An Adventure in Space and Time

Airdate: November 21, 2013
Written by: Mark Gatiss
Directed by: Terry McDonough
The Story So Far: This is the BBC. The following program is based on actual events. It is important to remember, however, that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. Except, perhaps, when you embark on an adventure in space and time…

Mark Gatiss was one of the early discoveries of Virgin’s new authors policy, and he wrote the eighth New Adventure, Nightshade, published in August 1992, when he was still 25 years old.  It’s a very precocious novel (if I can use that word as a compliment), because it’s about the dangers of nostalgia.  It’s set in 1968, in both an old-age home (housing a sort of William Hartnell surrogate character), and an outer-space-tracking radio-telescope, in small-town England.  The book’s monster feeds on memory, and there are explorations of the moment that the Doctor first left Gallifrey (in the NAs’ canon, without Susan), and of the Doctor’s decision to leave Susan behind at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  There’s also a lot said about race-relations, with the struggle faced by minority characters against the institutionalized racism of the recent past.  If you think all this is a bit much for a 75,000-word TV-tie-in novel, you may be right.  You could even call the book “overwritten” — which is cool, because it is a first novel — but I’ve always rated it highly.  That was the appeal of the New Adventures — young writers with very bright futures telling deeply personal stories.

Gatiss’ writing career since then obviously needs little introduction.  He wrote three more original Doctor Who novels during the wilderness years, of wildly varying quality; of those, I have fond memories of only Last of the Gaderene — one of the grandest-ever celebrations of the Third Doctor era — which we’ll be talking about here in mid-2014, when I expect to hit the heart of the Pertwee years on TV.  His Doctor Who TV scripts are of a bit more mixed quality, but they all explore, to some degree, the twin dangers of nostalgia and provincialism.  I’m a bigger fan of his TV scripts for Sherlock, if we’re being brutally honest, but the bottom line is, Gatiss is one of the most influential TV writers going today, and that success can be traced in a direct line back to the themes he explored in Nightshade, well over 20 years ago.

Which brings us to An Adventure in Space and Time, Gatiss’ docudrama about the creation of Doctor Who.  I wanted to save watching this movie until after I reached the end of the William Hartnell era in The Tenth Planet, but ended up taking in the first three-and-a-half minutes the night it was first broadcast, and then in full on November 23, 2013.  Those first minutes are perfect, every line freighted with multiple meanings, and using the TARDIS prop as a means to take us backwards and forwards in time, from 1966 to 1963, and back again.  Even the historical inaccuracies help improve the story.

I mean, seriously, guys? This moment NEVER HAPPENED.  The TARDIS prop wasn't IN studio during the taping of "The Tenth Planet" 4 on October 8, 1966.  This would have happened at Ealing Film Studios five weeks earlier.  GOSH!  ***deep breath***

I mean, seriously, guys? This moment NEVER HAPPENED. The TARDIS prop wasn’t IN studio during the taping of “The Tenth Planet” 4 on October 8, 1966. This would have happened at Ealing Film Studios five weeks earlier. GOSH! ***deep breath***

Gatiss’ script for Adventure is incredibly complex, and here I am after three viewings still finding new things.  There are so many lines of dialogue which pull off the triple-feat of establishing character, furthering the plot, and resonating with long-time fans who can remember all these events even though they weren’t there. For an 83-minute film telling four years of TV history, this is a remarkable feat.

Police officer, to William Hartnell: You need to move along now, sir.  Sir?  You’re in the way.
Security Guard (William Russell), to Sydney Newman: That’s not the way we do things at the BBC!
Waris Hussein, on Lime Grove Studio D: You can’t do anything there.  It’s smaller on the inside!
Verity Lambert, on describing who conceived Doctor Who: So many people were at the birth of the bloody thing, we’d be here all day!

And, of course:

Carole Ann Ford: There’s more to life than just screaming at nasty monsters.
William Hartnell: That’s no way to talk about me!

In telling the story of Doctor Who, an awful lot had to be left out, or compressed.  This is true of almost any biopic.  But the choices that Gatiss makes, render the drama that much sharper.  For example, Mervyn Pinfield, the show’s first associate producer (played by Jeff Rawle), left fairly early on in Season 2, and died in May 1966.  But Gatiss chooses to use him as a stand-in for several other figures, and thus Pinfield (who basically invented the teleprompter and spectacularly failed to profit from this world-changing device) is present throughout the entire picture — even to the point of being a key part of the decision to fire Hartnell, even though in real life he’d been dead for two months at that point.  In the movie, Pinfield is the first BBC employee to support Verity Lambert after her appointment as Who producer, and he serves as a quiet pillar of support throughout.

