An Adventure in Space and Time

Written by

Mark Gatiss

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

Doctor_Who_-_An_Adventure_in_Space_and_Time_PosterThat 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.

My Rating

5/5

bradley-hartnell

Doctor Who Series 6.9 – Night Terrors

Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Richard Clark

The Doctor attempts to sort out the nightmares of a young child.

“Well, I suppose it can’t all be planets and history and stuff.”

Supposedly the selling pitch for this story was the premise “What is the scariest place in the universe?  A child’s bedroom.”  But in reality, I wonder if the premise could be re-worked in to “What is the scariest place in the universe?  Sitting on the couch and watching a rehash of Fear Her.”

After watching this episode, my wife and I immediately began talking about Curse of the Black Spot because, as we agreed, both Curse and Night Terrors are perfectly decent stories.  Not amazing, decent.  And while I think Curse had a few plot holes and some real inattention continuity details, it seemed to be a more compelling story.  Night Terrors may have been a tighter plot, but it never really grabbed me.  It never really compelled me to be interested in the mystery or to care about the characters.  I tried, but as I started guessing the plot (and more on that in a minute) I found that the only truly compelling aspect of the episode was Richard Clark’s direction.  He had quite a few great shots and really sold the suspense and made the dollhouse look good.  Whether he directed the actors well, that is another question.  In truth, I felt that none of the performances in this episode rose above that of caricature, and that applies to both secondary and primary characters.  Sure, Matt, Karen, and Arthur do their best with their lines, but they seem to lack any sort of depth in this episode.  Amy and Rory are relegated to nothing more than victims, and while they have played this part in the past, we would still get character moments despite their situation.  I’m thinking most-strongly of The Doctor’s Wife, in which Amy and Rory are victimized by House, but the tortures reigned upon them are specifically designed to play on their insecurities.  Here, they are chased by dolls for half an hour until The Doctor shows up and convinces the child to save the day.

My wife says this episode is a revisiting of ideas in Fear Her and Girl in the Fireplace.  The Fear Her comparison is quite apt because we once more have a child who is haunted by something frightening, who actually controls and makes manifest the fears.  The danger can only be overcome by the empowerment of the child and the re-uniting of the child and emotionally detached parent.  The primary difference between the two stories would be that Gatiss switched the genders.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this was intentional.  But the similarities exist.  It makes me wonder if New Who is spinning its wheels a bit.  In addition to revisiting Fear Hear, Night Terrors also seems to tick the boxes of Moffat-era stories.  A child plays a prominent role.  The child seems to know more about the situation than anyone else.  The child must save the day to some degree.  Creepy looking monsters.  Sneaking through dark corridors rather than running through them.  At least we didn’t revisit the “timey-wimey” concept this time around.  It makes me a little sad that the show doesn’t really seem to be reaching much at the moment.  Almost self-consciously, this episode references that the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space, but instead they visit a child on what is presumably present-day Earth.  And in a few episodes we revisit Craig from The Lodger.  We seem to be regressing here.  Although, present day Earth is probably cheaper to realize.

More on guessing the plot.  Part of this is due to the parallels to Fear Her.  Part of this is also due to Gatiss as a mystery writer.  Some of my favorite scripts by Mark Gatiss have been for Marple or his script for Sherlock last year.  However, I have found his Doctor Who scripts (with the exception of The Unquiet Dead) to be varying degrees of “meh”.  More accurately, they seem to be descending degrees of “meh”.  I would go so far as to say that I think Gatiss is a better mystery writer (or at the very least, dramatizer) than Doctor Who writer.  Perhaps it would be fun to see him write something more “whodunnit” than “a mystery with an alien” as Night Terrors seems to be.  At times, this episode was mystery, at times horror, but almost never adventure and Doctor Who needs the latter in great abundance.