Saturday, November 30, 2013

Who Review: An Adventure in Space and Time

It is fair to say that David Bradley has now emotionally destroyed the fandoms of both current TV shows I watch: first as Walder Frey, executor of the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones and then as William Hartnell, the tragic hero of the docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time, which catalogsthe first three years of the show and takes a few, ah, licenses with history.

Now, I'll just get this out of the way, the waterworks were flowing pretty consistently from around the time Hartnell's granddaughter told him he said "gloves" instead of "drugs" and then came up with a beautiful kiddie explanation for why the Doctor would really need "anti-radiation gloves."I thought the whole thing was utterly fantastic, and certainly more of an emotional gut-punch than The Day of the Doctor. (TDotD is gimmicky silly fun that - thanks in part to John Hurt reacting to 10 and 11 exactly the way Classic Who fans did - never takes itself anywhere in the vicinity of seriously.More on that in a future post.)


First of all, the plot, and I'm going to try to make this as non-Whovian friendly as possible. After a couple of scenes in 1966 featuring a grumpy old actor named William Hartnell, we flash back to 1963. The BBC's new Head of Drama is a guy named Sydney Newman, and he's determined to shake things up at the Corporation. There's a time-slot in the evening that they need to fill, because the shows on either side of it are tremendously popular. Over Rex Tucker's objections, Newman decides he wants a science-fiction serial. (In real life, Newman commissions a study that suggests either telepaths or time-traveling troubleshooters are good fodder for a series. Newman commissions a brief on the time-travel idea, but then totally re-tools one of the characters, the owner of the time machine...)

Newman's protege Verity Lambert is called in, and to her surprise, given the job of Producer on this new show, "Dr. Who." She clashes with Rex Tucker, who's been given some sort of shepherding role, and he eventually quits. Her only real ally at the start is Associate Producer Mervyn Pinfield (here an amalgamation of the real-life Pinfield and Script Editor David Whitaker). In particular, the design department doesn't really feel like designing a spaceship for a kiddie show run by a woman. Also, the director of the first serial, Waris Hussein, doesn't think very highly of the script, but as he's gay and Indian and Lambert's female and Jewish when the entire rest of the BBC are WASP men, they become natural allies. They decide they want an older actor who can play the Doctor, someone who can be an authority figure and yet still have a twinkle in his eye, and they settle on...

...William Hartnell, best known for playing nasty drill sergeants in a huge number of films. (It doesn't come up here, but it's worth mentioning: he was in The Mouse that Roared with Peter Sellers. Or to put it another way, Doctors Strangelove and Who shared the screen.) He's not at all happy doing the same repetitive role; he wants to stretch his acting legs. But it takes him some convincing, because the details of what Doctor Who is going to be are awfully sketchy at this stage (and it's fair to say that Doctor Who as we know it wouldn't fully exist until, at the very earliest, the seventh serial, The Sensorites).

The first shoot is an absolute nightmare. Hartnell grumpily complains that his character is too stern, the TARDIS doors won't stay closed, and an extremely nervous Hussein blows his camera positions. Newman delivers an ultimatum: do it again, and do it right, or you're fired. They do, they do, and they aren't.

Next problem: having shot the cavemen script, they only have one choice for the second adventure. It's a script by Terry Nation and involves robots. Well, not robots, since Sydney Newman's Rule One is "no robots." They're not bug-eyed monsters either, because Rule Two is "no B.E.M.s."Or at least, so says Verity Lambert, who knows perfectly well that Nation's script is the only game in town. Newman begrudgingly consents.

The day before the first episode airs, President Kennedy is assassinated. ITV presumably does wall-to-wall coverage the following day, while the BBC goes ahead with its kiddie sci-fi show. (Viewing figures are 4.4 million, which is respectable, all things considered.) Donald Baverstock, Newman's boss, orders him to pull the plug because the series has gone so far over-budget, but Lambert gets him to hold on until Nation's script - The Daleks - airs. That gets them ten million viewers and ensures the show's long-term success.

1964: The series is in high gear (the Daleks make a repeat appearance), but cracks are beginning to appear. First out is Waris Hussein, who jumps ship for A Passage to India. Then Carole Ann Ford, who plays the Doctor's granddaughter and whom Hartnell has bonded with, decides to leave as well. Hartnell has more and more trouble remembering his lines and is diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, and to make matters worse, the sympathetic Verity Lambert is also leaving.

