BBC Two HD
21 November 2013, 9.00pm
Three moments in real and fictional time blend and merge in the opening scene of Mark Gatiss's superb drama An Adventure in Space and Time when a car pulls up in front of a police box on a fog enshrouded Barnes Common. Immediately, associations spring into your mind or, at the very least, into the minds of many long in the tooth Doctor Who fans. Gatiss has already prepared the way with a retro BBC globe, an announcer quoting The Aztecs and telling us that truth and fiction are mutable companions in the retelling of Doctor Who's creation: '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.'
A car accident on foggy Barnes Common opened David Whittaker's radical reinterpretation of Ian and Barbara's first encounter with the Doctor and his TARDIS in his novelisation Doctor Who and the Daleks; the writer of An Unearthly Child, Anthony Coburn, was walking on Wimbledon Common and allegedly thought its resident police box would be a good visual representation for the TARDIS; in the televised version of An Unearthly Child a policeman patrols the gates of I.M. Foreman's junkyard before a camera drives through the fog, through the gates, for a big close up of the now iconic police box. In 1966, actor William Hartnell (David Bradley) sits in his car, haunted and preoccupied, as a policeman comes out of the police box and approaches Hartnell's parked car.
For Hartnell it seems there is nothing at the end of the lane. 'You need to move along now, sir. Sir, you're in the way,' advises the policeman, Gatiss's dialogue already ironically underpinning the melancholy Hartnell's own feelings as he comes to terms with his departure from a successful television series he has made his own and his imminent replacement by another actor.
'pop-pop-pop'irascible actor is coaxed out of his reverie to record his final scenes for The Tenth Planet. Director Terry McDonough very powerful asserts the Proustian rush of Gatiss's bittersweet and witty script through controlled visuals: a 1966 Cyberman looming in close up before incongruously taking a drag on his cigarette; Hartnell, transformed into the Doctor, emerging into a breathtaking point of view shot of the TARDIS interior in the studio.
These are wonderfully engineered moments. The swoop across the TARDIS console in the studio is given a little frisson by having the interior sound effects, which would have been put onto the soundtrack of Doctor Who episodes in post production, weave into the mise-en-scène like a tangible memory, as if the TARDIS set came complete with those strange sounds.
Hartnell gazes upwards, his eyes close, and memories are evoked. McDonough even takes a cue from original director Waris Hussein's use of the dissolve in An Unearthly Child. Just as the close up of the TARDIS in the junk yard whisks us away to the corridor of Coal Hill School or Ian and Barbara recall their strange pupil Susan Foreman in flashback while sitting in their car, Hartnell and the year-o-meter on the console plunge us back to 1963.
In effect the TARDIS console becomes the repository of Hartnell's fading memories and failing faculties. Not only does it hurtle the viewer to 1963 and plunge us forward through the peaks and troughs of the Hartnell era, with the arrivals and departures of cast and crew, but its faulty time rotor, which it seems only Hartnell has the knack to properly switch on, also provides a visual allusion to the debilitating effects of the show's punishing schedule and the diagnosis of arteriosclerosis that would eventually see him step down from the role.
Once we're back in 1963, McDonough and Gatiss switch their focus to the BBC and the charismatic figure of Sydney Newman. Brian Cox provides an appropriately larger-than-life performance as Newman ('the clue's in the name'), clearly a showman at heart and willing to take risks and gamble with populist ideas ('pop-pop-pop'). His previous credentials with series such as the Pathfinders trilogy and The Avengers are given a nostalgic mention and he's the embodiment of the ITV new broom sweeping through the confusing corridors of TV Centre.
A go-getting individual, on the look out for people with 'piss and vinegar in their veins', Newman is working in a corporation still trying to throw off the shackles of the post war period and deal with the threat of commercial television. These attitudes are exemplified by Harry the commissioner (a sweet cameo from William Russell) demanding Newman's pass and being refused ('that's not the way we do things at the BBC, sir!) and the later scene in the BBC bar where director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) runs into institutional racism after trying to order a drink from an ignorant bar man (a briefly glimpsed Toby Hadoke).
His treatment of the waiter serving him is a reminder that he was a man of his time but as Hussein recently commented in Manchester last week he struggled to deal with situations and people he didn't understand. It's touching that, later in the film, Hartnell is seen struggling with change and painful goodbyes and how he really missed Hussein's presence in the studio.
