An Adventure in Space and Time: TV Review

"An Adventure in Space and Time"
A wonderful cast in service of a nimble script deliver a full-throated, heartfelt origin story of Doctor Who.

The genesis of the BBC's "Doctor Who" is lovingly detailed in this heartfelt behind-the-scenes drama.

There is drama inherent in the act of creation because, as with any artistic endeavor, the odds are that it won’t work. That it won’t be good. That it won’t endure.

And, judging by the origins of Doctor Who as put forth in An Adventure in Space and Time — part of the BBC’s 50th anniversary celebration — no one involved thought that a children’s show about an old man and a time-traveling police box had much of a shot. No one but Verity Lambert (played by Jessica Raine), a young would-be producer who — in the go-go, ultra-chauvinistic, Mad Men ‘60s — had an uphill battle just to be taken seriously in television. Enter Sydney Newman (Brian Cox, having a wonderful time), the BBC’s boisterous new Head of Drama, who gives Verity her big break: to produce a science fiction program for Britain’s kids that would also be somewhat educational.

To produce the very first episodes of Doctor Who.

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There’s a breezy propulsion to An Adventure in Space and Time – written by Sherlock's Mark Gatiss, a member of the Steven Moffat mafia — as it charts the evolution of Doctor Who and the invention of so many things beloved by Whovians the world over: the bass-heavy theme song, the keys-on-piano wire sound of the TARDIS in flight, the design of the TARDIS’s control room — dashed off in minutes by the BBC’s design department because they had more “important” programs to devote their resources to. It has all the zip and verve one could wish for.

But it’s David Bradley (Filch from the Harry Potter films; Walder Frey, organizer of the Red Wedding, in Game of Thrones) who gives this telefilm its heart. As William Hartnell, the veteran British actor who Verity recruits to play the Doctor, Bradley is everything the film he needs him to be: prickly, ornery, warm, avuncular, heartbreaking. The Hartnell we’re introduced to here is a journeyman at the end of his career and out of touch with every generation that wasn’t his. But he found new purpose in playing the Doctor and, finally, a fame he long since gave up on.

Hartnell would, like the rest of Britain, fall in love with the Doctor — even if his failing health would eventually lead to the series’ great innovation: Regeneration, when the Doctor would take on a new face and aspect (and the BBC could hire a new actor).

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The last chunk of An Adventure in Space and Time replaces the vim-and-vigorous vibe of the first half with an elegiac feel, as the players we’ve been following move on from Doctor Who. In success, Verity and director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) are plucked for bigger things at the BBC. And when Hartnell bids his farewell to the blue box that’s “bigger on the inside,” it’s enough to make you want to cry.

There’s a certain crackle that comes with watching the dramatization of the creation of a popular, pervasive piece of art. Ray had it. Walk the Line had it. Ed Wood had it. An Adventure in Space and Time has it. And I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to a series that can go anywhere than by going back to its beginning.

Twitter: @marcbernardin