Monday, June 09, 2014

An Adventure in Space and Time: Blu-ray / DVD review

There is no reason why anyone should ever have made a movie about William Hartnell. From today’s vantage point he was a relatively obscure actor who, up until the end of his career, was best known for playing drill sergeants and thugs in a variety of English pictures and series that are hardly even talked about today. Before the winter of 1963, perhaps his closest brushes with true fame included working with Peter Sellers in a couple of his early pictures (The Mouse That Roared and Heavens Above!), and a sizable role in the Lindsay Anderson-directed Richard Harris vehicle This Sporting Life

But everything would soon change for Hartnell, when that last picture, released in January of ‘63, brought him to the attention of up and coming BBC TV producer Verity Lambert, who was searching for a lead actor for a new science fiction series she was helming. He was cast, and 50 years later we have this TV movie, An Adventure in Space and Time, which tells the story of the most exciting – and tragic – stretch of his career.

Though Hartnell is central to the goings-on, the movie, of course, really traces the birth of Doctor Who. Yet when I met director Terry McDonough (Breaking Bad) at a BBC America event last summer, he told me point blank that the theme of the movie was “No one’s irreplaceable,” a sentiment that, it could be argued, has practically become anthemic for the Doctor Who brand over the years. The moment a new actor is cast in the central role, people immediately begin bombarding him with the question, “How long do you intend to stay?” The thrill of meeting a new Doctor is a powerful force indeed. The idea has bled over into other franchises and media as well. In the worlds of comic book and science fiction/fantasy movies and series especially, it’s now the norm. Don’t care for Ben Affleck as Batman? Don’t worry, in a few years there will be another one that you might like better.

But few concepts have been able to make that transitional process as part and parcel of their ongoing storyline as Doctor Who has, which is only one of the many things that makes it the unique creature that it’s become. Adventure sketches the origins of that uniqueness, and gives viewers a behind the scenes peek into a process that for many is as much a mystery as the Time Lord himself. And for those of us who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of the genesis of Doctor Who? The movie must surely be a dream come true. I’m enamored enough with it I can easily see it becoming a yearly ritual.

Brian Cox as Sydney Newman
If success has many fathers, An Adventure in Space and Time suggests that Who had no less than a half a dozen. To whom should ultimate credit for the series be given? Perhaps Sydney Newman, the brash Canadian BBC TV exec who initially came up with the basic idea? Or Lambert, the determined young producer that took Newman’s ideas and turned them into ratings gold? What about Ron Grainer, who wrote the iconic theme tune, or, even more so, Delia Derbyshire, who pulled a Lambert with Grainer’s composition? Would Lambert have been able to make any of it happen without the equally wet behind the ears director Waris Hussein, who brought all of the elements  together in that mesmerizing first episode? Can anyone ever discount Terry Nation’s creation of the Daleks, which ensured the success of the series (and that’s to say nothing of Ray Cusick’s iconic Dalek design)? And surely Hartnell played an enormous part in making Doctor Who such a massive success. He believed in the power of the series and stuck with it - despite his ailing health and the toll the rigorous production schedule was taking on him - even after Lambert, Hussein, and all of his co-stars had moved on. 

The very best television is the result of a magical alchemy, and the whole of Doctor Who may be the most perfect example of that in the history of the medium. The series may have ultimately become the epic, ongoing story of one Time Lord, but as has been proven time and again over the last 50 years, the concept stretches way beyond any one person, and it seemingly, as Peter Capaldi said last year, “belongs to all of us.”

Sacha Dhawan and Jessica Raine
But Adventure is squarely focused on that first core group of people, and the struggles they went through while laying all that groundwork. Initially, the movie belongs to Lambert (Jessica Raine of Call the Midwife and Who’s own “Hide”), and her ongoing efforts to get the series off the ground. Hired by Newman (a pitch perfect Brian Cox, who brings equal parts of humor and menace to the proceedings) to expand on his raw concept, she immediately finds herself talked down to by the more experienced men surrounding her. As the first female producer (who’s also Jewish) working at the BBC, the job clearly won’t be a simple one, and she runs into sexist attitudes right and left. She soon finds a kindred spirit in Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the first Indian director (who’s also gay) at the BBC, and the movie credits their collective, bold ingenuity as the truest spark behind the concept. The debate has raged harder than ever in recent years as to whether or not the Doctor should be played by a woman. Doctor Who doesn’t need a woman in the central role. What it needs is another female showrunner, and it’s nothing short of preposterous that a woman was the first, yet there hasn’t been one since.

