It seems that I'm really behind on the Doctor Who 50th anniversary. Now 2 weeks later I'm just finally getting around to discussing An Adventure in Space and Time, Mark Gatiss' love letter to our favorite Time Lord and the formation of the series. I have to say that the production team on this one really pulled out all the stops in trying to find people who would look like the main characters of William Hartnell, Verity Lambert, and Waris Hussein. The other thing that really pleased me is how well they did at showing the limitations that the 60's production were under hopefully helping modern viewers evaluate the show when they go back and watch it. Some Doctor Who may look visually poor by today's standards but especially for the time and budget, those 60's episodes are a masterpiece of imagination and technical innovation to get the most bang for their buck.
The other thing that I liked was how they showed how much disdain the BBC heaped upon this show. Throughout the entire lifetime of the "classic series" from 1963-2004 it's almost impossible to express the sheer hatred that so many of the powers that be heaped upon Doctor Who. This I think shows the origins of that. Doctor Who was conceived by Sydney Newman, a Canadian brought into the stodgy "old boys' club" of the BBC to shake things up. Newman was a populist and he just cared about holding the interest of the viewers, a viewpoint at odds with the BBC of that time, which had the mandate of "educating, entertaining, and enlightening" the British public. They felt that televising plays and movies based on classic novels was the way to go. You can imagine my shock whilst watching this movie when X2's William Stryker (Brian Cox) strolled on as Sydney Newman. I have no idea why a Canadian has a Southern accent and the man didn't alter his X2 performance at all to play Newman and I instantly leaned over to my wife and asked "hey isn't that William Stryker"? I digress, but Newman was the one who came up with the idea of Doctor Who and then turned its development over to Verity Lambert, a young woman full of "piss and vinegar" and Waris Hussein, a career minded Indian who wanted to direct movies. The BBC was founded on age bringing seniority and here two young people were given fairly high positions on this new show and both were minorities, another thing that would have shaken the predominantly male and white BBC staff. A lot of people wanted Doctor Who to fail but it has been observed that it is likely because of this that is succeeded. Lambert and Hussein likely brought ideas that would have been new because of their different perspectives to those who had controlled programming on the BBC before. I also suspect that with so many people against them, it likely redoubled their efforts to make the show a success which is why they worked so hard on making each and every episode work despite all of the technical and logistic difficulties.
I also really appreciated the various nods that were given to those who worked on the show in those early days. Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian), Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom), and Anneke Wills (Polly) all had cameos in the production. I was a little confused as to why Peter Purves wasn't in it. He's usually very much for showing support for the show in any way that he can. Other than that though, I really appreciated seeing all of those beloved actors and actresses although I'll wager that anyone who saw the movie who is not a fan of those 60's stories would not have been able to tell that they were there.
The core of the movie is about William Hartnell and I really liked how they portrayed him. He was a man whose career peaked right at the very end. He knew that Doctor Who was important because it was his last chance to do something big and he cared about the show deeply. They really helped to humanize Hartnell and show the various facets to a man that depending on who you talk to is either described as being incredibly difficult to work with or incredibly easy. He was a man that always had time for the kids who were fans of the show and he cared absolutely about keeping the details consistent so that it wouldn't break the suspension of disbelief held by the viewers at home. IMHO Hartnell has always been a better Doctor than Fan Orthodoxy would have it and I thought that they did a great job of depicting that here.
There were some other great moments captured here - the famous lunch scene where Newman almost fired Lambert and Hussein. They showed how Verity knew when Newman was right but how she fought for the theme music, which history bears out was the right move. They showed the classic fight over the Daleks, although the timeline wasn't right and they were already cleared for 13 episodes by the time that the Daleks started recording. I also like the scene of the original lunch between Hartnell, Lambert, and Hussein and how they had to work to herd him in the direction that they wanted.
If I were to have any criticism at all of this movie it would be about their depiction of 1966. I realize that the story had to be told in 83 minutes but it seems that the pacing was off. We got a fairly good representation of 1963-1965 with some events truncated and some characters merged for time, but the 1966 was almost far enough off as to be almost a different story. Firstly, Sydney Newman and Mervyn Pinfield weren't even involved in Doctor Who anymore in 1966. There was an attempt by John Wiles, Verity Lambert's successor, to get rid of Hartnell because he found him difficult to work with. He had the idea of replacing him with another actor and having it be a joke by a cosmic being to just alter the Doctor's form. Hartnell went over Wiles' head and the Powers that Be at the BBC decided that Hartnell was more important to the success of the show than Wiles and moved Wiles to another series. Innes Lloyd was the next producer and he worked hard to mollify Hartnell and keep him on his good side. Yet, Hartnell due to his own failing health and the fact that he couldn't stand the ever-changing circumstances on the program eventually realized that he couldn't carry on anymore. He wasn't fired. He quit. I really think that showing that struggle with Wiles and then showing Hartnell eventually coming to the realization that he just couldn't do it anymore would have been a more poignant and tragic ending for the story rather than just having him be fired.
The other thing that I thought was tacky was the inclusion of Matt Smith at the end. Its something that will be out of date by the end of this month. If they'd wanted to show that the series would continue and show that visually then they could have easily shown a montage of all the Doctors either all standing in the background or showing them each appear in sequence. I think that would have been a more tasteful way of depicting what I think that they were going for. Instead it just feels wrong in the same way that inserting Hayden Christensen into the ending of Return of the Jedi feels wrong.
Overall, though, I think that this was a very powerful movie that I think did a good job of depicting some of the key moments in the first 3 years of Doctor Who and showing both why it was such a good show and all the things that they had to struggle against to get the show made. I'd recommend it both for fans of the classic series as well as those who are interested in giving the classic series a try.