There’s no need for introduction with Dr. Who, who is so ingrained into pop culture it’s hard for many to imagine science fiction without the beloved time lord. However, the show must have been a tough sell back in the Sixties. A crotchety old doctor (known only as “the Doctor”) turns out to be a time traveling alien who journeys through space in a phone booth. It had to be the weirdest premise BBC had ever had presented to them. And there was a case where the show was close to being cancelled before it’s time. We get to see how it beat the odds in An Adventure in Space and Time, a simple yet engaging biopic about the first years of Dr. Who.
Considering how the show has become synonymous with wibbily wobbly timey wimeygenre known as Science Fiction, it’s surprising to find out it was originally supposed to be an educational show. Plus, considering how it is such an ingrained part of British pop culture, it is also surprising it was created by a Canadian. That Canadian was Sydney Newman (played by Brian Cox), the charismatic head of BBC’s TV Drama Department. And he was just looking for something to fill in the tea time slot. Though he had faith in the show, it’s likely he didn’t expect it to be the phenomenon it is today. In fact, the show had a few close calls. Newman came close to cutting out theDaleks, the Doctor’s trademark genocidal enemies, because of his “no robots” rule[ii]. The show also came close to cancellation due to bad scheduling.
At the center of the movie are three people who helped nurture the show through the rough early years. First there’s is Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), a young Indian immigrant who endured a limited budget and a crammed studio to direct the first episodes. Then there’s Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), an inexperienced young producer Newman brought in to expand on his idea of the show. She represents the core of the movie. Despite Newman’s faith in her, she is still held back by lack of experience and the sexism of that time[iii] Through the film, Rain shows Verity building assertiveness whether she’s trying to sway naysayer executives or demanding an episode be reshown after a major event derails its ratings. At one point, she stands up to Newman in order to keep the Daleks in the show. And all “Whovians” thank you for that.
And then there’s the first doctor himself, William Hartell (David “Argus Filch” Bradley). When we first meet Hartell, he is a bitter grouch, still living in the past of his previous roles. He doesn’t give his granddaughter the time of day. When he gets the part of the Doctor, he sees it as just another job. At first, he starts proving difficult for Lambert. In one funny scene, Newman teaches Lambert how to play with Hartell’s ego. In time, Hartell warms to the show when he sees its popularity grow. Though he doesn’t lose his crankiness, he does find childlike joy in having little adventures with his young fans, especially his granddaughter. He gets so ingrained in the show he teaches new production crews how the mechanics of the TARDIS work. But as the years pass, the shooting takes its toll on Hartell’s health, but he can’t bring himself to leave the show. It’s kind of heartbreaking when he gracefully passes the torch to Patrick Troughton.
Writer Mark Gatiss takes the making of this iconic show and makes it a tale of three outsiders, brought together for a common goal. For an odd show like Dr. Who, it takes a group of outsiders to make it work. With their abilities to think outside the box, they bring a unique spin to tropes of sci fi and not to mention working within their limitations. After their struggle, it’s worth it for them to see children imitating Daleks on a city bus. We get the joy of watching how an argument in a dining room results in set design of the Tardis.
[i]It’s one of the show’s recent catchphrases. Consult your local geek for more information
[ii] Yes, I am aware they are not actually robots. And there is a scene where Verity does explain this to Newman perfectly.
[iii] At that time, Verity was the youngest producer of the BBC and the only female drama producer.