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"You can't have Doctor Who without Doctor Who, can you?"
on 22 November 2013
Ever since the first pictures began to leak out earlier in the year there has been a buzz that Mark Gatiss' An Adventure In Space and Time would be something special - and it didn't disappoint.
It had a lot of ground to cover - from the launch of the show in 1963 to the departure of William Hartnell in 1966. In the main, it succeeded beautifully, although there's one caveat which I'll come too in a minute.
Essentially, AAISAT was the story of four people - William Hartnell (The Doctor), Verity Lambert (Producer), Waris Hussein (Director) and Sydney Newman (BBC Head of Drama and the "father" of the series). With only 85 minutes running time it did mean that many other people's important contributions went unrecorded, such as the first story editor David Whitaker and the designers Raymond Cusick and Barry Newbery. But this was inevitable, and the decision to focus on four key people did make dramatic sense.
Cast-wise it would have been difficult to get any better than this. David Bradley was outstanding as Hartnell, capturing both his abrasive side and his more considerate nature. Brian Cox (despite a moustache that looked painted on) was good fun as the brash Canadian, Newman. And Sacha Dhwan and Jessica Raine gave lovely performances as Hussein and Lambert - two outsiders (one an asian, one a woman) who dared to breach the conservative BBC.
The re-creations - Totters Lane, the Dalek city, the breathtaking TARDIS console room - were a massive treat, as were the numerous cameos from some of the great and good of the series' past.
But with a timeframe of three years there were times when things seemed a little condensed, and my only real criticism of Mark Gatiss' script is that whilst Hartnell's difficulty with lines was well illustrated, we maybe could have done with a scene that made it clear that Hartnell was a very good actor who gave many fine performances during the three years he was in the show, right up until the end when he was far from well.
There's no doubting the love Gatiss has for both the show and Hartnell, but a short scene with Lambert and Newman discussing Hartnell's line-fluffs with Lambert championing Hartnell's performance was sadly missing. Hartnell was technically a very good actor and his years of experience in films meant that he instinctively understood the camera. An off-told story (and something else that it would have been nice to see in the show) related to Hartnell's knowledge of when the camera was focused on him in close up - so his movements were restricted - and when the camera was further away - then he could be more expansive in his gestures. This is the sort of small detail that would have illustrated how good Hartnell was - otherwise you could come away from this programme thinking that Hartnell was just an old duffer who couldn't remember his lines.
But that apart, there was so much to enjoy here and by the end, with an ailing Hartnell forced to leave the part he loved, it was truly heartbreaking.
The surprise cameo at the end was a nice touch and an acknowledgement that today Doctor Who owes everything to one person - not Sydney Newman, not Verity Lambert, not even Dalek creator Terry Nation - but William Hartnell. If he hadn't made the Doctor such a compelling character then the series would never have endured. On the eve of the programme's 50th anniversary AAISAT is a fitting tribute to an old-fashioned actor who started something which still entertains today, and, I'm sure, for many more years to come.