Doctor Who has turned 50 years old and to celebrate the BBC produced a standalone docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time, chronicling the creation of the fan-favorite series as well as its very first Doctor, William Hartnell. In 1963, attempting to fill a gap in the programming slate BBC executive Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) begins development on a science-fiction project that he hopes will offer more than the usual “robots” and “bug eyed aliens” seen on other popular shows at the time.
Newman hires his former associate producer, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), to head-up the show but as production on the Doctor Who pilot begins Lambert meets significance resistance – due to the campy nature of the fledgling project and her role as the only female drama producer at the BBC. However, an engaging performance from Hartnell (portrayed by David Bradley) along with a zany stable of monsters make Doctor Who a hit for the BBC. Nevertheless, when the future of the show is called into question by the Doctor himself, Newman and Hartnell must face a tough decision – one that lays the foundation for decades of future adventures in space and time.
Directed by Terry McDonough (Breaking Bad) from a script written by Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), An Adventure in Space and Time is a surprisingly charming docudrama that will obviously appeal to Doctor Who fans but also delivers as an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at TV production – even for viewers who are unfamiliar with Daleks and wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Strong performances all around, clever integration of nods to series fandom, and a thought-provoking central human story that mirrors long-running Doctor Who themes, elevate An Adventure in Space and Time well above its made-for-TV biopic contemporaries. Given the subject matter, the docudrama won’t appeal to everyone but it’s hard to find much fault in the final product – which excels as a thoughtful, evocative, and beautifully shot look back at the early days of Doctor Who.
Limited by “true life” events, with an added layer of fictionalized drama, the actual events portrayed in An Adventure in Space and Time are pretty straightforward. Following a familiar trajectory that TV/Film production dramas have traced countless times before, it shouldn’t come as a shock to find out that it wasn’t an easy road for Doctor Who or its producers, actors, and crew at the outset. Nevertheless, the docudrama includes plenty of interesting and informative specifics that, even when the overarching story is mostly retreading standard plot tropes, keep the tale relatively fresh and unique in the moment. Everything from casting Hartnell, designing the TARDIS, to the introduction of fan-favorite evildoers the Daleks, along with real-life events – including the assassination of JFK – are all woven into the timeline, dependent on the occasion, with smart humor, visual flare, and impactful juxtapositions against greater fictional Doctor Who stories.
Bradley, best known to modern moviegoers as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, presents a heartwarming portrayal of Hartnell – a man who has often been defined by his “crotchety” iteration of the first Doctor. Instead, An Adventure in Space and Time offers appreciated context for the actor along with insight into how much the role meant to him, ensuring that those who view the docudrama will have a much clearer picture of what inspired the original portrayal of the time-traveling alien. Much like the titular Doctor, Hartnell stands as an arbiter between everyday viewers and the ongoing adventures throughout space/time on Doctor Who - a selfless man, that when the time is necessary, must risk his own happiness and ego for the sake of a greater good.
In addition to Bradley, An Adventure in Space and Time includes a solid supporting cast in the roles of several extremely famous British actors, TV producers, and pop culture icons. Much of the film revolves around Jessica Raine’s Verity Lambert, as Doctor Who becomes a true passion project, not just a job. Aiding Lambert is pilot director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), BBC’s first Indian drama helmer, along with associate producer Mervyn Pinfield (Jeff Rawle) who both contribute elements to the series that are still part of Doctor Who today – and are given admirable onscreen counterparts by their respective performers.
Cox isn’t breaking any new ground as Sydney Newman but doesn’t distract either, serving as a smart touchstone for Lambert both in times of challenge and success. On-screen presentations of well-known companions on the series are equally strong – with an especially poignant arc for Carole Ann Ford, the Doctor’s first companion (played by Claudia Grant). Existing Doctor Who viewers will also find an especially sweet cameo – that not only serves as fan service but also helps pay-off Hartnell’s core character arc.
An Adventure in Space and Time follows some very familiar tropes that audiences will have seen played-out over and over on both the big and small screen but the docudrama delivers with a worthy mix of nostalgia, informative insight, and engaging human storylines that offer fans and non-fans a smart behind-the-scenes look at BBC’s seminal science fiction series – as well as the world of 1963 TV production. Despite its title, McDonough and Gatiss prove that one of the most enchanting stories in Doctor Who history didn’t need to take place in a zany outer space locale or exotic time period – because, at its core, alien creatures and futuristic technology will always be secondary to the tale of a lovable old man and that iconic blue police box.
If you’re still on the fence about An Adventure in Space and Time, check out the trailer below:
An Adventure in Space and Time runs 83 minutes and is now available through many video on demand services.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back for the next episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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