12 November 2013 | awfulalex
A Perfectly Balanced Tribute
I was privileged to attend the premier at the National Film Theatre. The audience was asked not to give away any spoilers, so I'll respect that wish (not that I wouldn't have done so anyway, of course).
The programme was far more emotional that I had expected and the audience's reaction - laughs, tears and much rapt silence - showed I wasn't alone. Admittedly, the place was packed with Doctor Who fans, so it was hardly going to send any of them to sleep, but they could also have been counted on to be highly critical of any factual errors.
The time frame covers 1963 to 1966 and is as much a biography of William Hartnell, the first Doctor, as the early years of the show he fronted. The Doctor is played by David Bradley (no complaints from me about his crotchety but committed portrayal) and is pretty much throughout seen as ailing in physical health or mental agility, which seems like a true depiction but is rather unfortunate for his legacy as someone often described, in his earlier years, as a fine character actor. Hartnell's granddaughter, who was in attendance at the post-screening Q&A) referred to the fact that prided himself on remembering his lines, so his problems with this as depicted here should be taken into context, although it would have been a tall order for the programme to have tried to focus on any more of the man's life without overrunning its 90 minute time.
Many of the key production staff have key roles, although (as writer Mark Gatiss acknowledged during the Q&A) not all of them were included as to do so would have been made the programme too difficult to follow. Thus there is no David Whitaker, for example, but there is much screen time for the Sydney Newman, the Canadian Head of Drama at the BBC, amusingly played by Brian Cox. His pivotal role in appointing and supporting Verity Lambert, the Doctor Who producer, was one of the unexpected revelations here.
Without giving away any really key moments (and there are plenty of lovely surprises) the show is both reverential of the programme as well as poking fun at the ridiculousness of making a prime time science fiction programme on a BBC budget with no computer technology and live editing. Plenty more such contrasts abound: the daleks are both funny and awesome at the same time; Hartnell's crotchety but committed personality is shown to be a benefit and a hindrance.
If you are even slightly interested in Doctor Who I'm sure you'll love it as much as the audience who gave it a standing ovation. Young children would probably be unlikely to find much of interest in it but older ones with more than a 30 second attention span may well enjoy it. Considering that much of the story of the programme is known to many of us and that there are no deaths or love affairs involved (that's not a spoiler - surely you weren't expecting that?) it is to its credit that it managed to be so entertaining for a film-length duration.