Doctor Who is an impossible show. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary but it nearly didn’t make it past the pilot reveals a new a docudrama titled An Adventure in Space and Time. Writer Mark Gatiss calls it a “love letter” to Doctor Who but it’s clearly tough love. At every turn the program seems destined to fail.
Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), head of drama at the BBC, comes up with the idea as a way to bridge a gap between adults watching sports programming and kids watching music programming but right from the start there was little support for a science fiction show. Even its creator seemed to be trying to kill Doctor Who, or at least it’s villains. “No tin robots or BEMs (bug-eyed monsters),” he tells producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), who thankfully didn’t listen to him or any of the other men at BBC. As the BBC’s first female producer, Verity is is constantly confronted by sexism. She’s referred to as dearie and accused of having slept her way to from production assistant to producer. She’s even assigned a male mentor, who she fires. Director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan) faces his own discrimination as a British-Indian but it’s only briefly touched on.
The young upstarts approach William Hartnell (David Bradley) for the lead role of the Doctor. Hartnell is known for ‘playing’ grumpy old men but he no longer wishes to be typecast in such roles.
“It’s what you do so well, Mr. Hartnell. Stern and scary,” Waris describes the role. “But with a twinkle.”
Verity gives a considerably better pitch, “C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas that’s the Doctor.”
“Doctor Who?” Hartnell asks.
It’s one of many clever references to dialogue from the show. In another instance, Waris complains that the assigned studio is “smaller on the inside” which is ironic because the time machine known as the TARDIS is supposed to be “bigger on the inside.”
Hartnell complains about the lack of a set during rehearsal. He explains that he needs to familiarize himself with the TARDIS controls for authenticity.
“All those switches and dials. I need to know what they all do,” he insists. “What if I press something to open the doors and the next week I use it to blow us all up. You must see that. The children will spot it, you see.”
Of course they wouldn’t notice as demonstrated by recent Doctors, who erratically race around the TARDIS console randomly pushing buttons, pulling levels and occasionally using a hammer for good measure. It’s a brilliant piece of self deprecating humor but it also demonstrates Hartnell’s desire for consistency and inability to deal with change.
Verity panics and grabs Sydney, who flatters Hartnell until he forgets about his complaint. Sydney scolds her for not handling it herself and tells her to start acting like a producer. It’s just the pep talk she needs. She storms into the office of designer Peter Brachacki (David Annen) and refuses to leave until he builds her set. Brachacki relents but he spends less than minute on it. He stacks an overturned ashtray between two spools of thread for the console and surrounds it with perforated paper for walls.
Even after the TARDIS set is finished there are more problems on the inside. The doors won’t stay shut, the set overheats and the sprinklers go off during filming. In addition to all the technical issues, it’s deemed too scary for children. Sydney tells them to re-shoot the entire thing, despite the cost. The over budget episode gets only modest ratings. It’s eclipsed by the news coverage of the assassination of JFK. The BBC orders Sydney to kill Doctor Who.
Verity manages to convince Sydney not to cancel Doctor Who and reair the first episode right before the next episode, which would introduce the wildly popular Daleks. Verity sees children on the bus pretending to be the robots after the episode airs. Sydney concedes that he may have been wrong about the bug-eyed monsters, which were watched by 10 million viewers.
The show’s success leads to some lavish spending by Hartnell’s co-star Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant), who plays the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. Hartnell chastises her because no one is irreplaceable, though he later has his doubts that applies to him when he see his face on the cover of a Doctor Who book.
Despite the spat, they have deep fondness for each other that makes her iconic farewell scene that much more hard on Hartnell. It gives the scene a completely different feel. When Doctors tells Susan there must be “no regrets, no tears, no anxiety,” we know he’s feeling just the opposite.
Hartnell is visibly shaken as he walks off the stage . “Just stepping off for a moment,” he mistakenly addresses Waris, who had already left the show sometime ago.
From the start, Hartnell has a difficult time with his lines but it becomes increasingly worse over time. His wife reveals he is suffering from a hardening of the arteries that affects his memory. She privately asks for help from Verity, who awkwardly discloses that she too is leaving the show.
Hartnell’s new co-workers aren’t nearly as accommodating of the eccentric old man, who lashes out at them for not treating ‘his show’ with the respect it deserves. As his health worsens, Hartnell reluctantly requests some time off but instead gets fired instead. On his drive home, he stops at a police box on the side of the road where he becomes lost in thought. Upon arriving home, he breaks down.
“I… I don’t want to go,” he cries. “I don’t want to go.”
The scene is eerily reminiscent of the reluctant regeneration of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), who utters the same words nearly half a century later. It’s sure to have Whovians bawling their eyes out but it’s just as heartbreaking for newcomers to the series. The Doctor was a defining role both professionally and personally. It even bled into his relationship with his granddaughter who truly believed he was the Doctor. And eventually that “twinkle” was no longer an act.
When Patrick Troughton (Reece Shearsmith) introduces himself as his replacement, Hartnell puts on a brave face but he’s still not ready to go until he literally sees the legacy that he’s leaving behind. As Hartnell pilots the TARDIS one final time, he looks up to see the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) staring back at him. It’s brilliant bit of artistic license that saves this love letter from feeling like a suicide letter.
The scene is fittingly future proof because each actor’s scene was filmed separately.
“Because Matt wasn’t there we can now crop in any Doctor we like and the film can be shown every November!” Gatiss explains.
An Adventure in Space and Time is a truly timeless movie.