Cutting straight to the chase, An Adventure in Space and Time is without doubt one of the best dramas that’s been made this year.
Of course I’m biased, being a long-time fan of Doctor Who to which this biographical docu-drama is an emphatic and unashamed love letter (as it is also to the iconic BBC Television Centre building, so beautifully used as a location throughout.) The 80 minutes tell the story of how the world’s longest-running science fiction programme was created by the BBC in 1963, and of its first three years which starred William Hartnell in the title role. However you don’t have to be a ‘Whovian’ to appreciate just how good this drama is, just as I didn’t need to be a fan of a certain long-running soap to be wowed by the similar The Road to Coronation Street in 2010, which I still rate as one of the best things the BBC made that year.
To true Who fans, all the characters involved and a lot of the events of An Adventure in Space and Time will be as well known as one’s own family myths and legends, and writer (and life-long fan) Mark Gatiss tells them all with a lightness and deftness of touch which keeps everything both breezy and entertaining while at the same time also utterly true and reverential to the documented facts – a very hard high-wire act to pull off as successfully as he does here. For example, scenes showing Hartnell fretting about mapping out what each button on the Tardis console does – and refusing to follow the instructions of a director where it contradicts what he’s mapped out – are very much part of established Who lore and yet are included here as important character traits rather than being shoe-horned in to flatter the Who cognoscenti.
The first part of An Adventure in Space and Time is an ensemble piece, a quick run through all of the best-known and most important tales of the creation of the show as told primarily through the unorthodox characters of BBC Head of TV Drama Sydney Newman (played by Brian Cox), producer Verity Lambert (Call The Midwife’s Jessica Raine) and the show’s first director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan). It’s a delightful 40 minutes giving each character and performer stand-out individual moments as you watch the show come together against all the odds (including at one stage the water sprinklers going off at Lime Grove during a recording) and despite intense scepticism from within the BBC. The Corporation was all set to cancel the show before Lambert defied Newman’s express orders forbidding stories about “bug eyed monsters” and made the first Dalek serial – at which point, Doctor Who went into overdrive and became a massive success.
I could cheerfully have watched an entire series based on this group of people and their work, even if it hadn’t been about a show I already loved. The mix of drama and comedy in a meticulously recreated 1960s, beautifully played by a hugely talented cast displaying considerable chemistry, is exactly the sort of thing that the BBC has tried for in shows like The Hour but which has never came off as perfectly as it does here. It’s a thing of joy and wonder to behold.
However, An Adventure in Space and Time doesn’t stop there with Doctor Who achieving acclamation and success as Hartnell suddenly finds himself accosted by children everywhere who see him as their hero – something that he absolutely loved. Instead it goes on to cover the whole of Hartnell’s tenure in the role through to 1966, giving the story a sadder, emotional arc as Hartnell’s health and acting powers start to decline with the onset of arteriosclerosis. He became well known for forgetting or misspeaking his lines and many of the resulting so-called ‘Billy-fluffs’ made it onto air because the show’s tight budget meant that it was recorded ‘as live’ and reshoots rare save for the most unbroadcastable slips: the earliest such aired ‘fluff’ is in the first Dalek serial in which Hartnell refers to anti-radiation gloves rather than drugs, a moment dutifully captured by An Adventure in Space and Time.
Such slips weren’t a big deal at the time, when they were just a matter of course for ‘as live’ television as a whole. Even looking back at the old recordings of Doctor Who on DVD today, Hartnell’s slips appear not only endearing but an effective part of the eccentricity of the character. But in truth they were early signs of what became an increasing problem, and as the early collaborators on the show – Lambert, Hussein and the original co-stars – all moved on to new projects, Hartnell was left increasingly isolated and alone, vulnerable and sensitive to criticism or mockery and responding to the situation by becoming defensively tetchy and increasingly hard to work with. Even those on the set sensitive to the situation could hardly be faulted for laughing when Hartnell accidentally refers to the Tardis’ “fault locator” as a “fornicator” and sadly such laughter sticks in the mind of a proud actor longer than a whole year of good reviews. In the end the situation could not continue and Newman took the decision to do the unthinkable – he replaced Hartnell in the role against the actor’s will, leaving the story ending on an a note of profound personal tragedy.
