This weekend is a momentous one for Doctor Who fans as the show celebrates its 50th anniversary with the anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor.” But before that BBC America treated fans young and old to a docudrama profiling the show’s humble beginnings in 1963. An Adventure in Space and Time, a 90 minute film profiling the inception of the show, is a wonderful drama showcasing the key players behind the scenes that helped make an initially risky venture into a now iconic bit of science fiction folklore.
The story tells itself but it’s best to give a brief overview. In 1963 newly appointed Head of Drama Sydney Newman, a Canadian-born producer was searching for a gap to fill on the BBC between the shows Grandstand and Jukebox Jury and brings to the table an idea for a science fiction show. While the higher ups grown at the notion of sci-fi on their stuffy, respectable channel, Newman stresses that this show will be both educational for children and something thrilling for the adults to watch as well. In order to get this show, christened Doctor Who, off the ground he calls upon a former assistant, a young up start named Verity Lambert to produce the show. Alongside director Waris Hussein she is tasked with selling science fiction while also trying to prove her worth in the male centric world of British television. A risky production already she must convince the one man she thinks is right for the job, a veteran actor named William Hartnell to take on this ambitious role. Hartnell himself is looking to prove his worth after years of playing criminals and tough military figures in film and television that he has range and that he is more than capable of being the star of something really special.
As someone who knows a great deal about the troubled history of the first few years of the show its all on display here including Newman’s insistence to re-film the pilot after a less than stellar test run. Everything that gave the show its burst in popularity is documented including the struggle between Newman and Lambert to get the Daleks on television as Sydney’s one request was that the show never feature B.E.M’s (bug eyed monsters). What’s great here is how spot on some of the show’s earliest iconic moments are recreated especially the first Dalek story where we see the production crew sit in awe at how menacing the initially laughed at pepper pots really are.
For every bit of information I have known about its beginnings it’s pleasing to see the genesis of the show displayed so warmly thanks to the witty writing of Mark Gatiss and a wonderful sense of pacing in the direction. Visually everything is recreated in perfect fashion especially the original TARDIS set which looks down to every switch exactly like the original. Even the doors don’t work properly. This was also the last production to be filmed at the original BBC Television Centre before it closed in 2012 so it’s very fitting that they spruce it up to recreate what it was like in its heyday as the epicenter of British television.
The four main people profiled here all serve their purposes well and everyone gives a stellar performance. Jessica Raine dazzles as producer Verity Lambert displaying both a sensitive and nurturing demeanor and a woman determined to not be brought down by the sexist world of the BBC. You see a woman not deterred by limitation and she asserts herself well for both her sake and some of her colleagues who are also strangers in a strange land. Sacha Dhawan also makes a presence as Waris Hussein, the director of “An Unearthly Child” and the BBC’s first Indian born director. These two because of their disadvantages display a kinship as they work their way up a very steep ladder. In one great scene Hussein can barely get a drink at a bar until Lambert comes over and demands several times to be served. Brian Cox’s Sydney Newman is more of the optimistic figure head with a twinkle in his eye. All cigar chomping and grandeur he is played as more of an overarching voice of reason for all the upstarts but in the guise of a larger than life media mogul.
For long time fans there are little nods here and there to the shows past including the recreation of some long lost episodes of the show that weave perfectly into the narrative. There is also, if you are good at spotting British actors, more than a few familiar faces that pop up in this film specifically real life First Doctor companions William Russell (Ian), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom), and Anneke Wills (Polly). These are all nice little bits of nostalgia but the focus is on the people who made it. While the aforementioned trifecta of Newman, Hussein, and Lambert form an important chunk of this special it’s when William Hartnell is profiled that the struggle of one key ingredient displays the drama of the story.
By 1965 the show was already changing with both Lambert and Hussein moving on to bigger and better things. For Hartnell, this meant having to be the one keeping the show grounded which meant being a bit mean spirited and commanding because of his knowledge of the show. This combined with his failing health (he suffered from Arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries) makes for some of the most dramatic moments of the film. In a rather heartbreaking scene while filming “The Massacre,” Hartnell breaks down as his health starts to really fail and he displays annoyance at the producers not knowing specifics like what each button on the TARDIS console means or how to turn on the time rotor so that it goes up and down.
For Hartnell, Doctor Who defined the aspect of his career that he felt had not been appreciated for many years; for once he was the star of something great that mattered. But Doctor Who is about change and even when evolving wasn’t in the cards for the show in 1966 the show was already seeing a turnover in cast and crew beyond its main star. David Bradley’s performance above all here is an acting tour de force and while he never picks up Hartnell’s distinct giddy voice he has every bit the mannerisms and visual accuracy of the man himself. He displays the irascible often tough to work with exterior Hartnell was known for while delivering a more than sympathetic demeanor as he becomes increasingly ill and unreliable on the set.
The ending as both a longtime fan and for someone who has any sense of emotion is both tragic and uplifting. As he prepares to film his final moments as the Doctor in “The Tenth Planet” he peers across the console to see his current successor Matt Smith smiling and reaffirming to his predecessor that the show will have a long and wonderful life. It leaves the viewer more than a bit misty eyed because it displays the optimism that its star was slowly losing as he left behind his most defining role.
It’s easy to separate fan from viewer while watching An Adventure in Space and Time but it helps a little bit if you know where the show was and where it has gone since. All the things I read in numerous books over the year about the production are on full display delivering a dramatic and very touching look into a show that is the definition of the word “institution.” An Adventure in Space and Time is a must watch for new fans as well as old ones, some who can remember where they were when a strange police box set down on their television screens at 76 Totters Lane 50 years ago.