“CS Lewis meets HG Wells meets Father Christmas. That’s the Doctor.”
Well that was rather wonderful, wasn’t it? I’ve never previously thought of Mark Gatiss as a writer of moving character drama; sly wit, certainly, dry irony yes. OK, so he’s written a few Doctor Who episodes, but the best of those (The Crimson Horror) was determinedly tongue-in-cheek, much like his work on The League of Gentlemen.
This, though, was in a different league (see what I did there?), as a piece of genuinely good drama. Gatiss had plainly poured his heart and soul into this one; and as a result, it worked fantastically both as a love letter from a fan and a piece of drama in its own right. This is how good it was – so far I haven’t heard any of Doctor Who’s more notoriously humourless fanboys complaining about it.
Reminiscent of all those BBC4 celeb bio-dramas, it was clear from the outset that this was mostly a story about William Hartnell, despite its ensemble nature and remit to cover Doctor Who’s very beginnings. I must admit, I’d been expecting/dreading interminable scenes of brainstorming meetings with Sydney Newman, and the story to climax with the broadcast of the first episode. What we actually got was far more interesting – a sort of overview of the show’s first three years, in which Hartnell himself was the only constant. It might have taken him a while to show up after that opening teaser, but he was plainly the star of the show, just as he had been in real life.
Which brings us to David Bradley, a fine actor who’s these days typecast as baddies. Yes, you probably know him as Mr Filch in Harry Potter, or Walder Frey in Game of Thrones; perhaps you even remember him as Tory-style baddie Solomon in Doctor Who ep Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But if you remember him as Eddie Wells in classic BBC drama Our Friends in the North, then you know he’s an actor who has more range than sneering evil.
And so it proved here. William Hartnell was, in real life, apparently not all that likeable; rumours of misogyny, racism and homophobia abound. Certainly, of his fellow cast members, only Carole Ann Ford seems genuinely affectionate towards him, though William Russell is far too much of a gentleman to criticise his former colleague. The challenge then was to make this irascible old man not just likeable but sympathetic.
And both the writing and the acting pulled that off. Yes, Bradley’s portrayal was initially every bit as abrasive as we’ve heard Hartnell was. But as the show he warily committed to starring in became more popular, he softened; the sequence of him playing with an unexpected crowd of admiring children in the local park was beautiful. And the real affection between him and Carole Ann Ford was conveyed well, with the two hugging after an argument, and the old man genuinely distraught when she chose to move on to pastures new. Hartnell’s farewell to Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth is one of the most tear-jerking moments in the original show; Bradley recreated it beautifully.
He was also shown building a real rapport with producer Verity Lambert, a young woman in a determinedly male-dominated world, and director Waris Hussein, both Indian and gay. Which made you wonder how true the stories about him are. He really did work with both to make the show a success; if he was as misogynistic, racist and homophobic as they say, that seems unlikely…
Even if he was the centre of the drama, though, it wasn’t all about Hartnell. Basically there were four main characters: Hartnell, Lambert, Hussein and Sydney Newman. Of the four, Brian Cox’s Sydney Newman came across as perhaps the least believable for his sheer bombastic flamboyance; and yet, it would appear that this was what the real Sydney Newman was like. Certainly surviving interviews with him show a man who was considerably larger than life. It may not make for a complex character, but Brian Cox had the necessary charisma to play this force of nature in human form.
With him as puppet master, the others came across as more complex, full of self-doubt. In today’s fairly accepting world, it was a necessary reminder that the TV industry – and the BBC especially – used to be the province of well-bred white males who’d been to Oxford or Cambridge. Both Jessica Raine as Verity and Sacha Dhawan as Waris conveyed the insecurity they must have felt, Verity constantly fobbed off by the dismissive set designer and Waris resignedly referring to himself as the “posh wog”. Verity being, “the pushy Jewish bird”. And we know the TV legend she became.
So – an innovative TV show conceived by an ebullient, maverick Canadian, being produced by a woman and a non-white director. It’s a wonder they ever lasted past four episodes, as we saw in a scene where a BBC bigwig tried to close the show down.
But it’s standard in true-life dramas for there to be moments of adversity to overcome, and here, as in real life, they were overcome by the sudden, unexpected success of the second story’s real stars – the Daleks. It warmed this fanboy’s heart to see them lovingly recreated here – and their introduction was expertly directed as a series of POV shots from INSIDE the casings, something that would never have been possible at the time, before we finally saw them in all their glory.
