A woman making her way in Televison. An actor tired of the same roles. An outsider with a vision. Chance brings Verity Lambert, William Hartnell and Sydney Newman together in 1963 to create a show no one at the BBC had faith in - a show that defied the odds and became a legend. Spoilers, of course, beyond the cut!
I have to say, I was a little uncertain about An Adventure in Space and Time when it was starting out. It seemed like much of the actual genesis of the show - the series bible, the idea for the TARDIS, the writing for An Unearthly Child - were being skimmed over too quickly. But as it develops, Mark Gatiss' script moves at a lightning pace for its first thirty minutes, and it gets away with the slight brushing over of things as we get deeper into the actual process of Doctor Who's existence. In the end it's a clever move, because it allows Gatiss to write his main characters - Verity and particularly William Hartnell - and to give them time to breathe over the remainder of the drama. I've always personally found Gatiss to be a writer with pacing problems in the past, particularly his Who work, but here the sudden shift from the frenzy of preproduction to the slower pace as Hartnell's health begins to decline is perfect for the tone he's crossing. We get less into the gritty of making Doctor Who - left for the viewer to see in grabs of Marco Polo, of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, of The Web Planet - and more into the real heart of the script: The characters. It's clearly written from a perspective of unadulterated love for Doctor Who, and it shows in the excruciating detail, but where it excels is in its characterisation.
Speaking of which, the cast was nothing more than absolute perfection. It's not even just down to the uncanny likenesses of practically everyone involved, but the cast nails everything - no people moreso than Jessica Raine and David Bradley as Lambert and Hartnell. Raine aces the part from the moment we see her dancing at a party, covering everything from Verity's insecurities heading into the project, her struggles in the male-centric BBC, to her 'piss and vinegar' attitude (the scene where she confronts Brian Cox's Sydney Newman over The Daleks in particular stood out for me), to her growing relationship with her curmudgeonly lead star, she rises to the occasion, and when the time is right and Verity Lambert leaves the picture, she deftly hands over the limelight to Bradley.
And man, does he take it. David Bradley plays pretty much the greatest performance of his career - and that's saying something. His evolution of Hartnell from grump to children's favourite, and eventual decline in Health is a joy to watch despite the heartbreak it engenders - and it's less so in his words, but in his face. Bradley is a startlingly visual actor, and the way he charts Bill's emotional journey throughout the episode across his eyes is simply masterful: every time the camera is on him you can feel the emotion, the intensity of it, and register his thoughts instantly. It's incredible to watch. It really comes into the fore as Adventure hits its half way point and we begin to see not only Hartnell's arteriosclerosis onset, which made remembering his lines problematic and made his mood at times troublesome, but also his increasing loneliness - from Claudia Grant's Carol Ann Ford, to Verity Lambert, to the glimpses of his other on screen companions, we go from seeing a man rejuvenated by his success and love of the program he helped to popularise, to one left lonelier and lonelier as his colleagues leave and move on. The pain Bradley communicates is a slow burn that permeates much of the show, from his beautiful rendition of The Doctor's goodbye to Susan at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth to the climax his final outburst of grief to his wife Heather (played wonderfully throughout by Lesley Manville) after he's effectively let go from the series, it's an incredibly touching performance. It serves a stark reminder to the modern age, where we tend to remember Hartnell more for his dodderiness and his line slip ups - referenced here in Adventure with his infamous 'fornicator' mistake - than the actual human behind it all, the man who found the role of his career and the pain it etched upon him when he left it. Gatiss mentioned multiple times in interviews this week how he 'took off the anorak' with Adventure to tell a human story, and David Bradley delivers that humanity masterfully.
But kudos has to go to one of the final scenes in the whole drama, the one that sells An Adventure in Space and Time as a touching remembrance to Doctor Who's legacy:
Look, I'm the first to admit that I am a sentimental, romantic sap, so your mileage may vary with this surprise reveal - but the moment Matt appeared I was in floods of tears. What a genuinely heartbreaking scene. To visualise Hartnell's faith in the program so starkly, so reverently and yet so humbly, was perfect. Because, after all, he was right: Doctor Who would live on, and to have its modern legacy, a ghost of the future looking back at him with a reassuring smile in his final moments, was the perfect piece of symbolism to portray that. It didn't overstep the mark in the way it might have - it was the future honouring the past, with just the right amount of sweetness to avoid saccharine melodrama and strike deeply at the heart of the audience, fan or otherwise. Instead of it being a bit schmaltzy, it felt like it was a moment earned, a mirror to the struggles Verity, Bill, Waris et. al had gone through. The reward that their hard work endures. Beautiful.
In the end, what Adventure accomplishes above all, beyond its technical detail, or its fannish reverence for the source material, is to memorialise the human element of Doctor Who. It's so easy as a fan, 5 decades on, to look back at these origins and only see the facts, see the numbers - pushing the human side of it all to the background as we relish in the details. But Gatiss reminds us with his touching, funny script, that behind the Menoptra and the Daleks and a silly blue phone box that we all love, there were these brilliant, emotive people, doing something they deeply cared about. William Hartnell saw the ingenuity of Doctor Who, and knew that even without him, it would last. 50 years later, as we salute him, Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, and the host of people that have been involved in the show all this time, his dream lives on.
Thank you for starting the story, Mr. Hartnell. We'll make sure that it goes on forever.