In 1963, an expatriate Canadian, the BBC's only female producer, and a gay Anglo-East Indian director hire a veteran character actor to star in a low-budget series about an alien who travels through space and time in a small wooden box that's bigger inside.
It becomes history's longest-running SF series. True story.
An Adventure in Space and Time first aired November 22, 2013, and served as the appetizer for the Doctor Who main course, the fiftieth anniversary episode that explains what happened between the 1996 TV movie and the 2005 revival. Rather than expand upon the Doctor's adventures, however, this movie explores the television series' origins. While much of the material has been covered before, it hasn't been recreated on film until now.
Sydney Newman, played with exuberance by Brian Cox, needs to fill a hole in the BBC schedule, and thinks that a child-friendly science-fiction series will work best. He hires his protege, the relatively inexperienced Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and a young director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), to develop the series. We get a strong sense of the Doctor's own underdog adventures-- Lambert and Hussein are outsiders at the BBC. She is the only female producer (people assume she slept her way to her position), and he is a double minority (in one scene, he can't get bar service).
Effective though they are, the show belongs to David Bradley, who gives an uncanny, moving portrayal of William Hartnell, a curmudgeonly but likeable actor. Hartnell feels his career fading; he drinks heavily, and can be a bear with friends and families. Initially uncertain of the show's premise, he decides he loves being the Doctor, and soldiers on despite failing health.
The era of the original show plays a key role. Doctor Who developed in the haphazard manner of 60s television, and faced a serious viewing problem; its original premiere fell the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination. This isn't Mad Men, certainly, but the show does a creditable job of recreating the times through the use of costume and limited sets. Adventures... also recreates the low-budget look of the original episodes, while dramatizing how remarkable it was they got made at all.
Gatiss has penned a zippy script that moves from fun to serious to elegiac, rather like the series itself. Adventures in Space and Time features a number of excellent small moments-- funny, sad, and inspirational. A low-budget Menoptra reads the papers on the set of "The Web Planet," Hartnell recognizes he's no longer up to the show's challenges, unlikely creators take charge of their stodgy BBC workers. In another great moment, a troop of school children recognize Hartnell in a park, and he joins them in fun and games. What’s not to like?
Adventures in Space and Time could be enjoyed by people who aren't fans of Doctor Who, but my reaction has been heavily influenced by the confluence of things I enjoy: the 1960s (my country of origin), the Doctor, history, seat-of-the-pants inspiration, and decent acting. Along with the challenges faced by the original series, we see the heart and spirit that led to its unlikely success, fifty years ago, and again in the present time.
Directed by Terry McDonough
Written by Mark Gatiss
David Bradley as William Hartnell
Jessica Raine as Verity Lambert
Sacha Dhawan as Waris Hussein
Brian Cox as Sydney Newman
Sam Hoare as Douglas Camfield
Jeff Rawle as Mervyn Pinfield
Andrew Woodall as Rex Tucker
Ross Gurney-Randall as Reg
Roger May as Len
Charlie Kemp as Arthur
Jemma Powell as Jacqueline Hill
Lesley Manville as Heather Hartnell
Cara Jenkins as Judith Carney
Toby Hadoke as Cyril
Sarah Winter as Delia Derbyshire
Jamie Glover as William Russell
Claudia Grant as Carole Ann Ford
Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton
William Hartnell (archival footage)