2013 has been a great year for BBC drama. The Fall, Top of the Lake and the final ever series of Luther have been my favourites. But on Thursday 21st November 2013 I witnessed the best 90 minutes of TV drama.
Let me start with a little background about my love of Doctor Who. I’m one of the young generation Whovians. Colin Baker and in particular Sylvester McCoy were the Doctors I grew up with. I became an avid fan since 2005 with the new series with Christopher Eccleston. Tom Baker is my overall favourite Doctor and a couple of years ago I watched episodes from the Hartnell/Troughton era. Immensely enjoyable, watching the classics has strengthened my love for the series.
For me, watching An Adventure in Space and Time became the perfect companion piece to understand the genesis of how Doctor Who got on the air back in 1963.
That, in a nutshell is what the special was about. Writer Mark Gatiss has been trying to get this project off the ground for years and in its 50th anniversary year, it seems very fitting to add this drama towards the celebration. What Mark Gatiss does brilliantly is highlight the trials and tribulations of how Doctor Who started. It was never plain sailing yet he was not afraid to inject humour. For example we see a Cyberman smoking a cigarette or the continual mishaps of difficult working conditions on the first episode.
He highlights how the characters faced testing times. Brian Cox as Sydney Newman comes off as part Simon Cowell, part go-getter. Fun, blunt and yet can be ruthless and adamant in his decisions. He had a vision and stuck to it – no BEMs or “bugged eyed monsters”. Jessica Raine as Verity Lambert sums up the 60s atmosphere and culture was a “sea of fag smoke, tweed and sweaty men”. Having been made the producer of the series by Sydney, she had to battle sexism and snide comments just to prove a point to get things done. She was strong in her beliefs was incredibly supportive to her colleagues, especially Waris Hussein, director of the early Doctor Who episodes. Being the first Indian director at the BBC, they both had to “stick together” to “make their little show work”.
Somehow as a young fan, it didn’t really occur to me that the show aired on the day that JFK was assassinated. The whole world would have been glued to their TV screens at the shocking news and that moment alone could have ended the series before it began. If it wasn’t for Verity’s strong willed belief in the show and getting the first episode repeated, Doctor Who could easily have been one of those forgotten cult shows, lost in the archives. Verity stuck to her guns and Doctor Who became an eventual success.
But the real star is David Bradley as William Hartnell. All I can say it is truly an outstanding and genuinely heart-warming performance. He uncannily portrays Hartnell as a frustrated actor. He considered himself as a legitimate actor, and not an actor that was continuously typecast as an authoritative figure. In this dramatization, accepting the role of Doctor Who gave him a new lease of life. It gave him the opportunity to show his magical charm, which no other role allowed him to do so. The case highlight point when he became recognisable in the park by school children and he re-enacted scenes from the series. He manages the expectations of his granddaughter when she suggests adventures the Doctor could go on. He became deeply committed to the role but he wasn’t infallible. From his experiences as an actor, he knew it was an insecure profession, which upset his co-star, Carol Ann Ford when she lavishly spent money on herself. But he made up for it, knowing he hurt her feelings by sending her flowers. Bradley carefully balances Hartnell’s warm human side with his (at times) grumpy, eccentric behaviour.
Just like the show, the Doctor’s relationships with his companions are kind of a deferred bereavement. Life changes, people change and people move on. As much as we wish we could trap ourselves in one moment or have the power of time travel, nothing lasts forever and this is where David Bradley shines. He refers to Verity as a rock. After shouldering the blame, she convinces him he was right for the role despite his reservations about the Doctor acting too brash, bitter and lacking twinkle. So when she leaves along with the original companions you see Hartnell go through the motions. With his poor decline in health and his exhaustion at the relentless schedule, he reacts with sadness and at times, dazed confusion. He also displays an increased forgetfulness of his lines. The new companions and work colleagues would get younger and younger and due to their newfound inexperience, Hartnell is portrayed as irritable and frustrated that no one knew what they were doing.
To describe it, despite his best intentions of being committed to the show, it’s the realisation that life would never be the same again.
The last fifteen minutes are genuinely moving. Whilst it was a clever idea to refresh the series and introduce the concept of regeneration, it’s Bradley’s performance of Hartnell’s acceptance that a role that had given him so much joy had slipped away from him. He repeats David Tennant’s last words as the Doctor, “I don’t want to go”, as he tearfully cries at his home. I’m not going to lie – it made me well up inside. It really did.
The final moment brilliantly showcases the ultimate legacy of Doctor Who. Of course back then no one knew that Doctor Who would last for 50 years but there is a great scene when the first Doctor sees the current Doctor, Matt Smith in the TARDIS. This one moment brings it full circle. It acts as a timely reminder that without Hartnell’s commitment and passion to the role, every actor who has played the Doctor since then wouldn’t have the foundations to build their performance from. It’s a moving tribute not only to the show but also to William Hartnell.
Whether you are a Doctor Who fan or not, An Adventure in Space and Time is a heart-warming and brilliantly piece of drama which deserves full praise to writer Mark Gatiss, David Bradley and everyone else involved.
I seriously urge you to watch it if you haven’t.