Friday, 22 November 2013

An Adventure in Space and Time: A Review

The last programme to be filmed at Television centre was Mark Gatiss' drama about the beginnings of Doctor Who. That's got a certain poignancy all of its own, and the show actually used offices rather than sets, authentically redressed in 1960s style.

The story of William Hartnell and Doctor Who was a wonderful piece of drama. Like all drama, it had to make compromises between the history and the demands of drama; there was no place found for David Whittaker, Doctor Who's first Story Editor.

In a way that was a shame, because it was Whittaker who saw the potential of the Dalek story submitted by Terry Nation over the "Masters of Luxor" by Anthony Coburn. I've read the scripts for "The Masters of Luxor", and while it is a worthy enough story, exploring the idea of intelligent machines, it hasn't got the bite of the Dalek story. If that had gone ahead instead, there would have been no Daleks, and probably Dr Who would have wrapped up after its first thirteen episodes, a worthy series, but one which did not really belong as more than a footmark in history.

That history is so contingent on happenstance. Terry Nation was writing for Tony Hancock, but they rowed, and by chance he found himself out of work, on a train to London, and remembered the request for a submission that he had been given; if that row had not taken place, again there would have been no Daleks. Whittaker saw the potential of those scripts as a "cracking adventure story" of the kind he had been looking for, and dropped the Coburn script. Anthony Coburn had written the first episode, and also the caveman episode. After "The Masters of Luxor" was dropped, he fell out with the production team, and never wrote for Doctor Who again.

Coburn's son, however, has recently demanded that the BBC stop using the TARDIS in the show, or compensate his family for its every appearance since his father's death. Quite how one claims ownership of what was, at the time, a commonplace object on London Streets is another matter. But Coburn was staff writer for the BBC, and staff writers did not usually have any rights over their inventions, even more than Raymond Cusick, the designer responsible for the Daleks could claim any ownership. It looks, in my opinion, like a cheap attempt to capitalise on the Doctor Who Anniversary celebrations.

There were some lovely incidental pieces in the drama. An aside that Mervyn Pinfield invented the teleprompter for news broadcasts, a brilliant device still used on TV to this day. A mention of Sydney Newman's other series idea - "The Avengers", even with his own words ""I don't know what it means, but it's a great title!"

And there were lovely cameo reconstructions of great scenes - Daleks gliding across Westminister Bridge, Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Web Planet, and the Tenth Planet, as well as photoshoots with the different companions on the way.

But the story was about character, and change. The period prejudice of the time was summed up when Verity Lambert, played by Jessica Raine, tells director Waris Hussein, that they were both outsiders -"the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird". That very much encapsulated the kind of prejudice they faced.

Sydney Newman was played with gusto by Brian Cox, Jessica Raine was brilliant in conveying Verity Lambert, but the star performance has to be David Bradley as William Hartnell. It was wonderful to see how he portrayed how Hartnell mellowed in the part, and rather than gruffly barking at his grandchild, delighted in her adoration of him in the role.

But he also lost the ability to remember lines, and that, with the loss of the original team about him, came across very well, as Bradley portrayed a man who was in many ways insecure, needing reassurance from others, and feeling more isolated and tired as the first team left one by one.

Bradley conveyed the frustration of the actor, as his powers diminished, and he felt his age catching up on him, and his sorrow at having the part which had made him the adorable "Uncle Who" of millions of children taken away from him.

As someone who usually has to place unsympathetic types like Caretaker Finch, this was a triumph of his versatility as an actor. When Hartnell took on the role, as this drama showed, he was frustrated with forever being typecast in barking army sergeant roles; Doctor Who gave him a chance to show that he could play a very different kind of character.

In its way, this drama provided the same opportunity for David Bradley, as he showed just what a wonderful three dimensional character William Hartnell could be, irascible, and then apologetic, loving the fact that he had landed in a role which brought so much joy to so many children.


Peter O said...

Did you spot some of the actual actors from the Hartnell period snuck in amongst the cast? I saw Jean Marsh and Anneka Wills to start with.

TonyTheProf said...

Car park attendant was William Russell right at the start. Carole Anne Ford was there somewhere in the party scenes, as well as Peter Purves.

Peter O said...

Gosh yes, William Russell! Great spot!