Features / Television

Doctor Who 50th anniversary at the BFI: An Adventure in Space and Time review

imag2412-1It’s not every day that a TV screening gets a standing ovation but that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night at the BFI Southbank, after the public and press screening for the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’. The docudrama, written by Mark Gatiss, tells the real-life genesis of first episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ and beautifully explores the world at the time when the cult phenomenon was born. For those who don’t know the history, Doctor Who really was at the forefront of change and invention.

Doctor Who began in 1963 because of Canadian Sydney Newman (played here by Brian Cox) and at the time, they wanted a children’s show that would fit the gap between BBC sport show Grandstand finishing on a Saturday afternoon and just before the variety shows in the evening. He sanctioned the go-head after an idea and the rest, as they say, is history. The good thing about this history though is that it’s still running. Whether you’re an older Whovian old or new to the escapades, (I remember Sylvester McCoy most prominently) this brilliantly made account of events delves into the fictional world that we know now but, most importantly, offers up an even greater understanding of the show and how it affects so many, both emotionally and as entertainment.

An Adventure in Space and Time very importantly focuses on Doctor Who being in the lead of making brave decisions, for the era it started in. The show gave an opportunity to Verity Lambert (played here by the wonderful Jessica Raine) as one of the early female producers and she stayed at the top with numerous highly successful productions, right through to her passing in 2007. They also gave Cambridge graduate Waris Hussein (played notably by Sacha Dhawan) the job to take Who forward with the opening episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ and that dedicated team is the reason the show is still here today. They were painstakingly passionate about getting the project right, against all the odds and from what others expected from them.

So, what are my first thoughts on ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ as a special? It is quite simply faultless and possibly one of the most charmingly rounded pieces of television I’ve seen. There may be a certain bias with having such a love for the show but it still managed to blow me away. I was hoping for a poignant tale of how it all came together, with an impressive case assembled, and I was sure this would happen but what we got was even better.

The atmosphere was already excitable but when certain faces were noticed among the audience, this made the event even more special. Joining us was original director Waris Hussein, plus former companion actors Carole Ann Ford, Sophie Aldred, Louise Jameson, Anneke Wills and Matthew Waterhouse. We also had writer Mark Gatiss, plus stars David Bradley and Sacha Dhawan, alongside director Terry McDonough and William Hartnell’s real-life granddaughter Jessica Carney who gave a Q&A after the credits had rolled.

If you’re looking for a little snippet, there’s no spoilers here but I’d suggest taking your favourite Who episode, throw in the truth of reality in this docudrama and you’ve got all the right ingredients. An Adventure in Space and Time is historically accurate and although Mark Gatiss admitted in the Q&A that they couldn’t get in everyone they wanted – for the sake of a 90 minute drama – they still effortlessly managed to find the poignant, relative nature of the Who stratosphere and this touch made it even more unforgettable.

Gatiss comments that this was his ‘love letter’ to Doctor Who and you can feel every ounce of adoration flowing throughout.  It somehow manages to find that perfect balance between nostalgia and respect, whilst equally complementing the tribute alongside the fifty years of celebration. Sure, there are a few obvious plot leans towards dramatisation but there are also nods to missing episodes, the BBC, actors involved and most importantly, the essence of what William Hartnell brought to the role and how he was, and will always be, the first Doctor.

David Bradley’s performance as Hartnell is masterful, he also said in the Q&A that he’d spoken to Jessica Carney (Hartnell’s Granddaughter) about her grandfather and he had hoped to bring across all sides of his personality, and he absolutely does. Although Hartnell suffered his own struggles with his age and initial lack of self-confidence in taking on the role, we see his professional relationship with Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) grow into something truly distinct and unique.

The other impressive part of An Adventure is its very specific attention to detail. From old BBC cameras, to the sets built and onto the progression of the show, every aspect is meticulously recreated. In fact they were, somewhat poignantly, the last crew to film at BBC Centre Wood Lane after the rest of the company had moved on to pastures new. To film this, they took over the sixth floor to completely re-create Newman’s office and more and with these little details, the dedication really comes across.

An Adventure in Space and Time is an outstanding portrayal of the origins of Doctor Whothat started on November 23rd, 1963. The superb cast also memorably assists by transporting us in our own TARDIS to explore the emotion, doubt and excitement of what they were creating. It also, so very importantly, seamlessly balances on both an informative and emotional level and so should engage an audience of all fans and those with curiosity. So as we begun, by the end of An Adventure in Space and Time there was an unprecedented standing ovation and – by looking around at everyone including myself – not a dry eye in the house. Something old, something new…here is to another 50 years!

An Adventure In Space And Time airs on BBC Two on November 21st at 9pm. 

Then it’s BBC America, November 22nd at 9PM (ET) and ABC1, November 24th, 8:45pm

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Images: Top – Dan Bullock, Featured & Bottom – BFI Southbank

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