The future is represented by the stunning images of Television Centre. The building is another character in the film and McDonough, with a poignant eye on its recent closure, suitably frames the likes of Newman and Lambert with some very glamourous, wide angle images of the building, its central rotunda reflecting the glass time rotor of the TARDIS console and with both connoting the future ahead. The birth of the so-called 'golden age' of the BBC and Doctor Who is about to go into full swing in McDonough's film just as the filming of An Adventure in Space and Time was the last drama ever filmed in that iconic White City television factory.
Mervyn Pinfield (Jeff Rawle) and Rex Tucker (Andrew Woodall) are charged with bringing Newman's idea for a new tea time show to fruition. Both are faced with the promotion of a former production assistant, Verity Lambert, to the role of producer on the show, now called Doctor Who. Lambert is introduced, along with actress Jacqueline Hill (Jemma Powell), during a party where their ambitions for the future coincide with the inspiring and courageous achievements of 26 year-old Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Lambert and Hill are clearly representative of a generation of women hungry for independence and successful careers and it's quite ironic that before Lambert changes a channel to watch news of Tereshkova on television, a brief sequence from the BBC's glamourous soap opera about a glossy women's magazine, Compact, pops up on the screen. Television was the future as was Tereshkova's flight into space. Later, we see Lambert framed on a television screen as she chats to associate producer Pinfield and he pleads with her to add some 'warm beer' to her 'piss and vinegar' attitude. Rawle is particularly good in this scene and I love the fact that Gatiss got Pinfield's credit for inventing the teleprompter into the scene too.
Television and television production dominate the drama. Hartnell's depression about his career and his grumpy tirade to his granddaughter is framed by a recreation of his appearance in The Army Game. He's tired of playing 'crooks and perishing sergeant majors' but his wife Heather (Lesley Manville) cannily observes that he's seen as an authority figure, the very thing Sydney Newman is looking for in the Doctor. He strives to be 'a legitimate character actor' (dialogue mirroring the recently recovered Points West interview with Hartnell) and, as actor David Bradley noted in a recent BBC Breakfast interview, Hartnell was a man haunted by his own illegitimacy and background.
Even Newman describes his Doctor Who concept as 'legitimate stuff' so it's understandable why Hartnell was abrasive and found the challenge of playing 'Doctor Who' a rather daunting one. Hartnell's cruel attack on granddaughter Judith therefore ushers in another major theme. The man is obviously uncomfortable with the presence of children and finds it difficult to relate to them. Bradley's face is a picture when Manville, as Hartnell's wife Heather, tells the old curmudgeon he's been asked to star in a show for 'kiddies'.
Hartnell's casting as the Doctor transforms his persona when he becomes, as Verity promises him, a combination of 'H.G. Wells and Father Christmas' and huge favourite to children everywhere. The magic of Doctor Who is crystalised in a later scene, as Hartnell tries to learn his lines and, explaining to his granddaughter about the story, he gradually repairs their uneasy relationship by telling her about the Doctor - 'a funny old man who lives inside a magic box'. 'Does he make people better?' asks Judith. Hartnell ponders. The viewer emphatically knows the answer. Again, this is underlined where he meets his child audience while sitting in the park as Heather reads letters from young viewers. Thus the drama demonstrates how Hartnell became inseparable from the role and was offered a new lease of life as an actor.
'... quickly child, we're running out of time. Check the fornicator!'
When Hussein first meets Lambert, Gatiss pays off the earlier visual nod to Compact. Lambert dampens the aspiring director's criticism of 'cavemen and Doctors and disappearing bloody police boxes' when she discovers his last job was directing the BBC soap opera. 'High art, indeed', she wryly comments. Their bond is beautifully presented and Lambert sees Hussein, a gay Indian director, as a recruit in her assault against the old guard at the BBC or, as she puts it, 'this... sea of fag smoke, tweed and sweaty men.'
As Mark Gatiss points out via Lambert in the script, so many people were in on the creation of Doctor Who 'we could be here all day'. So only in passing do we see Delia Derbyshire rushing down a Maida Vale corridor with her tape loops as she constructs her arrangement of Ron Grainer's theme and tells us how Brian Hodgson's front door key scraping against piano string became the TARDIS sound effect.
Similarly, we only get a glimpse of Mervyn Pinfield supervising the creation of the equally iconic 'howl-around' opening titles. They may only be fragmentary footnotes in the bigger story about Hartnell's transformation into the Doctor but they're precious, perfectly formed nuggets.
A similar treatment is applied to Jacqueline Hill, William Russell (Jamie Glover) and Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant). They arrive as support to Hartnell and only have a few key scenes but, as Hill raises her glass at the press conference to announce the show and proclaims 'goodbye, real world', we plunge with them into the making of the pilot of An Unearthly Child (or 100,000 BC or The Tribe of Gum if that takes your fancy).
