Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space and Time Is Unearthly Good

Is David Bradley's portrayal of William Hartnell as tragic and award-worthy as, say Martin Landau's performance as Bela Lugosi in Tom Burton's Ed Wood? No, but it is a damn close second.

An Adventure in Space and Time, Mark Gatiss' biopic on the earliest days of producing Doctor Who is a marvel and a masterpiece that I honestly wish I'd seen in theaters instead of on television, though I do acknowledge that seeing it at home on the same couch I hide from Daleks behind is entirely appropriate. The strange story of how an admittedly silly science fiction television show managed to become a global phenomenon that has continued uninterrupted for half a century is a fascinating one.

It's a Canadian idea, I was surprised to discover. I had always heard television pioneer Sydney Newman's name associated with the show, but always assumed that what we know of as Doctor Who was owed mostly to producer Verity Lambert and writers like Terry Nation and David Whitaker. Yet so much that defines The Doctor against other similar science fiction of the '60s came right from Newman's head.

Brian Cox almost steals the show completely as Newman in the biopic with his cartoonish stereotype of an old-time TV executive. More than anyone else in the cast he truly seems to have stepped out of time to visit with us again, and he pulls it off with such over-the-top verve that it makes Mad Men look understated and subtle. Charming and encouraging one moment, then fiendishly - one could even say ruthlessly - critical the next, it's his careful hand at good television as well as his visionary brilliance that saves the show from it's rocky start.

The true star, though, can only be David Bradley as Hartnell. From the moment he first appears his resemblance to the man that brought the First Doctor reaches far past uncanny. It's absolutely eerie, both when he appears as a Hartnell the actor and even more so as Hartnell the Doctor.

By all accounts, William Hartnell was not an easy man to like or get along with, though no one ever doubted his abilities as an actor. The son of a teen mother who never knew his father, Hartnell grew up a tough boy who got involved with petty crime until he discovered acting. He could be quite kind and generous, but more than a few cast members recalled him as gruff and unlovable. The recently rediscovered interview with him featured on the "Tenth Planet" DVD does not show us someone that had much patience.

Space and Time does not gloss over that at all, and thankfully does not canonize Hartnell in a wave of endless nostalgia while we all celebrate 50 years in the Tardis. Bradley play Hartnell as delightfull crotechy, even to his own granddaughter Judith who he sends crying to her room after she pesters him while he drinks and reminisces bitterly on typecasting on his career as a military character actor.

Just as it did in real life, it's the pluck, vision, and zeal of Lambert and director Waris Hussein, played by Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan respectively, that convince the initially dismissive and skeptical Hartnell to begin his own amazing journey into a new world. I dread to overuse the word bitter when speaking of Bradley's emotional take on Hartnell, but that's the way it's going to have to be. At 55 Hartnell was clearly desperate to find a place to leave a bigger mark as an actor and knew without a doubt that options to do that were getting rarer every day. Could he afford to waste those days on a kiddie show?

Watching the sets and the production come to life was a terrific thrill. Director Terry McDonough gives people who may not always think about just how unique and difficult television directing is (Guilty) a first hand look at the monumental undertaking that is such a task as poor Hussein deals with a budgets that allows only for edits per episode, a studio that has a faulty sprinkler system, and a vehicle that no one but he and his small band of actors and crew believe in.

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It's the Daleks, appropriately enough, that bring it all together. Newman is compelled to end the show after disappointing returns on the first episode, "An Unearthly Child", which was obscured by the news that President Kennedy had just been shot. Reading the script for "The Daleks" he imagines their eyestalks as the scope of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle, their metal exo-suits as the steel of the gun, and sees the bullets that cut down the 35th president as they shout "EXTERMINATE!"

"Ten million people tuned in to watch your Daleks," Newman tells Lambert. "So what do I know?"

The Daleks had a more profound impact on Hartnell, who suddenly found himself tailed by children everywhere. That haunted look on Bradley's face changed briefly to one of wonder and acceptance as a he capers for young fans delighted to meet their new hero Doctor Who, and the warm love he displays explaining to Judith that from now one she will see him fighting evil in a magic box.

It's such an amazing thing that the docudrama does, giving this man with such a hard life something he hoped for and also something he didn't know he needed. Now he wasn't just regarded, he was loved. Honestly loved for the role he played.

That's why it's so hard to watch it taken away from him.

The true reason that Hartnell left the show is debated. The grueling year-long schedule was certainly a factor that has claimed younger Doctors than himself. It's also true that he was deeply hurt when Lambert left for other shows, and never took to the new crew. There's also the fact that his salary, far in excess of his co-stars, was a drain on the budget that management was keen to stop.

The usual reason given, though, was Hartnell's advancing arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that made memorizing and delivering lines difficult. How many of the famous "Hartnellism" flubs were actual mistakes and how many were scripted as a character-specific quirk is a questionable. Hartnell did continue theater work directly after Doctor Who, but it's clear his health was a factor.

Throughout the special, Bradley as Hartnell is simply huge. He's a big man who casts a shadow that has abated not at all in the past half century. Yet as he sits in Sydney Newman's office asking that the show be tweaked to account for his failing body only to hear that he will be replaced he appears very small and sad. The hero of time becomes just as man once more.

The role of The Doctor is unlike any other. Actors of tremendous skill and endurance have turned it down because of its terrible, terrible reach. No one plays The Doctor. You are The Doctor, no matter how short or long a time that is. Only William Hartnell didn't know that when he blazed his trail.

I have never seen a single moment in the history of Doctor Who, a show rightly famous for the emotional damage it does its viewers, as when Bradley utters the same words that David Tennant says right before he regenerated.

"I don't want to go," sobs Hartnell in his home to his wife Heather, bracing against the wall to keep from falling. "I DON'T WANT TO GO!"

Life depends on change and renewal, as Patrick Troughton himself said in his first outing as The Doctor following Hartnell's death at the hands of the Cybermen. It's cruel to see the power of such a role slip from Hartnell's fingers, and yet, there is this beautiful moment where he looks up from the controls of the Tardis to see Matt Smith standing next to him. To quote another line from another regeneration story, "This song is over, but the story never ends."

As long as Doctor Who continues Hartnell does as well. Indeed, this year alone we've seen him return and return again to fight Daleks and steal away as he did so many years ago. In many ways, An Adventure in Space and Time is the true 50th anniversary special, and a welcome look back on an impossible journey.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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