Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space and Time Is Unearthly Good
Is David Bradley's portrayal of William Hartnell as tragic and award-worthy as, say Martin Landau's performance as Bela Lugosi in Tom Burton's Ed Wood? No, but it is a damn close second.
An Adventure in Space and Time, Mark Gatiss' biopic on the earliest days of producing Doctor Who is a marvel and a masterpiece that I honestly wish I'd seen in theaters instead of on television, though I do acknowledge that seeing it at home on the same couch I hide from Daleks behind is entirely appropriate. The strange story of how an admittedly silly science fiction television show managed to become a global phenomenon that has continued uninterrupted for half a century is a fascinating one.
It's a Canadian idea, I was surprised to discover. I had always heard television pioneer Sydney Newman's name associated with the show, but always assumed that what we know of as Doctor Who was owed mostly to producer Verity Lambert and writers like Terry Nation and David Whitaker. Yet so much that defines The Doctor against other similar science fiction of the '60s came right from Newman's head.
Brian Cox almost steals the show completely as Newman in the biopic with his cartoonish stereotype of an old-time TV executive. More than anyone else in the cast he truly seems to have stepped out of time to visit with us again, and he pulls it off with such over-the-top verve that it makes Mad Men look understated and subtle. Charming and encouraging one moment, then fiendishly - one could even say ruthlessly - critical the next, it's his careful hand at good television as well as his visionary brilliance that saves the show from it's rocky start.
The true star, though, can only be David Bradley as Hartnell. From the moment he first appears his resemblance to the man that brought the First Doctor reaches far past uncanny. It's absolutely eerie, both when he appears as a Hartnell the actor and even more so as Hartnell the Doctor.
By all accounts, William Hartnell was not an easy man to like or get along with, though no one ever doubted his abilities as an actor. The son of a teen mother who never knew his father, Hartnell grew up a tough boy who got involved with petty crime until he discovered acting. He could be quite kind and generous, but more than a few cast members recalled him as gruff and unlovable. The recently rediscovered interview with him featured on the "Tenth Planet" DVD does not show us someone that had much patience.
Space and Time does not gloss over that at all, and thankfully does not canonize Hartnell in a wave of endless nostalgia while we all celebrate 50 years in the Tardis. Bradley play Hartnell as delightfull crotechy, even to his own granddaughter Judith who he sends crying to her room after she pesters him while he drinks and reminisces bitterly on typecasting on his career as a military character actor.
Just as it did in real life, it's the pluck, vision, and zeal of Lambert and director Waris Hussein, played by Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan respectively, that convince the initially dismissive and skeptical Hartnell to begin his own amazing journey into a new world. I dread to overuse the word bitter when speaking of Bradley's emotional take on Hartnell, but that's the way it's going to have to be. At 55 Hartnell was clearly desperate to find a place to leave a bigger mark as an actor and knew without a doubt that options to do that were getting rarer every day. Could he afford to waste those days on a kiddie show?
Watching the sets and the production come to life was a terrific thrill. Director Terry McDonough gives people who may not always think about just how unique and difficult television directing is (Guilty) a first hand look at the monumental undertaking that is such a task as poor Hussein deals with a budgets that allows only for edits per episode, a studio that has a faulty sprinkler system, and a vehicle that no one but he and his small band of actors and crew believe in.
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