This arc means that as good as the first half ensemble piece is, the second half of An Adventure in Space and Time focuses almost exclusively on the character of Hartnell as played by David Bradley. Bradley is one of those actors who has been around for decades as a well-respected, utterly reliable ‘character’ performer in projects such as the Harry Potter films – just not a leading man/hero type. He finally got a proper chance to shine in Broadchurch as wrongly accused newsagent Jack Marshall, but it’s in An Adventure in Space and Time that he finally gets the chance to fully show what he can truly do. And it’s as brilliant a drama performance as you’ll see all year.
For one thing, Bradley has to convey several different layers and aspects of Hartnell’s personality – starting with his performance as the Doctor in recreated sequences from the original shows in which he is also an astonishing lookalike for Hartnell, to the point where I was left genuinely struggling to distinguish recreation from original. Then there is the depiction of Hartnell’s everyday persona in public, which needs to change over the period of time as he starts off doubting the whole project, then relishes its success to the point of hubris, before inevitably it all ends. Underneath all this is the more vulnerable private face he shows to his confidantes – Newman, Lambert, his granddaughter, and his wife Heather (played by Lesley Manville, as good here as she was in the underrated Mayday) – and then, at the core, the face he keeps only for himself in the moments when he’s alone in the dark facing up to the reality of what is going on. Few actors could achieve such a complex character structure in so short a time, but Bradley is utterly perfect with a script that while it might soften some of the rougher edges of Hartnell’s personality also never airbrushes them out altogether, leaving a fascinating character study and compelling drama that goes far beyond mere Doctor Who nostalgia.
The decision to replace Hartnell was undoubtedly a personal tragedy for the man himself – partly because by 1966 he was probably the show’s biggest champion and most ardent supporter. He believed – with considerable cause – that without him in the central role the show would end, so he kept going even when he was aware his abilities were fading. The idea that someone else could play Doctor Who never occurred to him – and no one likes to feel dispensable. And yet ironically it is this specific moment that extended the life of the show far beyond the wildest dreams of its creators and means that in a very real sense Hartnell lives on today through the continued existence of Doctor Who, almost four decades after his own death in 1975. If Hartnell had known what that moment of transition would achieve then he would surely have been comforted through it, and this sense is conveyed not through words but by a brief shared moment at the Tardis console with another actor. The exchange of glances and understanding, acknowledgement and appreciation exceeds what any number of pages of dialogue could have managed, and thereby prevents this from becoming what could otherwise have been a rather out-of-place fan-pleasing ‘stunt’ moment and makes it instead a moving transcendent expression of the true underlying spirit and genius of the show that Hartnell was crucial in helping to create.
Does this mean that An Adventure in Space and Time is the perfect TV drama? I could quibble about some of the things that have been left out: the creation of the iconic opening titles gets only a brief mention, and the huge contribution of Delia Derbyshire in her astonishing radiophonic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for the show is barely included at all. Having cast a group of talented actors who are also incredible lookalikes, it’s a shame we get so little time with the other equally key members of the original cast – William Russell (played by Jamie Glover), Jacqueline Hill (Jemma Powell) and Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant). Completely missing is any mention of the creation of arguably the element most crucial to the show’s early success, the Daleks. And yet while I pine for these items to be included, it’s hard to see how they could have been included in the finished drama without interrupting the flow and overall story, and absolutely impossible to work out what could have been left out of the aired production in order to make space in which to include my ‘wish list’. Given that, how can I complain with any sincerity that An Adventure in Space and Time could have been any better than Gaitiss and director Terry McDonough actually made it?
So, perfect? Yes, pretty much. It leaves the actual feature-length special edition of Doctor Who itself starring Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt a mountain to climb if it’s to match let alone surpass it as the true jewel of the 50th anniversary celebrations when it airs on BBC One at 7.50pm on Saturday, November 23 2013. It really is that good.
An Adventure in Time and Space is released on DVD on December 2, 2013, the same date that the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” is released on DVD and Blu-ray.