Lovingly crafted and beautifully executed An Adventure in Space and Time – the 50th anniversary docudrama about the group of unlikely outsiders who through ingenuity, hard work and no small amount of serendipity broke boundaries and created Doctor Who – was a triumph.
Unsurprisingly then, when it came to life-long fan Mark Gatiss telling the story of the Doctor’s inception both in terms of science fiction and historical context – the heart ruled the head.
That decision lead to the show receiving an audience of 2.2 million viewers (a 9.7% share of the audience), according to unofficial overnight viewing figures.
Billing the special as ‘the ultimate Hartnell historical’ SFX gets to core of what made Mark Gatiss’ script so special; letting a very human tale of spirited defiance come to the fore:
Mark Gatiss’ script is a fistful of love letters: to the spirit of the BBC, to the fallen kingdom of Television Centre, to the clever, risk-taking outsiders who gave us Doctor Who, to that quiet British bravery that insists the best defence against bad news is to say “I’ll make us a nice cup of tea.” It takes familiar facts and anecdotes – the scrape of key on piano wire that became the uncanny howl of the TARDIS, Sydney Newman’s immortally earthy description of Verity Lambert as all “piss and vinegar” – and stitches them into drama, giving a human face to the holy writ of fandom.
And central to that drama was the pitch perfect roster of outstanding performances given by the able cast – The Telegraph managed to distil what makes those behind the scenes characters so compelling, while praising each performance for capturing that essence:
It was essentially a triumph of four outsiders. Hartnell felt typecast in hardman roles (“All they ever offer me is crooks and sergeant bloody majors”). Brash Canadian executive Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) had arrived at the staid old Beeb from ghastly ITV and was desperate to inject new ideas. Budding producer Verity Lambert (Call The Midwife’s Jessica Raine, in the standout performance alongside Bradley’s) was frustrated by the industry’s glass ceiling. “It’s a sea of fag smoke, tweed and sweaty men,” she said. The young director was Indian-born Waris Hussein.
Lambert called their double act (look away now, PC police) “the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird”. All four were misfits in different ways, yet found unlikely salvation in a Saturday teatime sci-fi romp, dreamed up to plug the gap in the schedules between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury.
Ultimately, this was the tale of one man’s journey from crotchety, typecast actor to an embraced cultural icon, and as Digital Spy note, the one bone of contention with the adaptation may just be the portrayal of the Doctor himself – William Hartnell:
Here, the actor resembles the popular image of the first Doctor – crotchety and irritable, but with a good heart. Gatiss didn’t want this to be a “hatchet job” and in this anniversary year, it’s only natural to want to give any Doctor Who-related programming a celebratory slant.
But the darker elements of Hartnell’s personality are somewhat glossed over and the closest we come to one of his famed on-set altercations is a brief scene in which he brusquely tells co-star Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant) that she shouldn’t spend her cash so quickly.
Did Hartnell really go on quite such an obvious emotional journey – from snapping at his granddaughter to larking about with kiddies in a park? Was his bad behaviour really just the result of an unquenchable feeling of loneliness, amplified by Doctor Who’s endless stream of cast and crew changes?
You could easily pick at the veracity of the script, but to do so would be rather missing the point of what Mark Gatiss was setting out to achieve. An Adventure in Space and Time isn’t meant to be taken as a historical document.
And it’s the final image – a spiritual link between where we have been and what lies ahead that may be the specials biggest concession to fans, and its most touching moment – as The Independent observes:
In Doctor Who, an end is always a beginning, and so it was with Mark Gatiss’s cleverly resonant script. Not only did we have the always exciting opportunity to see two Doctors share a screen, but Hartnell’s pathos-tinged handover to Patrick Troughton (a cameo from Gatiss’ League of Gentleman chum, Reece Shearsmith) was also followed by the apparition of a rather more recent incarnation.
Want more? Don’t miss Kasterborous’ own review of An Adventure in Space and Time!