made me cry when he said he didnt want to go. Felt like I was watching Tennant regenerate all over again. The BBC did an amazing job of bringing Hartnell back to life. He was an amazing actor and gave us the first Doctor. I’m glad I’ve been a lifelong Whovian.

  • The only thing that kind of pulled me out of the movie was when Matt Smith was superimposed into the ending. I could see fast forwarding to the present and showing him as the current doctor making a lot more sense. But that’s probably just me.
    Still, this made me even more of a fan of David Bradley leaving me hoping Solomon makes a return to Doctor Who.

  • The part where Hartnell said that he didnt want to go, It got me almost as teary eyed as it did when Tennant delivered the line. It makes me sort of wonder if that was planed or just a coincidence