Studio: BBC TV
Director: Terry McDonough
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Producer: Matt Strevens
Stars: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan, Lesley Manville, Brian Cox
A maverick TV executive, an untested producer, and a veteran screen actor come together to create the television series “Doctor Who” in the 1960’s.
A scene in the 1992 biopic “Chaplin” depicts the silent cinema legend indulging in wistful reverie while recalling the invention of his iconic onscreen character. As a black bowler cap glows with a blue halo and dances up Robert Downey Jr.’s arm, a musing voiceover intones, “oh, that magical moment as I walked through the wardrobe door. I felt possessed. I could feel “him” calling out to me: The Tramp.” A bamboo cane rattles for the actor’s attention and is pulled towards his hand through pure strong-willed destiny like a lightsaber into Luke Skywalker’s palm. Playing Chaplin’s biographer, Anthony Hopkins suddenly brings the vainglorious moment to an immediate halt by interrupting with, “bullsh*t, and you know it.”
“An Adventure in Space and Time,” a docudrama about the creation of venerable sci-fi staple “Doctor Who” in the 1960’s, is a lot like Chaplin’s convenient recollection of how everyone would prefer to believe that cinema history happened: through wondrous serendipity or divine intervention instead of what was more likely humdrum happenstance. Except this movie doesn’t have an Anthony Hopkins to put the brakes on its bullet train trip through orchestra-accompanied sentimentality.
Not that it truly matters. By design, “Space and Time” is the rare sort of behind-the-scenes exposé unconcerned with tabloid tawdriness like offscreen hay rolls or line bumps with sketchy hangers-on (see “Growing Up Brady” or the “Mork and Mindy” movie-of-the-week for examples). This is a love letter written to the series as well as to a passionate fanbase hungry for a proper way to honor their favorite program’s half-century birthday. Whovians are perfectly fine with a retrospective favoring nostalgia over strict factual accuracy. Anyone looking for a deeper dig into the show’s origins can simply step aside.
“An Adventure in Space and Time” tells a twofold tale about how a twinkling idea in BBC suit Sydney Newman’s mind gave birth to a towering titan of fantasy entertainment. Brian Cox plays Newman with equal parts charm and gruffness as a smooth talker so casual in his decision making that he appears as comfortable with a coin flip as he does with due diligence. His shoulder-shrugging nonchalance is the yin to Jessica Raine’s yang as a go-getting young producer determined to buck odds, trends, and obstacles to make “Dr. Who” a success by hook or by crook.
The film’s first half focuses chiefly on future British broadcasting legend Verity Lambert during her start as an untested newcomer in the boy’s club of television production. Newman rolls the dice on Ms. Lambert’s potential and she hits the ground running through a gauntlet of hurdles related to her gender and her inexperience. Piecing the program together with pulled pennies and a ragtag assortment of greenhorn crewmembers and reluctant staffers, “Doctor Who” ultimately defies its shortcomings and catapults away from the brink of cancellation thanks in part to a timely televised invasion from the villainous Daleks.
The second half shifts the spotlight onto William Hartnell, the first actor to take the reins as “The Doctor.” From his 1963 acceptance of the part to his 1966 torch passing to successor Patrick Troughton, Hartnell’s arc sees the veteran actor go from begrudging curmudgeon who takes the job as a lark to a man struggling for identity outside of his character as it heartbreakingly slips away from him. It is a bittersweet story for both Lambert and for Hartnell, as “An Adventure in Space and Time” travels a reverential time tunnel with tenderness, respect, and only a slight hint of backstage antics.
Anyone without affection for the “Doctor Who” franchise or for the story behind its inception has little reason to stay tuned for the duration. There is some harmless humor watching hapless stagehands bumble around during shooting like Tor Johnson toppling into walls in “Bride of the Monster.” Mild drama in the form of on-set outbursts is quickly reconciled between co-stars and coworkers who are depicted primarily as a close-knit family. Otherwise, the film is a quick and dirty affair compressing key players and events in ways that might leave non-aficionados scratching their heads with indifference. For instance, the “Doctor Who” supporting cast players have enough screentime and dialogue, but are never mentioned by name, downplaying their significance to the overall story even more.
Yet as alluded to earlier, “An Adventure in Space and Time” is intended as less of a history lesson and more of a heartfelt tribute to a legend as its fans want it remembered. The script is powered as much by selective memory as it is by admiration and thanks for the initial efforts of those who brought life to an unparalleled piece of imaginative fiction. Even if a Scrooge can accuse the production of being occasionally schmaltzy and lacking in insightful bite, there may not be a more appropriate way to salute the anniversary of “Doctor Who” than by offering warmhearted fan service with a heaping helping of sincere affection.
Review Score: 75