We’ve had minisodes of varying qualities (still not sure what the point was of The Last Day…) and assorted pieces on BBC Three (of really variable quality!), but the anniversary celebrations for Doctor Who really kick off with this moving love letter to the series from Mark Gatiss and team.
The drama set out its stall from the opening minutes: a BBC continuity announcer (of the sort used to explain that the following programme would be unsuitable for those of a nervous disposition) reminded viewers that this was a drama… and then incorporated a line from the First Doctor. The play opens with a car near a police box on Barnes Common (we know it’s Barnes Common, because there’s a handy signpost there!). The tax disc in its window expires at the end of October 1966. Both have meaning for Who fans – David Whitaker’s rewriting of the start of Doctor Who’s fictional history in An Exciting Adventure with the Daleks begins on Barnes Common; the end of October 1966 is when the Doctor regenerated for the first time on screen. But to a general audience, that doesn’t matter, because it’s clear that the elderly man behind the wheel is heartbroken about something, and even the comforting presence of a policeman isn’t enough…
From there we travel back, thanks to the TARDIS’ yearometer, to 1963 and the creation of the show. This wasn’t meant to be a factual recounting of the show’s birth – God knows, there are enough of those out there – but a drama, in which Gatiss centred on four key people: Sydney Newman (a bravura performance from Brian Cox that only once veered close to parody – I couldn’t help thinking of Morecambe and Wise during the scene where Newman bolsters Hartnell); Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine fantastic, recreating the “piss and vinegar” of the lady whom I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with interviewing a few months before her death); Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan equally strong, particularly given that of the lead quartet, he was the only one playing someone still alive); and William Hartnell, brought to life by David Bradley. There aren’t many things on television that can bring me to tears, but the scene at the Hartnell home when he admits he doesn’t want to leave the show did – as did the final, magic, moment when the Doctor (and Bradley is the Doctor at this point) flicks a switch on the console for the last time, and sees… If you’ve not seen it, I won’t spoil it; if you have, you don’t need me to remind you.
Both those scenes – and the equally moving recreation of Verity Lambert’s leaving party – drew from Doctor Who’s own storytelling and emotional beats (I’m glad they drew the line at Hartnell driving away from the party though – the Green Death homage was sufficient as it was). Other scenes were direct recreations of the early days of the show, with Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell and Claudia Grant receiving most attention as William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, and Carol Anne Ford. As with Bradley, they weren’t just playing roles; they were recreating other actors’ performances – not impersonating them: some people do seem to be spectacularly missing the point by noting that the voices weren’t the same! – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wished that we could have new stories for that first TARDIS crew featuring this team.
The drama behind the scenes was, of necessity, condensed (Lambert is given a neat line to Hartnell to cover the absent characters); anecdotes we’ve all heard about those years were incorporated into the drama. It doesn’t matter whether or not it was at the same time that he recorded the monologue at the end of The Massacre that Hartnell’s illness became apparent; one of the Doctor’s most moving speeches was used to portray an equally important part in the actor’s life. And there’s a joyful moment when Hartnell plays Pied Piper to a group of adoring schoolchildren.
Terry McDonough’s direction allows the actors the time to play the moments – the movement of an eyebrow that Hartnell refers to in discussions with Lambert – and Edmund Butt’s music score isn’t used to tell the audience what to feel but to express what’s already there from the scene.
I suspect for many classic series fans, this will be the true Doctor Who 50th anniversary drama, and while it would be great to see a sequel covering the Troughton years, sometimes less is more, and this should be allowed to remain unique.
Verdict: A beautiful celebration of the birth of Doctor Who. 10/10