Nevermind the coyly misleading cover art; An Adventure in Space and Time isn't that kind of origin story. No Gallifrey. No Time Lords. No stolen magic box that can pierce through five dimensions. No wibbly wobbly timey wimey at all, really. This feature-length tale instead rings in Doctor Who's golden anniversary by turning the clock all the way back to 1963. The crisis of the day isn't an Ice Warrior invasion but the BBC suffering from a gaping 25 minute hole in its schedule. Newly-instated exec Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) has some ideas on how to fill it, but a science fiction program for kids? Something about time travel and secreted history lessons for the junior set? No one at the Beeb takes this "Doctor Who" project all that seriously, and the same goes for the young upstarts that Newman hires to bring his vision to TV. Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) has the distinction of being the first female producer at the BBC, and being an attractive twentysomething to boot, everyone snidely assumes she wasn't entirely vertical as she worked her way to the top. Younger still is director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), an Indian struggling against no shortage of prejudices himself. Lambert and Hussein have a concept whose scope and ambition dwarf the series' laughably tiny budget. Their studio is a glorified walk-in closet. Critical designs and even scripts remain frustratingly out of reach. One mishap after another threaten to torpedo Doctor Who in its earliest days, before it was an institution and instead looked like some sort of all-but-stillborn boondoggle, destined for cancellation after a few short episodes.
Like most any good story, An Adventure in Space and Time is divided into three distinct acts. The first order of business is getting Doctor Who off the ground at all, pitting the pluck and determination of a select few against a towering wall of indifference. Next comes the series' unlikely stratospheric success, one that started with its second storyline and the introduction of Doctor Who's most iconic nemeses, the Daleks. For much of this time, the docudrama's attention is primarily divided among producer Lambert, director Hussein, and series lead William Hartnell (David Bradley). Once Doctor Who is a runaway hit, though, the people behind it gradually drift away. Hussein moves onto other projects. Lambert soon follows. At the end of the day, though, the series is called "Doctor Who". The role may now be thought of as a mantle that's passed from actor to actor, but at the time, Hartnell was The Doctor -- the one and only -- and his devotion is unwavering. His health, however, is not. The grueling pace of production would batter a man a fraction of his age, and the series takes that much more of a toll with a debilitating illness and Hartnell's increasing propensity for flubbing his lines. Hartnell also butts heads with the new caretakers of the series, in part because of his irascible nature and partially because they don't share his same commitment and intense attention to detail. It's not a tenable situation, and like the man says, nothing gold can stay.
Mark Gatiss -- a Doctor Who fanatic and accomplished writer and producer in his own right -- had been trying to tell the story of the series' earliest days for the better part of twenty years. He's certainly had the time to hone it to perfection, and An Adventure in Space and Time is indeed extraordinary. It shouldn't be mistaken as a feature-length love letter to Doctor Who on its fiftieth anniversary. A familiarity with classic Who makes it that much more rewarding -- especially its loving recreations of memorable moments from key, early adventures -- but one needn't have tuned into Doctor Who at all to appreciate it. The stories it tells are very easily embraced. Much of An Adventure in Space and Time pits scrappy underdogs against a behemoth that at worst would like to see them fail and at best couldn't be bothered to care one way or the other. The movie certainly offers a peek at the recording of Doctor Who's iconic theme song, the design of the opening titles, shaping the interior of the TARDIS, Dalekmania, and even the departure of The Doctor's granddaughter Susan from the series. This shouldn't be mistaken as fan service, however; such moments are presented as either splashes of color in a wonderfully engaging story or to better shape a larger narrative. It's much more about the genesis of Doctor Who as a series than as a concept; the premise is essentially fully formed at the outset, and such ideas as the TARDIS being a brilliantly blue police box take place entirely offscreen. The pacing is swift and nimble, and with a runtime of some 86 minutes, An Adventure in Space and Time certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. There are enough characters and such a wealth of material to mine that at no point does the movie feel as if it's running in place, but its focus is also tight enough that it's never overwhelming. Gatiss has struck one endlessly perfect balance after another here.
The marvelous craftsmanship behind An Adventure in Space and Time's storytelling extends to every other element of the film as well. In particular, its skilled sound design and achingly gorgeous recreation of the early-to-'mid '60s ensure that this docudrama is that much easier to wholly escape into. Far and away the movie's greatest asset, though, is its cast. Following his vocal performance in the Doctor Who special "The End of Time", Brian Cox makes an enormous impression in front of the camera throughout his handful of scenes as the flamboyant BBC executive that dreamed up the series. Jessica Raine, herself a Doctor Who alum with the seventh series' chiller "Hide" to her credit, is essentially the lead for the first half of the movie. Everything you could hope for in an underdog story, her Verity Lambert is green but eager, thrown into the deep end of the pool and emerging afterwards as an accomplished producer. Sacha Dhawan is charming and engaging as the equally committed director working alongside her, although as Hussein doesn't drive the action in quite the same way that Lambert does, the impact he leaves is diminished accordingly.
