In 1963, newly arrived BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman shakes the stolid BBC establishment with his rebellious attitudes and his desire to make the British broadcaster’s output less posh and more popular. With a 25-minute gap in the Saturday evening schedule to fill, Newman assembles a team to begin working on a new television series called Doctor Who, concerning an eccentric time traveler whose incredibly time-space machine, the TARDIS, is disguised as a 1950s police box. Wanting to appoint a producer to run this show, Newman looks for someone with “piss and vinegar” and settles on Verity Lambert, who had previously worked as his production assistant. But in her new position as the first female producer in the BBC, Verity makes waves… and a few enemies. She bucks conventional wisdom in hiring esteemed character actor William Hartnell to play the part of the Doctor, the show’s wizened and yet ageless time traveler. For his own part, Hartnell has been looking for a role to get him out of a rut of being typecast as tough authority figures and military characters. Verity also finds a willing collaborator in rookie director Waris Hussein, and after months of preparation and planning, Doctor Who is finally in a studio (one of the smallest and least sophisticated at the BBC’s disposal, naturally), though the show is fighting for its life up to the moment of broadcast and beyond.
Cast: David Bradley (William Hartnell), Ross Gurney-Randall (Reg), Roger May (Len), Sam Hoare (Douglas Camfield), Charlie Kemp (Arthur), Brian Cox (Sydney Newman), William Russell (Harry – Security Guard), Jeff Rawle (Mervyn Pinfield), Andrew Woodall (Rex Tucker), Jessica Raine (Verity Lambert), Jemma Powell (Jacqueline Hill), Lesley Manville (Heather Hartnell), Cara Jenkins (Judith Carney), Sacha Dhawan (Waris Hussein), Toby Hadoke (Cyril), Sarah Winter (Delia Derbyshire), Jamie Glover (William Russell), Claudia Grant (Carole Ann Ford), David Annen (Peter Brachacki), Mark Eden (Donald Baverstock), Ian Hallard (Richard Martin), Nicholas Briggs (Peter Hawkins), Carole Ann Ford (Joyce), Reece Pockney (Alan), Reece Shearsmith (Patrick Troughton), Anneke Wills (Farewell party attendee), Jean Marsh (Farewell party attendee), Anna-Lisa Drew (Maureen O’Brien), Sophie Holt (Jackie Lane)
Notes: Numerous actors appear in this movie who have appeared in actual episodes of Doctor Who before, not least of which are surviving members of the original 1963 cast William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, who played Ian and Susan respectively. David Bradley appeared in the 2012 episode Dinosaurs In A Spaceship as the episode’s villain, while Jessica Raine guest starred in 2013’s Hide. Hartnell-era companions Jean Marsh and Anneke Wills – both of whom reprise their 1960s roles for Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas – appear as partygoers at Verity Lambert’s farewell party. Big Finish Doctor Who producer Nicholas Briggs, the voice of the Daleks in modern Doctor Who, appears (in a wig) as 1960s Dalek voice originator Peter Hawkins.
LogBook entry by Earl Green
Review: A beautiful, heartbreaking gem, An Adventure In Space And Time manages to be both a love letter to the series whose origins it chronicles, and a fond tribute to the first actor to fly the TARDIS in a cramped BBC studio at Lime Grove, as well as to the show’s creators – or at least a few of them.
Accuracy, sadly, is an area where Adventure loses a few points. In the strictest sense of historical accuracy, Adventure gets you about 75%-80% of the way to the true story of the origins of Doctor Who. But that’s not necessarily the story that Adventure is trying to tell. While it does focus on prominent behind-the-scenes figures as Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, and Waris Hussein, An Adventure In Space And Time is a stylized reinterpretation of real events which shifts the focus firmly to tell the story of William Hartnell, the first actor to portray the Doctor. The contributions of countless others are reattributed and vastly simplified in the service of that focus. If you want the warts-and-all truth of who did and said what, it’s better documented in print than the origins of most television shows, and you can find it and read it for yourself.
