Judge Gordon Sullivan is a Whovian of the highest order.
Travel back in time to witness the dramatic birth of Doctor Who.
Because we live in an era where David Tennant and Matt Smith are just-shy of household names, it can be hard to remember that Doctor Who began 50 years ago as a show for children. Since 1963, the series and its iconic monsters have been sending children round their couches in fear for decades. But as the show's audience grew up, the show itself became less and less significant, until it was all but a joke by the 1980s. Then came the 2005 revival from producer Russell T. Davies which has saturated the last 10 years with talk of the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver. With the 50th anniversary looming, the folks behind the revival had two distinct audiences to please—fans of the new series who may or may not have ever seen an original series episode, and diehard classic Whovians familiar with every element of The Doctor's universe. As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, Doctor Who and Sherlock scribe Mark Gatiss decided to tell the tale of how The Doctor came to be on the BBC. It's a touching film about the power of storytelling and a fascinating peek behind the curtain of one of the most iconic shows in television history.
Facts of the Case
It's 1963, and the BBC needs a show for kids. Veteran head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox, X2: X-Men United), has the commission, but leaves most of the details in the hands of the BBC's first female producer, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine, Call the Midwife). Given no money and the charge to produce a show much bigger than its budget, Lambert teams with director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan, The History Boys) and the cantankerous William Hartnell (David Bradley, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) as the Doctor. When their unlikely little show becomes a hit, the group face even more challenges, not the least of which is Hartnell's ill health.
An Adventure in Space and Time is really three short stories in one longer film. The first third is a snapshot of the BBC in 1963—Lambert is breaking down doors and smashing gender stereotypes (not least of which is the accusation she slept her way to the position), all while shepherding the birth of one of TV's great franchises. The middle third reminds viewers just how big Doctor Who was at its initial height. The 1960s was the first golden era of TV merchandising, and the show had its series of spin-offs. But popularity comes at a price, and the final segment sees the original creative team pulled away to other more high profile projects, as the series falls victim to its own success. This all culminates in the show's central (and most innovative) conceit, as Hartnell must step down for his health and the resulting regeneration of The Doctor leads to 50+ years of seemingly endless entertainment.
It's a tight story that's part history lesson, part behind-the-scenes expose, and part human drama, and the film succeeds because of this combination, but it owes a great deal to the appeal of its cast. Brian Cox hasn't been this charming in quite a while, seducing the audience and the other characters as Sydney Newman. Jessica Raine is just as excellent as Verity Lambert, who must be fierce, headstrong, beautiful, and intelligent in equal measure. Between this and her performance on Call the Midwife, Raine is showing she has a bright future ahead. That said, the real lynchpin here is David Bradley. The First Doctor is an icon, and Bradley steps into the role of playing his real life progenitor with gusto. He's cranky and lovable at the same time, bringing a ferocity to the role that's easy to admire.
Perhaps the best thing about An Adventure in Space and Time is that it's not just a giant in-joke for fans of Doctor Who. Sure, if you've seen Hartnell's run as The Doctor, you'll appreciate the attention to detail in recreating some of his more famous moments. If you know a bit about BBC history, the machinations of the various producers and their budgetary constraints will be more meaningful, and electronic music fans will also appreciate the nod to Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the infamous opening title music. Yet, even if you've never heard of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time is still a great human story of historical interest. New viewers might not catch every reference or see every joke, but the overall story of people trying to do their jobs in the face of impossible challenges is one that can be appreciated by all.
To top it all off, BBC Video gives us an excellent Blu-ray release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded HD transfer is near-flawless. Detail is sharp throughout, colors are beautifully saturated (check out the blue of the TARDIS), black levels stay deep and consistent, and compression artefacts aren't a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is equally impressive, recreating Derbyshire's iconic music and the sounds of the Daleks in beautiful HD surround. Dialogue is also clean and clear, with good dynamic range.
An Adventure in Space and Time (Blu-ray) arrives in a nice three-disc set. We get the Blu-ray copy, a DVD copy, and a third disc that includes the first Doctor Who adventure "An Unearthly Child." Extras start with a couple of minutes of extended scenes, including one on the sound design that is great. Another featurette reconstructs some missing moments from that first adventure and includes a cameo by Mark Gatiss. There's also a short featurette on the making of the film that runs 11 minutes, and another remembering William Hartnell.
The disc with "An Unearthly Child" also has its own extras, including the first episode that had to be re-shot (as dramatized in the film), some audio commentaries, comedy bits, a photo gallery, and a look at the show's theme music. They're the same extras available on the original episodic release, but it's a nice inclusion here and the perfect way to lure new viewers to classic Doctor Who.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's probably my own personal interest rather than a specific complaint, but I would have liked to see even more focus on the show's iconic sound effects. Even with the extended scenes, there could be more emphasis on Delia Derbyshire's role and that of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Perhaps that's a story for a different time, but the parallels between Verity Lambert and Delia Derbyshire would have been wonderful to explore.
I don't want to spoil the moment for those who haven't seen the film, but there's a nod at the end to the legacy of Doctor Who. It's a small moment, but caps the film with a wonderful note emphasizing the true strength of the series. An Adventure in Space and Time is ultimately about the power of stories, and it's marvelous the show's origin has been told so well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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