As a love letter to the creation of Doctor Who, Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time gets a lot right. It’s faithful, it features excellent performances, and it is appropriately wistful about a series that has become an institution. Unfortunately, by adhering so closely to this notion of fond remembrances, the film limits its potential, becoming little more than a curiosity for interested Whovians. Doctor Who, which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its debut, is a television phenomenon, arguably more popular now than when it burst onto the scene in 1963 with its incredibly popular second story, The Daleks. Given Who’s less-than-smooth journey from concept to broadcast and the many colorful people involved with its creation, a TV movie exploring the series’ beginnings makes narrative and commercial sense, particularly during its Golden Jubilee year. An Adventure in Space and Time delivers on this promise, showing the genesis of the characters and Who’s now famous title sequence, sound effects and music, and set design. For those uninterested in how a bobbin and some punched out cardboard gave viewers the TARDIS, however, there’s only so much to hold on to.
The main flaw with An Adventure in Space and Time is its lack of focus. The narrative begins and ends with William Hartnell’s final day of shooting as the Doctor, but then spins out to follow Verity Lambert as she is appointed to create and manage the series, making her the first female producer at the BBC. Very quickly it seems that this is her story, an intrepid young woman determined to make her mark in a male-dominated industry. After a while though, Verity fades from prominence and is replaced by William Hartnell, the aging actor looking to redefine his career and fighting the degenerative disease that will force him from the job and character he loves so dearly. This split focus is distracting and, while Jessica Raine is great as Verity and David Bradley is fantastic as Hartnell, there doesn’t seem to be enough story during this limited time frame, 1963-66, for either one or the other to be the main focus, leading to this fractured approach.
A better structure may well have been following Doctor Who itself, rather than one person associated with it and then another. Initially it seems like this is the general idea, but after some interesting early scenes, we get very little exploration of the inspiration for many of the memorable elements in the show’s first seasons. We hear Verity argue for the metaphor the Daleks represent, but not a moment is spent on how their now iconic look was created, just one missed opportunity of many. While Hartnell’s relationship with the character and show are very well fleshed out, there’s hardly any discussion of how his costars feel about the program. We get a moment or two on Carole Ann Ford’s departure, but rather than examine why she left, we see this decision entirely through Hartnell’s perspective. The same is true for Waris Hussein (the show’s first director) and Verity Lambert- they leave for other projects, but after they’ve been presented as major creative forces behind the series (though Hussein only directed two stories, An Unearthly Child and Marco Polo) and as people deeply invested in Doctor Who, neither’s reasons for departing is given any time at all.
Then there’s the decision to have the Hartnell’s recasting explained to him as the show and character needing a regeneration, when that term and the specifics of the Doctor’s ability to regenerate weren’t fleshed out on the series until the Third Doctor’s final story, Planet of the Spiders in 1974. Sydney Newman didn’t have some grand notion of regeneration in the Whovian sense, he and the producers of Doctor Who needed a way to recast their ailing lead actor without killing the show. This was a financial and production choice, not a creative one, and presenting it any other way feels incredibly disingenuous. The final bizarre, distracting choice Gatiss and McDonough make is to bring Matt Smith in to play either himself or the Eleventh Doctor, it’s not entirely clear which, appearing to Hartnell as a vision of sorts while he signs off as the Doctor. There’ve been absolutely no metaphysical elements to this point; Smith’s appearance comes out of nowhere. It’s a nice nod to have the First Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor share a moment, but this isn’t the First Doctor, it’s an emotionally devastated Hartnell. Smith and/or the Eleventh Doctor didn’t belong anywhere near this.
Perhaps this ties in with the film’s general unwillingness to present Doctor Who in anything but a positive light. Hartnell doesn’t leave disappointed and hurt to have been fired, he leaves at peace with the decision, imagining his successor 50 years later. Obviously this film is a celebration of the series, but a closer examination of the show’s uplifting and disappointing effects (giving Hartnell an almost magical relationship with the children of Britain, before taking that away) and its strengths and weaknesses (yes, the Daleks are a fantastic analogue for the Nazis, but relegating the female characters to the imperiled screamer role was a clear mistake) would have made for a more honest, interesting film. That being said, An Adventure in Space and Time was clearly never intended as an unbiased representation of the creation of the series. Love seeps through each frame, for better and worse, and for many Whovians, this is exactly what they were hoping to see. The cinematography is gorgeous throughout, the recreations of scenes from Classic Who are painstaking and beautiful, and just seeing Bradley walk around as the First Doctor undoubtedly gave many, including this critic, chills. The period touches behind the scenes are lovely and the characters are interesting and their journeys eminently relatable. This is without a doubt a solid, entertaining behind-the-scenes look at early Doctor Who. It’s just a shame it’s not more.