Greetings, Manic Fans. Les here today to talk about the OTHER 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who television special. Sure, everyone has seen and raved about the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special: “The Day of the Doctor,” and why not? It was BRILLIANT! 10th Doctor(David Tennant), 11th Doctor(Matt Smith), the War Doctor(John Hurt), Zygons, the last day of the Time War with the Daleks, UNIT and a magnificent cameo by 4th Doctor Tom Baker-what’s not to love? However, I’m looking at the other end of the series-the beginning-specifically the bio-pic

“An Adventure in Space and Time.”

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However, this one’s too good to do alone, so joining me is fellow Whovian Jim Bevan.

 

Les: Welcome to my blog, Jim.

 

Jim: Glad to be back, Les. And I’m very pleased I can join you for a look at this biopic. As you said, just about everyone has seen Day of the Doctor, and I imagine a sizable number have also listened to Big Finish’s anniversary production The Light at the End. Both stand on their own merits and do well celebrating the history of Doctor Who in their own manner. But there’s something special about An Adventure in Space and Time. It lets fans both new and long-time get a glimpse at how the show got its start half a century ago. It revealed how a series that the BBC had little faith in quickly became a massive cultural phenomena. And it showed the various struggles that the people responsible for its creation had to endure, both from executives and their own personal demons. A captivating presentation that had the same amount of drama and intrigue you’d find in a standard episode of Doctor Who.

 

Les: Absolutely.  And, like the good Doctor, the producers of this show had to overcome immense odds with courage and cleverness. And so, let’s set the TARDIS controls to take us back to 1963 and see what was going on at the BBC, shall we?

 

Warning: Some spoilers and wibley wobley 1960‘s BBC Network stuff ahead…

 

It’s 1966, and actor William Hartnell(David Bradley) is driving his car at night and stops next to a Police Box and seems to be in shell shock. A Bobby exits the blue box and taps on his window asking if he’s alright, and says he’s in the way and has to move on. Then, we see him walking onto the TARDIS set for what is to be his last scene of the show. He looks up at the lights and closes his eyes. Then there’s a shot of the TARDIS console year-ometer spinning backwards….

 

It’s 1963, and Head of Drama Production at BBC Sidney Newman(Brian Cox) is dealing with a gap in the schedule between “Grandstand” and “Juke Box Jury.” Getting a brainstorm to make a fun science fiction show, he appoints Verity Lambert(Jessica Raine) as the first woman to be a show producer at the BBC to bring the vision to life. It’s a daunting task as she has to overcome the male prejudice of the studio, the indifference of the design department man who seems reluctant to make the TARDIS interior set design, the worst studio to film in and only one script ready to shoot(“An Unearthly Child”). She has to work with Warris Hussein(Sacha Dhawan), the first Indian director at BBC to helm it, and has the challenge of appointing the perfect actor to play “Doctor Who”(In the first few series, his name actually was Doctor Who, before they changed it to simply “The Doctor” and left his real name as a mystery).

 

Wanting to find a man who could project Frank Morgan from “The Wizard of Oz meets Father Christmas,” Verity hires character actor William Hartnell, who is tired of being typecast as gruff military officers and has issues with his health that make it hard for him to film a year round series like “Doctor Who.” He’s quite touchy about getting the details all right and Verity has to learn how to work with him to get the job done.

 

The film goes through step by step showing how the challenges were met(And they had to reshoot the entire first episode before Sidney would air it)only to come up against network heads who wanted to cancel the show after the poor showing of the first episode(Due to the Kennedy Assassination). Sidney calls Verity into his office and tells her they’re going to cancel the show after the next 4 episodes(“The Daleks”) but she sticks to her guns defending the show and the “Bug-eyed monsters” that are going to turn things around. She demands a repeat of the first series episode before airing the next one since nobody saw it when Kennedy was shot. Sidney relents but warns her that her neck is on the chopping block if she’s wrong.

 

When the Daleks turn the show into a National sensation, Verity Lambert, William Hartnell, Warris Hussein and all the rest are vindicated and become overnight superstars at the BBC. This film really does go into the real life story of how it all happened following the lives of Verity, Warris, Sidney, and most importantly, William Hartnell to see how the show developed and they were all affected by it. The film also shows the heartbreaking way in which William Hartnell’s declining health eventually forced the BBC to let him go from the show in 1966. Many bio-pic films recreate how icons of entertainment were made, but this one really delivered a fascinating look at how “Doctor Who” came to be.

