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

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.


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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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