Nothing I can say could possibly do justice to what David Bradley contributes to An Adventure in Space and Time. As many hours as I've spent watching Bradley on Game of Thrones these past few years, all I see in front of me here is William Hartnell. Bradley readily embraces Hartnell's darker sides, introducing him as a largely abrasive grouch. Some of the moments that left me smiling the widest early on stem from Lambert, Hussein, and Newman stroking the actor's ego to massage him into playing along. There's an unmistakable warmth to the other key performances that make these characters easy to root for, but throughout the early stretches of the film, Hartnell keeps viewers rather at arm's length. This is entirely deliberate. In large part, the back half of An Adventure in Space and Time is about the void in Hartnell's life that Doctor Who fills. He'd certainly enjoyed a long career as an actor prior to the series, but Doctor Who almost immediately came to define him. The more the movie goes along and the more entrenched he becomes in the role, the more of Hartnell's humanity we see beam through. He has more than his share of barbed outbursts -- again, An Adventure in Space and Time doesn't whitewash over Hartnell's more notorious qualities -- but they serve to better inform this character, be it through the sincerity and warmth of his apologies or through his dogged devotion to the role that inspired such a tirade in the first place. As difficult as it may be to envision from the early scene of Hartnell snapping at his precious granddaughter, Bradley draws the actor as a heartbreakingly tragic figure. Doctor Who brings so much purpose to Hartnell's life, but it marks both the peak and the twilight of his long career. The role is physically and mentally more demanding than Hartnell can muster, but his devotion is such that he does his damndest to power through anyway. The tragedy is that his best is no longer enough. Not to sound like some hyperbolic armchair critic, but this isn't a story about victory or defeat; it's about purpose...what motivates us to crawl out of bed every morning. An Adventure in Space and Time is a celebration of Doctor Who on its fiftieth anniversary, yes, but it's so much larger and so much more universal than that. As much as I enjoyed "The Day of the Doctor" and "The Time of the Doctor", this to my mind is the easily the best thing to come out of Doctor Who's fiftieth. Highly Recommended.
I can't get over how gorgeous An Adventure in Space and Time looks in high definition, presented on Blu-ray in 1080p24. Despite being a digital production, the movie is wonderfully warm and filmic in appearance. The image is startlingly crisp and detailed throughout as well, bolstered further by robust contrast. Its use of color is equally striking, most memorably that distinctively TARDIS-ian shade of blue that rears its head time and again:
Honestly, the closest thing to a complaint I can muster is a second or two of unstable foliage during a shot in a park around the 57:30 mark. Otherwise, An Adventure in Space and Time is as perfect a presentation as I could ever have hoped to see.
An Adventure in Space and Time arrives on a single layer Blu-ray disc at its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This combo pack includes an anamorphic widescreen DVD of the docudrama as well.
I'm equally as impressed by the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (24-bit; 5.1). The nature of the story may seem as if it'd be aurally restrained -- this is a docudrama about the making of an incredibly low-budget sci-fi TV series in the early 1960s, after all -- and yet the sound design is phenomenal. The audio is consistently organic and alive throughout. A great deal of attention has been paid towards atmospherics, and even something as understated as the discrete placement of a ringing phone in one of the rear channels makes the movie feel that much more immersive. I also love the spacy yet subtle analog synths in the surrounds during the TARDIS interiors. Bass responsive is impressively substantial as well, from flashbulbs to the low-frequency thunk of a Dalek headpiece being mounted. Most importantly, the dialogue throughout An Adventure in Space and Time is rendered cleanly and clearly, never once struggling for placement in the mix. An outstanding effort.
The only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
It's an unexpected and very welcomed surprise that An Adventure in Space and Time is a three disc set. Along with a Blu-ray disc and DVD for the television movie itself, this release also features the first-ever Doctor Who adventure, "An Unearthly Child". Newly-screened disc art aside, this is the exact same DVD that was part of the "Doctor Who: The Beginning" collection from 2006. More than just an extra, this DVD is a rather loaded special edition in its own right. One of many early setbacks in An Adventure in Space and Time is that the premiere episode had to be redone, thanks to some scattered gaffes and an excessively abrasive Doctor. That long-unaired first episode is presented on this DVD along with the four episodes that make up this serial. There are also audio commentaries, four comedy sketches (one of which features Mark Gatiss!), a photo gallery, and three different presentations of the Doctor Who theme. It's great fun to watch this serial beforehand since several scenes and a number of lines of dialogue from it are reproduced brilliantly.
An Adventure in Space and Time features its own slate of extras as well, presented in high definition wherever possible. There are two short extended scenes (2 min.): one exploring the series' sound design and theme in a bit more detail, and the other a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment at Verity's farewell party. A series of "Reconstructions" (7 min.) offer a more detailed look at moments from the unaired first episode, "The Unearthly Child", "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", and "The Daleks' Master Plan". The highlight for me is regeneration-times-two, including a cameo from Mark Gatiss as Jon Pertwee! Clocking in just over a minute is a comparison of the original Doctor Who opening titles to those from the movie. Rounding out the extras are two featurettes. "William Hartnell: The Original" (5 min.) is a brief rememberance of the man behind the First Doctor, featuring comments from such Who luminaries as Matt Smith, Peter Davison, Mark Eden, Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, Waris Hussein, Peter Purves, and Terrance Dicks, as well as Hartnell's granddaughter and some of the folks on both sides of An Adventure in Space and Time's cameras. "The Making of an Adventure" (11 min.) is a largely promotional featurette, aimed more towards people who haven't tuned into the movie already, but there are some decent notes and behind-the-scenes footage scattered around in here. At the very least, it's nice to have some of the movie's cameos highlighted like this.
An Adventure in Space and Time comes packaged in a generic, hopelessly uninspired slipcover, a far cry from the considerably more interesting promotional artwork and even last year's British DVD release. I'm sure the idea is to hide what kind of a Doctor Who story this is, exactly.
The Final Word
Doctor Who spent its fiftieth anniversary celebrating its past and looking boldly to the future. The greatest highlight for me, though, has been this engaging look behind the scenes of the series' earliest days. Don't think of An Adventure in Space and Time as just being "that Doctor Who TV movie". There's that, of course, but it's also a very relatable story about creative passion and purpose that far transcends any fan service. Very Highly Recommended.