Also from DWM #468, a review of Mark Gatiss’ ‘the road to Doctor Who‘-style drama. One hopes I didn’t overdo it on the dewy-eyed sentiment. However, unlike the programme itself, I probably misjudged that element.
This is the BBC. And Mark Gatiss is on a crash course with recorded time.
“You can’t rewrite history,” is what he’s instructed a stern BBC Television ident from the 1960s to tell us. “Not one line.” As the curtain raiser to An Adventure in Space and Time, his wonderful and moving dramatisation of the founding of Doctor Who (and the foundering of its leading man), this is a statement of intent. By cribbing a pivotal line of dialogue delivered by the First Doctor in The Aztecs, he’s sending a coded warning to us fans: This can’t be everything we want it to be, but I know that. And so the sprawling and involved story of the dawn of Doctor Who is rationalised into the story of a 90-minute drama, with all the necessary cuts and fixes along the way.
Last issue, Gatiss told DWM how he had considered a scene where Sydney Newman strode through the corridors of Television Centre doing a West Wing walk-and-talk with David and Donald and Bunny. Just so they could be there. However, common sense prevailed and instead it’s all compounded into a line he has Verity Lambert deliver: “So many people have been at the birth of this thing we’d be here all day.”
It’s one of a number of wise decisions. Not all of the tales can be told, but we can be assured that those excised – David and Donald and Bunny – are here in spirit. Some, in fact, are present in corporal form. There’s William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, shushing and hurrying in small cameos. And at Verity’s leaving drinks, Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh toasting goodbyes. Their fictionalised counterparts get barely a line (wouldn’t it have been a scream to see Sarah Kingdom ‘aged’ into the modern day Marsh, as initially planned?), but we’re raising a glass to them all the same.
With a sweet guilt, Gatiss’ script continues to nod at ghosts and even invokes phantoms from the future with Jessica Raine as Verity quoting the Fifth Doctor – “Brave heart” – and David Bradley’s William Hartnell channelling the Tenth: “I don’t want to go”. More profoundly, there’s also the Eleventh, nearing the end of his own tenure, appearing for a rightly over-awed cameo at the film’s climax. One day he did come back.
This rare balance of good sense and sentiment is Gatiss’ greatest gift. He’s always been the most eloquent communicator of Doctor Who‘s indefinable magic, able, in interview, to simply encapsulate the show’s deepest joys without recourse to mawkishness. As a result, An Adventure is an intoxicating mix, but not a sickening one. It arrives with the headiness of bursting hormones as the beat generation gets into the groove. But what else are we getting here? The faint musk of old tweed and tobacco. The phosphor of that space shot. The friendly whiff of the 1966 World Distributors Dr Who Annual. I’m sorry. It all reads like bad poetry, but there’s something about the old sloping BBC font used in the drama’s titles which does that to me.
Gosh, there’s a weird intimacy here. Did you get that too? One’s own warm nostalgic notions playing out on screen. As a result, this is a story in which we know many of the beats. So much so, it can be jarring to hear phrases spoken aloud such as “no BEMS” or “piss and vinegar” or “tough and wiry like an old turkey”. Suddenly we’re at a Howe, Stammers and Walker symposium. But it’s right these words are said, because they are the very concepts that were minted right there and then. Plus, they’re only idioms to us. For millions of others they have no particular resonance.
Counterbalancing that comes a lot that’s new. Seeing some of the more remote but familiar names as actual people is a real pleasure. For example, there’s Newman, who’s painted as a huckster with integrity. His steamrollering through of ideas and emollient showmanship make flesh the man who got this gig going. And who knew about the “pop, pop, pop”? Or if that is a Gatiss invitation, it’s going to stick. Similarly, Lambert. Although she’s someone who, until her death in 2007, was more of a visible presence in the orbit of Doctor Who, there’s still something profoundly revealing about watching her and Jacqueline Hill doing the watusi at a small drinks party. A pair of debs, grooving into a bright future.
Then there’s William Hartnell. And let’s really bring the cast in here. Playing the First Doctor actor, David Bradley is given both absolute latitude and no room to manoeuvre. As the man, there’s very little for us to judge him against. We know now of the existence of a short 1967 video interview with Hartnell, only made available to us on the recent DVD release of The Tenth Planet, but supplied to Bradley before shooting. But that’s pretty much all there is of the performer sans performance. It’s an oft-posited notion that should dear old Bill somehow be around today, he’d still recognise the programme he helped get started. But what I think he would find alien is the way the Doctor himself is portrayed. Not within Doctor Who, without it – the actor stepping outside the guise when taking on extramural activities in the name of the show. As a result we have a notion of what Matt Smith may be like in real life, but Hartnell’s personality was utterly subsumed by the character. The brief insight afforded by Points West‘s archive aside, he was never not the Doctor. Within that duality, Hartnell was the man of mystery.
