So, a friend of mine has been urging me for quite some time to watch the BBC made-for-TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time about how actor William Hartnell became the First Doctor on the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who. I had every intention of doing so…when I got to the right point, and that would be when I reached the series’ fiftieth anniversary around the time of Matt Smith’s departure. That would be, well, now.
I am glad I saw it.
I will start by saying, basically, I have no idea how accurate this movie is to the actual people who made the earliest version of Doctor Who. However, I am also opting to figure it doesn’t matter. This movie is basically a love letter to the beginning of a show that meant a lot to a lot of people, particularly because of the work put in by an aging character actor named William Hartnell, a man tired of being typecast as older tough guys. The script is courtesy of reboot writer and series fan Mark Gatiss, and it even pulled in a few of Hartnell’s surviving co-stars for cameos, some uncredited. That said, the only one I spotted was Carole Ann Ford, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan on the old show.
Now, I will say up-front that the movie, narratively, is a mixed bag in that it starts off as being as much about producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), getting her first producing job after her superior Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) personally selects her to run a show at a time when women didn’t do that, and she hadn’t done it before either. She’s joined by Waris Hussein (future incarnation of the Master Sacha Dhawan) as director, and the two bond over the fact that he, as a man of Indian descent, gets the same level of respect by the old timers as she does as a woman. However, as much as those two, and Cox to a lesser extent, are seen as pivotal to the show’s success, once they leave Doctor Who, there isn’t much mention of them until the end credits said both had long and impressive careers in British television.
So, really, this movie is a love letter to William Hartnell, and David Bradley is perfect in the role. He bears something of a resemblance to Hartnell, and like Hartnell, he’s a character actor that is often typecast as cranky old men, often but not always of the disreputable sort. That describes Bradley in his previous Doctor Who appearance, his appearances in both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, and his best known roles in both Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter movies. However, here he is as an actor who is initially wary of the concept but gets talked into it by Verity and Waris and is clearly very devoted to the part while at the same time acting as something of a paternal figure to at least one other member of the original cast. Yes, he can be grumpy and short with some, but he comes to care deeply about Doctor Who and his role as the title character. And that’s actually rather beautifully done. Seeing Bradley enjoying himself and playing around with young Doctor Who fans, including Hartnell’s own granddaughter, is actually perhaps the highlight of the movie. When his Hartnell sits down to have a final chat with Carole Ann Ford (the fictional one in the movie, not the actual one that has a brief cameo), there’s a sense of warmth, and his devotion to his craft shows even before the cameras start working in little ways such as insisting on knowing exactly what the different buttons on the TARDIS console actually do because the kids at home will see if he doesn’t do it the same way every time.
I understand George Takei was the same way on Star Trek.
However, Hartnell’s time in the TARDIS was only for three seasons of the show, at an impressive rate of 50 episodes a year. As the movie lurches forward to the end of his run, it skips around a lot, showing his discomfort with revolving door costars and his own health continued to deteriorate. As much as Hartnell values his time on the show and believes he is an integral part of it, he also gives a very professional compliment when his replacement Patrick Troughton appears and timidly introduces himself to the older man he is replacing. So, the old Doctor, the man who made the role what it was, the first to confront the scene-steeling Daleks that made the show a hit, has a last scene to film, glancing over and seeing Matt Smith standing next to him as the Eleventh Doctor, signaling that Hartnell somehow knew he left behind a legacy that lasted well beyond his own death less than a decade later. How true to life was all this? I have no idea, but it sure was sweet, and despite a couple potential flaws, this was a fine tribute for Doctor Who fans on the occasion of the long-running show’s 50th anniversary.
But there was one other thing from that anniversary, and I don’t plan on covering it in a full write-up on its own, but I will say a couple things about it now, namely The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. It’s a fun and lively half hour of TV comedy, scripted by Fifth Doctor Peter Davison and showing how he, Sixth Doctor Colin Baker, and Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy were all still somewhat stuck in what may be their most famous respective roles and were trying like crazy to get into the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”.
Featuring probably every classic Doctor Who regular cast member who was still alive at the time with a few noteworthy exceptions, it presents the three actors as a somewhat bumbling trio that couldn’t understand why they weren’t invited back. Paul McGann pops in briefly to say he wants in, but they never call him back. Tom Baker never replied to any of Davison’s messages, so they make a joke about how he’s too busy with a sound-alike dictating a message. In the end, the three pose as Daleks for a climactic scene when Davison bites a bullet and has his son-in-law David Tennant leave a door unlocked for the three to sneak in while still wearing their classic Doctor outfits. It’s basically just a fun bit of comedy for Who fans, and that’s about it.
That said, I think I will be moving on to something else for now. I have two Doctors left (to date since there will be a new one probably announced sometime in the next year or so), but the BBC did produce other sci-fi during Doctor Who‘s heyday, and BritBox just got a doozy I have long been curious about: the cult classic Blake’s 7 from writer and Dalek creator Terry Nation.
I only have a vague idea what this one is about, but what I do know tells me it is very different in tone and style in every way possible from Doctor Who. So, for the next 52 non-Simpsons weekdays-at-noon entries here, I’ll be looking at that show and see if it deserves its cult status.