I wrote a love letter once. To be honest, it can’t have been very good as it did nothing for my romantic aspirations at the time. Putting this down to my poor ability as a wordsmith, I eventually gave up hope, only for the lady in question to get in touch with me many years later and inform me that although it was a nice thought, she was now pregnant with her fourth child and would I please stop bothering her.
Bloody Royal Mail.
Something similar happened to Mark Gatiss and An Adventure in Space and Time, an idea he first pitched over 10 years ago for Doctor Who’s oft-forgotten 40th anniversary. In this case, his letter to the show he loves was turned down, only to be successfully accepted for the series’ 50th anniversary. While we’ll never know how the original would have turned out, we can at least be satisfied in knowing that this time around the production was taken completely seriously by all concerned.
It has often been pointed out in the past few weeks that the film – starring David Bradley as William Hartnell – is a tale of how no one is irreplaceable. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, from the formation of a sort of “A-Team” of cultural outsiders in the doughnut shaped Television Centre charged with creating and driving the fledgling Doctor Who to the realisation that the show is bigger than any of them. Topped off with a wonderful collection of tributes from those who appeared or were involved in the show in those days (or both) such as William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Peter Purves, Mark Eden, Hartnell’s real-life granddaughter Judith (also known by her stage name Jessica) Carney and many others, An Adventure in Space and Time is perhaps the most potent love letter ever written.
If you didn’t have something in your eye, even for a second, as the film concluded, then you can blame the Cybermen.
When reviewing, it is customary to point out something complementary about the performances. In this case, it simply isn’t possible. The evocation of 1963 at the BBC was so strong and powerful and overwhelmingly tainted by cigarette smoke and Brylcreem that to all intents and purposes this was a genuine window on the past, rather than a collection of actors reciting lines and occupying roles. (Having said that, I was particularly impressed with David Annen as TARDIS designer Peter Brachacki, but that might just be down to my fascination with the ship’s interior. Similarly, Nick Briggs was noticeable as Dalek voice Peter Hawkins.) Naturally Bradley, Jessica Raine as Verity Lambert, Sacha Dhawan as Waris Hussein and Brian Cox as Sydney Newman are all excellent, but they’re surrounded by a suitably brilliant support cast (with both Claudia Grant and Jamie Glover pitching Carole Ann Ford and William Russell with precision) who never let them down.
Often these types of film tend to dwell too long on particular elements that are irrelevant or distracting. Not here, where Terry McDonough’s direction was strong enough to keep it simple and show us the peripheral stuff (Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, the “howlround” effect in the show’s titles and other small but relevant elements) without swaying from the path of the film’s story.
If you haven’t yet seen An Adventure in Space and Time, now is the time to look away.
Presented as a time-hopping flashback for Hartnell as he records his final scenes, towards the end of the film we’re treated with the appearance of not one, but two successors.
Reece Shearsmith, a colleague of Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, is surprisingly engaging as Patrick Troughton despite looking clown-like. The moment is interesting, but ultimately overwhelmed by the fact that Matt Smith also turns up as the Doctor, looking back at his predecessor in a wonderful and uncredited silent appearance.
Rumours abounded during and since the show’s production that Gatiss himself would be appearing as Jon Pertwee in a recreation of the famous photoshoot for The Three Doctors. In the event this was left out, although as you can see, Gatiss was certainly present on set as the mother-hen Time Lord.
Was An Adventure in Space and Time really something that non-fans would have found interesting? As a recreation of the early-to-mid 1960s it makes an excellent period drama. In portraying the struggle of a man suffering from health problems that would eventually lead to his iconic role being recast (and the reason why the show is still so popular 50 years on) it is thought provoking. Hartnell was only 55. A much older man was cast (Bradley is 71) which should give us an idea of how Hartnell’s smoking and drinking affected his physique and health.
With any success, there is tragedy. We’ll never know if Hartnell cried “I don’t wanna go!” at his mantelpiece after his meeting with Sydney Newman. As an echo of the future it is memorable; as a matter of fact, it is debatable, but of course this doesn’t matter. Bill Hartnell was an ill man who – as it transpired – found subsequent acting work thin on the ground.
Perhaps the reality of watching Gatiss’ film is that while each of us is replaceable, we should all be doing what is best for ourselves and our loved ones. Whatever the message, one thing is for certain – An Adventure in Space and Time is BAFTA material.