[All images courtesy of BBC America]
When taking into account the impact of Doctor Who, let’s face it, here in the States, we’re still roughly FIFTY YEARS behind the times. Or, giving us a vague five year window in which the show’s momentum has built here, uh… FORTY FIVE YEARS… behind the times. So whether you think it’s a good or bad thing, that’s easily four to five decades of Who-story we Yanks are completely unaware of, including the genesis of the worldwide popcult phenomenon.
Doctor Who, the show and the character, materialized into public consciousness at about the same time as The Beatles. BBC‘s histo-pic Doctor Who: An Adventure In Time and Space tells the story of not only the show’s humble beginnings (a “children’s drama about history” conceived by Canadian producer, Sydney Newman – played by Brian Cox in all his gruff, no nonsense, character actor awesomeness), but the unique personalities involved in pulling off the seemingly impossible concept of a TV show centered around a time travelling grandfather and granddaughter, and their misadventures through space and time. So while, on a level, it IS a “making of,” creating the Doctor, let alone cementing the character/show as a popcult phenomenon, and making it special, fell to a unique combination of individuals – and therein lies the story.
William Hartnell (portrayed seamlessly by Game of Thrones‘ David Bradley), while far from “down and out,” was on the verge of retiring when he took on the role of the first Doctor. And in doing so, not only revived his own career, but garnered notoriety, the fame, that had eluded him in spite of a long and celebrated career as one of Great Britain’s foremost character actors. Newman’s former assistant, Verity Lambert (played by Jessica Raine) became the show’s first producer (now, we call the job “showrunner”), and in taking on Doctor Who became the first female producer in the history of the BBC. As a man of Indian ancestry, the choice of Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) to direct the bulk of Doctor Who ‘s early episodes was similarly revolutionary.
This is where the story shines – what might have been a throwaway program for BBC, helmed by two first timer and a star fading fast, became the cultural phenomenon we know today. It’s part of why Doctor Who fans are so devoted to the show to this day, and why it continues to endure: it isn’t a “likely” winner of a concept. If you were to take it to a network to day, the best you could hope for is a security-free exit from the building. So in capturing not only a moment in time, but why the show is so important to its fans, the film nails pretty much every Whovian note, from Hartnell’s casting, to the invention of the Daleks, and all points between and beyond.
The two complaints I have with it are, I think, two things that are unavoidable, in terms of telling the story of the earliest days of Doctor Who. First, in terms of production value, while efforts are without a doubt made to elevate the visual aspect of the story, An Adventure In Time and Space is still a relatively lifeless watch – were it not for the acting and writing. At it’s worst, it’s like a Lifetime Channel movie, and at it’s best, it’s still an early episode of Mad Men. There is also the idea that, while William Hartnell did finally attain the fame that had so eluded him in a career of “serious” work, his is still a bittersweet story in that he was not only the first Doctor, but the first actor to portray him and get the news that the character was designed to live on through re-casting different actors in the role. He didn’t curl up and die in a puddle of his own defeat, and in fact, played the Doctor once more in a story called “The Three Doctors” before his death in 1974. So while that part of the story isn’t exactly full of the fun and whimsy we the fans associate with the show, it is a necessary part of the story. Plus, a cameo by Matt Smith in Hartnell’s final scene drives home the point that, as sad as it can be, Doctor Who is rife with pathos, triumph and tragedy.
So while it’s touted as being a Doctor Who story that even new initiates to Whovian-ism can enjoy, I still think that, to get the full thrust of the tale told, it really does help to be a fan of the show. The good news is that if you are a fan, you don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Doctor Who: An Adventure In Time and Space. Just do like the Doctor would do, and marvel at the beauty of what’s in front of you. Consult BBC America for information on future broadcasts.