Tonight was the airing of “Adventures in Space and Time”, Mark Gatiss’s dramatisation of the early years of the making of Doctor Who. While I enjoy a lot of things Gatiss has written, most are ultimately pleasant fluff. This promised to be something different, and special. And it delivered.
From the opening shot of William Hartnell (played superbly by David Bradley) in 1966 (the year he left the show due to ill health) pulling up his car when he sees a police box wreathed in mist, and a police man asking him to move on, the stage was set that in the end this was not going to be solely “How the little guy made good” but also something of a tearjerker.
The little guys were director Waris Hussein and producer Verity Lambert – outsiders in the White male-dominated world of the BBC – championed by the extravagant Sydney Newman, recently poached from ITV. These three form the centre of the drama for the first half of the show. From reading interviews in the press and in Doctor Who Magazine, I know that Gatiss had the recollections of these characters to work with to write a script that showed the racism and sexism of the time (alas, not as different as we would like from the racism and sexism of the present day).
As the director and producer move on to other, bigger, projects, the story shifts to Hartnell’s changing relationships both at home and with the show, and the toll that his failing health took on him and his performances. The scenes where Hartnell has to hand over the reins to Patrick Troughton, first in Sydney Newman’s office and then on the studio floor, are incredibly touching.
I may associate Gatiss more with the flash and bang of action-adventure, be it Doctor Who or Sherlock, but here he produces an emotive tour de force, from the early struggles to the heady triumph and finally the heartache and loss. I won’t reveal the slight conceit introduced in the final scene that ultimately got my tears flowing (my eyes were already fairly damp, mind you). I was interested that we never heard the line, “This old body is wearing thin,” which was used to explain what regeneration was going to do. Instead, Gatiss plays the farewell scene from “Dalek Invasion of the Earth”, the Doctor saying goodbye to Susan: “Go forth in your beliefs, and prove that I am not mistaken in mine.” There’s a bit about no tears or regrets as well, but I was crying by the end of the story so it doesn’t seem right to include it…
I am, naturally, itching with anticipation for Day of the Doctor on Saturday. I have also done my bit in the Timey-Wimey War (vote Wibbly Wobbly Time over One Direction!) by buying the original theme (composed by Ron Grainer, but rendered into unforgettable sound by Delia Derbyshire in the BBC Radiophonics Workshop).