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Doctor Who: “An Adventure in Space and Time”

I finally had the chance to watch the TV docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which details the making of the early years of Doctor Who, in particular the William Hartnell era. I thought it was quite good and very enjoyable, but there’s no denying it has the feel of a TV movie rather than a feature film. Entire years’ worth of events are rushed through rather than lingered upon, depriving them of room to breathe and the ability to evoke strong emotional reactions — often the curse of the TV movie.

Jessica Raine is a revelation as Verity Lambert, the untested first producer of Doctor Who. I believe Lambert has the honor of being the first female producer at the BBC (she was also Jewish, which gave me an unexpected thrill of pride). Raine is marvelous in the role. So much so, actually, that once Lambert leaves Doctor Who for other projects, the movie suffers from her absence and begins to feel as though it’s rushing through the rest of Hartnell’s time on the show just to get it over with. (As a side note, Alexa adored every outfit Raine wore in the movie. Every single one.)

David Bradley was equally amazing as William Hartnell, the very first man to inhabit the role of the Doctor. He’s not a lookalike, though I found his face somewhat reminiscent of Hartnell’s, and he doesn’t concern himself with trying to sound exactly like Hartnell, either. Instead, through sheer force of acting, he brings Hartnell to vivid life. Both Bradley and Raine deserve awards recognition for their work in An Adventure in Space and Time.

There are other wonderful little moments in the film, such as the cigarette-smoking Cyberman waiting on set, the absurd, butterfly-like Menoptera from “The Web Planet” wandering around the hallways, and of course everyone’s reaction upon first seeing the Daleks, the monsters that put Doctor Who on the national — and then international — map. But one of my favorite moments was the very brief but charming appearance of Sarah Winter as Delia Derbyshire, headband and all, creating Doctor Who‘s iconic theme music and TARDIS noises. Derbyshire deserves to have her own docudrama one day.

As a lifelong Doctor Who fan, I knew most of the history already from the various books and articles I obsessed over in my youth, but one thing the movie made clear to me, one thing I hadn’t really thought about before, was just how difficult it must have been for William Hartnell to be replaced on the show. I guess I always just assumed he was fine with the idea because of his failing health and need for more down time. But no, even if the movie is taking certain liberties for emotional effect, it surely must have been difficult for him. He eventually got to reprise the role of the First Doctor in the 1973, ten-year anniversary serial “The Three Doctors,” but even that was little more than a cameo. His health was so bad he could only be filmed sitting, and so the First Doctor only appears on the TARDIS monitor to briefly interact with the Second and Third (“So you’re my replacements. Humph. A dandy and a clown.”) before disappearing from the story altogether. He passed away two years later, but I’m glad he got the opportunity to be the Doctor one more time first.

I also never quite realized just how progressive the roots of Doctor Who were. A Jewish female producer? A gay Indian director? Such things might not seem so astonishing now, but in 1963 England it was likely groundbreaking. (Someone should remind all those up-in-arms fanboys of this history the next time they froth that the Doctor, a shapeshifting alien, can never be anything but male and white.)

In the end, An Adventure in Space and Time is more than a pleasant diversion for Doctor Who fans. There’s real magic on display in the performances, Jessica Raine’s and David Bradley’s in particular. Even non-fans might enjoy it as a behind-the-scenes showbiz drama. Provided they can get past with the appearance of the Menoptera, of course. Even I shook my head and murmured, “Oh, God,” when they showed up.

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