An Adventure in Space and Time Review
Adam James Cuthbert gives his verdict on the 50th anniversary docudrama.
It goes without saying that Doctor Who has enriched many of our lives. Its longevity stems, in no small part, from its variety and creativity; its ability to continually renew and reinvent itself without compromising its essential identity. But sometimes we might forget that the show as it is renowned today sprang from humble origins: to fill in a twenty-five minute gap in Saturday night television. We might also forget that such edifices, embedded in the popular consciousness as they are, as the TARDIS, the Daleks, and even the Doctor himself, wouldn’t exist were it not for the passion, commitment, and perseverance of the show’s original production team, and its principal actor, William Hartnell. An Adventure in Space and Time recounts the show’s origins in a lyrical and captivating manner, with a commendable performance from David Bradley as Hartnell.
Hartnell is arguably an inimitable talent, which is not to dismiss Bradley’s interpretation, but rather to observe the strength of Hartnell as a character, with Bradley rising to the challenge the role presents. Bradley’s countenance is a particularly expressive one, as he deftly conveys Hartnell’s irritation and dissatisfaction at being typecast, but also his sentimental, affectionate side, such as his endearing relationship with his granddaughter Judy, and rapport with Verity Lambert. The palpable chemistry between Bradley and Jessica Raine lends poignancy to the proceedings. It is heart-breaking knowing Verity’s decision to leave the show while Hartnell claims she’s the “rock” that supports him. Hartnell famously fluffed his lines; a source of humour (“Check the fornicator”), but there’s also an element of charm, such as when Judy revises one of his errors (that the Doctor needs special gloves before he can touch the Daleks). His dedication to his younger audience is shown to be considerable, working in spite of his ailing health. Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis increasingly affected his ability to memorise his lines. Bradley portrays Hartnell as a tragic figure of sorts: a master of his craft (quite literally, when only Hartnell appears to be knowledgeable about the TARDIS console) forced to retire from the show and character he vehemently loved. Through the cast photo-calls, after the original companions have departed, we see signs of Hartnell’s distance with the times, inhabiting his own world, while the show renovates itself around him. It’s perhaps only fitting that the show’s original leading man, to whom we today owe such a debt, should glimpse the future (in the form of Matt Smith no less), and the legacy he inspired.
One of the most striking sequences within the narrative is the dramatic intercutting of an unseen Lee Harley Oswald preparing to assassinate Kennedy as Sydney Newman reads aloud from a script for The Daleks. The sequence climaxes in Kennedy being shot to “Exterminate. Exterminate.” Indeed, Adventure is an exploration of the historical context surrounding the show’s genesis, notably Verity Lambert’s unique status, at the time, as the BBC’s first female producer, with Lambert rising against the sexism of the patriarchal BBC. The bond that develops between her and director Waris Hussein, as ‘outsiders’ amongst the “sea of smoke, tweed, and sweaty men”, is entertaining, sparkling with chemistry. Raine is delightful in the role, as Lambert fights for the show, defending its potential; e.g. when Newman dismisses the Daleks as B.E.Ms. Regarding Newman, Brian Cox, already a highly charismatic actor, acts with flair and exuberance, presenting Newman as a larger-than-life persona, but also conveying seriousness and sympathy as required, such as Newman’s concerns about the show’s titles being too frightening for the show’s intended audience.
Aesthetically, Adventure is sumptuous, and the recreations of the original sets are impressive, the TARDIS set, especially, a beautiful design. It’s a fascinating experience to witness history unfold before our eyes: from the spread of Dalekmania, with children imitating Daleks, and the assimilation of Doctor Who into the media, to the re-enactment of the Doctor’s memorable speech from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, laced with real emotion, and Hartnell’s succession by Patrick Troughton (a passable performance from Reece Shearsmith).
Overall, An Adventure in Space and Time is a labour of love. An intelligent, engaging drama on the one hand, and a faithful retelling of history on the other, it’s both informative and emotionally rewarding.