An Adventure in Space and Time review: making history

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An Adventure in Space and Time green light Jessica Raine David Bradley

Mark Gatiss treats the legends of Doctor Who’s creation as only a longtime fan can, in a lovely tribute full of the exasperated acceptance that rose-tinted hindsight brings.
I’m “biast” (pro): love love love everything about Doctor Who

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I suspect even many deeply devoted fans of Doctor Who — people who have no problem acknowledging how profoundly weird a show it is, and who know how insanely popular and profitable it is for the BBC today — have any idea how much of a crapshoot it was at its creation. And I cannot imagine a better valentine to the show and its oddball hero than this lovely docudrama looking at its creation, which has as an underlying premise the notion that only a little band of unlikely outsiders could have possibly gotten it made as something that would endure, because only by forging something incredible would they be seen as having done the job at all.

Doctor Who was only a bit of calculated fluff to fill a programming slot on Saturday afternoons, after all, but producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine: The Woman in Black, Robin Hood) — in 1963, the BBC’s first female producer — had an enormous chip on her shoulder, dumped there by the “sea of fag smoke, tweed, and sweaty men” that made up the old guard at the network, who expected nothing of her, because how could a mere female have snagged such a big promotion from production assistant on talent alone? (She must have been sleeping with her boss, BBC head of drama Sydney Newman. How else?) Lambert is the embodiment of the feminist dictum that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get half the recognition — we see here how her work is ignored and the needs of her project dismissed, until it’s time to lay blame for perceived failures, naturally — but just look at what her twice-as-hard gave us! Newman (Brian Cox: Red 2, The Campaign), as a Canadian, was an outsider eyed with suspicion, too, and director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan: The History Boys), as a “wog,” was even “worse,” of course. (Left unsaid, but lingering in the ether, is the suggestion that it might take another outsider with a different perspective, such as gay man Russell T. Davies, to revive the show if it were to falter. Or maybe that’s just me: I’ve long suspected that only Davies could have pulled off the reboot so successfully.)

An Adventure in Space and Time isn’t all, or even mostly, serious business, though. This is a tale as ironically funny as it is ironically bitter, full of nods to what the show would become — Newman says he doesn’t envision Doctor Who, the broad stokes of which he developed, featuring “brains in a glass jar” or “tin robots,” both of which the show ends up with. And if it avoids the worst of the bad side of first star William Hartnell (David Bradley: The World’s End, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) — his outspoken racism is nowhere on display here — we do see him mellow from a grumpy old man who is cruel to his own adorable granddaughter to one who eventually delights in the attention of TV-watching youngsters eager to talk to “the Doctor.” Writer Mark Gatiss treats the legends of the show’s creation as only a longtime fan can, with the exasperated acceptance that rose-tinted hindsight brings. A project plagued by bad luck and bad omens and absolutely needed by everyone involved to be a success debuting on the newish medium of television the day after TV has its biggest news event to date — the Kennedy assassination — distracting potential viewers? What are the odds? You couldn’t make that up. And yet… showing up seemingly at random just as an event of momentous historic importance is about to occur is just like the Doctor, isn’t it?

Much as I love Doctor Who, what moved me here has nothing to do with the fictional character and everything to do with the real people who invented him. When Lambert sees kids on a bus imitating Daleks and knows this means her show is a hit, my tears of joy were for her triumph, not for the tin robots, except in how, in the larger context, Lambert gets a peek at how iconic the Daleks will become, second only to the TARDIS, in representing the fruits of her work. And the near-fantasy moment at the very end, the only time the film steps outside grounded historical reality, is a stunning tribute to the power of the show’s longevity. Fictional Doctor Who stories have played with the idea of harnessing temporal energy and shorting out time differentials, and we get zapped with a potent metaphoric version of that in an instant, as the ingenuity of one simple idea — a man travels in space and time having adventures — renews its power yet again five decades on.

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Wed, Nov 27, 2013 11:34am

I found the second half more impressive than the first, which seemed to spend too much time on box-ticking — we have to have the “piss and vinegar” line, we have to have the Lime Grove sprinklers, and so on.

I think the early scenes of Lambert have been weakened so as to give her that most important thing in by-the-numbers writing, a Character Arc. No, she wasn’t a timorous stock New Girl out of Mad Men; she’d already been wrestling productions into shape (in the UK and the USA) and making formal complaints about not being allowed to produce or direct.

Similarly, Sidney Newman was not a stereotypical North American TV producer; he was the man who loved science fiction and was interested in new and experimental things! He’s portrayed here as being just like the people he loved to annoy. He didn’t want Who in order to sell to the kids; he wanted to see what would happen.

And that big scene with the ratings? Pah! Nobody at the BBC in the 1960s would have deigned to care about the ratings! That was for the commercial networks; freed of the requirement to cater for populism, the BBC could concentrate on making worthwhile programmes. That didn’t break down until the late 1970s/early 1980s when people started to move across from commercial television in bulk. Sure, they wouldn’t have minded the ratings being good, but they certainly wouldn’t have celebrated, or decided whether or not the show would continue, as a result — that’s straight out of stereotypes of American networks or the modern BBC.

On the other hand I thought that the second half of the thing that was about Hartnell actually worked quite well! (Except for the gratuitous appearance at the end.)

Sat, Dec 21, 2013 6:19pm

Wonderful review