Bradley’s take, and Gatiss’ writing, understandably feel like a reasonable guess at a remote and tricky figure who nonetheless had that special twinkle. The representation of Hartnell – sometimes a terrier, with a whisky in hand; other times ‘Uncle Who’, delighted, rejuvenated and tamed by the magic of the time traveller – utterly convinces. But who knows if this is the real man? That he simply feels real is good enough.
Conversely there’s no conjecture when it comes to measuring Bradley’s Doctor against the original. Almost all of his moments in the character are shot-for-shot recreations of his forebear, another entirely sensible decision (and how thrilling to see, almost as live, the recording of the pilot episode). This fidelity serves to elevate the original material, particularly the Doctor’s final speech to Susan. Hearing these words afresh, aren’t they extraordinarily beautiful? Don’t they deserve their brand new audience? And aren’t they somehow even more brilliant when delivered again by Hartnell himself at the very end of the drama? We should be glad Gatiss didn’t allow his fan-brain to veto that one, declaring it had already been ‘done’ by The Five Doctors 30 years ago. By setting them free once more, he proves to the whole wide world that we, indeed, have never been mistaken in our belief in Doctor Who.
How much Bradley ever truly sounds like the First Doctor is debatable, but he’s captured the essence of this character and even brings out new dimensions, revealing, through the time traveller, more of the real man within. The ‘Billy Fluffs’ so ribbed by fandom over the years, become a series of fatal stumbles, signs of mortality; the old body wearing a bit thin. And then there’s the notion of Hartnell, becoming the lone custodian of Doctor Who. We’re used to thinking of the programme as something that’s rolled along, always changing but somehow staying the same. But on the studio floor, it’s not like that at all, particularly when the leading man becomes the last man standing. With Verity, Waris, Carole Ann, Jackie and Russ all gone, Hartnell is isolated. He’s the only one left of that group who first tapped from the well, and he remains resolute to keep it flowing despite the arid disinterest of a brand new production team. Why? Because as he says: “They’re all relying on me. All those kiddies”.
Uniformly, the cast impress. There’s Brian Cox’s swaggering turn as Sydney Newman, and Jessica Raine, who brings real humanity and an unsuspected vulnerability to Verity. Sacha Dhawan judges the slight but likeable haughtiness of Waris Hussein impeccably and our trio of companions – Jemma Powell (Jacqueline Hill), Jamie Glover (William Russell) and Claudia Grant (Carole Ann Ford) – assuredly belay any concerns about how ‘right’ they might appear. They’re very right in fact, particularly in that scene on the set of Marco Polo, lolling around like old pals. Particular praise, though, to Grant, who manages to capture the unearthly tremulous tones of her counterpart without any inadvertent comedy.
We’ve seen Hartnell stumble, but are there any moments where this Adventure also loses its footing? Forgive me if there’s Pixley-ratified fact behind this, but I didn’t buy the sequence of Peter Brachacki improvising the TARDIS set right there with a cotton reel and other bits he had to hand. As cute as it may be, it brought to mind Gatiss’ cheeky The Pitch of Fear sketch from the Doctor Who theme night in 1999, in which Sydney Newman extemporises a complete proposal for 26 years of the show (“The Doctor starts off as a crotchety old man, then after three years he completely changes!”) Similarly, although the revelation of the Daleks itself is magnificently handled – small glimpses of the trundling beast working as well as that lone sink plunger did on the evening of 21 December 1963 – teasing their arrival while cross-cutting to the assassination of Kennedy is a bit crass, particularly the gunshots ringing out on the word ‘exterminate’. One of the surprises about this production is how successfully it highlights the fact that Doctor Who, even when it was just starting out as a mild curiosity on BBC1, was always great drama. But that still doesn’t measure up to real life tragedy.
I think these kinks are forgivable because An Adventure in Space and Time, like the TARDIS, contains surprising multitudes. Look at the opening sequence alone, which canonises Barnes Common from David Whitaker’s Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, before pitching us into The Tenth Planet – a sock-topped Cyberman sucking on a B&H making for a most arresting image – and then back in time via the most gloriously named implement in the Doctor’s ship, the year-ometer. All these different realties, couched inside each other. Director Terry McDonough responds to that, visually containing the bustling universes within the greater vessel that is Television Centre. Those numerous fish-bowl lens shots looking up from within the concrete doughnut show its hooped corridors circling-in the sky. Doctor Who‘s everythingness is contained there too, like someone drawing a ring around the listing for An Unearthly Child in Radio Times.
Times change. Nowadays, we’ve all got Doctor Who on series-link, which doesn’t lend itself to such romantic whimsy. It’s the unfeeling pragmatism of progress that gets to William Hartnell in the end, as he learns you can indeed have Doctor Who without Doctor Who. The bitter note at the heart of the drama is that everyone’s replaceable. Fan instincts die-hard and I felt distrustful of Reece Shearsmith when he first tottered onto set… but then he started to grow on me. It’s the same old story made new again – resistance is useless.
What an achievement. An Adventure in Space and Time is almost everything Doctor Who can be and the finest birthday present it can hope for. A journey back to the very beginning. To days of wine and roses. Scotch and soda, and piss and vinegar.