Monday, October 20, 2014

An Adventure In Space and Time

Now that we're almost a year out from the 50th, maybe it's time for me to finish up these last two reviews so I can get onto the current run of things. And then maybe finish up Torchwood Season 1. And then get on Hartnell's second season. And maybe even get back to that James Bond blog where I did, like, four entries.

Or maybe I'll write this and then forget about it for another six months. But I'll finish this one, damn it!

I'd be remiss to go through the 50th Anniversary celebrations without mentioning Peter Davison's delightful The Fivish Doctors Reboot. Unfortunately, I can't do much more than mention it, because there's not much to say other than "It's really, really funny." If you're a Who fan of any kind, you have to see it.

An Adventure In Space and Time, on the other hand, I can talk about. Let's start with Mark Gatiss, the writer and more-or-less auteur here. I haven't been much of a fan of his Who scripts. While I do really like The Crimson Horror, I find most of them boringly straightforward. But that's more my taste than his skill. His writing on Sherlock is phenomenal (and, on that subject, he's far and away my favorite Mycroft Holmes ever, in a category that includes Christopher Lee, Charles Grey, Rhys Ifans, and Stephen Fry). And even the worst of his Who scripts are basically competent, and brimming with a genuine love and nostalgia for the show, both new and old.

So it's not a great surprise that Gatiss knocks this one out of the park. He deftly avoids the two major pitfalls this could have fallen into. It could easily have become a formless celebration, with lots of spectacle and cameos and references, but no actual story, or a point. And it could just have easily have gotten so carried away with its story that it didn't have the energy, or the fun, or the spectacle, and thus failed to deliver a celebratory piece of nostalgia. Gatiss nails both sides.

For most of its first half, Gatiss focuses on the mad origins of the show, which are more than entertaining enough to carry 45 minutes. Even without the evocative '60s atmosphere, the characters are full of life and color. The lead role - and the heart of the film - goes to David Bradley playing the prickly William Hartnell. Bradley (previous a vicious villain in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship) excels in the role, managing to make even Hartnell's moodiest moments human, and capturing moments of the deep soulfulness and humor Hartnell brought to the Doctor, which seemed to come directly out of himself.

Brian Cox really chameleons into Sydney Newman; Cox is always a fantastic actor, but this might be the first time I honestly wouldn't have known it was him if he wasn't in the opening credits. Cox chews the scenery to shreds, with a wit that can be crude, literary, or acerbic, as needed. Every moment he's onscreen is a delight.

If there's a disappointment, it's Jessica Raine's Verity Lambert. Raine is a good actress (as she showed memorably in Hide), and she's certainly likable as Verity, but she never exudes the "piss and vinegar" of the real Lambert, as Cox's Newman so indelicately puts it. Verity Lambert was the first female producer at the BBC, a post she earned through pluck, intelligence, creativity, and a stubborn refusal to give into any of the societal pressures she obviously faced (including the sadly too predictable rumors that she slept her way to the top). And while some of the mad genius of Doctor Who is surely due to the eccentric David Whitaker, much of it must have come from her, pushing the show to be anything and everything, sane and insane, and excel at it all. Raine comes off as a quiet, meek intellectual carefully trying not to step on anyone's toes. It's not a bad performance, as such; she plays her lines well enough, and moves through both the humor and drama effectively, but the character doesn't quite come off. Still, she's good enough not to drag the film down, and her best moments are very good.

The supporting cast is strong. Sacha Dhawan gives a nice sense of Waris Hussein's intelligence and artistry. The actors playing the actors are right on, with Jemma Powell's Jacqueline Hill getting a few especially nice moments. Reece Shearsmith gives a hint of the twinkle in Patrick Troughton's eyes during his brief appearance. And casting Nicholas Briggs (the current voice of the Daleks) as Peter Hawkins (the original voice of the Daleks) is a lovely touch.

Gatiss and director Terry McDonough effectively capture the exhilarating feeling of creativity and the horrific chaos of television production throughout the first half. I particularly love the TARDIS design basically coming about by a bunch of random office supplies getting thrown together in about 20 seconds.

Gatiss moves efficiently from the early ideas to casting Hartnell to the near-disastrous recordings of the pilot episode, leading to the series nearly being canceled out of the gates, saved only by Lambert's pluck and the lucky stroke of the Daleks' ridiculous popularity.

