An Adventure in Space and Time (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros take an Adventure in Space and Time. Yes, really.
2013, for those who have managed to have their heads firmly planted in the sand for the last few months, is the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. There have been more sci-fi television series/franchises that have spawned more episodes or have been financially more successful, but none have had the consistent longevity and the determination to succeed in the face of adversity than the show that began with a mystery about a young girl and her mysterious grandfather who seemingly lived in a junk-yard.
The year is 1963 and the BBC is looking for a new television series to play in a Saturday teatime slow. Four people, all searching for something would come together and their talents would begin something that none of them could have possible forseen the endurance what they worked on. Head of drama, Sydney Newman wants a science-fiction show that will plug into the educational remit of the BBC; Verity Lambert is an ambitious young woman determined to succeed in an environment where women have had concussion by repeatedly trying to break through the glass ceiling; Waris Hussain is a young Indian-born director who wants to make his mark in a country that was predominantly white and William Hartnell was an ageing actor who was sick to the back teeth of only being offered stern authority figure roles.
There are some Doctor Who fans that have managed to turn their lifelong love of the series into an adult vocation, with Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat being the prime examples; Mark Gatiss' professional relationship with Doctor Who began with a series of novels in the New Adventures line from Virgin and eventually he began to write for New-Who (including The Unquiet Dead, which was one of the very best and Victory of the Daleks, which wasn't). Gatiss' passion for the series led to him penning a show that would celebrate the beginning of the fifty year journey that Doctor Who has been on – An Adventure in Space and Time.
Gatiss stated that Doctor Who is unique in television history in that the level of passion for the show and the history of it is such that it is so well documented (if you have ever checked out the Production Subtitles on a Doctor Who DVD, you'll know exactly the kind of minutiae that has been recorded for posterity); when Gatiss was doing his research for this drama, he interviewed a number of surviving members of the cast and crew and was able to find out very little information that hadn't already been divulged. With so much information on record and the story of the birth of Doctor Who being so well-known to fans, it should have been a relatively easy task to create a screenplay by collating the info and patching it together. Mr Gatiss had the problem of trying to balance his infatuation with Doctor Who and the demand to create a solid piece of drama that would be of interest to the casual viewer. Some will probably say that there are too many throwaway references to satiate the fanboys (not to mention the fanboy within Gatiss himself), but there is still plenty for fans of drama to sink their teeth into, as many Doctor Who references and in-jokes would go sailing straight past them.
Let's face it, if there was anyone born to play the role of William Hartnell, (other than Hartnell himself, of course) it was David Bradley. The physical resemblance is nothing short of remarkable and Bradley had done his homework with the mannerisms not only of Hartnell himself, but also those of Hartnell playing The Doctor (complete with his trademark stroking of his lapels to establish authority). Bradley reportedly studied the recently discovered interview footage of Hartnell that was included on the DVD release of The Tenth Planet, capturing his frosty, almost aloof manner perfectly. The only criticism we have is that he doesn't have the same timbre as Hartnell and when he recites the famous leaving speech from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, it pales in comparison to Hartnell's original, which is rightfully heard at the very end.
The role of Verity Lambert is taken on by Jessica Raine, who appeared in the Matt Smith Doctor Who story, Hide, and although she was nearly a decade older than Lambert was when she was brought on-board Doctor Who, Raine more than does justice to her. Bearing a striking resemblance to the late producer, Raine exudes the authoritative demeanour for which she was famous and also manages to display her lighter side, which was more than apparent to those who knew her personally.
Brian Cox has plenty of the sort of self-confident bluster that Sydney Newman was famous for, presenting Newman as a barnstorming ideas-man who is more than happy to let others share the load and the credit for shows he had a hand in creating. Cox dusts off his Col Stryker accent and calls it Canadian, but it fits the real-life tone and excitable delivery of Newman himself. Cox turns in a very warm performance as Newman, giving him the right blend of authority and likeability which is at the core of every successful producer. If we had one gripe, it’s that he didn’t swear as much as the real Sydney Newman, who - by his own admission, and documented on film - really did let the expletives fly.
Tackling the role of Doctor Who's first director, Waris Hussain is Sacha Dharwan, who does a good job of mixing the sense of optimism and despair at being at Oxbridge graduate who had aspirations of directing grand theatrical productions saddled with doing a children's show featuring men in animal skins and undercrackers from (to misquote Carry On Cleo) Markus et Spencious.
