The last time Mark Gatiss wrote about the creation of Doctor Who, it was for the 1999 Doctor Who Night sketch The Pitch of Fear – and it’s safe to say that although broadcast by the BBC, the sketch, in which Gatiss also appeared with David Walliams, was somewhat controversial, largely for a couple of digs at the 1980s Doctors. Having been given a second crack at telling the story, however, it’s unsurprising that Gatiss has taken a significantly safer approach this time around.
Although An Adventure in Space and Time fits in what is now becoming an established genre, that of “period docudrama about the behind-the-scenes goings-on of mid-twentieth century television production”, as an official anniversary celebration, there was little chance of it being any kind of hatchet job on the people behind and in front of the cameras back in 1963.
Instead, particularly in its opening scenes, the ninety-minute film is something of a jolly, frothy romp. Devotees of Television Centre will be particularly thrilled, as the drama’s status as the last one recorded at the venerable BBC headquarters afforded Gatiss and director Terry McDonald the opportunity to properly deck the place out in true 1960s fashion. As can be expected from a BBC production, the attention to period detail is superb, and effortlessly plunges the viewer right into the era even without the aid of the TARDIS console’s date readout.
Indeed, a lot of the joy in the first half is to be found in taking in this detail – particularly in the wonderfully-recreated and lovingly-shot original console room. Similarly, there’s a delightful incongruity in suddenly seeing classic monsters from the black-and-white era in a behind-the-scenes context – and in colour. You’d think seeing the Daleks from the cramped actor’s perspective, or nearly falling off the kerb on Westminster Bridge, would reduce their impact – but instead, it simply drives home how utterly iconic and classic an object they are.
These touches of detail divert some of the attention away from what is, for the most part, a fairly by-the-numbers run through a story that many fans are already pretty familiar with. There’s very little subtlety – particularly when it comes to Brian Cox’s cigar-chomping take on Sydney Newman – and it struggles to get underneath the characters. There’s an attempt to examine the conflicts that Verity Lambert faced as the BBC’s youngest – and first female – producer, but they’re presented in black-and-white terms, as the old guard of BBC higher-ups that seek to discredit her are only lacking the twirl of a moustache. After all, we know she’s amazing, we know the broadcasting titan she’s going to become – so we can hardly be expected to sympathise with anyone trying to shut doors in her face.
While Lambert’s story rattles along – suffering occasionally from pacing issues that mean that every so often, a potentially fascinating vignette is skimmed over too quickly – what does at least anchor it is the performance of Jessica Raine. A captivating and engaging presence, she’s impossible to dislike, and successfully conveys the combination of steely determination, perceptive intelligence and effortless charm that make it easy to see how Verity became so successful. And her natural chemistry with Sacha Dhawan (as director Waris Hussein) enlivens the story of two hotshot young outsiders taking on the BBC establishment.
And yet, through no fault of Raine’s, it’s actually when Lambert leaves the story two-thirds of the way through William Hartnell’s tenure that this enjoyable but slightly insubstantial drama turns into something rather more special. By necessity, the focus shifts to David Bradley as the irascible First Doctor actor – and suddenly, we’re allowed far deeper inside his personality than we’ve previously been allowed. It’s not that Bradley’s performance throughout the earlier part of the drama is poor, by any means – although the fact that he elects not to go for a straight-up impersonation of Hartnell’s voice means that scenes in which he directly recreates iconic dialogue feel slightly jarring – it’s more that, despite scenes showing him at home with his wife, we never quite feel like his story is opened up to us the way Lambert’s is.
As we move into his final year working on the programme, however, there’s suddenly a startling poignancy at play. It’s first evident when Hartnell realises that, just as he’s fallen in love with the series, almost everybody who began the journey with him is departing – culminating in one utterly spellbinding scene in which the actor, mid-shooting, exhibits increasing despair and anger at not only everyone else’s apparent inability to understand the show the way he does, but also at his own gradually failing faculties. It requires a performance that’s nothing short of magnificent – and Bradley is up to the task.
And having begun to push those emotional buttons, it simply doesn’t relent. Gatiss pulls a remarkable trick out of his hat in turning the concept of regeneration – an event that’s always such a positive time in the eyes of fans, heralding the excitement of a new Doctor as well as being the very reason the series was ever able to become long-running in the first-place – into something altogether more poignant.
By the end, anyone with even a passing regard for Doctor Who will find it hard not to be moved. Not that the closing minutes are relentlessly downbeat, of course – this is a celebration of what Hartnell, Lambert et al began those fifty years ago that has led us to the status Doctor Who presently occupies, and the drama is careful to remind us that Hartnell’s legacy should be considered a positive one. The surprising way it decides to do this, however, leads to arguably the most touching moment of all – and it’s a moment that anything “The Day of the Doctor” has to offer will find it difficult to top.
In the end, Doctor Who is – both on and offscreen – more about change than arguably anything else; and in exploring its beginnings Gatiss has chosen to examine why that might not always seem like a positive thing as it’s happening – but comes out concluding that ultimately, it’s only through change that magic is able to happen. The natural affection that all involved have for this weird, wonderful little programme means that the early, occasionally infuriating approach An Adventure… takes can be forgiven – as what we’re ultimately left with is a loving, funny and at times incredibly touching tribute.
An Adventure In Space And Time airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday the 21st of November. Watch the trailer, here.
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