Reviews adv50-hartnell

Published on November 22nd, 2013 | by Christian Cawley

Reviewed: An Adventure in Space and Time

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.

An Adventure in Space and Time

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.

What you didn't see in An Adventure in Space and Time

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.


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About the Author


A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

16 Responses to Reviewed: An Adventure in Space and Time

  1. avatar dr jon says:

    I thought this show was engaging,funny and often sad. the set’s of the tardis were spot on.And all the cast were just brilliant,the best drama in a long time,it was great to spot the old companion’s in the background and we had two dr’s turn up at the end.It’s a pity that reece shersmith looked more like hailey cropper with an ill fitting wig that let the second dr down a little,but it was a nice touch when matt smith turned up which i must admit left a tear in my eye,i hope some day there is a follow up with jon pertwee and his son sean playing him well done to mark gratis and all involved in it.

  2. avatar docwhom says:

    I was a little disappointed that, with the whole of TVC to play around with, they missed the opportunity to recreate the tap dancing scene from Record Breakers.

    • avatar TimeChaser says:

      Nor sure the budget would have allowed for that. ;)

  3. avatar DonnaM says:

    I know Mr Gatiss was quoted as saying he expected some flak – but he’ll receive none from me. I thought it was a wonderful tribute to the show and the people responsible for it; I’ll even applaud that slightly “fannish” touch and say I’ve never liked Matt as The Doctor more!

    I didn’t much like Shearsmith as Troughton until he made that quip about “Oh, couldn’t they get him?” and sounded so perfectly Second Doctor. And the reminders of the very different cultural atmosphere – calling Verity Lambert “dear lady” and the barman ignoring Waris Hussein – were all the more striking for not being over-played.

    Over to you, Mr Moffat! The bar for anniversary programming has been set very high.

  4. avatar Philip Bates says:

    Happy to admit it: when Hartnell was told he’d be replaced, I had a tear roll down my cheek. His upset – “I don’t want to go” – was really moving.

    The ads made this drama seem so light and inconsequential – but no, this was heart-breaking and beautiful.

    What’s more, I’d forgotten that – SPOILERS – Matt was in it, so that really felt special too. Congratulations to Mark and all involved.

    • avatar BOJAY says:

      A lot of it got to me, but the moment by the fireplace, yes, that’s when the proverbial dam broke.

  5. avatar Gareth says:

    Just a brilliant love letter to Doctor Who and the people who created it , funny clever and moving , great acting and direction and music .
    Day of the Doctor will have to go a long way to top this for me.

  6. avatar David F says:

    I haven’t watched it yet, but the comments are really whetting my appetite.

    I’m a Briton in Asia, and if I watched Day of the Doctor go out on iPlayer at the time of broadcast, it would be four in the morning and I’d be too tired to really enjoy it. So I have decided to avoid the internet all day on Sunday, waiting for it to get dark again, and then watch An Adventure in Space and Time and DOTD at night, as a double-bill.. I have no idea whether I’ll be strong enough to resist ruining the plan by watching it earlier.

  7. avatar Matt says:

    “I don’t wanna go!”

    He doesn’t whine it out like ol’ Tensquee, does he? I’m in America and it’s premiering tonight at 9 (although I’ll have to catch the repeat due to, um, other obligations).

  8. avatar TimeChaser says:

    This really was a wonderful love letter to the series and the fans. It didn’t shy away from the uncomfortable realities of prejudice within the BBC or that Hartnell was often a difficult man to work with, but it also provided some pathos because we were shown why he was so cantankerous due to his ill health. And I think this makes this film all the better for being entertaining and yet uncomfortable at the same time. Its like when I began to hear more stories about my grandfather in his younger days after he passed away, learning things about him that were difficult to accept compared to the man I grew up with, but still loving him despite his faults.

    The lifting of lines from the future of the series was a fun touch, whether they happened or not. Art imitating life imitating art. Besides the “I don’t want to go”, I also heard “Brave heart” in there, as well as a couple of others.

  9. avatar nathan jones says:

    I really liked it. I just wish the designers Peter Brachacki and Raymond Cusick had been mentioned by name, as they created two of the most iconic images in the whole series, namely the tardis interior/console and the Daleks. As it was stated that it was a team effort, these designers were as important as the producers/actors/writers, all of whom were given credit by name. A small but important point in an otherwise excellent piece.

    • avatar docwhom says:

      Come off it. They had a hard enough time getting Bradley to pronounce “Chesterton” properly without trying him on names like “Brachaki.”

  10. avatar nwlhs says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, which skilfully incorporated many of the anecdotes and stories we have heard about those years. It would have been fun to have included the scene from the Aztecs of the Doctor wooing Cameca, but you can’t include everything..a Troughton/Pertwee years sequel would be wonderful…my Doctors…

  11. As I said elsewhere, I adored this. I thought it was very touching. Bradley, Cox, Raine, and Dhawan were all pitch-perfect IMHO.

    • What is this “elsewhere” of which you speak?


  12. avatar Tommygun264 says:

    I recorded & watched this several times since and have found it to be an extremely well crafted docudrama. Of course it plays so much better with the ads bypassed completely – when there isn’t a blaring commercial break between one scene and the next, especially when the chronometer (date in time readout, whatever) on the TARDIS console is used to punctuate a particularly sweet or sad scene and move us on to a different point in time, was quite good device for resetting the mood. The more I watch it the more I realize that this lovely bit of fiction-based-in-fact story succeeds in changing William Hartnell (I’m speaking of the character of William Hartnell as he is portrayed in this movie) in the same way as the producer wanted the character of the Doctor to be changed in “Doctor Who”. In the beginning we see Hartnell portrayed as a crusty, somewhat bitter and in some ways downright mean old man, with no patience for his own granddaughter; but by the end he has been transformed into a sweet, lovable old grandfather, whose prickly exterior no longer fully hides the vulnerability and kindheartedness within. A perfect example is when Waris Hussein says he’s been offered “A Passage to India”, and Hartnell asks with a slight smirk “a one-way fare”. If that line had been delivered by the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking Hartnell we first see sitting in his chair looking angry, frustrated and perhaps even a bit constipated; he’d come across as a nasty old racist. But by the time he delivers the line later in the story, we see the hint of a smirk and recognize the quip as an affectionate bit of teasing – a hug hidden behind the pretense at a barb from a man who simply can’t bring himself to actually express his true feelings for fear once he started he wouldn’t be able to stop. In fact, in the “I don’t want to go” scene we see what happens when Hartnell allows himself to completely drop his defenses, and the outpouring of emotion is heartbreaking.

    Every “Doctor Who” fan who has watched the original episodes that still survive dating back to the Hartnell era and who have read articles about the early days of the show knew that there were plenty of unflattering portrayals of the “real” William Hartnell, and I am sure many sat down to first watch this with a sense of dread, that perhaps the portrayal would be too unkind and critical. But this movie succeeds in telling the unflattering stories and then putting them in perspective, showing us the humanity that hid beneath the hardened shell Mr. Hartnell at times worked very hard to maintain. I defy anyone to come away from this movie with an unfavorable view of the man.

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