an adventure in space and time

For many fans of Doctor Who, one of the most exciting elements of the 50th Anniversary celebrations has been An Adventure in Space and Time, a one-off 90-minute period drama charting the show’s first few years of existence.

Written by Mark Gatiss (Doctor WhoSherlock), An Adventure in Space and Time centers around William Hartnell, the actor who played the Doctor, and young producer Verity Lambert, who became the BBC’s first female producer when she was given the job of running Doctor Who. Movingly portrayed by David Bradley and Jessica Raine respectively,  these two are at the heart of a story that Gatiss makes about the people, rather than the nitty gritty of creating the classic show. Bradley in particular brings far more to the table than just a stunning likeness to Hartnell. Watching his Hartnell fall in love with the show before ultimately being torn away from it by illness was heartbreaking in a way that I suspect few expected it would be.

I was all ready to write a piece discussing the accuracy with which Gatiss’ script depicted the show’s creation, but to do so would rather miss the point. In his own words, Gatiss ditched the anorak to write this, skimming over the details of writing the scripts, coming up with the TARDIS or designing the Daleks. Instead, we’re shown the human side of the story, the lives that were transformed by the show. This point was further hammered home by the BBC broadcast, which was followed by a 5-minute documentary on William Hartnell, including interviews with many of the people we had just seen portrayed.

The details that the biopic did offer were both charming and nostalgic. Due to his age and ill health, Hartnell had notorious difficulty remembering his lines, and early episodes are littered with his mistakes and flubbed dialogue, much of which was lovingly recreated here — along with the problems they had keeping the TARDIS doors shut while filming and making Daleks move in a straight line.

An Adventure in Space and Time‘s real driving force is to illustrate the importance of changes to the show — and the pain of it. Any long-term fan of the show knows how painful it can be to watch ‘your’ Doctor leave the show, and we’ve now seen what that’s like from the inside. We watch as Bradley’s Hartnell watches everyone around him on the show leave, both cast and crew, before he himself is finally replaced by his successor, Patrick Troughton. In bitter final moments that called to mind nothing more than David Tennant‘s departure from the show a few years ago, the true heartbreak is hammered home with brutal force.

There’s a hope here too though. For all of the pain that Doctor Who‘s constant change brings with it, it has also been the key to the show’s longevity, a point reinforced by a wordless cameo from Matt Smith as he appears to Hartnell as a vision of the show’s future — proof of Hartnell’s faith in the show, and of the real power of change to the show, no matter the heartbreak.

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