By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
* Spoiler alert
Not every new fan of Doctor Who will know the full story behind the creation of popular culture’s greatest icon from Great Britain. Thankfully, the BBC has taken it upon themselves to create An Adventure in Space and Time to look at the years when this series became a success in a somewhat historical but yet fictional form. In the final day leading up to the 50th Anniversary special, this fascinating docu-drama will get further broadcasts throughout the world as it looks at how the series started.
But this movie also chronicles Verity Lambert’s (Jessica Raine) rise to being a prominent creative force behind the scenes. She helped William Hartnell (excellently played by David Bradley) become an enduring figure that later actors could not even come close to mimicking. Try as these actors might, the goal is to not be what the First Doctor or Bill represented. Instead, it was to make the Doctor Who character their own so that each’s actor’s contribution will be remembered.
This drama shows what the series’ legacy is about not only behind the scenes but also in front of. It nicely balances between the troubles Ms. Lambert faced as a female when considering equity among staff was iffy at best. In the 60’s, women’s liberation was only just beginning. Many staffers at the BBC back then thought she did not have the clout to pull off producing a respectable children’s entertainment product. She fought hard to get Doctor Who done right, her way, and to imbue it with a gravitas so that it would endure for years to come.
Not everyone will know the intent for this series was to create an educational product with a sci-fi bent to enlighten young minds with. The first season reflected it with adventures to places as old as China by visiting Marco Polo, hopping continents into the Meso-American world with The Aztecs before moving on to the second season into the Classical Era with The Romans or Medieval Times with The Crusade. By third season, they even visited America in The Gunfighters. But the tales do not end there. The producers did not forget that Doctor Who is also a science fiction product and it gave a terrifying glimpse of another civilization’s future. There is a commentary about the dangers of radiation in the second broadcasted story, The Daleks.
Verity knew the potential that this screenplay can impress upon the masses, and she had to fight tooth and nail in order for this tale to be filmed. She had to convince Sydney Newman (humourously played by Brian Cox) to get this made when the heads of BBC thought this program should be pulled. But there is more to this two hour drama when its seen on television. Bradley brilliantly creates the pathos needed to play Hartnell in all his complex moments. His home life is lightly looked at and they hint at what motivated him to be a character that other children can love. Bill channelled much of his same affection from how he feels towards his real life granddaughter to that of his fictional one, and while its hard to tell fact from fiction, Doctor Who historians might be interested in picking up Judith “Jessica” Carney’s book, Who’s There? The Life and Career of William Hartnell, to get a better understanding of this actor’s background.
It may provide some additional material to one moment in An Adventure in Space and Time. Viewers may well finally understand the motivations which the Doctor said with conviction, “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”
That moment between The Doctor and Susan may well be understood at a whole new level.
Sadly, the supporting roles of Jamie Glover as William Russell, Jemma Powell as Jacqueline Hill and Claudia Grant as Carole Ann Ford are under-utilized. Glover looks like a sterner version of Russell, Powell is spot-on for demure and along with the pixieish Ford, this trio could have benefited from having a little more screen time. Not a lot of time is spent with them. Even in the publicity stills, they look great and could be a near mirror image of Russell, Hill or Ford.
If BBC is smart, perhaps this new cast can be used to film the lost episodes from William Hartnell’s era for a future video project. Fans wanting to see these tales fully recreated may be open to the idea. When Marco Polo, Mission to the Unknown and The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve is said to have no surviving footage whatsoever, a recon may well be in order.
This drama certainly has the hallmarks of being made by fans for fans of both the classic and new series. It’s certainly a love letter spotlighting everything groovy from the 60’s. The social culture is vividly recreated. Perhaps the only miss is a segment where a look into the future feels very tacked on. Perhaps producer Matt Strevens and writer Mark Gatiss was not sure who they could get to appear as a cameo for this particular scene, so it was left blank during production. In high-definition, this cameo looks like it was green screened on and it’s very obvious. At least the appearance of Carole Ann Ford, William Russell and Anneke Wills are not. However, only the astute will recognize them when considering not everyone will have followed their careers all the way to the present.
But as for what Doctor Who was, is and will be, the style remains in how the legacy manages to carry on. An Adventure in Space and Time nicely makes a few aspects of the series origins accessible without being overt in all the political drama going on. The social milieu, however, is when considering all the conflicts that were being portrayed for most of the first half of this movie. By the time the opening act introducing Hartnell comes full circle, the one key theme that gets presented is simply about how to pass the torch on. Some performers treat being in a program as just another job until they tire of a role. But in this case, it’s not about facing regrets of wanting to pursue better career options (or health issues in Hartnell’s case) — case in point the feelings that Christopher Eccleston had when he negotiated certain rights prior to signing the contract or the change in mind Matt Smith had when he decided to move on than to stick it out for a few more years.
At least with the classical era, Sylvester McCoy defined what the Doctor has to do best. The Doctor said: There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.