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Review: 'Adventure in Space and Time' a fun take on 'Doctor Who' start

The potent 'An Adventure in Space and Time' on BBC America stars David Bradley as the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell.

November 21, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • "An Adventure in Space and Time," about the First Doctor, William Hartnell (David Bradley), is also a history of the television show.
"An Adventure in Space and Time," about the First Doctor, William… (Hal Shinnie / BBC )

Had it come even a few years into its 21st century rebirth, the 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who," the BBC series about a space-time-traveling alien and the humans he corrals into keeping him company, would not be the worldwide event it is now. But event it is: Saturday's "The Day of the Doctor," in which beloved Tenth Doctor David Tennant will join beloved and current Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, will air simultaneously in more than 76 countries (BBC America in the United States), with special theatrical showings in many.

It is the Olympic Games opening ceremony of science fiction.

As an appetizer to this main course, and a primer for latecomers, we are first being offered "An Adventure in Space and Time," a TV movie about the creation of the series and its first star, William Hartnell (David Bradley). Thanks to a neat narrative trick, the show has survived the first Doctor's retirement by 47 years. It premieres here Friday on BBC America, and anyone who loves the series will want to see it.

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As a story about how the past became the present (which makes us, in relation to its characters, people of the future), it is very much in line with its subject, and has been made with much the same mix of enchantment and suspense.

Writer Mark Gatiss has also penned episodes of "Doctor Who," both under show runner Russell T Davies, who revived the series in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus (not counting a 1996 TV movie) and current show runner Steven Moffat (with whom he co-created "Sherlock"). It's a fan's work — Gatiss had unsuccessfully pitched the idea on the occasion of the show's 40th anniversary, two years before its return — made for fans.

Several of the actors, including Bradley and the excellent Jessica Raine (who plays producer Verity Lambert, a name hallowed in the annals of Whostory), have appeared in the series, as well, and here and there Gatiss and director Terry McDonough apply a little sci-fi magic to their true-life tale. There are cameo appearances, calculated to quicken the heart, and lines appropriated from the series that underscore thematic resonances: Like "Doctor Who" itself, the film is a story of partnership and leave-taking. That these echoes may be obvious does not make them any less potent.

Certainly, you can watch with no previous knowledge of the show, for the affecting stories of plucky outsiders creating a national institution from humble materials, and of an actor who finds the role of his life just as playing that role is about to become too much for him.

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Nevertheless, there is a special, pleasurable appreciation in knowing in advance that Hartnell will be replaced by Patrick Troughton (who himself will be replaced by Jon Pertwee, and so on and so forth through the tumbling years) — so that when someone says, "No one's irreplaceable," we catch the irony.

Is it accurate? Did BBC drama head Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) really punctuate his sentences by exclaiming "Pop! pop! pop!" and did reluctant production designer Peter Brachacki (David Annen) really knock up a design for the time machine's interior in 30 seconds with a few pieces of hole-punched cardboard and a couple of spools of thread? I don't know. But some watching will.

Gattis pre-empts nit-picking with an opening announcement: "The following program is based on actual events. It is important to remember, however, that you can't rewrite history, not one line. Except perhaps when you embark on an adventure in space and time." And fade up on a blue police box in the fog.

Drama proceeds from the threat of cancellation, of firings, of managing personalities, and of Hartnell's increasing inability to handle the job. For a fan, there is a kind of added sensual thrill in seeing the early sets re-created, the electronic realization of Ron Grainer's opening theme, the invention of the groan of the TARDIS (a house key on piano wire) and the video effects in the opening credits.

No one was setting out to make history, but they were making history all the same, and not only with the series. Lambert was the BBC's first female producer, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) its first Indian director — "the pushy Jewish bird" and "the posh wog," as they call themselves, out to prove themselves.

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"We've got to stick together, haven't we?" Gattis has Lambert say. "Make our little show work — that'll teach them."

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