Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
As one of the centerpieces of the BBC’s programming designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, the behind-the-scenes docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time finds itself in a tricky position. After all, this is a time of celebration for the venerable sci-fi institution, and that would seem to limit the amount of conflict or scandal this TV movie can include in its account of the show’s history. Though there aren’t all that many sordid details to build around: By most accounts, the behind-the-scenes history of Doctor Who is one of an ever-changing team of television professionals churning out science fiction on a notoriously low budget. That’s a nice story, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling, coherent narrative. An Adventure In Space And Time solves this problem by focusing on the early days of the program, at a time before its landmark status was considered self-evident. The docudrama is at its strongest when it focuses on those characters for whom the show was more than just a passing job, and its most fascinating character is William Hartnell (David Bradley), the original Doctor, whose life came to be defined by Doctor Who more than anyone else’s involved with the show.
An Adventure In Space And Time is written by Mark Gatiss, one of British television’s most vocal Doctor Who fans and the writer of several episodes of the revived series. His love for and deep knowledge of the program shines through, most notably in how he weaves in multiple reconstructions of some of William Hartnell’s most famous moments as the Doctor. While the docudrama is designed to be accessible to those who aren’t hardcore fans, Gatiss still finds room in both the dialogue and the casting for homages and subtle references to all eras of Doctor Who. The key is that the script only includes such moments if they make sense in the context of the story, which allows the celebratory aspect of An Adventure In Space And Time to exist only in support of the drama.
For the sake of time and clarity, Gatiss streamlines the show’s development, eliding many of the discarded ideas and creative blind alleys that went into the creation of Doctor Who. The docudrama focuses less on how the show found its own identity, as iconic elements like the Daleks, the TARDIS’ police box exterior, and the original opening titles and theme music are introduced fully formed. Instead, the emphasis is on the outside circumstances, from the resistance of the BBC establishment to the horrible coincidence that the show premiered the day after the Kennedy assassination, which threatened to end the show before it even began. But because Doctor Who is such an institution—after all, the very existence of An Adventure In Space And Time is proof of the show’s status as a British cultural landmark—it’s difficult to imbue its origin story with much dramatic jeopardy. The most effective section here concerns the nigh unprecedented decision to reshoot the subtly but fatally flawed original premiere episode, which points to just how minute the difference is between a 50-year franchise and a failed pilot.
An Adventure In Space And Time emphasizes just how much Doctor Who was the creation of outsiders to the BBC establishment. Series creator and BBC head of drama Sydney Newman (a perfectly cast Brian Cox) is a brash Canadian given to punctuating his proclamations with shouts of “Pow, pow, pow!” Newman mostly remains in the background, a larger-than-life presence who sets everything in motion but only takes an active role at the show’s most critical moments. The featured players then are original producer Verity Lambert (Call The Midwife star Jessica Raine), a 27-year-old Jewish woman who knows full well that her colleagues dismiss her promotion on the erroneous assumption that she is sleeping with Newman, and Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), the 24-year-old director of the show’s initial adventure and the BBC’s first Indian-born director. Lambert and Hussein face the expected prejudices from their colleagues, and the characters come to be defined by the friendship they forge in response to this shared adversity. The docudrama doesn’t necessarily find anything groundbreaking to say about the presence of sexism and racism in ’60s Britain, although it does acknowledge their more insidious aspects, as when Lambert must forcefully tell her one potential ally among the old guard to stop calling her “my dear lady.”
The docudrama is at its most powerful in its second half, as the focus shifts more toward David Bradley as William Hartnell. While the Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter co-star doesn’t quite match the vocal inflections of the first Doctor, he is note-perfect as the man behind the Time Lord. An uncanny physical match for Hartnell, Bradly captures beautifully the simultaneous irascibility and hidden warmth that defined the show’s first star and, in turn, his interpretation of the Doctor. An Adventure In Space And Time makes the crucial point that Hartnell is not playing what later came to referred to as “the first Doctor”—as far as he is concerned, he is simply the Doctor, no qualification required, and so he defines himself with the character in a way that none of his many successors ever quite would.
Wisely, An Adventure In Space And Time doesn’t try to overstate the show’s behind-the-scenes drama. Hartnell’s fellow Doctor Who cast members remain largely in the background, depicted as professionals who are there to do a job to the best of their ability and, when the time comes, move on. This contrast with Hartnell’s situation—he knows this is the peak and, likely, the culmination of a previously frustrating career—only serves to emphasize the underlying melancholy of the docudrama. An Adventure In Space And Time is about the beginning of one of the grandest adventures in television history. But its true power lies in how it never forgets that, for Doctor Who’s original star, this could only ever be a last, sad farewell.
Created by: Mark Gatiss
Starring: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, Lesley Manville, Brian Cox
Debuts: Friday, November 22, at 9 p.m. Eastern on BBC America
Format: Two-hour docudrama