There will be spoilers.
While Doctor Who has always been about traveling through time, it’s in Mark Gatniss’ docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time that we find ourselves at the point where it all began.
But just like the program itself, An Adventure in Space and Time neither begins nor continues in a completely linear fashion. The film starts off with William Hartnell, played by David Bradley, contemplating a blue police box in front of him, in his car in the night as a policeman asks him what he’s doing there. Hartnell looks far and away as the events of the film, from 1966 to 1963 and back again, unfold on the original TARDIS console’s counter display.
Before watching this docudrama, I didn’t know much about how Doctor Who was made beyond some very superficial details. We see Verity Lambert attempt to function, and gain recognition as a producer in an “old-boys’ dominated field. She finds solidarity with the British-Indian director Waris Hussein as he faces a background of racial discrimination. I will also admit that I did wonder why BBC executive producer Sydney Newman didn’t have a British accent and seemed to sound more American than anything else, until I realized at the end of the movie that he came from Canada.
It was also very fascinating to watch the development of Doctor Who: from the rudimentary production arrangements, the pioneering of certain forms of cameras to deal with the program, and all that difference between a character called “Dr. Who” and The Doctor. “Dr. Who” is a character that Newman envisions, and Lambert and Hussein sell to William Hartnell who is tired of playing soldier and “tough-guy” roles but he is not The Doctor as of yet.
As for William Hartnell himself, he is portrayed as both a cantankerous old man with a bit of a temper and a lack of patience towards stagehands and, at one point his own granddaughter, but at the same time he is a friend to his co-actors, emotionally attached to Verity Lambert, and always seeking the role of the old man with the twinkle in his eye.
His “Dr. Who” is at first gruff and cold to a point where it both bothers Newman and himself. Perhaps some of this dissatisfaction comes initially from his hesitation in attempting to portray a children’s show’s protagonist. After a career of playing soldiers and authorities, attempting to become a children’s hero might have seemed a considerable stretch to him. Yet An Adventure in Space and Time makes it more than that. It shows a man in poor health, in his mid-fifties wanting to do something more and different, to no longer be type-cast while at the same time trying to keep up with a hectic television actor’s schedule and his own professional standards. For instance, it really bothers Hartnell that the scenery of the TARDIS doesn’t even exist yet when he is rehearsing his lines in the studio and it takes a special kind of iron-willed effort on Verity Lambert’s part to make sure that the TARDIS and its console room happens.
But once the console room happens, we see that transition from “Dr. Who” into The Doctor, even if the producers and staff still refer to him as the former. I will admit it is still hard for me at times to look at David Bradley as William Hartnell, or at least with regards to his voice as the First Doctor. Hartnell has a higher voice that, while deep, has a trill at the end of his sentences that Bradley doesn’t seem to master. It could also be, based on what is left of the First Doctor’s episodes that his put-on voice sounds different on the audio at the time. It might also be that David Bradley’s previous roles like Argus Filch from Harry Potter and Walder Frey in Game of Thrones has biased me against him. However, what he may not completely capture in sound, he definitely expresses in spirit and presence. I suppose the difficulty here, at least for me, is that you have to remember that this is the story of the program’s production and William Hartnell’s role in it. This is the story of Doctor Who, not just William Hartnell, nor the character of The Doctor.
Nevertheless, the docudrama makes it abundantly clear just how close this whole argument came to becoming a moot point. From the bad conditions of their studio and its sprinkler system, to a lack of scenery, as well as Lambert’s authority being questioned and challenged, their first episode airing on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and even Newman’s old insistence that Doctor Who be a show without “robots or bug-eyed monsters,” there were many instances where this program could have ended after the very first episode: becoming just another obscure, failed, black and white science-fiction oddity.
As the film progresses, we also get to see the development of the early Doctor Who fandom and Hartnell’s growing love for being The Doctor. He even interacts with children in the role off-screen and seems to enjoy it. But this docudrama is not ordinary. It isn’t linear or solely based in reality as we know it. Before it becomes too prosaic, there are at least three moments that hit me directly in the heart as a Doctor Who fan and went beyond my expectations. The first is that point when, after Hartnell is told about the concept of Regeneration (making so that, indeed, no one is irreplaceable and completing the idea of The Doctor as opposed to “Dr. Who”) he breaks down and begins to cry, saying, “I don’t want to go.” It makes me honestly wonder if Hartnell actually said this in real life and if in 2010 one Russell T. Davies wrote it into “The End of Time” for one David Tennant.
The second moment that got me was the realization that Hartnell actually knew, perhaps more than the new generation of production crewmen and staff, how to make the prop of the TARDIS console work. And then, there was the last moment which I am not going to spoil. You should definitely watch this film. I will say, however, that in that one fourth-wall breaking moment at the end Hartnell realizes that The Doctor will continue long after his successor Patrick Troughton and that even though it is fan-service, it’s fan-service of the most beautiful kind.
Not too long ago, in “The Day of the Doctor” we Whovians discovered the existence of an incarnation of The Doctor that sacrificed his name to become a soldier. Two days before the 50th Anniversary episode we are reintroduced to a man who was tired of playing soldiers and wanted to portray something different, to a show that became something more and with many great people behind it created a legacy, one that doesn’t want to go, and one that is still with us even now.
CORRECTION: John F. Kennedy’s assassination happened one day before “An Unearthly Child” premiered, not on the same day.