NOTE: There is a major spoiler towards the end of this review. Please do not read onwards unless you’ve already watched the film.
As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of “Doctor Who”, long term fan and scriptwriter Mark Gatiss takes us back to 1963 and the genesis of a new science fiction television programme through the eyes of four prominent people responsible for its creation – creator and BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, producer Verity Lambert, director Waris Hussain and leading man William Hartnell.
Without the benefit of DVD extras and programmes like “Doctor Who Confidential” in 1963, little is known about the actual origins of the show itself, except for looking in hindsight. Whilst you gain knowledge of the history of the programme, you do it with a sense of emotional detachment, pretty much like some form of televisual archaeologist. Well, Mark Gatiss gives you the next best thing to witnessing the origins first hand with this docu-drama which not only shows the struggles behind the creation of the show, but also that of four people who tried to break out of the structures that have been set for them, whether it be due to how the BBC operated at the time, or the prejuidices of society at the time, in the cases of Lambert and Hussain, or through typecasting, as in the case of William Hartnell.
All four leads impressed in their portrayals of their respective roles. Brian Cox portrays Sydney Newman as a showman with his “pop pop pop” and pushy, in your face, razzamatazz, but who also was a hard nosed taskmaster in his demands on how “Doctor Who” should be made whilst using his savvy to schmooze his leading man when he has concerns when the sets weren’t ready.
Jessica Raine takes the role of Verity Lambert and embodied the Newman’s phrase at the beginning of the film of a woman being “full of piss and vinegar”, bringing fire and spirit in the face of blatant and institutionalised sexism. However, this is only a mere part of Ms Raine’s performance as Verity as she forms a formidable, yet warm and caring partnership with the “characters” of Hussain and Hartnell. By the time that 1965 comes along and she leaves the role of producer, you get a real sense that Hartnell not only missed Lambert as an ally within the programme, but as two people who genuinely cared about the other.
Sacha Dhawan portrays the role of Waris Hussain as a young, firebrand director who is charged with trying to bring Newman’s dream to fruition whilst being confronted with technology in its infancy, poor studio facilities and racism, such as in the scene in the BBC bar where the bartender pretends not to listen to his order. This scene also shows the dynamic partnership between Hussain and Lambert, and Dhawan, along with Raine, portrays the pair as both colleagues in the face of adversity and friends.
But it is David Bradley who deserves star billing in the role of William Hartnell. Much has been documented and said about Hartnell being difficult and cantankerous, but this film puts these behaviours into some context as Bradley portrays William Hartnell as a man who is scared that he is not going to get quality work due to his typecasting in roles where he had to portray tough guys and authority figures, which later gives way to another form of fear as the symptoms of arteriosclerosis begin to take effect and rob him of a part that he loved and cut his career woefully short. In the midst of this, you see a man who basically became a child all over again as the magic of the role of the Doctor takes hold, something that is consistent with all of the actors who have taken on this role, right up to Matt Smith. Both David Bradley and William Hartnell perfectly embodies the description of the role that Verity gives early in the film for the Doctor… the magic of C.S. Lewis mixed the technological wizardry of H. G. Wells and the warmth of Father Christmas – this is evident particularly in the scenes between Hartnell and his grand-daughter and the scene in the park where he conducts a group of children in an adventure with nothing but his imagination to guide them.
And that is what makes the conclusion of this film so bittersweet once he is told by Newman that he is being released from the show. Bradley gives an emotive performance of a man who has rediscovered the joy of not only being a grandfather in real life, but also in being a surrogate grandfather to a nation’s children, only for his failing health and a production schedule that would probably floor a younger man snatch away this role, but he also gives a nice little twinkle in his portrayal of the moments leading up to “Doctor Who”‘s first regeneration scene with not only a cameo from Reece Shearsmith in the role of Patrick Troughton, but also with the inclusion of Matt Smith in an uncredited cameo as himself as an ethereal bystander at this event. It was a moment that was beautifully handled, and in the hands of lesser scripters and actors could have been seen as self-congratulatory or too sugary.
In addition to the four leads there are brilliant performances by Lesley Manville in the role of Hartnell’s wife, Heather, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell and Claudia Grant in the roles of original “Team TARDIS” actors William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford, plus cameos, both credited and uncredited from a whole host of actors who have appeared in “Doctor Who” itself including former companions William Russell, Carol Ann Ford, Jean Marsh and Anneke Wills, plus current series Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs portraying Peter Hawkins, the man who first breathed vocal life into the Doctor’s arch-nemesis.
It’s a testament to Gatiss, along with the production team and the actors, that this film is a perfect celebration of “Doctor Who”. As with the main series, as it is now, “An Adventure In Space And Time” made me smile and laugh, whilst also leave a lump in my throat and nearly make me cry.
Thank you Mark Gatiss. I may never have the chance to walk on the TARDIS set, but you gave me the next best thing.