David Bradley as William Hartnell
As the movie moves forward, its emphasis subtly changes from Lambert’s struggles to those of the show’s leading man, brought to cantankerous life by David Bradley (who’s getting more high profile work in his 70s than at any other point in his career, and deservedly so). What is probably Adventure’s boldest stroke is its depiction of Hartnell as an extremely difficult and often unlikeable man - bold not because he wasn’t either of those things, but because by most counts he was, and the movie doesn’t aim to whitewash such facts. But the movie also shows the effect that Doctor Who had on Hartnell - how it softened him as a person, and gave him a renewed sense of self. In the end, Hartnell wins the viewer’s sympathy as his memory takes a sharp decline due to arteriosclerosis, and he is gently let go from the greatest job of his career. Bradley may not sound like Hartnell, and he’s roughly 15 years older than Hartnell was at this time of his life, yet he remains ideal casting, as he forms a movie version of Hartnell that is nigh impossible to shake once the credits roll. This is precisely the type of performance an Emmy nomination is made of.

The movie itself feels designed to appeal to non-Who fans as well as the fanatics (though for the fanatic, it is crammed wall to wall with Easter Eggs of all shapes and sizes, lending it a serious multiple viewings factor). On this most recent viewing I was struck by the film’s similarities to Mad Men (and no doubt, the BBC’s own The Hour). It fetishizes the 60s in a similar fashion to the AMC series, and its attention to detail feels cut from the same cloth. (The cigarette smoking is off the charts.) Further, the movie tackles some of the same themes as the early seasons of Mad Men. If you know a Mad Men fan going through withdrawals, you might just want to sit them down for this one. 

If there’s anything to take Adventure to task for, it’s that it falls prey to some of the same sort of compositing issues that nearly every biopic ever made seems to suffer from. So if this manner of scripting is part and parcel of the biopic format, can we really hold it against the movie? Does Adventure need to tell the story of the birth of Who and rewrite the biopic as well? Probably not. Indeed, I’d be nitpicking what’s likely the greatest, most efficient script of Mark Gatiss’s career. He’s apparently been trying to get this picture off the ground since at least the show’s 40th anniversary (if not before that), so he’s had plenty of time to hone the vision.

An Adventure in Space and Time was the underdog presentation of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary. Here in the States it was quietly nestled into the Friday night schedule with considerably less fanfare than its bigger brother, “The Day of the Doctor.” But it is an equally important story and one that I am so charmed by that I now want to see behind the scenes movies made of some of the other eras of the series, as well. The Colin Baker movie would blow people away.

DVD/Blu-ray Extras: We are very lucky here in the States to have this killer, three disc release of An Adventure in Space and Time. (At the time of writing, the movie has not been released on Blu-ray in the U.K.) This set includes one Blu-ray and one DVD which both feature identical programming, and then a second DVD with an entire classic series serial and some other swank extras.

Aside from the feature presentation, the Adventure Blu-ray and DVD each have several short featurettes and goodies. “William Hartnell: The Original” (5:16) is a brief examination of the man himself, including interviews with some of those who worked with and knew him, as well as a few bits of that amazing, recently discovered interview with Hartnell that was featured in its entirety on last year’s “The Tenth Planet” DVD. There is a “making-of” (11:24) hosted by Carole Ann Ford. “Reconstructions” (6:34) are scenes of classic Doctor Who that were recreated for use in the movie (some are in black and white, and some are in color). These are so perfect in production and execution one wishes that Bradley and company could be used to remake all the missing episodes. “The Title Sequence” (1:24) feels rather pointless as it is simply the movie’s credits sequence played again. Finally there are two short deleted scenes that total 1:33, the best one of which features Delia Derbyshire working on the theme tune.

The third disc here is a repressing of the first disc of the previously released “The Beginning” DVD box set. It features the entire four-part “An Unearthly Child” serial, as well as the original pilot episode that Sydney Newman so memorably loathes in Adventure. The pilot is frequently technically awful, yet the material manages to remain engaging. Watching it, it’s easy to see why Newman’s reaction to it might’ve been precisely as shown in the film: “I should fire both of you, but instead I want you to do it one more time” (bit of paraphrasing there). I remain amazed that with all of the episodes of Doctor Who that remain missing, not only do we have all of “Child,” but that this pilot is still around, too! Beyond the five episodes, the disc also carries over all of its original extras, which include four very funny comedy sketches, starring a host of familiar faces, which total around 15 minutes or so, a title sequence music video (2:36), a photo gallery (6:03), and commentary tracks for “An Unearthly Child” Episodes One (Gary Russell moderating Verity Lambert, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford) and Four (Russell moderating Russell, Ford and Waris Hussein), as well as one for the pilot episode (with Gary Russell moderating Lambert and Hussein).