“Hmm…?” – A reflection on David Bradley at the Oxford Union

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Image Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: David Bradley at a SDCC 2018 Comic Con Panel

By Ian Bayley

There is an exasperating contradiction between David Bradley’s two main contributions to the Doctor Who Universe. In An Adventure in Space and Time, a drama about the show’s birth screened just two days before the 50th anniversary, he portrayed William Hartnell, and achieved the extraordinary feat of making the actor to whom we owe so much live again. He gained widespread praise for that performance but his later appearance as the First Doctor in Twice Upon a Time was greeted with indignation by many of the same people, myself included. With David Bradley coming to the Oxford Union, I set out to discover how he could, in my opinion, get it so right and then get it so wrong.

At the meet & greet reception in the bar beforehand, he confirmed my positive impression of his dedication to the role of Hartnell. He had found it important to portray the actor naturalistically, warts and all. To help with this, he had read closely the biography written by Jessica Carney, Hartnell’s granddaughter, and he also spoke at length to William Russell and Carole Ann Ford about their memories of the actor. It was important for him to do justice to the man for the sake of all the many people who had known him and worked with him. When recreating the TARDIS interior scenes in An Unearthly Child, he explained to me that he and his fellow cast members watched back the original footage to replicate the original performances as accurately as possible. They paid attention even to the smallest gestures, and reshot scenes where necessary. They did this because they knew that many fans would know the episode extremely well. His performance was so universally admired that he became the obvious person to portray the First Doctor in Twice Upon a Time. In fact, it appears that Capaldi spontaneously suggested Bradley to Moffat in response to a speculative question about future multi-Doctor stories at New York Comic Con.

This is where the contradiction expresses itself. He was now playing the Doctor but his dialogue was a confection of wince-inducing awful attitudes, such as the assertions that Polly and Bill should be required to clean the TARDIS. These may have been the thoughts of an elderly man from the 1960s, such as William Hartnell himself, but not the Doctor we know and love as fans. In An Unearthly Child, Susan begs her grandfather to let them stay in their current time and place, proclaiming that “the last five months have been the happiest of [her] life”. In that very specific short period of time, and already at least two centuries old, it is inconceivable that the mature worldly Gallifreyan would have adopted the human prejudices held by some on 20th century Earth.

The actual dialogue was Moffat’s fault, of course. Although it’s self-evident that actors must commit themselves to doing the best they can with the script they are given, I was nevertheless interested to hear how he regarded his role in Twice Upon a Time. When answering my questions both before and after his talk, he started by asking me to clarify which Doctor Who role I meant, suggesting that he linked them closely in his mind. He regarded the Christmas special as a new story with no existing footage to be faithful to. He explained that the dialogue was all about having fun with the inter-generational conflict, particularly as the Twelfth Doctor was embarrassed about the First. In other words, it was simply an instance of a familiar comedy trope, rather than something deeper. So my impression now is that Twice Upon a Time was not for him about a faithful reproduction of the First Doctor, because that’s what his other role was all about.

I should close, however, by noting that there was more to the generational humour than sexist attitudes. There were the jokes about the New Who Doctor’s overreliance on technology, like the sonic shades. There also was the dismay at his grandstanding as “The Doctor of War,” when the First Doctor preferred to leave more quietly. Most importantly of all, his performance also included a beautifully-delivered speech about why he left Gallifrey which added to the Doctor’s origin story and which will be treasured by fans for decades to come. Perhaps one day I will be able to watch the episode and think of him as a sitcom character in the first half, where necessary and as intended, and as the First Doctor during the more poignant second half. Maybe the doublethink that this requires is the true meaning of Twice Upon a Time.

Tides 43 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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