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DVD Review

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An Adventure in Space and Time


Starring: David Bradley
Distributor: BBC DVD
RRP: £20.42
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 02 December 2013

This special one-off drama travels back in time to 1963 to see how the beloved Doctor Who was first brought to the screen. Actor William Hartnell felt trapped by a succession of hard-man roles. Wannabe producer Verity Lambert was frustrated by the television industry’s glass ceiling. Both of them were to find unlikely hope and unexpected challenges in the form of a Saturday tea-time drama, featuring time travel and monsters! Allied with a team of brilliant people, they went on to create the longest-running science fiction series ever, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary...

For me, this 83-minute docudrama was the highlight of Doctor Who’s anniversary programming, stirring greater depths of emotion in me than the multi-Doctor special The Day of the Doctor or even Paul McGann’s surprise reappearance in the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor. Whereas The Day of the Doctor revolved primarily around the mythology of the revived series (almost inevitably so, given the current ages of the surviving classic Doctors), An Adventure in Space and Time takes us right back to the show’s origins, telling the story of the people who first brought the concept to our screens: head of drama Sydney Newman (played by Brian Cox), producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) and, in particular, actor William Hartnell (David Bradley).

Writer Mark Gatiss and director Terry McDonough weave together a plethora of well-known anecdotes and quotations (and some others that I was not familiar with but learned about in the five-minute featurette William Hartnell: The Original, also included on this DVD). These include Newman’s demand that there be no “bug-eyed monsters” in the show, the use of a door key in the creation of the famous TARDIS dematerialisation sound, Hartnell’s floral apology to Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant), and his fluffed line “Check the fornicator, Susan!”

Of course, this is a docudrama rather than a documentary, so Gatiss and McDonough take a few liberties for the sake of narrative structure. For example, there is no mention of script editor David Whitaker or Dalek designer Raymond Cusick, and the first Doctor Who Annual was in fact published a year after Hartnell donned the garb of a French Regional Officer of the Provinces in The Reign of Terror. There are also cheeky flashes forward, with Newman warning Lambert against brains in jars, and echoes of poignant departure scenes from The Green Death and The End of Time.

However, the real events behind Doctor Who’s chaotic genesis quite often fall into surprisingly ordered patterns all by themselves, and Gatiss and McDonough take full advantage of this. Thus we hear Newman reading about the Daleks’ chants of “Exterminate” while Lee Harvey Oswald takes aim at President John F Kennedy. Newman is present at the birth of the Hartnell era and at its end, for it was he who commissioned the show in the first place, and he who had the brainwave of “regenerating” the lead role into another actor.

Though the object of the casting for this production was not to merely provide impersonations, sometimes the voices of the performers sound eerily close to those of the originals – especially in the case of Claudia Grant as Carole Ann Ford and Jessica Raine as Verity Lambert. The re-creation of the past, in terms of costumes, sets (including the original TARDIS control room and the Dalek city on Skaro), memorable scenes and Sixties technology, is truly magnificent. It is also wonderful to see the iconic BBC Television Centre once again.

David Bradley charts the career of Hartnell as the Doctor with great skill and subtlety – from the actor’s initial reluctance and unease at taking on the role, to his surprise and delight at his new-found fame with legions of young followers, and his battle against the debilitating effects of arteriosclerosis. For me, the most pivotal and poignant scene is when Hartnell fluffs a line in The Daleks, saying “gloves” instead of “drugs”. Hartnell’s granddaughter Judy (the remarkable Cara Jenkins) picks up on this, but instantly comes up with her own explanation, that her hero must need special gloves to handle the Daleks. He knows things like that because he’s Doctor Who. This single moment beautifully encapsulates the cruel irony of Hartnell’s rising stardom (the character bonding him with children across the land, and with his own granddaughter) even as his health starts to fail him. Not a dry eye in the house.

However, it was not just Bill’s story that I found moving, but also the relationship between Newman and his protégée‎ Lambert. Newman took a huge risk with Lambert and with Doctor Who, persuading the higher-ups at the BBC to fund a second pilot episode, and a repeat showing of it when its viewing figures were adversely affected by the Kennedy assassination. In the docudrama, we see Newman challenging Lambert to stand on her own two feet when that is what she needs, but also backing her to the hilt when that is what she needs. I think these are even rarer qualities in the risk-averse, back-biting creative world of today. Newman’s belief in Lambert is rewarded when she insists upon keeping the now familiar theme music, and the Daleks, the creatures that proved pivotal in cementing the show’s popular appeal. “Ten million viewers for your bug-eyed monsters,” says Newman, after summoning Lambert to his office. “Ten million. So, what do I know about anything? Well done, kid.”

As well as William Hartnell: The Original, the DVD also includes the 11-minute featurette The Making of An Adventure, narrated by Carole Ann Ford; short reconstructions of scenes from An Unearthly Child, the Doctor’s farewell to Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Doctor’s festive greeting to all of you at home in The Daleks’ Master Plan, and his regeneration in The Tenth Planet; and a couple of brief deleted scenes.

Occasionally, a few modern touches struck me as being a little out of place, such as the incidental music, which I would have preferred to be less Hollywood and more Sixties in tone. It is also strange that this production is not being released on Blu-ray, despite having been made in HD. For the most part, though, An Adventure in Space and Time feels very, very right. Well done, kids.


Richard McGinlay

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