1965: Suddenly Hartnell is alone with a new production team and a new cast, and nobody seems to know anything about the important things, like what the TARDIS scanner is called, which button "opens the door," and, oh yeah, how to make the "time piston" thingy move up and down. Meanwhile, the lead actor's health continues to decline. He's desperate to stay in the show for his granddaughter and all the kiddies out there; he knows that Doctor Who is irreplaceable, and thinks that this extends to himself.In the middle of shooting The Massacre, Hartnell has a breakdown and wanders off the set.

1966: It is obvious that the show cannot go on with Hartnell in the lead. Newman breaks the news to him as gently as he can. Hartnell breaks down in front of his wife, and shows up for his last day on the set in an incredibly foul mood. Immediately before shooting his final scene, though, he looks across the TARDIS set and sees Matt Smith - the current Doctor - smiling back at him, wordlessly telling him, yes, it will go on forever.


There are a couple of notable differences between the docu-drama and real life, which I'll get into a bit later. They also dumbed a few things down for a modern audience (in the film, Mervyn Pinfield takes over both his and David Whitaker's roles rather than introduce another character; they made serials in real life but the film dances around and implies they're making episodes like Nu Who does instead), which is perfectly acceptable.

The big one, of course, is that Hartnell's memory troubles were almost certainly not as bad as they're portrayed here. The most flagrant piece of supporting evidence is his performance in The Massacre (in the film, it's the episode they're shooting when he has his row with the new director and walks off the set, babbling incoherently about all the people who've left the series). He plays both the Doctor and the villain in that serial, and his performance as the villain is word-perfect. This in 1965, in his third season, when his memory problems should be at their height. Hartnell had a short run on the stage after he left the show, and the general consensus is that his health problems (and his social problems) were much worse than his memory ones (which existed, not to downplay them, but again, word-perfect performance when the script demanded it). That said, I think memory problems make for better drama - after all, everyone is going to lose their health, but losing your memory as well is an extra tragedy.

I guess I should also point out that it's not entirely clear what role Hartnell had in the casting of his successor. As presented in the film, he's told it's Troughton and he approves, making his departure somewhat easier. As for apocrypha... It's widely believed that Hartnell once said that "there's only one person who can carry on [doing Doctor Who], and that's Patrick Troughton," but the context differs depending on who you ask. What we do know is that Troughton was asked, turned it down, and then offered more money, so somebody obviously really wanted him for the part...

Okay, on to an actual review.

I do like that John Wiles and Innes Lloyd (the second and third producers of the show, whom Hartnell clashed with increasingly) were cut out, both because it's not particularly easy or welcome to introduce new characters halfway through the plot and also because Hartnell would not necessarily have come off as sympathetic in some of those arguments. (This leads to an acceptable bit of history-mucking: Hartnell wasn't diagnosed with arteriosclerosis until long after Verity Lambert's retirement from the series.) They wisely chose to drop the "making Doctor Who" plot halfway through and focus on the character drama. And Bradley's performance as Hartnell's health and memory deteriorate and he fights desperately to stay on the show that has given him a new lease on life is absolutely beautiful, so the fewer things cluttering the picture at that point, the better.

If I had to point out one thing that really bugged me about the film, it was Hartnell's "I don't want to go" line. All the other little nods to Doctor Who - "Brave heart," "A Doctor? Does he make people better?" - and so on were fine, but I hated how self-indulgent the last fifteen minutes of The End of Time were and would like to never be reminded of them again, thanks very much.

On smaller nit-pick notes, Sydney Newman, at least as he's portrayed here, suffers from what John Hammond from Jurassic Park called "a deplorable excess of personality." Particularly that "pop pop pop" catchphrase was annoying. I thought it was odd that the BBC bar scene implies Waris Hussein was gay, but the film never brings it up again (not that I wanted a polemic, mind, but it was just... well, not quite a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment, but something similar).

My initial reaction was that tying in the Kennedy assassination was unnecessary, perhaps only thrown in because the writer knew the film would air on November 22. On re-watching it, I'm slightly more sympathetic to it. I did like that it gave Verity Lambert another opportunity to cross swords with Sydney Newman (she wants to re-air the first episode immediately before the second, because she felt that viewing figures were hurt by the assassination the day before the first episode aired), but by that point she's almost ready to cede center stage to Hartnell, and I felt that "made Doctor Who a success" was the proper conclusion to her story, not "won a few rounds against her boss."

I didn't have a particularly strong opinion one way or the other as to the Matt Smith cameo at the end until I saw Tom Baker's cameo in The Day of the Doctor. I think Smith's is the better of the two; while Baker is and always will be my Doctor, his cameo goes on for just a little bit too long and says things that were better left implied.

As this isn't a Doctor Who episode, I feel no obligation to give it a score out of ten. Which is good, because it would destroy my ratings scale. In short, watch it now.
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