Gatiss and McDonough revel in the recreations of classic scenes from the early seasons, including bits of Marco Polo (one of the missing episodes), a Cyberman taking a smoke break during The Tenth Planet, and a brief bit of The Dalek Invasion of Earth that probably cost more than the BBC spent on the entire actual serial back in the day.

And right from the beginning, it's bursting with clever touches and thrilling moments. After the howlaround titles, the opening moves from an actual police box to a car, where the car's expiration date not only sets the date of the scene, but doubles as a metaphor for what the man inside the car is feeling. It's the sort of moment that could have been overplayed and eye-rolling, but McDonough plays it perfectly.

Which leads into what becomes the movie's focus - Hartnell's story. This is where Gatiss' script truly shines. He threads Hartnell's arc carefully through the first half; other than the opening scene, he's merely the first amongst the ensemble. Hartnell is an aging actor, initially unhappy with moving from films to television, and who approaches the role with a grouchy trepidation. And yet, as the show goes on, he realizes he has truly found his greatest role; beloved by children and part of a family in the production.

And then, one by one, that family of the production falls away. (It also nicely reflects the on-screen history of the show, in the way the Doctor was the lead of an ensemble for a long time before truly becoming just the lead character.) Both those in front of and behind the cameras move onto other work, including finally Verity herself leaving him feeling abandoned in his own show. It's as though he grasped his life's greatness, and then is forced to watch it slip away. Which, after all...
Hartnell: Why do things always have to change? Why can't we just go on as we are?
Verity: Life.
And so it becomes a surprisingly moving drama about the nature of life's triumphs and of legacy. It's a saavy choice on Gatiss' part; with the first half, he delivers all the nostalgic fun, letting the story gradually emerge. Ultimately, he builds to Hartnell himself reluctantly forced out of the role, and the show finding a way to move on.

And then Gatiss builds to a shamelessly sentimental conclusion. He has plenty of little references to later bits of the series peppering the dialogue (Verity telling Waris, "Brave heart, Darling."; Richard Martin noting of Hartnell, "He doesn't like farewells, does he?"), but then really shoots for the moon as Hartnell proclaims sadly, "I need more time," a moment strongly reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor's closing lines. Which leads to the concluding moment, as Hartnell meets Patrick Troughton during his final episode, then stares way off yonder...

... and sees Matt Smith standing there.

Now that's going out on a limb and trusting your audience to go right out there with you.

I don't know how that'll play, say, 20 years from now when we're watching the 17th Doctor and Smith's era is an entire generation in the past. But in the context of the 50th, it worked beautifully, and rewatching it a year later, it still works for me. It's played with absolute confidence and sincerity, and Bradley and Smith give it exactly the right silent emotion. It's a lovely conclusion, both bold and quiet in its execution, bringing genuine uplift to life's small but eternal tragedy of things ending.

Because the legacy of how you touched or changed those around you lives long past you, as do those who continue to inspire others from your example.

And sometimes that's as simple as pouring your heart into a silly TV show.


* * * ½

  • If there's one thing Gatiss misses - and the reason I didn't give this the full rating - it's the weirdness. Because those early stories were bizarre. Lambert and Whitaker (and, later, Dennis Spooner) really pushed the series in wild and different directions constantly. Here, other than a glimpse of The Web Planet, it plays only the most normal stuff. (Although, when a giant salt-shaker with a plunger for one arm and an egg-whisk deathray for the other arm is normal...) Where this really hurts the film, I think, is the lack of the more eccentric characters behind the scenes. In particular, David Whitaker (the first script editor, and writer of Edge of Destruction, The Rescue, and, later, Power... and Evil of the Daleks) basically doesn't appear at all, despite being one of the most important figures, and a particularly fascinating individual. Similarly, Delia Derbyshire, who performed the original recording of the theme through some fantastically complex electronics and gave it its unique sound, and was fairly eccentric herself, gets a single brief line.
  • Perhaps that has something to do with Raine's performance. Gatiss does give Verity some good lines, but I wonder if his aversion to the weird stuff bled into the script. It may be that Verity lacks the piss and vinegar on the page, too, and its' just not noticeable because of Raine's underplaying.

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