One area where there is lacking is that of a cohesive, singular protagonist, and whilst this might be the way to describe it in action-movie terms, it all boils down to having the story of Doctor Who told though at least three different leads. Throughout literary and cinematic history, it has been possible to have multiple characters all taking the story in the same direction without and harm to the tale itself, just take a look at the Lord of the Rings for a triumph in both mediums, but the problem here is thus: most of the advertising and Sunday supplement stuff had it described along the lines of: “…a young woman struggling to make a career for herself and break through the glass-ceiling of a male-dominated business”. It set viewers up that Lambert was to be the primary focus of the drama, but just after an hour, she is out of the picture with Bill Hartnell and his declining health taking over. Such a shift in focus is fine in pure fiction, where you can shake things up by turning on a dime like that, but when you invest so much time in the struggles of a singular character, then to send them on their way and put another under the spotlight is jarring, regardless of how good the altered trajectory. It could be argued that this is the fault in marketing and advertising, rather than of the show itself.
Gatiss takes the four story strands and gives wisely gives priority to the Hartnell and Lambert ones and has the Hussain and Newman play second fiddle to them. Gatiss emphasises the different kind of relationships that develop between the four primary characters in this story. A master and protégée bond is forged between Lambert and Newman; a young-and-ambitious kindred spirit exists between Lambert and Hussain; a bond also develops between the ageing and increasingly unwell character actor Hartnell and the reassuring stability of Lambert.
Certainly, there are aspects of Hartnell's personality that are addressed here, particularly his arteriosclerosis that caused him to forget his lines. The racist side to Hartnell's personality is addressed in passing when Waris Hussain moves on , with the young director mentioning A Passage To India, “one way, I hope” replies Hartnell half-jokingly. The remarkable, fascinating and tragic life of Hartnell himself is deserving of a bio-pic all of it's own, but the story being told here is that of the birth of Doctor Who.
The production design is faultless; not only has the look and set designs of the Hartnell era of Doctor Who been reproduced down to the most minute detail, but everything about every other aspect to live in the early-to-mid sixties is absolutely authentic. The look of the little cottage that William and Heather Hartnell have seems to match the detailed description in Jessica Carney's biography, complete with the little nick-knacks over the fireplace.
Mark Gatiss' old League of Gentleman co-conspirator Reece Shearsmith is on-hand to play Hartnell's televisual successor, Patrick Troughton during the filming of the regeneration scene. Sheersmith really doesn't make for a convincing Cosmic Hobo, but this is only a short scene and won't spoil the enjoyment of the hardened Who fan. The appearance of a certain incumbent Doctor at the end of the story seems to divide opinion amongst fans, with some finding it a fitting way of showing that what Hartnell began has endured and others thinking that it is intrusive and robbing Hartnell of a poignant ending. This even seemed to divide opinion amongst your humble reviewers, with one of us shouting a certain vulgar four-lettered-by-three-lettered phrase at the screen.
Mr Gatiss' phantasmagorical time-travelling odyssey was shot in high definition (there is no Blu-ray release), but we are reviewing a standard definition copy; in short, it looks pretty good with strong colours (which have presumably been tweaked and graded in post-production to make it look more like the sixties) and some nice levels of detail. There is a degree of grain to the image, but this is likely to have been the result of a stylistic decision, rather than a by-product of production. In short, it looks pretty good, certainly better than the original SD broadcast.
There is a very nice Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which presents all manner of spot-effects from all speakers; cars whiz from font-to-back and ambience is infused into scenes to add a layer of depth that would have been missing from listening to it in 2.0.
William Hartnell - The Original: This went out after the film was broadcast, and is a wonderful companion-piece as well as a loving look at the man who initiated one of the most iconic characters of British TV. Many of those making cameos in An Adventure in Space and Time are to be found here, as well as Peter Purves, his omission from the show is still a complete mystery to us! Peter Davison and Matt Smith discuss their predecessor, and Terence Dicks recalls the problems that Hartnell’s deteriorating health had on the filming of The Three Doctors, and whilst we all know such hiccups intimately, it’s great that those watching the show as a piece of straight drama can have their knowledge of Hartnell explored in further depth as an almost humbling coda. It’s all topped off by the lovely Jessica Carney fondly remembering her grandfather, and we can’t recommend this wonderfully polished package highly enough.
The Making of an Adventure: Hosted by Carole Ann Ford, this is a wonderful, intimate look at putting together a love-letter the only UK TV serial to still be running 50 years later. Like the previous featurette, it includes contributions from just about all involved with the show, providing a background to the original programme as well as looking at just how lovingly they set about recreating all things Doctor Who. All this and a decent biopic all thrown into the mix? If you have ever wondered just how the hell they pulled this one off, ponder no more…
Through the magic of B-roll and other behind-the-scenes footage, you can really see the effort the designers and craftsmen put in to make everything just as it was, whilst giving us all an invaluable look at what such familiar sets look like when released from their monochromatic prisons. To that end, writer/exec-producer Gatiss clearly had the best time making the thing, and with the biggest Doctor Who toy set at his fingertips, why wouldn’t he? Just take a look at him unbridled glee when recreating an iconic sequence from The Dalek Invasion of Earth! Speaking of such joy, take a look at Bradley and Gatiss having a ball whilst doing an impromptu rendering of The Army Game, with the elder performer dressed appropriately. This is classed as the taping of additional dialogue, but it was probably the most fun to be had with dubbing since the American TV version of Robocop.
