A television documentary about making a television programme? If it were any other show but the icons of Doctor Who, Star Trek and perhaps Dallas there wouldn’t be much interest. Arguably, this is the second largest TV event of the year – the docudrama about the birth of Doctor Who
Penned and directed by lifelong Whovian Mark Gatiss, it is a heart-warming tale largely about William Hartnell (played superbly by David Bradley), Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) – those early pioneers on and off screen who created the vision that allowed for jelly babies, long scarves, bow ties, sonic screwdrivers and… the Kandyman (the less said about that the better I think).
It starts with what we presume is Hartnell’s last few days in the role. It is 1966 and he is looking longingly at a real Police Box (not the TARDIS). In the next scene he is being called out of his dressing room to start filming. He retorts angrily.
Back to 1963…
We are in the office of Sydney Newman suggests to some of his backroom staff that sci fi is the future of the BBC. Verity Lambert is watching the TV and footage of the first woman in space. She gets a call from Director Sydney Newman who wants to pitch some ideas about a new show.
Later, we see her back at the BBC going through appointing who should be The Doctor. She puts her foot down on all the suggestions of her assistants. There’s all sorts of problems with the script and the BeeB are pushing them to go to production. Verity sweet talks the young man (Waris Hussain), trying to get him to see the potential for the BBC show. Eventually, Hartnell is called to dinner to discuss the role but he immediately dismisses it as “muck”. He won’t take on another long-term gig but he is intrigued enough to keep firing questions, of course the pair eventually talk him around and history is made…
The first episode of Doctor Who went to air the day after the Kennedy Assassination – to give some perspective, foreshadowing (and perhaps making others concerned that the show would be overlooked because of the event). Lambert is given a character assassination by the big bosses. Despite that reviews and ratings were positive, Sydney is ordered to kill the show *gasp*! We might never have seen the Daleks she presented to Newman. But she fights her corner and demands a repeat of the first episode before the second on the following Saturday. But it goes ahead, now it is Christmas and the nation is hooked because of the “really creepy” Daleks! Even those on set are terrified of the tinpot dictators, hurrah! And they’re everywhere. We watch them become the country’s biggest cultural meme.
Inevitably, people start to move on. First Hussein and then Lambert. The later on-screen departure of Susan is so well done without the kitsch and it seems that Hartnell really felt it. Hartnell is also becoming quite ill with arteriosclerosis, and Verity Lambert too is about to move on. Hartnell doesn’t seem to get on with the new behind the scenes crew and they are portrayed as clueless compared to the team he had become so fond of. His heart appears to no longer be in it and soon the decision is made to replace him. And we come full circle, his last day on set. He breaks down in front of his wife pleading “I don’t want to go!” is this a coincidence or were they echoing Tennant’s final scene?
I like the way it is interspersed with real footage – especially when recreating filming of the early episodes. We see the set before us but what appears on the screens of the crew is the actual footage. It blends seamlessly here. The whole work is a testament to the passion that Mark Gatiss feels for his Doctor Who. It touches the geek inside all of us and immediately makes it feel warm and cosy, and perhaps even nostalgic for the casual viewer. This is a fan’s documentary, not one produced by bland people in suits who see only money they can make from such fandom.
Like any Biopic, I’m not sure how much of this was real but it makes for damn good telly! Of course it romanticises the period and producing the show. How many of them thought this would be just any other BBC show? Was Lambert that enthusiastic? Did Hartnell really not want to go? Aww who cares, it’s fifty years and as strong as ever!
Long live Doctor Who! Verity Lambert died in 2007. I’m pleased she lived long enough to see Doctor Who return in 2005.