An Adventure in Space and Time

Wow, there’s enough material here for a series! Mark Gatiss’ lovingly nourished rendering of the origins of DW presents several characters whom we would willingly spend weeks with. The only down side of An adventure in space and time is that it is 85 minutes long so there are shortcuts galore however Gatiss has honed the dialogue to give every line import. By focussing on four personalities who you would never expect could collaborate especially in the 1960s he gives the whole thing a sharp focus. The result is something very special. 

It begins with a scene that seems to (deliberately?) evoke the feel of David Whitaker’s novelisation of the second story. A police box on a misty evening and a car draws up. Inside though instead of Ian Chesterton we see William Hartnell staring at the police box and we realise it’s just after he left the show.  Then- via the Tardis’ yearometer thing- we scroll back to 1963.
The initial sequences are reminiscent of the bustle of The Hour, another fascinating programme about an earlier era of television. While Hartnell is a familiar figure we know less of either Verity Lambert or Waris Hussein both of whom Gatiss deftly paints as outsiders in a tweed wrapped older male dominated BBC. Within about five seconds you can’t help but love them both. Here, Verity Lambert is not the pushy careerist you might expect; as written and played she is a mixture of self-doubt and practicality while Waris Hussein is initially sceptical of the project but teamed with Lambert they soon become thick as thieves. By dwelling on their core strengths rather than the hostility they encountered – which he neatly wraps up in brief scenes- Gatiss draws out the seam of creativity and innovation they mined. There’s a great scene that captures this perfectly in which Lambert is enthusing about the prospective title sequence. With great chemistry Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan are both fantastic.

The third key figure in the narrative is Sydney Newman played by Brian Cox with bluster –“pop, pop, pop!” – that belies a genuinely creative mind. He seems like the archetypal production mogul, cigar rarely out of sight peppering his conversation with extremes. In his head things are either amazing or terrible. Yet Gatiss’ script shows how he coaxed the best out of his young protégées and how he had an uncanny ability both to ferret great ideas out and realises when others could better them. The scenario well known to fans where the success of the Daleks led him to devolve much more responsibility to Lambert is played here as quietly inspirational. You’ll probably want to cheer!
Of course the main character around which Gatiss builds his story is that of William Hartnell. Time and circumstances mean we know comparatively little about the man at least compared to his successors. Watching his stories out of their context it’s easy to overlook why he became so popular. It’s also easy to forget he was only in his mid-50s when he played the role. David Bradley has already delivered one of the year’s best television performances as the haunted newsagent on Broadchurch but his turn as Hartnell betters even that. Gatiss’ problem was how to portray a man who was clearly not always likeable but was also unhappy about the way his career had developed and yet have us liking him and he cleverly uses Hartnell’s grand-daughter as a sounding board. There’s a noticeable difference in the way the actor snaps tetchily at her when out of work to the more twinkling agreeable man he becomes as he embraces the acclaim the series brought him. Though taller, older and not that similar vocally, David Bradley excels in each scene delivering Gatiss’ economical yet telling dialogue perfectly. Whatever you think of him at the start, by the end he will win you over. What TV drama does better than any other medium is evoke small, personal tragedies and by the end Gatiss has mixed such a combination of emotions that you will be moved by a simple wordless  moment that  seems to sum up the hopes of all of the original production team and our enduring love of the series.

The fact that the story is so strong means a first viewing may not take in all the beautifully re-created aspects of the series. The original Tardis for example is reproduced perfectly and with all its flaws including problem doors! We see costumes from `Marco Polo`, `Web Planet`,`Tenth Planet` plus Daleks on Westminster Bridge with some familiar scenes being filmed. As the last ever production to utilise Television Centre, director Terry McDonagh introduces the iconic building as if it were another character finding inventive ways to shoot it. At one point it looks like a spaceship, another time the curved centre fills the screen like a monolith. Key inventions get a brief look in- there’s an early running theme about designer Peter Brachaki’s reticence to design the console room. When Verity Lambert finally corrals him Brachaki throws together what was basically the final version which then morphs into the actual set. The theme music’s strangeness is also referenced with a brief glimpse of the Radiophonic Workshop complete with a scatty looking Delia Derbyshire in the background.
For fans the production is sprinkled with all kinds of in jokes, references and nuances that it will probably take a second or even third watch to spot but it is lovely to see William Russell himself, still acting in his 90s, getting a cameo as car park attendant. There are probably others I haven’t spotted yet after seeing it only the once.

With such a comparatively short running time to pack in three years’ worth of trials and tribulations there are inevitably aspects sketched over. We barely see the perspective of either William Russell or Jacqueline Hill, while post Susan companions are represented by a photo call only. There is no time either to show the fireworks that apparently ensued between Hartnell and Innes Lloyd. In the end it doesn’t matter because there is more than enough to convey the impression of the alchemy that started the show.
Fittingly for a series about the ultimate outsider, An Adventure in Space and Time, shows how four outsiders created something very special. Just like the similar Coronation Street origins drama of a couple of years back you don’t have to be a fan of the series to appreciate this drama. Mark Gatiss should be congratulated for balancing authenticity and appreciation in one un-missable bundle. Tell you what- The Day of the Doctor is going to have to be top notch to match this!


  1. That opening scene is definitely a homage to the Exciting Adventure With The Daleks - a second showing clearly shows a road-sign reading Barnes Common at the foreground of the scene...LOVED this. Day Of The Doctor has one HELL of an act to follow!

  2. I thought it was absolutely phenomenal - really a masterpiece, with a brilliant introduction that makes it clear that this is a fictionalised account based upon real events. It made me want to watch the Hartnell stories again in sequence to follow through how Hartnell's performance developed.