True, they looked better in their first appearance than they did trundling along Westminster Bridge, where their new bases looked like they were about to fall off; but then, I wouldn’t expect this to have the sort of budget to build longlasting props for a one-time showing.
Nevertheless, it plainly did have quite a budget, as was evident from that lovingly recreated set of the TARDIS console room. I’d venture it was actually better built than the real one at the time! The iconic Television Centre building was used to full advantage, its circular courtyard allowing for some impressive shots from director Terry McDonough. Even the period cars seen in the car park were impressively varied for their brief appearances; more so than in The Hour, which this stylistically resembled, where the budget only seemed to stretch to one Rover 100 and an MGA.
The script managed to pull off the necessary trick of being chockfull of nods for the fanboys without alienating the wider audience, too. We saw the Dalek operator on Westminster Bridge complaining that he needed a wee (they legendarily relieved themselves from inside the props into handy drains), and the opening shot, of Hartnell staring wistfully at a real police box, was on Barnes Common. In David Whitaker’s novel of the first Dalek story, that was where Ian (a rocket scientist in that version) first stumbled into the TARDIS.
I expect some of the fanboys may nitpick some of the details, though mostly they were to do with artistic licence. Script editor David Whitaker was nowhere to be seen, his role combined with associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. It might have been nice to see a bit more of Delia Derbyshire’s work creating the theme tune, or Richard Martin directing The Daleks; but then you can’t give everyone who was so important a share of the limelight in this running time. Still, I might have preferred a little less emphasis on Sacha Dhawan (gorgeous though he was) as Waris Hussein, as the script seemed to give the impression that he directed most of the first year’s stories rather than the one-and-a-bit he actually did.
Sillier complaints may involve Susan’s explanation of the word TARDIS as “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space”, when every true geek knows that that first line reading used the singular “Dimension”. And in my own area of expertise, I was puzzling over how William Hartnell came to possess a D-registered (1966) Singer Gazelle in 1963. Time travel, I suppose…
The nitpicks seemed insignificant though, compared to the emotion in the writing and acting. And that was nicely intertwined with comedic moments to offset the drama; the incongruous sight of a Tenth Planet Cyberman smoking a cigarette, or a group of Menoptera wandering past as Heather Hartnell tried to tell Verity of her husband’s illness.
The writing also cleverly used real scenes from Doctor Who to counterpoint the emotion – both literally and figuratively restaging moments of high drama. Hartnell’s pain at losing Carole Ann Ford was conveyed, as in reality, by his emotion in the farewell speech from Dalek Invasion of Earth. But also noticeable was the fact that his heartfelt farewell to Verity Lambert (played out in the console room) was virtually a re-enactment of Tom Baker’s farewell to Sarah Jane Smith; even ending with the same line – “Till we meet again.” And the moment that I suspect made everyone’s tears well up was Hartnell breaking down and sobbing with David Tennant’s final line – “I don’t want to go…”
Of course, go he had to. He loved the show, but simply wasn’t up to doing it any more. That scene was heartbreaking, but his increasing isolation as his original colleagues moved on was mournfully highlighted by a montage as he posed for publicity stills with new companions he barely knew. I don’t know who they were, but the stand in for Michael Craze (Ben) was gorgeous. But then, so was Michael Craze.
There were plenty of blink-and-you’d miss-them cameos from the show’s real stars too. William Russell (Ian) popped up as the officious BBC commissionaire right at the start, while Carole Ann Ford (Susan) was the mother calling her kids in to see the Daleks. Verity Lambert’s farewell speech was applauded by, among others, Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom) and Anneke Wills (Polly).
Some of the other roles were played by well-remembered guest stars too. Mark Eden (Marco Polo) was the sceptical BBC bigwig, while Jeff Rawle (Plantagenet in Frontios) was his usual loveable self as Mervyn Pinfield.
But the best – and if you weren’t crying a little at this point, you have no soul – was totally unexpected. With Hartnell on set for the final time, he looked over the console to see none other than Matt Smith, in full costume, playing the part he’d created, fifty years later. It was magical. Simply magical. No words were needed.
How much truth was there in all this? I’d like to think quite a bit, though obviously the story structure was as much Mark Gatiss’ as real life’s. But it was a perfectly played love letter to a British institution, a part of our culture that began 50 years ago and is still going strong today. Only the most emotionless Cyberman could find anything wrong with that.