A very young Jeff Rawle ponders a better future than the one on "Frontios"...

A very young Jeff Rawle ponders a better future than the one on “Frontios”…

But the movie is really the story of four people: William Hartnell, Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, and Waris Hussein.  Lambert is the star of the first hour: a self-described “pushy Jewish bird” fighting back against the entrenched male ineptocracy at the BBC.  She fosters the birth of the culture-changing Daleks, against pushback from every corner (even Newman), and figures out ways to encourage the best from even her most recalcitrant charges, Hartnell, and (in a funny but awesome scene), TARDIS designer Peter Brachacki. Most of the film is told from Lambert’s POV, and as played by Jessica Raine with the right mix of vulnerability, spunk, and flirtatiousness, it’s a delight to watch her grow into a first-rate producer.  There’s a nice little 1960’s Mad Men vibe going on, too, especially at an early party scene at Verity’s home where she and Jacqueline Hill drop everything to watch a TV broadcast of the first female cosmonaut blasting off.

Right there alongside her is Waris Hussein, director of two of Doctor Who‘s first four serials.  Hussein, even younger than Lambert in 1963, has grand directorial aspirations, but feels creatively stunted by work on shows such as Compact, and initially dreads his micro-budgeted caveman serial, before enthusing, “When do we start?”  One of my favorite scenes involves Lambert and Hussein befriending each other at the staff bar, toasting each other in their new venture, and with the slightest of hints that Lambert is making romantic overtures in which Hussein is not interested.  Hussein is also the first character to graduate from Who and move onto well-deserved bigger things, as he’s awarded the helm of the 1965 BBC adaptation of A Passage to India.  The earliest sign of Hartnell’s looming dementia, by the way, is illustrated here when he calls Richard Martin “Waris”, after reciting the emotional farewell speech from The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

Sacha Dhawan (L) and Jessica Raine (R) in "Behind The Music: Doctor Who"

Sacha Dhawan (L) and Jessica Raine (R) as Doctor Who’s first power couple.

If there’s something of a weak link to Adventure, it’s the portrayal of Sydney Newman. Brian Cox is very good with the role, which requires him to portray Newman as a rebel, a scofflaw, and an ambiguous boss who is able to flatter/coddle Hartnell and chew out/denigrate Lambert all in the same scene.  The repeated “Pop! pop! pop!” affectation that Newman says here, to illustrate bursts of creative genius, is a bit improbable, but on reflection, I think it’s a good use of authorial fiat on Gatiss’ part to illustrate Newman’s colorful persona.  The meeting where Newman fires Hartnell, late at night in TV Centre, is almost surely fictionalized — from what I’ve read, Newman gave the department’s blessing but it was Innes Lloyd (not portrayed in the movie) who would have had The Talk with Hartnell. However, it’s emotionally powerful, as the audience’s sympathies lie in both directions — we’ve been shown things to admire and loathe about both characters in equal measure by this point in the picture.

And what more is there to say about David Bradley as William Hartnell?  He’s taking the Frank Langella-as-Richard Nixon route here — there is no effort to lose himself in an imitation of the man, and in the many re-enactment scenes presented (I counted scenes from nine out of Hartnell’s 29 serials) he bears no similarity to Hartnell at all, apart from the First Doctor’s signature Edwardian attire and silver wig.  However, he gets to the emotional heart of the character: rudely snapping at his own granddaughter while leading a bunch of star-struck schoolchildren on an impromptu adventure to Skaro in the neighborhood park.  Having a very sweet moment with Carole Ann Ford prior to filming her departure scene in Dalek Invasion, but then seconds later being dismissive and brusque with an extra who’s trying to invest a Roboman with unscripted emotional depth. He even gets to the verbal heart of the character, too — just about everything Hartnell said in the infamous 1966 Points West interview, featured on the recent Tenth Planet DVD release, is incorporated verbatim into the movie.

David Bradley as the villain in 2012's New Who episode, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship".  One day, he would come back.

David Bradley as the villain in 2012 episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. One day, he would come back.

