Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Dawn of the Doctor

AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME (2013)

William Hartnell's Doctor Who - played by David Bradley - among a Dalek, Cyberman and Menoptera, in this promotional image.

WRITTEN by Mark Gatiss, this nostalgic drama made to celebrate DOCTOR WHO's 50th anniversary reveals how the show was nearly exterminated after just four episodes. On the 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, plunging the world into deep mourning; the following day the Time Lord debuted at its Saturday tea time slot between GRANDSTAND and JUKE BOX JURY, and even viewers in the mood for such escapist entertainment couldn't necessarily tune in because a power cut blacked out parts of Britain. But there were also tensions behind the scenes; the BBC Head of Drama, Canadian Sydney Newman, ordered the first episode to be totally re-shot to make it more child-friendly, and his decision to assign the BBC's first female producer to the venture - partygoer Verity Lambert - caused frictions between the stuffy crew (though Lambert forged an alliance with young Indian director Waris Hussein). Syphoned off to the depths of Lime Grove Studio D, the team struggled to make the crudest of facilities - and the oldest of cameras - work in their favour. Even Doctor Who himself, William Hartnell, was an aging, grumpy, heavy drinker and smoker, yet he formed a close bond with Lambert, turning around the show's fortunes which was ignited by the introduction of the Daleks (which, in itself, went against Newman's instructions for "no bug-eyed monsters.")

In this docudrama, Verity (Jessica Raine) initially struggles to impress Newman (Brian Cox) with her handling of the project, but eventually wins him over with a new-found brutality and verve, standing by Hartnell (David Bradley) as he struggles with the scientific scripts and the realisation that his film star credentials are now being played out on a children's show. When Hartnell's health declines and his memory is affected, the actor becomes even more frustratingly angry and disorientated, forcing Newman to re-cast the lead role fortuitously creating the notion of regeneration (Patrick Troughton is played by Reece Shearsmith in a Three Stooges wig). One wonders that if Hartnell's health had not deteriorated with arteriosclerosis, the legacy of DOCTOR WHO would have been cancelled after five years or so without the notion of regenerated ever having to be considered.

Daleks over Westminster Bridge; an iconic recreation
from THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH.

The professional Hartnell/Lambert relationship is at the heart of AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME, but this ninety-minute love letter to the past is too fractured and obvious, dialogue-dropping worn facts into a strained sentimentality. Feelings and situations are portrayed like snapshots from a photo comic strip, breezing through the First Doctor's tenure like a fanboys' wish list. And as AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME seemingly grinds to its digest-friendly halt, a real gut punch is delivered. There is a moment when Hartnell activates the TARDIS and then, looking across, he sees The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) lovingly caressing the console. This silent, poignant interchange says much about Hartnell’s place in the ever-evolving DOCTOR WHO canon.