 

LES: I was spellbound watching this behind the scenes drama unfold. The performances were amazing(Particularly Bradley’s as Hartnell). What did you think about this film, Jim?

 

Jim: Personally, I thought it was incredible. When I first got into Doctor Who and discovered the classic stories, I delved into the history of the series and all that happened getting during its early years of production. This movie managed to bring those moments to life, provide a more tangible look at how the cast and crew struggled in bringing their show to life. I truly felt happy when they had a great success, and sympathetic when personal or outside forces hit them hard.

 

Obviously, the writers took some liberties with historical accuracy to make things more engaging. There were of course the references to lines and moments from the series that got incorporated into dialogue, but those were clever Easter eggs for the fans. Some scenes, however, I can’t understand the reason for the change. The tension between Sydney and Verity seemed to be exaggerated, particularly when she requests that the pilot be aired again after its initial broadcast was overshadowed by coverage of John Kennedy’s death, and her defense of the Daleks as a storyline despite Sidney’s opposition to bug-eyed monsters. I can see these moments being altered to play up a power struggle between the two so there’s more sympathy for Verity as she makes her name, but from the sources I’ve read there wasn’t that much drama behind the scenes, at least not at first.

 

Incredibly, one of the most dramatic moments was also altered – the scene where Hartnell is preparing to leave the role. It’s presented as a decision forced on him by the BBC, despite his protestations. But in reality, Hartnell knew that his health was interfering with production and was willing to step down. He even suggested Patrick Troughton would be the best replacement. Again, I can see why the changes were made so the audience would sympathize more with Hartnell’s plight, but the same effect could have been achieved with either scenario, in my opinion.

 

Aside from a few discrepancies in historical fact (which are a given when making a biopic), everything else is incredibly well presented. The directors employed a number of impressive techniques to provide a stronger impact. One of the two enjoyed most were the ironic description cuts that occur while Verity is telling Hartnell about the advanced facilities they’ve been given to film, only to see very simple, low-budget techniques used in creating the sound design and special effects. The second was the scene where Sidney is reading over a description of the Daleks, his narration broken up by cuts of Lee Harvey Oswald assembling his rifle as the aliens’ hatred, leading into a broadcast on Kennedy’s assassination. Absolutely chilling.

 

LES: Yeah, that scene was amazing, alright. Which brings us to some of the elements that demonstrated the ingenuity of this production staff to conquer the daunting obstacles that stood in their way. How to do a show about a time/space traveling Alien in a disappearing Police Box? For one thing….I’m still in awe of how they made the sound of the TARDIS in flight(House key drawn across bass piano strings..WOW!). I particularly loved the scene where Verity intimidates the set designer by refusing to leave his office and he rapidly designs the TARDIS interior out of 2 thread spools, an ashtray and 3 sheets of cardboard that have the circle punch outs he pops several out of.

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It really shows the way those early shows made the best out of a meager budget and special effects limitations of the day to achieve a unique artistry that characterized everything Doctor Who stood for. So, who were those extraordinary individuals and the actors who played them?

 

Characters

 

William Hartnell(David Bradley)

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What can be said about William Hartnell? HE WAS DOCTOR WHO! He’s the man who brought one of Science Fiction’s most important and influential characters to life over 50 years ago. He was a magnificent character actor with an undeniable charisma that shone from the twinkle in his eyes. He was also in poor health, likely due to the fact that he smoked and drank to much.

 

LES: David Bradley did a tremendous job filling the shoes of the legendary actor, as far as I’m concerned. He was spookily accurate recreating the scenes of the show as Hartnell, himself had done those many years ago. You can really feel for him behind the scenes, as well as he exudes the frustration of being typecast for years and the embarrassment of slowly losing his touch from failing health. He clearly loves being Doctor Who(Getting a wonderful scene in the park when the children recognize him and he leads them on an adventure in character to please his fans-brilliant!) When he gets fired and goes home to his wife. He stammers for a bit and then completely breaks down saying “I don’t want to go.”(I swear, I had a flashback of David Tennant(Doctor 10) right before he regenerated into Matt Smith(Doctor 11)). It’s a heartbreaking scene done splendidly.

 

Jim: David Bradley did a fantastic job capturing Hartnell’s speech and behavior. When he stepped into the role of the Doctor, he perfectly conveyed every facet of the Time Lord – irascible, wise, pragmatic, and hiding kindness behind his gruff demeanor. But where he truly shined was depicting Hartnell’s life behind the scenes. Fans of the classic series know that the main factor for Hartnell’s departure was due to advancing arteriosclerosis, which was affecting his memory and temper. I always assumed that this struck him late into the show’s progression, but after seeing this I realized he’d been fighting with the illness from the start. You could feel his pain when he flubbed lines or stumbled. It was a slight to his ego, yes, but it also hurt him to think that he’d be letting down the children who’d grown so fond of his character. Whatever one says about the man’s personal life or acting talent, it can’t be argued that he was dedicated to the craft.