And in the course of this simplification, some things are completely invented to serve the emotional arc of Hartnell’s story. There was no Monday morning shouting match between Newman and Lambert following the premiere of An Unearthly Child – Newman was actually visiting America that weekend and received a congratulatory telegram on Doctor Who’s promising start from BBC executive Donald Wilson. But Newman and Lambert have to be painted in very broad strokes, Newman as the anti-establishment rebel and Lambert as a woman trying to crack the glass ceiling to launch a career for which she is eminently qualified. Adventure does get an awful lot of stuff right, but actions, decisions and direct quotes from various people not represented at all in this telling of the tale are attributed to Newman and Lambert, running the risk of assigning an almost Roddenbery-esque authorship of Doctor Who to Newman. Further reading is strongly encouraged if the movie’s tip-of-the-iceberg intrigues you about ther rest of the behind-the-scenes story.
Does that accuracy matter? In light of how much Adventure gets right, I’ll give it a pass. It absolutely nails Hartnell’s transformation from a grouchy, self-important actor typecast as an (often military) authority figure into a man suddenly delighted with his young following, as transfixed with his young fans as they were with him. Many of the lines that Hartnell is depicting as getting wrong are taken straight from the record (and, in some cases, thanks to the BBC’s primitive video editing capabilities at the time, straight from the episodes as broadcast). His gradual decline and dementia are also portrayed with heartbreaking accuracy, with David Bradley carrying the entire movie with a beautiful sense that Hartnell both acknowledges his advancing illness and steadfastly refuses to give it any ground.
Brian Cox’s flamboyant portrayal of Sydney Newman is funny and heart-warming, and yet when he’s delivering a dressing-down, it’s withering and utterly believeable. Jessica Raine succeeds in making Verity Lambert a real, well-rounded person, even though only about two thirds of Adventure concerns itself with her struggle to push down the BBC’s built-in barriers against anyone who’s not a middle-aged white man. Completely missing from the movie’s verison of events are Hartnell locking horns with Lambert’s short-lived successor, John Wiles (who was the first to float the idea of replacing the series’ leading man), and his more-at-ease relationship with Wiles’ successor, Innes Lloyd, who finally succeeded in making the first transition of the Doctor happen out of sheer necessity. Neither of these men are depicted at all, with their decisions and actions reattributed to Sydney Newman for simplicity’s sake. (In fairness to writer Mark Gatiss, Sydney Newman did involve himself heavily with that pivotal first changing of the guard, suggesting that incoming star Patrick Troughton should play the new Doctor as a “cosmic hobo”.)
But Gatiss wasn’t setting out to make a documentary with academic intensity; he wanted to tell the story of a handful of people with great emotional intensity and loving tips of the hat. It’s almost too cute when Newman, shown in a fateful meeting with Hartnell, says he wants to “regenerate Doctor Who”, but mere moments later when Hartnell is heard to echo the tenth Doctor’s parting line – “I don’t want to go” – it’s not cute, it’s tragic and tearjerking.
The final scene, with its unexpectedly meta cameo appearance, is another thing that gets the tear-ducts fired up, as well as the imagination. Does Hartnell see the character standing before him, or the actor? A case can be made either way; in a way, I like the notion that the wall between fiction and reality is crumbling in Hartnell’s mind, making for a twist as unexpected as Peter Sellers suddenly walking on water at the end of Being There. And yet the less fanciful reading of the scene works as well. Which do you prefer? Either way, it’s a beautiful and unexpected moment.
In a year of anniversary presents that we could never have dared to hope for – the return of Paul McGann, rediscovered episodes, and the conclusion to what was probably the best season the show has had under the direction of Steven Moffat – An Adventure In Space And Time is one of the undisputed highlights. It leaves strict historical accuracy behind and concentrates on telling the story of a man’s fight to maintain dignity and relevance against an inexorable illness. Mark Gatiss first pitched the idea for this movie in 2003, to coincide with Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary, but the poignant final scene makes it more fitting as a part of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary – and a more fitting tribute to its first star than, say, his 1983 recasting.