An Adventure in Space and Time
BBC America, Friday 9/8 Central
Nov 20, 2013
An Adventure in Space and Time is a surprisingly moving docudrama that recounts the creation of the iconic British television series Doctor Who. Commissioned in honor of the show's 50th anniversary, which is this Saturday, the 90-minute drama centers on the producers, writers, directors, and actors behind the birth of one of the most beloved science fiction shows ever. But unlike cheap movie-of-the-week exposés of famous TV shows such as Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Three's Company, An Adventure in Space and Time is a handsomely produced and respectful endeavor.
The creation of Doctor Who was a combination of happy accidents, persistence, and the right creative team. The year is 1963 and Canadian producer Sydney Newman (Brian Cox, Rushmore, X2) has joined the BBC as Head of Drama after creating the smash hit action/spy show The Avengers at a rival network. He comes up with the basic concept of Doctor Who—an alien who travels in time and space with his granddaughter and two Earthlings, a show that can also teach children some basic history lessons—and brings on board Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine, Call the Midwife and the Doctor Who episode "Hide") to produce. She had worked under him at another network and doesn't have much experience as a full-on producer. Lambert is introduced at a party watching the first woman in space, a Russian cosmonaut, on live TV. British-Indian director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan, Outsourced) is brought in to helm the first episode.
Hussein and Lambert strike an immediate bond, as both aren't fully accepted in their industry. Lambert, the only woman producer at the BBC, isn't taken seriously at first by her male colleagues, who initially assume she's the producer's secretary and who gossip behind her back that "she didn't get here standing up." Hussein, one of the era's few British directors of Indian descent, faces racism, including being ignored by a bartender who refuses to serve him. Both have a lot to prove as they come up against "the old guard."
One of their first big challenges is casting Doctor Who's title character, The Doctor. William Hartnell (David Bradley, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and the Doctor Who episode "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship") is at first reluctant to take on the role. He is first introduced as the grumpy old man you might expect him to be if you've seen the real-life Hartnell's portrayal of The Doctor. He's mean to his granddaughter, who's only trying to play with him, and unhappy about the TV parts he's been getting that he feels are beneath him. But he's also reluctant to take on another long-running job. Lambert ably convinces him, in part with the line "C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas—that's The Doctor."
At the heart of An Adventure in Space and Time is the friendship between Hartnell and Lambert, and over the course of the movie Hartnell softens into a very likable and somewhat sad character. He truly grows to love the part of The Doctor and fights to keep it, despite his failing health, as the years go on, which leads to some heartbreaking moments. Bradley gives a touching performance as a character whose career has finally come into its own just as he too is declining into his twilight years. He's truly perfect casting for the role, both in his looks and way he captures the essence of Hartnell and the First Doctor. Raine, Cox, and Dhawan also all give compelling performances. The other actors on Doctor Who's initial episodes—William Russell (Jamie Glover) as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill (Jemma Powell) as Barbara Wright, and Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant) as Susan Foreman—get much less screen time and so their characters aren't very well fleshed out, although the real-life Russell and Ford do have very short cameos.
The brief recreations of the early episodes are convincing enough that the BBC should consider re-filming some of the long-lost First Doctor episodes with this cast. Forty-four First Doctor episodes are missing, thanks to the BBC stupidly erasing a bunch of master tapes in the early '70s as a cost-saving measure, not having the forethought to predict future VHS and DVD releases of the episodes. But the original scripts and audio survive. Although it's unlikely to ever happen, it would be a treat to see Bradley, Glover, Powell, and Grant recreate even a handful of those lost episodes, but in color with slightly more modern special effects and pacing.
Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss, who wrote An Adventure in Space and Time, has written several episodes of Doctor Who since its return in 2005, including two episodes earlier this year, "Cold War" and "The Crimson Horror." He also wrote several Doctor Who novels early in his career, has acted in the show, and first tried to get this project off the ground in 2003 for Doctor Who's 40th anniversary. It's clear that he's a huge Whovian and that this project was a true labor of love.
Doctor Who fans will delight in witnessing how they came up with familiar aspects of the show, including the TARDIS set, the Daleks, and the ahead-of-its-time theme music and opening titles. An Adventure in Space and Time will make you truly appreciate how a show that was at first made on a shoestring budget and on a tiny soundstage ("It's smaller on the inside," jokes Hussein), whose pilot had to be shot twice due to a disastrous first day of filming, and whose first episode was barely watched as it aired the night after President John F. Kennedy was shot, persevered and 50 years later is stronger than ever. (www.bbcamerica.com/doctor-who/)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 8/10