Ford tells of her visit to the Web Planet set being an emotional one, and describes the sight of David Bradley as Hartnell struggling to remember his lines as “hard to watch”. As if show the contrasting mental states of the two actors playing the Doctor, Bradley goes on record as saying that “…it’s been one of those great jobs, and an experience I’ll always remember”. We all know that actors talk a lot of shit - of course they do: being the most convincing bullshitter gets them a gold statue - but here Bradley’s warm feelings towards the project seems completely genuine.
The march of time is perfectly illustrated here, and in numerous ways. Deeply fascinating is Brian Cox revealing that he once met Sydney Newman when he was working for the BBC in the sixties, describing that he was “colourful” in a literal sense as well as a grammatical one. Providing sharp contrast is how Jessica Raine relied on YouTube for her research into the role of Verity Lambert, showing how the older generations used experience in whatever they bring to the table, whereas the younger merely Google-it to know the price of everything. OK, this obviously wasn’t the extent of her preparation for the role, but any chance to take a pop at the kids today. Oh, and get off that lawn, while you’re at it!
One of the crowning moments is Gatiss shamefully abusing his privilege and giving the world a reconstruction of the Troughton-to- Pertwee regeneration, with the man himself playing the Bouffant’d One. That this also features elsewhere on the disc does take away from it a little, but it’s still a really cool moment, and a pity that Gatiss couldn’t have been given a little more screen-time as Pertwee, where he might have been able to demonstrate how good he is by having a go at anyone behind the camera whilst falling over himself to be gregarious to fellow actors.
Things close out with the interviewees all wishing Doctor Who a happy anniversary, with varying degrees of sincerity and lip-service employed, and of them all, the one with the most heart comes from the man at the helm of An Unearthly Child, Warris Hussein, who encapsulates his feelings on the landmark birthday with quiet understatement. “I feel more like a dad than a director about this,” he notes for posterity, “…because I was at the birth of this show, and it makes me very proud.” That man is a class act, guys.
That this is great seen either before or after watching An Adventure in Time and Space demonstrates that it’s a well put together look at the show, enough to whet the appetite or satiate the hunger for a look at how it all came about, and it’s usually a tough combination to pull off. It really is good stuff, and they didn’t have to put this on here, as the plaudits given to the programme would have sold it by itself, but the 50th birthday cake now comes with a rich topping, deep in flavour and complex in texture. Excellent - as a proper Cyberman would say.
Reconstructions: There are three of these suckers to be found here, and are essentially the unedited versions of the footage seen of the show, with the tops and tails intact. They are: “Scenes from An Unearthly Child and the Pilot”, “Regenerations”, “Farewell to Susan” and “Festive Greeting”. The first one is obviously just a straight recon, presented in black and white for authenticity, the second has the transition from Hartnell to Troughton, before going into bizarre territory by proceeding to change into Pertwee! The third clip is colour, but best of all is the last piece, where the infamous Christmas greeting from Bill Hartnell at the end of The Feast of Steven is recreated, presumably through Gatiss not being able to resist getting David Bradley to do it whilst they had him in costume. Three takes are there to be enjoyed, with Bradley playing for laughs on the final one. It’s pretty good stuff.
Title Sequences: The unmolested title cards from both An Unearthly Child and An Adventure in Time and Space are presented for your viewing pleasure. OK, we’ve seen them before, but nice to have them together for reference.
Deleted Scenes: There are two nuggets to be found here, and they are one inside the Radiophonic Workshop as Celia Derbyshire demos the theme, and a brief piece set at Lambert’s leaving party, where - wait for it - a Monoid asks her for directions to the bog! We’ve always had a rather soft spot for the cycloptic mop-tops, so to find out that they shit like everyone else is just wonderful!
In this golden anniversary year, Mark Gatiss' An Adventure in Space and Time is – for us – the stand-out piece of Doctor Who programming; it is informative, affectionate and wonderfully entertaining. David Bradley brings William Hartnell back to life in a manner that far exceeds caricature, as he embodies the man and his performance helps to understand a little better a man who was certainly very complex and haunted by past, present and future. Bradley's performance is supported admirably by the rest of the cast and the result is something magical. Watch and wrap yourself up in a warm blanket of nostalgia.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 2nd December 2013
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: William Hartnell: The Original, The Making of An Adventure, Reconstructions, Deleted Scenes, The Title Sequences
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terry McDonough
Cast: David Bradley, Brian Cox, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan
Length: 83 minutes
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