 

The scene where he’s regaling kids in the park was one of the highlights.

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It showed us how much Hartnell valued the role because of the joy it brought others. Not only that, but it’s clear that being the Doctor also did well for his own spirit. At the start he’s very bitter and cynical, showing how resigned Hartnell was to the belief he was washed-up. Even when they began shooting he had reservations about its success. Slowly but surely though, he grows to love the part and those around him. Just look at the scenes with Bradley and Claudia Grant for a great, if brief example of how close Hartnell grew to Carole Ann Ford, and how much he regretted seeing her go.

 

Now for a bit of a controversial opinion – the part where Hartnell tearfully tells his wife “I don’t want to go.” New Who fans may hate me for this, but that delivery, in my opinion, carried much more of an impact than Tennant’s did. The context is more appropriate for one thing. When Tennant made the declaration it was in character as The Doctor – he wasn’t really leaving, just regenerating, so its inclusion didn’t make sense. Here though, Hartnell is giving up the role which was his rebirth as an actor, the role that made him a national icon, a decision forced upon him due to worsening health. Bradley also provided a more emotional delivery. It didn’t come across as a petty whine, but true grief. Even before he breaks down, he tries to keep a strong appearance but can’t hide the sorrow. Few moments in the actual series have made me tear up as much as that scene did.

 

LES: You’ve definitely got a point. That scene made me cry too.

 

Verity Lambert(Jessica Raine)

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The first woman to be given the reins of a show as head producer at the BBC, Verity took the challenges that would have vexed the Doctor, himself, and created a legacy that went on(and is STILL going on). She’s, to paraphrase Sidney Newman, “Full of piss and vinegar.” She’s tough and resourceful with quite a lot to prove. She’s also empathetic really taking the time to be there for William Hartnell when he was struggling.

 

LES: I liked Jessica’s performance a lot. You could really feel her determination not to fail and the immense pride she took in a show she believed in with all her heart. What did you think of Jessica as Verity, Jim?

 

Jim: Sidney Newman gets a lot of credit for bringing Doctor Who to life, but without Verity, the show would never have existed. Despite all the obstructions thrown her way, despite all the demands from the higher-ups at the BBC, she persevered. Her central focus was making the show as great as it could be. Jessica Raine captured that passion extraordinarily well when we see her stand up to Sidney and the slacking props department. What I enjoyed most was that the writers avoided several easy cliches. Verity never came across as an ice queen, a manipulator, or a complainer whining about how unfairly women were treated. She knew when to get up in someone’s face and when to offer a shoulder to lean on. Most importantly, she knew when to take risks. If Verity hadn’t been so adamant about producing “The Daleks”, the show would have never taken off as it did.

 

Warris Hussein(Sacha Dhawan)

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As the first Indian director at the BBC, Warris had a lot of “old school” prejudice to overcome. He was, also, given a nearly impossible filming challenge with horribly antique equipment and a sub-standard studio to work in.

 

Les: I liked Sacha’s portrayal. He really seemed to capture that anguished director attempting to produce art with substandard equipment and facilities. You know, that “In over his head but refusing to quit” quality, but really suffering for his art at the same time. What did you think, Jim?

 

Jim: I really felt Waris’ character was wasted, which is a shame considering how underplayed his contributions to the series are. We get some idea of his personal doubts that the show would be successful and what impact it would have on his still fledgling career. But he clearly had passion and wanted the best from the cast and crew. I just would have preferred to see a bit more focus on him. They clearly hinted at greater issues he was facing, both in the studio and in his personal life. Not only was Hussein facing prejudice as a person of color, but also as a closeted gay man during a time when the UK still considered homosexuality a mental illness. There was potential to examine some serious personal conflicts there, yet they were ignored.

 

LES: Really? I didn’t know that he was gay. That was a wasted opportunity, then. Moving on….

 

Sidney Newman(Brian Cox)

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The Head of Drama Series for the BBC, Sidney Newman was the man who sparked Doctor Who’s existence. He envisioned a show that would run year round, rooted in solid science and history to both educate and entertain children. At first they were just vague concepts, but they took structure when he chose the producer for the series, a production assistant he’d worked with in the past who he felt had the “piss and vinegar” necessary to get the job done right – Verity Lambert.

