Reviews

Celebrating a Remarkable 50-Year 'Adventure in Space and Time'

Long-time fan and Doctor Who scriptwriter Mark Gatiss guides us through the first episode of what would become television’s longest running sci-fi show.


Doctor Who

Distributor: Warner
Cast: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, Lesley Manville, Brian Cox
Network: BBC America
Release date: 2014-05-27
Website
Trailer
Amazon

In November 1963, the BBC launched a half-hour science fiction series, Doctor Who, as part of its Saturday schedule. The network hoped that it would attract a broad audience of children plus adults who would stay tuned during the transitional period following afternoon sports programming and the evening’s shows.

The series faced an uphill battle -- the cramped filming studio sometimes overheated, and water from the sprinkler system doused the actors and crew; the young Jewish woman promoted to produce the show received little respect from what she termed “the old guard, this sea of fag-smoke, tweed and sweaty men”; the young male Indian director faced overt prejudice from colleagues. To top it off, the first episode was broadcast amid news about the Kennedy assassination.

Indeed, the obstacles surrounding the launch of Doctor Who should have relegated it to television oblivion, yet, 50 years later, An Adventure in Space and Time celebrates the longest running science fiction/fantasy television series in the world. Currently Doctor Who is one of BBC Worldwide’s most lucrative exports, and audience anticipation is high for new episodes this August featuring the latest Doctor (the 12th), played by Peter Capaldi. The origin story of Doctor Who is truly An Adventure in Space and Time.

The movie could only have been written by Mark Gatiss, who has scripted several Doctor Who episodes since 2005, including one for the upcoming season. Gatiss seems to write best about the popular culture he loves most. The movie benefits from Gatiss’ knowledge of details and insider information about Doctor Who, as well as the way the BBC operates -- and the way to make stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The result is a recent Critics’ Choice Television Award nominee for best television movie. (The winner will be announced later this month.)

The movie takes viewers on an adventure back to 1963-66 and the now-historic realm of that era’s BBC Television Centre. The technology and mindset for making a television series in the early '60s seem as far removed from our world as 20th century Earth is from futuristic Gallifrey, home world of the Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan. Although the differences between now and then may pique nostalgic interest in this rendition the script does more than document the origins of a TV classic. It more importantly and enjoyably tells the stories of the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert; director, Waris Hussein; and Doctor, William Hartnell. Lambert is plucky and determined; Hussein, overwhelmed but creative; and Hartnell, endearingly gruff, possessive of his series, and, heartbreakingly, slowly succumbing to memory loss.

Like most origin stories, however, this one has a generally happy ending. Lambert, Hussein, and Doctor Who go on to even greater success, and even Hartnell is able to return for the 10th anniversary show. The tale of how the TARDIS wheezes its way into television immortality is enjoyable for any audience, not just the Doctor’s followers, because the making of premiere episode “An Unearthly Child” is touchingly very human.

Because not everyone who will watch the just-released Blu-ray/DVD set may be familiar with the first Doctor or episode, perhaps the best way to enjoy An Adventure in Space and Time is to begin with some of the many extras. The key starting point is the studio recording of “An Unearthly Child”, which includes the full episode but, even more enlightening, two versions of that first look inside the TARDIS.

In one version, the blocking is bad, leaving actors obscured behind each other or upstaged; the lighting, especially in a black-and-white show, is distracting when shadows inadvertently fall across an actor’s face. Sometimes a performer flubs a line. Occasionally the set does not work as it should. The entire episode has the immediacy and more theatrical acting style of live early television. In his script, Gatiss faithfully re-creates this scene, and viewers will enjoy the movie more if they are aware of just what went on during the studio recording.

Another high point of the Blu-ray/DVD set’s extras is a tribute to Hartnell’s work as the Doctor, including a candid interview with the actor in his dressing room. Those who knew him well, such as granddaughter Jessica Carney, director Hussein, and actor William Russell (Ian Chesterton), share their memories. When David Bradley (portraying Hartnell), delivers the line “I’m a legitimate character actor,” those who have seen Hartnell making this statement during the interview can better understand just how much accuracy and detail Gatiss has lovingly packed into this dramatization.

Carney recalls being on set with her grandfather and admits that her memories of him are mixed with recollections of the Doctor. She gives Bradley’s performance her stamp of approval. Hartnell described the Doctor as “a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas,” and Bradley brilliantly captures both the actor’s grumpy old man persona and his kindliness in real life and in his most famous role.

After being immersed in An Adventure in Space and Time, audiences should later watch “The Making of” segment, which places the movie within the context of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. It also answers the “where are they now?” question on many fans’ minds by including present-day comments from Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and Russell. In addition, this segment underscores Gatiss’ long-running association with the series, as a fan and a scriptwriter.

Bonus features “The Pitch of Fear”, “The Kidnappers”, and “The Web of Caves” star Gatiss in comedy sketches originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Doctor Who night in 1999. In “The Kidnappers”, fanboy Mark is awakened by a friend who has kidnapped Fifth Doctor Peter Davison and brought him home. What ensues is a humorous commentary on the delineation between “appropriate” fan behavior and that which is illegal/ stalkerish/ highly inappropriate, accompanied by Davison’s increasingly frightened expressions.

When Mark is overcome with excitement and trepidation at coming face-to-face with his idol, his friend requests that Davison “Excuse my friend. He’s a fan.” Gatiss quickly corrects that impression: “an enthusiast”. Gatiss is indeed enthusiastic about Doctor Who. In the current An Adventure in Space and Time he has a cameo as Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, and a deleted scene included in the set shows Gatiss regenerating as the Third Doctor.

Of course, not all disc extras are equally insightful or entertaining. The music video is heavier on the series’ theme music than video, and the gallery of stills from “An Unearthly Child” is adequate but not as commemorative as footage of Hartnell. The overall quality and variety of the extras, however, is exemplary and should help viewers more fully enjoy An Adventure in Space and Time.

Part of the reason why Doctor Who encourages and retains such a devoted fan base from generation to generation is the sense of family often created between those who have worked on the series and those who faithfully watch it. Through fan conventions and special Doctor Who events over the years, fans have had the opportunity to meet many actors, writers, directors, designers, and other creative crew members who share their stories of what it was/is like to work on the show.

An Adventure in Space and Time, while highly entertaining for those not as invested in the series, is like sharing a home movie with extended family members. It is nostalgic, poignant, historic, fond, and fun -- it cherishes our collective pop culture memories of a series that should not have survived, but thankfully did.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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