With David Bradley taking on the First Doctor this Christmas, we’re looking at the first time he donned an astrakhan.
‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ is a love letter to Doctor Who penned by writer and actor Mark Gatiss. Produced to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary, Gatiss first pitched the idea to the BBC back in 2003. His attempt to get the special out for the 40th anniversary proved unsuccessful. But with Doctor Who restored as a cultural touchstone thanks in part to Gatiss himself, the BBC finally greenlit the project. The special was broadcast on the 21st November 2013.
Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) is a young, ambitious television producer keen to prove herself in a man’s world. William Hartnell (David Bradley) is an ageing stage and screen actor who feels typecast as stern authority figures and heavies. When Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) brings them together on a teatime sci-fi show he’s creating, Hartnell learns he has more to offer. And Lambert learns to assert herself…and then leaves.
Gatiss has crafted a stylised version of 1960s BBC Television and drawn from a lot of sources to create the story. We see the recording of the disastrous pilot episode, complete with broken door mechanisms and Hartnell fluffing his lines. But we also get fictionalised scenes that show Lambert’s development, based on people’s accounts. The scene between Lambert and Newman, where he allows her to reshoot the first episode, is set in contrast to a later scene where Lambert demands Newman schedule a rebroadcast. The relationship between the three main characters has a clever symmetry about it. Hartnell is playing against type and nervous about getting it right. He leans on Lambert for support the same way she does towards Newman. It creates an emotional core to the story that makes for a really engaging watch.
Creating a docudrama is something of a tightrope walk. On one hand, there are creative, legal and moral incentives to depict events as honestly as possible. On the other, there are the demands of storytelling: the need for conflict, drama and emotion. As such, some details of Doctor Who’s creation and the involvement of certain people is either reduced or omitted completely to streamline the story. It also means an unavoidable shift in focus going into the final act.
Lambert and Hartnell
Though Hartnell’s scenes bookend the special, the story definitely starts out as Lambert’s story. We follow her almost exclusively throughout the first half-hour. We see her encounter sexism and condescension in the BBC offices and overcome it. With Raine’s performance, Lambert becomes a really likeable main character. However, commitment to real events means that, inevitably, Lambert gets written out of the story midway through. In reality, Lambert left the show in 1965, a full year before Hartnell’s departure.
Suddenly, the story has to transition into Hartnell’s story whereas before it’d been Lambert’s. Her total absence for the entire final act is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it emphasises Hartnell’s feelings of loss by having his supportive friend gone. Especially as his health fails and he’s coaxed into his final scenes. But, at the same time, it feels like the main character has dropped off the story. Since the real Lambert became an accomplished TV producer, a few scenes with her post-Who would have been appreciated.
But, for me, the absolute crowning moment is Matt Smith’s cameo. This is what gives the special the perfect emotional climax. Not the cameo itself, but what it represents for Hartnell. That, even though the role is being passed on, the legacy it leaves will also be his. It helps that Smith, the incumbent Doctor at the time, is a doe-eyed young actor with relatively little experience. He gives Hartnell this perfect look of awe and fear. Proud to carry on his work but terrified of not doing it justice. With an older actor like Capaldi or Tennant, I don’t think this moment would have had quite the same effect. No dialogue necessary, it’s perfect!
Introducing David Bradley as The Doctor
So with the end of series ten, I’m sort of eating my words right now.
Though, to be fair, I really did think it was out of the question. After all, Bradley has never actually played the Doctor. He’s played an actor who played Doctor Who. Acting is a type of illusion and a play-within-a-play doubly so. It requires a heightened performance. As an award-winning veteran actor, I’ve no doubt that Bradley will be superb as the Doctor. I don’t think ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ should be considered his audition. You might as well say Ben Affleck would make a good Superman because he played George Reeves.
‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ is a great example of how character examination can emerge from docudrama. Though historical accuracy created some limitations, Gatiss seamlessly ties together the recorded events with the emotional progression between each. With a heaping of obscure references and cameos from the likes of William Russell, Jean Marsh and Carole Ann Ford for good measure. This is definitely a tribute to Doctor Who that fans and non-fans alike can get relate to.