 

LES: Besides David Bradley’s Hartnell, this is easily the most interesting character portrayal in the story. He just exudes enthusiasm the way he builds up Verity or anyone who needs a boost in morale. The scene where he comes in and compliments Hartnell’s movie roles and assures him he’s going to make a tremendous impact as Doctor Who is compelling. He also really sells the notion that he’s the “ideas man.” “POP! POP! POP!” You can literally see the wheels moving in his head as he figures out how to save the show when Hartnell has to retire. What’s your take on Brian Cox’s portrayal of Sidney Newman?

 

Jim: Though I’ve seen little of Newman in archival or documentary footage, Brian Cox’s portrayal fits how many of his peers described him. He was brash, opinionated, and wouldn’t tolerate nonsense. Like Verity, he knew when to be lenient (buttering up William Hartnell, authorizing a reshoot for the pilot) and when to be strict (putting pressure on the cast and crew when he felt they could do better). The times he and Verity clashed over how the show was being run made for some impressive moments – two headstrong people who both wanted the series to be a success, but had vastly different ideas about how to achieve it. Despite these clashing visions, he clearly had faith in her and was willing to go to bat for her, even going to the executives to allow another airing of the pilot since it’s first run was overshadowed by news of Kennedy’s assassination.

 

At times it looked like Newman was unnecessarily harsh simply to provide a tangible “antagonist”, but looking back on it his more aggressive reactions are understandable. He was a businessman, he had to do what he thought was best for the BBC. And he had the strength to admit when he was wrong. I loved the scene where he receives the viewership numbers and ratings for the Dalek episodes, after so adamantly fighting against the inclusion of “bug-eyed monsters”, and humbly yet happily tells Verity “So… what do I know about editing?”

 

William Russell(Jamie Glover)

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Portraying one of the first companions of the first Doctor, Jamie Glover bears a striking resemblance to Actor William Russell when he played High School Teacher Ian Chesterton. He also has the mannerisms and voice down fairly well as is evident when they’re filming the first episode. Behind the scenes, he has a challenge admiring actor William Hartnell for his acting, but also pitying him his declining health as he watches one of his idols slowly lose his control.

 

LES: It’s painful to watch him trying so hard to stay in character to play the scenes of “The Isop Galaxy” with Hartnell, who’s struggling to remember his lines. He’s a good actor and good-hearted to his castmates. Jim?

 

JIM: Those were difficult to watch. It was, and I apologize if this analogy comes off as harsh, like watching a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s. Russell clearly knew his colleague and friend was dealing with a serious problem, but had no idea what he could do to help except roll with the missed lines and try to salvage the shots. Though he rarely said anything concerning Hartnell’s illness, you could see the pity on his face.

 

Carole Ann Ford(Claudia Grant)

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Carole Ann Ford gained acclaim for her portrayal of Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and the only biological relative of the Timelord to ever appear in the classic series. While she was supposed to be a teenager, Ford was actually 23 when the show began. Yet she still managed to give a very convincing performance as a young woman, slightly naive and always curious about new experiences.  Claudia Grant managed to nail not only her appearance but her demeanor. And just like the familial bonds in the show, she developed a strong working relationship to William Hartnell behind the scenes.

 

LES: Claudia definitely captured the essence of Carole when she was in front of the camera and what I suspected she was like behind the camera. You really get a sense that William Hartnell became a “Grandfather figure” to her as they worked together. I love how Hartnell sends her an enormous bouquet of flowers to apologize after he chides her and she snaps at him over the moment. She clearly loves him and had the time of her life when she was on the show, but at the end wanted other roles and needed to leave.

 

JIM: Carole’s growth and development during the series is quite fascinating to watch. As the show begins she’s definitely nervous about how it will fare, but over time she quickly establishes bonds with the other cast members. You can tell she admires Hartnell as an actor, even when he flubs his lines, like when she bursts out laughing after he says to “check the fornicator” instead of the fault locator. Of course, she does resent when Hartnell appears to overstep his boundaries, such as when he chides her for spending money on fancy dresses. Though understandably upset, she later understands that he was simply offering some helpful advice about working in a hectic profession, and is pleased when he offers an apology.

 

As I mentioned earlier, Bradley and Grant best recaptured the bond between Hartnell and Ford when filming Susan’s farewell scene. She wants to move, tired of the role, and tries to comfort the blow when she announces her departure to Hartnell. It’s a simple, sweet moment.

