What’s It About?
BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman has hired Verity Lambert to produce a family-oriented sci-fi drama called Doctor Who. Actor William Harnell, hoping this part would break him out of type-casting and put him on the road to more legitimate artistic work, is cast in the title role. This is the origin of Doctor Who before it was a world-wide phenomenon, when it was just a tiny show fighting against the odds to become a success.
I Don’t Want to Go
That was the point where I lost it completely. These words which caused inward groaning when uttered by the incumbent Doctor in 2010 caused out-and-out bawling when uttered by David Bradley as William Hartnell in 2013. “I don’t want to go.” And the emotion still floats behind my eyes.
This wasn’t the only tear-inducing moment for me. I estimate that I cried by varying degrees every ten minutes or so. I blame this blog for that. If I had never set out to watch and write about every Doctor Who serial, I would have never spent the time to go beyond passively viewing Doctor Who. I never would have tried to understand context. I never would have searched for information about the people behind the characters. In short, I never would have developed an appreciation for the Hartnell Era of Doctor Who. I love this era, particularly the years Verity Lambert ran the show. The stories produced during her tenure were diverse, ambitious, and surprising. They were intelligent and compelling. They succeeded beyond any expectation when one learns what they were working with. And if An Adventure in Space and Time is accurate in this capacity, they were successful because they were industry outsiders fighting to prove themselves. Lambert was a woman fighting for respect and success in a male-dominated BBC. Waris Hussein was of Middle Eastern descent fighting for respect in a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant [although I cannot entirely verify the “Protestant” aspect in this case]) culture. William Hartnell was fighting to show he, and elderly actor, could be successful despite being type-cast as grumpy, humorless sergeant majors or gangsters in an industry that would be increasingly driven by youth (although that may not have been as much of a hindrance in 1963). The struggle of the outsider is encoded into Doctor Who’s DNA, and it started here, in 1963, driven by a group of creative people who needed to prove themselves to the insiders.
And this is what became clear in Gatiss’s telling of this story. Doctor Who became the success story whereby the outsiders won and gained victory.
It is funny to me that when it comes to his Doctor Who stories, Mark Gatiss is very hit or miss for me. But I have seen stories he has done for Marple and Sherlock and I have loved them. An Adventure in Space and Time is at once a Doctor Who story and not a Doctor Who story. Symbolically, there is a struggle, albeit a real-world struggle. The Doctor, as represented by the show rather than the character, helps them to succeed and overcome. But it is also a docu-drama, part documentary, part fiction. And Gatiss masterfully teases out the insider/outsider story to great effect. At its core, An Adventure in Space and Time is William Hartnell’s story, but it intersects with Verity Lambert’s story and Waris Hussein’s story. And while I would have liked to see David Whitaker (my favorite of the early writers and a down-right influential script editor), I understand the need to focus on the people who best bring out the theme of the story. Gatiss does this beautifully. This is probably my favorite of his work.
I can’t say enough about David Bradley. This man is amazing. In recent performances he has played grumpy or down-right villainous characters (Red Wedding anyone?). In Adventure he performs wonderfully as William Hartnell, showing the cantankerousness of the man, but also the sensitivity, the brokenness, the spark of hope, and the humanity. By all accounts Hartnell could be difficult to work with, but he could also be sensitive and caring. Humans are hard to peg down; we are contradictions. Hartnell was no different, and while he may have been polished up a bit nicer in Adventure (depending on which accounts you read), the complexity of the man comes through. I love that they portrayed the story of Hartnell’s apology to Carol Ann Ford after chastising her.
While it was never likely to happen, I wish William Hartnell could have seen his legacy. In a way, he saw a glimpse of it. He died in 1975, at which time Tom Baker was at the beginning of his tenure. But to me, a fifty-year celebration needs to acknowledge the role of this man who became the first embodiment of the Doctor. William Hartnell founded this character. He provided the grumpiness. He played the trickster. He out-smarted the villains. He struggled with the loss of companions. Every Doctor since him has been an exaggeration of one or more of the traits established in this first era of the show. And while visiting past Doctors is fun, I wish we could see him one last time, providing the voice of authority on what it means to be the Doctor.
Thanks to Mark Gatiss and David Bradley for recognizing and sounding that voice.