Through rehearsals, where Lambert learns the art of keeping her leading man on side, to the chaotic recording, An Adventure in Space and Time recreates familiar moments such as Ian and Barbara's first encounter with the Doctor and their stumble into the TARDIS.
In tandem, Lambert develops a no nonsense attitude particularly toward Peter Brachacki, who designed the TARDIS interior. As he hurriedly assembles a random selection of punched out cardboard and cotton reels, McDonough's camera looks down overhead and there's a delicious dissolve into an another overhead shot of the fully realised, beautifully recreated TARDIS set, where we go 'through the cupboad doors and into Narnia'.
Fantasy, magic, fairy tale all roll into one but reality is not far away as AFM Douglas Camfield struggles to persuade an actor to get his teeth blacked up as one of the cavemen featured in the cliffhanger to the pilot. Sand fleas in Y-fronts, uncontrollable TARDIS doors, awkward cameras moving like tanks, Billy-fluffs and over sensitive sprinklers make up the catalogue of disasters delightfully captured here.
Despite Newman's serious doubts about the pilot, Doctor Who gets another chance. The pilot is re-recorded and production continues. Lambert acknowledges Hartnell's criticisms of the role are spot on and in a lovely scene she is seen privately chatting to him, understands his insecurities and convinces him he is still the right man for the part. Again, Bradley seems to tap into the emotional turmoil inside Hartnell, sensitively essaying the man's fear of failure.
Two anniversaries collide here. The killing machines of Skaro are equated with the terrible slaughter of Kennedy, a mass media president at the heart of the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis and the space programme. A man of the future exterminated perhaps out of a fear for what kind of future he might usher in. An interesting connection is formed between Kennedy and the survivors of a nuclear war on a distant, alien planet whose xenophobia translates into racial purity and hatred of the other.
Lambert vehemently defends her decision to tell the story of the Daleks which Newman sees merely as 'the cheap-jack science fiction trash' he wanted her to avoid. Her view of the Daleks as creatures 'who lash out' out of fear could also be seen as a parallel with Hartnell's own search for inner peace in the story, especially as illness forces him back into his own protective shell. This is echoed later when Hartnell, suffering terribly from his illness, hears his inner self-doubt and fear realised in the form of Dalek voices. It's a very clever touch.
Without the Daleks, the series may never have continued. The iconic design still captivates us and the recreation of The Daleks (or The Mutants as it was known) in studio is wonderful. The Dalek props look fantastic and our first view is an inventive shot taken from inside the prop as one of the operators is prepared for recording and we see intrigued bystanders through the mesh of the neck section. As recording in the studio proceeds, on the soundtrack we hear the distinctive electronic tonalities created by Tristram Carey overlaid in an another example of music and sound effects reinvented as ghosts to haunt the scene. And there in the corner of the studio is Nick Briggs playing Peter Hawkins, the Dalek voice of the present overlaid onto a figure from Doctor Who history. History in the making.
McDonough and Gatiss consider the impact of the Daleks upon the British public too. Out in the street, a mother calls her children inside for tea and Doctor Who and McDonough's camera glides over to a window and peers in as a family watch the Daleks on television. Lambert witnesses several schoolboys imitating the Daleks on the upper deck of a bus. Later, along come the Dalek play suits and the annuals as the show cements its popularity and casts its magic spell.
Newman admits he was wrong after 10 million tune in and it seems Doctor Who's success is assured. Hartnell becomes more and more identified with the role, his mistakes with dialogue accepted as part of the Doctor's eccentric character. Behind it all however is the terrible spectre of his illness and, with it, a rapidly failing memory. Amusing as his slips may be to begin with ('quickly child, we're running out of time. Check the fornicator!'), Bradley's subtle performance shows the strain and worry behind Hartnell's face. It's achingly sad.
That ache is also there when Hussein departs the production after Marco Polo, presented in another lovely recreation of the studio sets. As William Russell says in a moment of foreshadowing, 'no one knows how long this is going to last. No one's irreplaceable'. Hussein and Lambert go their separate ways and gradually Hartnell finds the company around him changing and diminishing. Another actor, another Doctor once said, 'A man is the sum of his memories you know, a Time Lord even more so...' and Hartnell's sense of security is 'whittled away, piece by piece' by long schedules, changes to cast and crew and the struggle to cope with his illness.
'especially effective in recalibrating Hartnell's contribution to the series'
The recording of the Doctor's speech to the abandoned Susan is captured in a sublime amalgam of gorgeous studio recreation and Bradley's stunning performance. You get a real sense of Hartnell's own sadness at Ford's departure in a moment where emotional nuances and resonances bounce against each other, the Doctor's farewell overlapping onto Hartnell's. But again, a spectre looms, his memory failing as he addresses director Richard Martin as Waris from the studio floor.