 

LES: “Let there be no regrets…no tears…no anxieties…Just move forward in all your beliefs…and prove that I am not wrong in mine…goodbye Susan…Goodbye my dear…” SIGH! I love that scene….

 

Jaqueline Hill(Jemma Powell)

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As a personal friend of Verity Lambert, she takes on the role of High School Teacher Barbara Wright who becomes the third companion. REALLY…all the actors did a tremendous job recreating those iconic scenes in the TARDIS set for “An Unearthly Child.” However, Jemma also gives insight into Verity since she’s so close a friend. She’s a very interesting character.

 

LES: I’m quite impressed with the way she acted as Jaqueline in her scenes.. She conveyed the genuine care Barbara had for Susan and her tenacity in coming to grips with the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself with Ian as they begin their long adventure with the Doctor. Jim?

 

JIM: Anyone who’s seen Nash Bozard’s review of “The Web Planet” has seen him discuss how Barbara Wright was an unconventional female character for the time – she was a no-nonsense woman who wasn’t afraid to take charge when necessary. It was nice to see some insight into how she and Verity helped develop the mold-breaking role.

 

So Les, we’ve both talked about the aspects of the film we enjoyed, but An Adventure in Space and Time was far from perfect. Were there any parts that you felt didn’t help the film, or anything you would’ve liked to see covered that was ignored?

 

Les: That’s a really good question. I can’t really think of too many things that didn’t work in the film from a chronological standpoint. I think you nailed it earlier saying that we could’ve used a little more of first director Warris Hussein in the film. I also might’ve liked to see the recreation scene of the Doctor’s first regeneration into Patrick Troughton(Which is seen as a DVD extra, but could’ve been in the film….it’s a matter of taste on that….). I did like the way they ended it…

SPOILERS!(River Song Voice)….

(Matt Smith, uncredited as the 11th Doctor appears to Hartnell in a vision as he’s about to film his last scene and they have a moment of genuine admiration-Smith for what Hartnell did to establish the legacy, and Hartnell to seeing how far the show was going to go).

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However, I didn’t really know that much about this time period and what had happened, so you probably have a better perspective on what wasn’t covered. What do you say, Jim?

 

Jim: Honestly, I would have liked the film to focus more on the exploits of the other actors and what they endured while on and after leaving the show. I have heard that Carole Ann Ford (Susan, portrayed in the film by Claudia Grant) had numerous issues with typecasting after her departure. A glimpse into the struggles she had while reestablishing herself as an entertainer would have been interesting to see. Also, it was a shame that after Verity and Waris left Doctor Who, the plot abandoned them altogether. I wanted to see what they had done after leaving, how they were branching out and expanding their careers. Considering how they’d been built up as so instrumental in bringing the show to life, dropping them without ever mentioning them again just seemed cold. On the subject of the Doctor’s regeneration, it was a shame that Reese Shearsmith didn’t have more to do as Patrick Troughton. He’s one of the few people who absolutely nailed the Second Doctor’s voice and demeanor aside from Christopher Thomson and Frazer Hines (and Frazer had an advantage considering he spent years working alongside Troughton). I had heard that there were plans for another scene with Shearsmith that recreated the filming of The Three Doctors, Hartnell’s final appearance on the show. I would’ve liked to have seen this not only for Hartnell’s final hurrah, but also because I was curious to see how Mark Gatiss would have portrayed Jon Pertwee.

 

There are actually a few scenes that I heard were cut because of time and budgetary reasons, regretfully of iconic moments from the classic series that were lost when the BBC destroyed the original tapes. You probably saw background pieces from the missing epic Marco Polo, but there were also to have been reenactments of key scenes from The Daleks’ Master Plan, primarily the deaths of Sara Kingdom and Katarina (the first of the Doctor’s companions to ever die) and Hartnell breaking the fourth wall at the end of filming an episode to wish the audience a Merry Christmas. Rather sad, but fans can’t have everything they want.

 

Aside from the flaws, this is still a spectacular docu-drama. Anyone who loves Doctor Who should check it out to learn about the show’s humble beginnings and see how it grew into the iconic series it is today. Thanks for having me here, Les.

 

LES: Some of those scenes were in the DVD extras of “reconstructions.” In fact, David Bradley does 3 or 4 takes of the “Merry Christmas” scene and ad-libs a goofy one at the end to get the staff to laugh. As for the rest, it was a pleasure to work with you again, my friend. We’ll have to collaborate again soon.

And thanks Manic Fans for giving us some of your time(and space) today. Peace.

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