I was relieved when the fiftieth anniversary was over. I felt like I’d spent eleven months with an anticipatory knot in my stomach; in quiet moments, dreaming of televisual adaptations of Love and War. Thankfully, I suppose, the actual event was quite low keyish, with just one special episode, a few webisodes and a docudrama about the early days of Doctor Who to celebrate this occasion. Day of the Doctor is as good as it can be, both an inevitable disappointment when compared to the stories in our head and perfect summation of the new series that builds on its narrative plot points and somehow manages to resolve them whilst at acknowledging that the show wasn’t actually on air for 17 of the 50 years we were celebrating. An Adventure in Space and Time is another in the BBC’s long line of refusing to make magical television and instead, a programme about how television itself is magical. There’s a sense of television executives congratulating themselves on being part of a history that has made Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army and all the rest. These shows rely on tedious expository mentions of Cuban Missile Crisis in the first five minutes to set the scene. The airwaves seem clogged up with this inanity.
Initially, it seemed like the last chance for us to recognise what a wonderful actor William Hartnell was and how much the series owed him… but he’s dead, and everyone thinks he’s a racist so we don’t need to bother with that. This programme can’t even bring itself to call him a racist, instead choosing to present him as making a solitary tasteless joke that the offended party laughs at. His vanity and irascibility remain in place. The drama communicates just how hopeless the creation of this show was, and how unloved it was by a monolithic and labyrinthine institution that commissioned it… but it can’t quite get across how it was this man who pulled it into the stratosphere. Dalek ratings were high, but so were Zarbi, and Hartnell is the consistent link. He managed to rewrite the show around his dashing (and I think the first Doctor is dashing in his own way) lead.
On the introduction of the Daleks (sorry Terry, sorry Ray, no time for your majesty in this programme. Or Delia. Or David. Or…), it’s a bit heavy handed, as shots of a Dalek are intercut with a Nazi-inspired rifle being cocked. It’s almost as if Terry McDonough doesn’t know what an allegory is.
It’s a bit of a mess. Ostensibly, the drama follows Hartnell, but the show was created long before Hartnell came anywhere near it, so the first hour of the show almost seeks to move him to the sidelines and instead focus on Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein (Hartnell is shoehorned into the opening of the show via some meaningless flashback. Can we really flashback to events that don’t concern him? Does Mark Gatiss understand how a flashback works?) It’s not a poor choice, their careers are both fascinating, outsiders in a hostile system, but is Hussein really that key a figure in the creation of Who? A wonderful director, but rather exaggerated in the history we are presented with.
And isn’t that a pathetic criticism? That my enjoyment of the series is dependent on the number of behind-the-scenes books I’ve read about the show.
Mark Gatiss is a good writer… and it gets very hard to say much more than that. An ostensible jack-of-all-trades he appears as answers in University Challenge as much as he pops up as actor/writer/presenter etc. But there is a consistent issue with him trying to put too much into his scripts. The docu-drama about the creation of Doctor Who goes on all the way up to 1966. It’s a pretty good first hour followed by a very messy, rushed twenty-five minutes. No one was wanting to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the show by seeing someone silently pretend to be Jackie Lane. By the time we reach Reece Sheersmith dressing up as Patrick Troughton we’re exhausted. Gatiss has written a lot of scripts for Who by this stage, and it’s not hard to imagine that if any other writer had been given the chance to write as much for Who as he has, they would have produced a body of work that was more challenging, more daring and so much more inventive.
Back in 1999 (time travel again) Gatiss wrote a sketch for Doctor Who Night called The Pitch of Fear about the origins of Doctor Who. In a handful of minutes, it was wittier, bitchier and less respectful than what we ended up with in 2013. Maybe the origin of Doctor Who was a bit of a mess. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Doctor Who exists as a truth in its immediate moments. Continuity is meaningless, as the multitude of writers ignore each other. Maybe this history of Doctor Who is as real as the one I read about in those behind-the-scenes guides.