The British television series Doctor Who recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its first airing in grand fashion, with much fanfare and a special that even got theatrical play. For decades, Doctor Who fandom outside of the U.K. was relegated to a small cult following of in-the-know sci-fi fans, but since its resurgence in the mid-2000s, the show has been gaining more and more viewers, and currently enjoys a larger international appeal than ever before.
Growing up, I found references to Doctor Who in magazines and saw listings of multiple episode collections available on VHS in video catalogs. It seemed I most often caught glimpses of Tom Baker as the scarf-wearing iteration of the Doctor. I’ve always been intrigued by long-lasting franchises, so I was interested in checking out what Doctor Who was like, but back in the early ’90s it seemed like an impossible task, there was just too much of it.
I recorded the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie when it aired, but never did get around to watching it. Another chance to make entry into the series came when it was revived in 2005 after several years of dormancy. Episodes of the series’ “new beginning” started airing in the U.S. on the SciFi Channel in March of 2006, and I made an effort to get into it. I watched and enjoyed a few episodes, but soon started missing them, fell behind and gave up. That kind of thing happened a lot back in those days, before I had a DVR to remember show times for me.
Years passed. In early February 2010, in an age when it’s much easier to set out on such a task, I began another attempt to Who up my life. That time I started my intended leisurely stroll through the franchise at the beginning. The Beginning beginning, at the series’ first episode, which first aired in 1963 and starred William Hartnell as The Doctor. Over the course of a year, I made it quite far into the series, all the way up to its eighth season. But then Who again lapsed out of my viewing rotation… And more years passed.
The road has been long, winding, and bumpy, but I remain dedicated to this mission to make my way through the entire run of Doctor Who. So I’m starting again. And this time I’m making myself accountable by documenting the journey in a series of articles.
The stories of Doctor Who are largely told in a serial manner, and as I make my way through the series, I will be writing an article on each serial with my thoughts and observations. Since there were well over 200 serials in the series at last count, that means this article series will be a very long one. But I’m up for the challenge.
As I wade back into Doctor Who, I decided to start off with something that is actually a recent addition to the Who universe, a 2013 TV movie docudrama about the creation of the series that was made to mark its fiftieth anniversary.
The story of Doctor Who begins with Canadian producer Sydney Newman, who was offered the chance to work in British television after some years of working in the Canadian entertainment industry. His first job in the U.K. was at ITV, where he created the science fiction spy show The Avengers (no relation to the Marvel superhero team). He was then hired to be the Head of Drama at the BBC, and when faced with the need to keep viewers tuned in during the twenty-five minute gap between the sports program Grandstand and the music show JukeBox Jury on Saturday evenings, the idea for what would become Doctor Who was born.
Newman wanted to make something that was accessible to a wide range of viewers but would be especially appealing to the younger demographic. The idea was to craft a science fiction serial, but one that wouldn’t fall into the usual trappings of B-movie sci-fi, with Newman issuing the edict that there be “no tin robots or bug-eyed monsters”. The perfect characters to make up the core cast of the show would be a pair of good looking adults, male and female, a young kid who would often get into trouble, and at the head of this group would be a quirky, grumpy old authority figure, a doctor of some sort. Newman wanted to mix stories of world history in with the sci-fi, to educate the young viewers while entertaining them, so it was decided that these characters would “travel through space and time, getting in scrapes”.
These basic elements were established before Newman approached 27 year old Verity Lambert, who up to this point had worked as either a personal assistant or production assistant in television, to produce the show. This offer came at a make-or-break time for Lambert, who had decided that if she didn’t really find success in television during this year, she was going to get out of it. Doctor Who was her chance, and she put her all into making it work.
We’re shown as Lambert fights for her decisions, as Doctor Who as we know it comes together, as classic sets and characters are devised and designed. 24 year old Waris Hussein is hired to direct, and casting begins.
At first, An Adventure in Space and Time plays like Verity Lambert is the main character, but once it really gets into the thick of production, it’s William Hartnell, the first actor to ever play The Doctor, who takes over the lead.
In the role of Hartnell is veteran actor David Bradley, who has over 100 credits to his name and has been acting in film and television for over 40 years, although these days he’s probably best known for playing Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies. Although Bradley was, at 71, sixteen years older when acting in this movie than Hartnell was when he was cast as the Doctor, the resemblence between the two is uncanny (Hartnell always looked older than he was anyway), and Bradley captures his essence perfectly.
Due to issues with the production and script, the first episode has to be shot twice, while Hussein struggles with directing what is just short of a live performance, since each episode is only allowed to have four edits. This is why you’ll hear actors, particularly Hartnell, flubbing lines and continuing on when you watch early episodes of Doctor Who.
The first airing of the first episode is also disrupted by the assassination of JFK, which occurred the day before. Not happy with the early storylines or the fact that the show has gone over budget, the BBC nearly axes Who after just four episodes… but Newman and Lambert soldier on.
The ultimate “make or break” moment comes for Lambert with the filming of the second serial, which introduces the Daleks, threatening creatures that appear to break Newman’s “no tin robots” rule. If they hadn’t been pulled off properly, Who could have ended right there.
But given that the show is still around today, we know the outcome is Lambert’s vindication and the start of Dalekmania.
Following the triumph of the show’s success, things get more somber and melancholy as production chugs along. Lambert leaves. Hartnell’s co-stars leave and are replaced with new actors, new characters, new companions. Although his health begins to severely decline and his already wobbly memory gets worse, Hartnell sticks with the show because he’s the title character and a lot of people are depending on him – both those who work on it and especially the children who watch it. There can be no Doctor Who without the Doctor. But a time comes when a way around that issue absolutely must be found…
Written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Terry McDonough, An Adventure in Space and Time is a really good and captivating dramatic retelling of where it all began for Doctor Who. It’s quite interesting to see how everything came together and to learn more about the people behind the beginning.
The movie is very emotionally effective, both in the fun stretches of watching the production be assembled, and in the heartbreaking stretch of watching Hartnell fall ill as everything changes around him. It works so well because there are fantastic performances at the heart of it all, especially from the aforementioned David Bradley and from Jessica Raine as the strong-willed Verity Lambert, shakily out to prove herself.
As a rather low-level Doctor Who fan, watching An Adventure in Space and Time made me appreciate the show even more overall. Longtime uber fans would likely get enjoyment out of watching it as well. And even if viewers don’t have much interest in watching the series, they could still appreciate this movie for the well told story that it is.