Equally, when Lambert announces she too is moving on it's a body blow to the actor. Her leaving party and the scene played by Bradley and Raine alone in the TARDIS console room is a bittersweet moment. Lambert thanks Hartnell but he is distraught at the changes being made, unaware yet how Doctor Who thrives and renews itself through such change. She asks if he intends to rest as she is fully aware, unbeknownst to him, of his illness.
In an echo of the line 'this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin' in The Tenth Planet, he simply and proudly claims, 'this old body of mine is good for a few years yet.' The present and the imminent future are about to merge. It ends so tenderly, though, with Hartnell dabbing the wine away from the corners of Lambert's mouth and sharing a farewell kiss.
From this point forward, as press calls announce the arrival of Maureen O'Brien, of Peter Purves and Jackie Lane and, finally, of Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, Hartnell retreats into himself and becomes more and more frustrated as exhaustion wears him down and his memory fails him. One such moment on the set of The Web Planet is deeply moving when, after being haunted by Dalek voices claiming 'he is becoming delirious. I do not understand his words', his words completely fail him.
He becomes a proud man, unable to let go or slow down. 'Mr Hartnell to you, sonny,' he snaps at a director from the gallery, his proprietorial stance about 'my show' emerging as an acerbic corrective to crew members who should know better about how he operates the TARDIS controls. The director's question about the TARDIS time rotor of 'anybody know how to make it go?' could again be seen as a parallel to Hartnell's own failing abilities. Without Lambert or Hussein and other cast members and directors, no one really understands him or how to work with him. A reworking of a speech from The Massacre is used to eloquently distill this feeling: 'Now they've all gone. All gone. None of them ever understood.' Shaking his head, muttering, 'I can't... I can't', he walks off the set. Bradley's performance is incredible.
At the sound of the TARDIS engines, we come full circle and return to 1966. Hartnell approaches Newman with the intention of perhaps slowing down and taking a holiday but is told the astonishing news he is to be replaced. 'No one is irreplaceable' he claimed earlier and that truth has sadly come home to roost. Perhaps he should listen more carefully to granddaughter Judith who believes the TARDIS will 'go on forever and forever because it's special and magic'. She is not far off the mark.
Difficult to work with and suffering from exhaustion and illness, Hartnell's departure ought to have signalled the demise of the show but, as we all know, Newman and company hit upon the remarkable idea of recasting the part and thus renewing and 'regenerating' Doctor Who. We return to Barnes Common and the impending recording of The Tenth Planet, as Hartnell quotes King Lear, 'Fortune, good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel', and where change, not a moment too soon, is in the air.
If there's a minor negative aspect to the final scenes during the recording of The Tenth Planet then I'm afraid it rests with Reece Shearsmith's appearance as Patrick Troughton. On paper this sounded perfectly reasonable but in reality it doesn't quite work. Shearsmith doesn't quite get Troughton right. It feels like he's actually attempting to play the Second Doctor rather than Troughton the man and that distinction is crucial to believing this encounter between the two actors. He's also lumbered with a slightly unconvincing wig which, in a production as meticulous as this, is strange. In a drama that hits all the emotional beats perfectly, the scene feels a little flimsy and, unintentionally, something of an afterthought.
The film ends with the past looking into the future as Hartnell is shown gazing across the decades where the future yet to come, our present, is realised in the form of Matt Smith standing opposite him at the controls of the TARDIS. Fittingly, it evokes the series' continuation into the future and Hartnell's own faith in the show, a sense of him knowing somehow it would carry on successfully without him. Mind you, it will date the film. Perhaps, as Gatiss has joked, they can green screen in each current incarnation of the Doctor whenever the film is repeated on anniversaries to come.
Overall, An Adventure in Space and Time is a triumph. Beautifully shot and edited, visually a treat for the eyes and it is especially effective in recalibrating Hartnell's contribution to the series. He was the original and without him we wouldn't be here 50 years later watching Doctor Who. Gatiss pitches the script very well, capturing the child-like nostalgia for the past, the sense of the 1960s as a progressive, ever evolving time inextricably tied to our notions of 'the future' and the way a single role bestows immortality onto the actors who play it. Excellent performances from David Bradley and Jessica Raine provide the heart and soul of the story and a shout out must go to composer Edmund Butt whose music captures the excitement and magic of making Doctor Who in the 1960s and the wistful, sad decline of an actor who briefly found renewed life while playing the title character.