Friday, 22 November 2013

An Adventure in Space and Time

If you're already sick of watching Cybermen faint under the lights of The One Show studio, you probably decided not to watch An Adventure in Space and Time.

But while much of the build-up to this weekend's 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who has been bordering on the vapid, this 90-minute dramatisation frankly blew everything else out of the water, and has probably set the bar impossibly high for the 50th anniversary episode itself.

Not to worry - it's a small price to pay for what was not just a perfectly time-shifting glimpse at the show's earliest days, but also a touching tribute to The Doctor himself, William Hartnell.

David Bradley put in a stellar performance as Hartnell, brilliantly capturing the challenging role of an actor who, in turn, was getting to grips with a new character - and coping with the challenges of his own ageing years.

Hartnell - at least as a character (because although An Adventure in Space and Time sometimes felt like a documentary, it was after all a dramatisation) - was portrayed with balance, rather than being painted as a hero, and that delicacy of touch is perhaps not only what added to the sense of realism, but also what allowed Bradley's portrayal of Hartnell to carry so much emotion in a story many viewers will already have known well.

Call me trashy, but I'm a sucker for actors who look like the person they are portraying, and here again Bradley carried the part well, not only thanks to a certain natural likeness with Hartnell, but by expertly capturing his mannerisms in recreations of original Doctor Who scenes (and yes, I have watched those early episodes).

Bradley said of Hartnell: "I know he had a reputation at times for being cantankerous and rather difficult, and one has to play that. It was clear from research and hearing his colleagues talk about him that he was a perfectionist. He demanded a lot of himself and he expected everyone around him to show the same level of commitment."

But An Adventure in Space and Time, like Doctor Who itself, was about more than just one actor or character, and the supporting cast had their own parts to play in both the literal and rhetorical sense.

Brian Cox as head of drama Sydney Newman ("You could always spot Sydney in the BBC club because of his brightly coloured cravats and waistcoats - and his personality was the same") is possibly the most instantly recognisable face in the ensemble cast, but the performances throughout captured the spirit of the show's actors and production team - at least to a casual observer like me.

Fittingly, the real star of the piece was neither The Doctor nor his companions, but the show's original producer, Verity Lambert, played by Jessica Raine.

Raine said of the role: "She was very strong willed, very compassionate and very warm. As the first female drama producer at the BBC, she had to be very determined. She had a real fire in her belly about projects she believed in."

An Adventure in Space and Time put all of this across well, aside from a slightly excessive focus on the phrase 'piss and vinegar' from the scriptwriters, but they proved their point without becoming too mired in issues of feminism that would not really have been the point of the piece.

Instead, Raine captured Lambert's passion for the show and her strength of character when fighting for things she believed in - such as the need for a repeat of the first episode, whose broadcast was overshadowed by the assassination of US President John F Kennedy, or the inclusion of the Daleks, dismissed as 'robots' and 'bug-eyed monsters' by Newman.

Raine's Lambert steals the show - and rightly so - as Doctor Who's most passionate proponent, and as a friend to Hartnell, as well as the driving force behind several of the key formative decisions in the early days of the series.

Also pictured above is Sacha Dhawan as Waris Hussein, the BBC's first Indian-born drama director, and director of Doctor Who episode one, An Unearthly Child.

Unlike many of the other actors, Dhawan had the opportunity to meet his character in person, and study his speech patterns and mannerisms.

"We were a bit kind of weird with each other; we were both studying, looking at one another," Dhawan said of Hussein. "He was looking at me thinking, 'You're watching everything I'm doing, aren't you?' but we hit it off straight away."

The story itself raises questions of historical accuracy - was the TARDIS console really designed in a matter of seconds from some punched-out paper offcuts and a cotton reel? Probably not quite as quickly and carelessly as portrayed.

But in general, there are only a handful of cringey moments (such as the hackneyed delivery of the line "it's smaller on the inside" to refer to the original studio in which Doctor Who was filmed) in a feature-length piece that does justice to the beginning of a legend and a legacy - and tips its hat to the present-day incarnation of the show at the same time.

I had goosebumps within minutes of the start, and was crying with minutes to go until the end - An Adventure in Space and Time will be taking its place in my DVD collection just as soon as I can get my hands on it.

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