Warning: contains spoilers for An Adventure In Space And Time. Our spoiler-free review is here.
As part of a Q&A session with members of the cast and crew at the premiere screening of An Adventure in Space and Time at the BFI, writer Mark Gatiss had plenty to say about the making of the ninety-minute BBC2 film. Now that the special has been broadcast – and with the proviso that it contains spoilers if you haven’t yet watched it! – here’s a selection of what he had to say about bringing William Hartnell, Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman and the rest of the early days of Doctor Who to life…
To begin with, Gatiss talked about the origins of the story, and how it felt taking on something that, as host Matthew Sweet put it, was like “raising ghosts”: “I’m a Jon Pertwee child, so this was all before my time – but I grew up with the story, like a bedtime story, reading about it in The Making of Doctor Who and all those things. It was like a fairy story, how it all came together – all these different people coming together, and how nobody liked the Daleks, and that sort of thing… it was all like our Holy Writ! But I always thought it’d be a fantastic story to tell, and it’s come together at the right time.”
“Actually filming it was replete with the most incredible things,” he continued. “Stepping onto the recreation of the TARDIS set for the first time I actually had to stuff my scarf in my mouth, because I was so excited! And then William Russell and Carole Ann Ford were on set the day that David [Bradley] recorded that bit from The Massacre where Hartnell breaks down. And those cameras, which are from 1963, providing a monitor feed which was exactly the same as it would have been. It was so spooky! But it was a happy thing. And it’s incredibly born of love, and I hope that shows in every frame.”
On the practical challenges of recreating that era, Gatiss and director Terry McDonough joked that the production crew of the 1960s had more money and time than was available to them. “On lots of occasions, we wondered why they could do it fifty years ago, and we couldn’t do it cheaply today!”
“Obviously, as well,” he added, “the hard thing was wanting to recreate as many missing episodes as possible, but we just couldn’t afford to do it! I said at one point, ‘Just lock the doors, and we’ll do Marco Polo, come on!’”
On that note, the writer was asked whether there was anything in his original scripts that weren’t able to make it to the screen. “Oh, yeah!” came the instant reply. “God, this is terrible, we’re already getting nostalgic for something that hasn’t been broadcast yet… this is very Doctor Who!”
“One thing I really fought for, forever… it actually went mostly because I thought it was getting too sad, because we were having too many goodbyes. There was one scene that I thought perfectly summed up what Bill was facing, which was dissolution. There’s a bit at the end of The Daleks Master Plan, in which Jean Marsh, who plays Sara Kingdom, is running back to the TARDIS and she’s hit by the Time Destructor, and ages to death. So I asked Jean, and she consented to do this: we were going to have a 25-year-old actress playing her, running towards the TARDIS, and then the Time Destructor hits her, and she turns around, and… it’s Jean Marsh! But we couldn’t afford it, although we had her pop up later anyway, in the party scene. But there were a lot of bits like that, which were very hard to let go of.”
A common remark from some fans, even before the show’s broadcast, was that it seemed to be focusing specifically on a handful of important individuals while leaving out others. How did Gatiss approach deciding who to include? “That was genuinely the biggest challenge. To take off my anorak, which is almost impossible at the best of times, and to narrow it down. We had all kinds of things – there was a draft where Sydney Newman was walking down the corridors of Television Centre, and behind him there were about a hundred people, all with names bobbing above their heads – it was very Sherlock! – but in the end, they all sort of resolved into two people. You just have to go for it and say you can’t have everyone – and indeed, the only survivor of that was the line in the restaurant where Verity says, if we named everyone, we’d be here all day!”
Gatiss then explained that there was a website going live after the show’s broadcast, with “a massive timeline, really to say thank you to all these amazing people. Like David Whitaker! It killed me not to have David Whitaker. Mervyn Pinfield sort of had to absorb his role – in a ninety-minute drama, you can’t really say ‘script editor’, ‘associate producer’ and so on – these things are of technical interest, not as a drama.”
Asked if An Adventure… might be the beginning of “a twelve-part series of dramas” about Doctor Who, Gatiss laughed, but replied “No, I think there’s something very special about that particular time. People ask if we’d do Patrick Troughton’s story, or something like that… I mean, we could do it, but I think there’s just something very special about the beginning of anything. There are obviously other fascinating, often turbulent periods in Doctor Who‘s history, but this to me is The Story. It’s like what Steven Moffat has said recently about watching the first episode, and how it’s all there – everything that’s in the show today is there in that first episode. And these people coming together and sort of accidentally creating something magical, that’s the story.”
As a fan himself, Gatiss had to be wary of losing objectivity when it came to writing the script. “Well, if it was about Z Cars, I would have approached it with a clearer head. But what was really important to me was that it was a human drama. I wanted it to be about change – Doctor Who came about because of change, Sydney Newman was a fantastic breath of fresh air, and so were Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert… and then change ultimately did for Bill, but of course his great gift to the programme was the fact that he changed. So that to me was fascinating. Essentially, the story is: we’re all replaceable. And I think you could watch that without ever having seen Doctor Who, and be affected by it.”
Was there any temptation to add to the end of the story, picking up with Hartnell’s return in The Three Doctors? “Funny you say that…! The original ending was going to be sort of Super 8 footage of the Three Doctors photo shoot… but we couldn’t afford that!”
“However, what I could afford was to hire my own costume, and on the most stressful day of filming, get dressed up as Jon Pertwee, and walk onto the set, just at the point that the TARDIS – for the only time – broke! We’ve got the photographs to prove it, it was wonderful.”
One fan asked about the Matt Smith cameo at the end of the drama, which had reduced several members of the audience to sniffles. “Well, I’ve been thinking about this script for years. I knew I wanted to start it on the day of the regeneration, and use the TARDIS as a flashback device – because you can’t get a better one! – and that we’d end with them filming the regeneration into Troughton. But it was later that I had this idea that it’d be wonderful if Bill looked across the console and saw Matt, and I thought it’d be nice to have the year-o-meter go up to 2013. But the drama is about his legacy, so I just wanted him to be able to see that it spanned those fifty years.”
He also confided one behind-the-scenes secret relating to that scene: “As it happened, Matt actually recorded his scene separately, he wasn’t there with David on the day – so in future, we can drop in any Doctor we like for future anniversaries!”
A particularly striking element of the drama was the way it turned regeneration, usually such a happy and positive event for fans, into something so much more poignant. At what point did it occur to Gatiss to go that way with it? “Well, it felt to me that Bill having to give up this part… you could only imagine what it was like for him. Up until the part was changed, he was the only Doctor. You know, there’s an alternative universe in which he was well, and Doctor Who ran for about five years, that could have happened if he’d been able to carry on. So it seemed to me that the moment of change was a devastating thing for him. So we think about it going on with Patrick Troughton and the whole thing carrying on, but I wanted to make it a very personal, human drama – and this for him is the moment where it all stops.”
“Overall,” he concluded, “I wanted it to be a celebration, though, so it’s very sad, the story, but I think it’s also very uplifting, which is why we had that kiss to the future in the end!”
An Adventure In Space And Time will be available on BBC iPlayer after broadcast.
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