Doctor Who #918: An Adventure in Time and Space

"No one's irreplaceable."
TECHNICAL SPECS: The film is available on DVD. First aired Nov.21 2013.

IN THIS ONE... The origin of Doctor Who, the program.

Airing two days before the big 50th Anniversary special, this biopic made such a strong impression, I wouldn't have minded too much if the special itself were weak. I could have comforted myself with An Adventure in Time and Space being a great tribute to the show I love so well, no matter what other celebrations the BBC had in store. Now, I've been down on Mark Gatiss' work on Doctor Who and its overdependence on referencing the material he was paying tribute to. In this case, he's referencing Doctor Who itself, and is well suited to that task. He frames the show's beginnings as an underdog story, his main characters a motley band of misfits led by a maverick Canadian producer - Verity Lambert, the BBC's first female producer; Waris Hussein, its only Indian director; and William Hartnell, a typecast actor well past his prime. Ultimately, because Verity and Waris don't stay the run, it becomes Hartnell's story, and as we know, it was meant to end in tears. And while looking at the show from Hartnell's perspective is a bittersweet and yes, moving affair, there are nonetheless laughs along the way, moments of triumph, and plenty of fun references to the era, both overtly (of course) and as Easter Eggs (cameos for the era's companions, see if you can spot them).

An Adventure has a great cast, not just in terms of looking like the people they play (surprisingly, it's the small roles requiring the least acting that resemble the original people the least), but in quality of performance as well. Brian Cox is the biggest name here, very entertaining, but capable of darkness too, as Sydney Newman. Jessica Raine, who we just saw as Emma the psychic in Hide, is an endearing Verity Lambert. And David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Broadchurch, and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship) is an awesome and touching Hartnell. So much of the film is on his shoulders. It's fascinating to see his character hope for a better career, get it, then see it slip away, all the while using the role to connect to his own granddaughter. It's riveting stuff. Don't expect a documentarian's fidelity, of course. People and events are collapsed into one another to create an entertainment that is true to the spirit of those people and events, with wise choices as to which moments from the show we see recreated so they can inform "real life". Let's not judge apples with orange criteria.

If all we got was this script and these actors, we'd have had a good tele-film. Terry McDonough's direction just adds another layer. It's not quite perfect, since I'm never too sure about those calendar changes using an hokey CG TARDIS console, but he redeems himself elsewhere and then some (though it's likely a lot of cool touches came straight from the script). The film benefits from dynamic, funny and/or enigmatic transitions between scenes. For example, when Newman reads the Dalek script, he seems to imagine an extermination moment with a rifle barrel shooting, and only after that do we realize we're seeing Lee Harvey Oswald's gun shooting JFK on the eve of the first episode's broadcast. Or more centrally, the way the story begins at the end of Hartnell's run, with a real police box in the background and a bobbie walking towards his car in the fog with a torch... a visual rhyme with the very first shot of An Unearthly Child. The production also shows some courage, I thought, giving Hartnell a vision of Matt Smith while preparing for his last scene in The Tenth Planet. We break totally from reality in that moment, and look to the future, a fictional comfort to the first actor to ever play the Doctor that he has a legacy spanning, as we know, more than 50 years. It's a punch in the gut, and if you'll allow me to mix metaphors, one that pulls at the heart strings.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Wonderful. Just wonderful. A real love letter to the first of many era for the show.


Madeley said...

I got a little fed up at the time with people saying something along the lines of "The Five Doctors Reunion was the REAL 50th Anniversary Special", or "Light at the End", or whatever, because no, like Moffat or not, like NuWho or not, Day of the Doctor was the actual anniversary episode, whether it ended up being any good or not.

THAT SAID, this was the best tribute to Doctor Who the BBC could have possibly come up with. I went in expecting it to be pretty solid, what with the cast and creatives and everything (I've found Mark Gatiss to be an exceptional writer in almost everything apart from his actual Who episodes, oddly), but because I knew all the stories of how Who came about I didn't expect to be as caught up in it as I was.

The Matt Smith cameo at the end was amazing. It was an absolutely perfect moment. Me and Mrs M were both doing the crazy-people cry.

Madeley said...

Also, the BBC have made a bit of niche for themselves in dramatising the lives of iconic actors and comedians over the past few years. "An Adventure in Space and Time" fits in with a kind of series of one-off dramas about various people. The ones they've done about Kenneth Williams and Morecambe & Wise were particular standouts.

Siskoid said...

I personally liked all of the Anniversary Specials, I don't see them as competing with one another.

Madeley said...


Jayunderscorezero said...

I'm happy to see a positive write-up of this. I didn't watch it but I remember Whovian friends of mine slating it at the time. That said, they're the kind of Who fan who relish in savaging almost everything Who-related, so...

Andrew Gilbertson said...

This was just amazing. Sublime. As a fan of the era, I loved it (and little background touches like megoptera walking around in the BG)- but even apart from the Hartnell-era-fan-geekouts, it was a truly moving and fitting account of the show's genesis. The Dalek/JFK bit was inspired and chilling, and the opening you refernce (with clever double meaning dialogue "You're in the way, sir- you have to move on") is quite good, too. The ultimate moment for me is the ending with Smith, which definitely brought me to tears- beautiful and symbolic (though I wonder if it will have the same meaning to future fans that it did at time of airing; I assume the impact will be diminished). But the message communicated is wordless and clear and perfect.

"surprisingly, it's the small roles requiring the least acting that resemble the original people the least"
Steven? Ben? :-)

I would love to see a series of simillar specials

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Oops! Truncated!

...dramatizing each era... but while Tom Baker's could chronicle the rise and decline of a legend and both C. Baker's and McCoy's would be fraught with drama, I suppose Troughton, Pertwee, and Davison's stories wouldn't be particularly enthralling, since they went fairly smoothly. :-)


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