TV Preview: An Adventure in Space and Time

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This is a piece that I wrote for London Student in 2013.

As a BFI member, I managed to get tickets to see a preview screening of the Mark Gatiss docudrama “An Adventure in Space and Time” and wrote a preview, which was published online a few days before the programme went out.

I wasn’t really happy with how the published version of the article was edited, so I’ve included the original here.

TV Preview
An Adventure in Space and Time
Thursday 21 November
21:00 – BBC Two

Whether you love Doctor Who or loathe it, this drama-documentary is a knockout. Thomas Oléron Evans attended a preview at the BFI and reports for The Smoke.

Those who remain unconvinced of the virtues of Doctor Who could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a good week to avoid the BBC altogether. As the Time Lord’s fiftieth birthday on the twenty-third of November draws ever nearer, viewers and listeners will be presented with a bewildering array of celebratory programming, with special editions of programmes as varied as Blue Peter and The Graham Norton Show, culminating in an all-singing, all-dancing 3D extravaganza on the day itself. The anniversary adventure will be simultaneously broadcast in cinemas across the UK and by television stations in over seventy countries worldwide, though quite what any Malaysian insomniacs are likely to make of the Doctor’s latest escapades when they tune in at 04:00 AM is anyone’s guess.

However, there is a far more low-key offering on the BBC’s schedules, which may have the necessary charm and wit to appeal to even the Doctor’s most entrenched critics.

An Adventure in Space and Time is a ninety-minute dramatisation of the creation of Doctor Who in 1963. However, to describe it in such narrow terms is already to do it a disservice, since the story it tells deals with far more universal themes than the mere conception of a television series.

Alongside its headline tale of the battle faced by the BBC’s only female drama producer, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), its first Indian director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), and firebrand Canadian executive, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), to make a science fiction series in the face of considerable apathy and prejudice from their colleagues, is the parallel journey of Doctor Who‘s first leading actor, William Hartnell (David Bradley), from disenchantment to national adoration and back again. This is explicitly and unashamedly a deeply human story about change, ageing and loss.

Writer, Mark Gatiss, most famous for his work in The League of Gentlemen and more recently as the co-creator of Sherlock with Steven Moffat, has a long history with Doctor Who. He was one of the authors who kept the series alive in the wilderness years of the 1990s, writing several spin-off novels and audio dramas, and has contributed six televised episodes since the show’s return in 2005. Among Doctor Who fans, his work is known for its traditional approach, often lovingly evoking the cosy living-room scares of the early years of the series, so the fact that he is the one to helm this voyage into the show’s history seems both appropriate and inevitable. Judging by the result of his efforts, it is difficult to imagine that anyone else could have done a better job.

A frequent risk with docudramas such as this is that they fall victim to their own slavish attention to detail. In a determination to include every fact, every event and every individual, any hope of a coherent narrative can be throttled at birth, with the action disintegrating into a series of disconnected scenes. It is therefore highly impressive that Gatiss has managed to resist the voice of his inner fan and avoid these pitfalls by crystallising the huge crew responsible for Doctor Who‘s birth into the three characters of Lambert, Hussein and Newman. Of course, for devotees of the series there are also simple pleasures to be had in appearances from of some of the Doctor’s more obscure early companions, but such cameos are fleeting and never gratuitous. Gatiss understands the importance of not alienating those who know less about Doctor Who than he does and his script is aimed squarely and consistently at the uninitiated.

It helps that the subject matter offers such accessible and engaging characters around which to build a narrative. The splash caused by Doctor Who‘s brash Canadian champion, Newman, in the stuffy BBC of the 1960s is instantly understandable and provides an immediate source of conflict, while it is impossible not to sympathise with Lambert and Hussein in their struggle to make an impact as young outsiders in an institution populated exclusively by old men in suits, particularly since the acting on display is uniformly excellent. The evocation of the period is also superb, with the news, fashions and values of 1963 brought to the screen in all their striking and occasionally uncomfortable reality.

In case all this is making An Adventure sound rather serious and worthy, it is worth mentioning that it is often very funny. If your main interaction with Doctor Who previously has been to laugh at it, there is certainly plenty of opportunity to do that here, with a number of faithful reproductions of gloriously silly 1960s Who monsters presented in punishing twenty-first century high definition. Combined with Gatiss’ fantastic talent for comic dialogue and the genuinely ridiculous conditions in which Doctor Who had to be filmed in its early days, this all adds up to a lot of fun, producing plenty of laughs from the preview audience at the BFI.

Laughter aside, the beating heart of this piece is the story of William Hartnell, and it is a very big heart indeed. David Bradley, better known as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, gives a truly stellar performance as the abrasive and fragile Hartnell, maintaining the sympathy of the audience through even the character’s most difficult and unapproachable caprices. He successfully conveys a transformation from disillusioned actor, tired of the repetitive army roles in which he has been typecast, to rejuvenated national hero, gleefully playing the role of the Doctor for every spellbound child he meets. He then leads the audience gently through the heartbreak of Hartnell’s progressive debilitation from arteriosclerosis, the disease that forced him to leave the role he loved and that would ultimately take his life nine years later. It is a highly complex portrayal, with Bradley skillfully distinguishing the various aspects of the actor’s personality: Hartnell the insecure showman, Hartnell the husband and grandfather and Hartnell the magical Doctor. A true tour de force.

That Gatiss has managed to balance all these dramatic and comedic elements and yet create something that still feels unshakably authentic is a great achievement. Although you are naturally aware that the plot has been fictionalised and dramatically streamlined, you are able to believe fully in the truth of the situations presented to you, not just because of the quality of the acting, but also because of the love with which An Adventure has so evidently been crafted, inspiring absolute confidence that all those involved have invested themselves fully in the characters and the history. At the preview screening, this authenticity was further evidenced through the presence of Hartnell’s real life granddaughter and biographer, Jessica Carney, who participated in a Q&A and was clearly and understandably deeply moved by the events depicted onscreen.

As the end credits of An Adventure in Space and Time rolled at the BFI, the audience rose to applaud the production and to thank the cast and crew for producing such a remarkable piece of work. It is to be hoped that, when it is broadcast to the rest of the country, it will find the equally appreciative viewership that it clearly deserves, both among Doctor Who‘s fans and among its detractors.

A masterpiece.

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