Long-time fan and Doctor Who scriptwriter Mark Gatiss guides us through the first episode of what would become television’s longest running sci-fi show.
In November 1963, the BBC launched a half-hour science fiction series, Doctor Who, as part of its Saturday schedule. The network hoped that it would attract a broad audience of children plus adults who would stay tuned during the transitional period following afternoon sports programming and the evening’s shows.
The series faced an uphill battle -- the cramped filming studio sometimes overheated, and water from the sprinkler system doused the actors and crew; the young Jewish woman promoted to produce the show received little respect from what she termed “the old guard, this sea of fag-smoke, tweed and sweaty men”; the young male Indian director faced overt prejudice from colleagues. To top it off, the first episode was broadcast amid news about the Kennedy assassination.
Indeed, the obstacles surrounding the launch of Doctor Who should have relegated it to television oblivion, yet, 50 years later, An Adventure in Space and Time celebrates the longest running science fiction/fantasy television series in the world. Currently Doctor Who is one of BBC Worldwide’s most lucrative exports, and audience anticipation is high for new episodes this August featuring the latest Doctor (the 12th), played by Peter Capaldi. The origin story of Doctor Who is truly An Adventure in Space and Time.
The movie could only have been written by Mark Gatiss, who has scripted several Doctor Who episodes since 2005, including one for the upcoming season. Gatiss seems to write best about the popular culture he loves most. The movie benefits from Gatiss’ knowledge of details and insider information about Doctor Who, as well as the way the BBC operates -- and the way to make stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The result is a recent Critics’ Choice Television Award nominee for best television movie. (The winner will be announced later this month.)
The movie takes viewers on an adventure back to 1963-66 and the now-historic realm of that era’s BBC Television Centre. The technology and mindset for making a television series in the early '60s seem as far removed from our world as 20th century Earth is from futuristic Gallifrey, home world of the Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan. Although the differences between now and then may pique nostalgic interest in this rendition the script does more than document the origins of a TV classic. It more importantly and enjoyably tells the stories of the series’ first producer, Verity Lambert; director, Waris Hussein; and Doctor, William Hartnell. Lambert is plucky and determined; Hussein, overwhelmed but creative; and Hartnell, endearingly gruff, possessive of his series, and, heartbreakingly, slowly succumbing to memory loss.
Like most origin stories, however, this one has a generally happy ending. Lambert, Hussein, and Doctor Who go on to even greater success, and even Hartnell is able to return for the 10th anniversary show. The tale of how the TARDIS wheezes its way into television immortality is enjoyable for any audience, not just the Doctor’s followers, because the making of premiere episode “An Unearthly Child” is touchingly very human.
Because not everyone who will watch the just-released Blu-ray/DVD set may be familiar with the first Doctor or episode, perhaps the best way to enjoy An Adventure in Space and Time is to begin with some of the many extras. The key starting point is the studio recording of “An Unearthly Child”, which includes the full episode but, even more enlightening, two versions of that first look inside the TARDIS.
In one version, the blocking is bad, leaving actors obscured behind each other or upstaged; the lighting, especially in a black-and-white show, is distracting when shadows inadvertently fall across an actor’s face. Sometimes a performer flubs a line. Occasionally the set does not work as it should. The entire episode has the immediacy and more theatrical acting style of live early television. In his script, Gatiss faithfully re-creates this scene, and viewers will enjoy the movie more if they are aware of just what went on during the studio recording.
Another high point of the Blu-ray/DVD set’s extras is a tribute to Hartnell’s work as the Doctor, including a candid interview with the actor in his dressing room. Those who knew him well, such as granddaughter Jessica Carney, director Hussein, and actor William Russell (Ian Chesterton), share their memories. When David Bradley (portraying Hartnell), delivers the line “I’m a legitimate character actor,” those who have seen Hartnell making this statement during the interview can better understand just how much accuracy and detail Gatiss has lovingly packed into this dramatization.
Carney recalls being on set with her grandfather and admits that her memories of him are mixed with recollections of the Doctor. She gives Bradley’s performance her stamp of approval. Hartnell described the Doctor as “a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas,” and Bradley brilliantly captures both the actor’s grumpy old man persona and his kindliness in real life and in his most famous role.
After being immersed in An Adventure in Space and Time, audiences should later watch “The Making of” segment, which places the movie within the context of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. It also answers the “where are they now?” question on many fans’ minds by including present-day comments from Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and Russell. In addition, this segment underscores Gatiss’ long-running association with the series, as a fan and a scriptwriter.
Bonus features “The Pitch of Fear”, “The Kidnappers”, and “The Web of Caves” star Gatiss in comedy sketches originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Doctor Who night in 1999. In “The Kidnappers”, fanboy Mark is awakened by a friend who has kidnapped Fifth Doctor Peter Davison and brought him home. What ensues is a humorous commentary on the delineation between “appropriate” fan behavior and that which is illegal/ stalkerish/ highly inappropriate, accompanied by Davison’s increasingly frightened expressions.
When Mark is overcome with excitement and trepidation at coming face-to-face with his idol, his friend requests that Davison “Excuse my friend. He’s a fan.” Gatiss quickly corrects that impression: “an enthusiast”. Gatiss is indeed enthusiastic about Doctor Who. In the current An Adventure in Space and Time he has a cameo as Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, and a deleted scene included in the set shows Gatiss regenerating as the Third Doctor.
Of course, not all disc extras are equally insightful or entertaining. The music video is heavier on the series’ theme music than video, and the gallery of stills from “An Unearthly Child” is adequate but not as commemorative as footage of Hartnell. The overall quality and variety of the extras, however, is exemplary and should help viewers more fully enjoy An Adventure in Space and Time.
Part of the reason why Doctor Who encourages and retains such a devoted fan base from generation to generation is the sense of family often created between those who have worked on the series and those who faithfully watch it. Through fan conventions and special Doctor Who events over the years, fans have had the opportunity to meet many actors, writers, directors, designers, and other creative crew members who share their stories of what it was/is like to work on the show.
An Adventure in Space and Time, while highly entertaining for those not as invested in the series, is like sharing a home movie with extended family members. It is nostalgic, poignant, historic, fond, and fun -- it cherishes our collective pop culture memories of a series that should not have survived, but thankfully did.