After Lambert departs the movie, the final 20 minutes are all Bradley’s.  He’s playing a character who’s lost all of his friends and allies from the first two seasons of the show, the show that’s made him a late-in-life star, and he’s only starting to come to terms with his dementia.  An extended sequence recreating Hartnell’s famous speech from Episode 4 of The Massacre, while (again) completely fictionalized, is a very efficient dramatic encapsulation of what Hartnell must have gone through during the entire production of Season 3. With the script removing all the high and low points from that season (Hartnell’s positive relationship with Peter Purves and his scorched-Earth one with John Wiles), Bradley portrays in a single scene just what it’s like to have your dream job turn to dust in two short years.  He also shows Hartnell losing emotional control after getting fired, including his inability to drive past a real-life police box on his way to his final day of work, and his borrowing the Tenth Doctor’s twice-uttered farewell line, “I don’t want to go!”  The script then omits the desperately lonely and sad final 8-and-a-half years of Hartnell’s life, allowing Bradley to instead exit with a sweet vision of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) co-piloting the TARDIS at the beginning of his regeneration scene.

There are lots more historical inaccuracies, some of which serve a dramatic purpose but some of which are just bizarre — adding Barbara to a scene that she wasn’t in from The Web Planet, or placing Verity Lambert’s exit from the series after that story, even though she produced five more full serials after that one.  One other (relative) disappointment is the re-enactments.  While the actors playing Ian, Barbara and Susan are very reasonable facsimiles of the originals (and with both Russell and Ford getting cameos in the movie), Bradley’s still not impersonating Hartnell.  If you hunt down the deleted scene of Bradley doing the “Happy Christmas” bit from The Feast of Steven, you’ll notice the mismatch pretty keenly.  But, the re-enactments are there because they need to be, and they’re not the core of the picture, not carrying the weight of the drama.  Plus, at least, they’re not as painful as watching Jim Carrey obliterate everything that was funny about Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (a movie that truly suffers a fatal death when you compare its re-enactments to the real thing).

"And, uh, while we're on the subject... Gut Yontef to all of you watching from the audience!" -- David Bradley doesn't exactly recreate an infamous moment from "The Feast of Steven"

“And, uh, while we’re on the subject… Gut Yontef to all of you watching from the audience!” — David Bradley doesn’t exactly recreate an infamous moment from “The Feast of Steven”

There are very nice directorial and casting flourishes, too.  Jean Marsh and Anneke Wills cameo as guests at Lambert’s farewell party.  Nicholas Briggs, the new voice of the Daleks, voices them (on-screen) during the re-enactments from Episode 2 of The Daleks.   Incidentally, that was the Doctor Who episode recorded on November 22, 1963, and there is a very subtle re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination here — juxtaposed against Sydney Newman reading (with disgust) from Terry Nation’s script.  There are two lovely POV shots from inside the Dalek casing, including one of the top dome being dropped over the Dalek operator’s head, and another from inside the grille, with Lambert peering in.

So, as I said before, I can’t address this thing objectively, from the point of view of a Who newbie learning about the show’s origins.  I suspect that I’d still have loved the interplay between Lambert and Hussein, but been curious as to why they both exited the story so early.   As an invested fan, though, I loved Gatiss’ and McDonough’s vigorous head-nods to the past.  The police box on Barnes Common is, of course, a direct lift to the novelization of The Daleks.  When Bradley, learning about the role of the Doctor for the first time, grips his lapels and says “Doctor… Who, hmm?”, the only possible reaction is to stand up and cheer.  And ending the picture with the actual footage of the Doctor saying goodbye to Susan… well, I was in a room with about 60 other fans for this scene, and I think about 58 of us were in tears at the end.

This is almost certainly the best Doctor Who-related project that Mark Gatiss has written.

Except maybe for this, an earlier, warm-hearted nostalgia fest, in this case for 1973.

Except maybe for this, an earlier, warm-hearted nostalgia fest, in this case for 1973.

He wrote one of my least-favorite New Adventures (St. Anthony’s Fire), and probably my all-time least favorite New Series episode (The Idiot’s Lantern); even his better episodes only fall into the middle range of my personal rankings.  However, the care and effort that went into An Adventure in Space and Time is pretty astounding.  This is going to become a new must-watch for November 23rd, for hopefully another 50 years to come.

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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4 Responses to An Adventure in Space and Time

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