Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Adventure Begins

Back in November, as part of the BBC's 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, they premiered an original docudrama about the series' genesis, An Adventure in Space and Time. I recently dug out from under the DVR backlog a bit and got to watch it.

The film was certainly a love letter to the series, written by one of the people who loves it most: Mark Gatiss, one of the creative minds behind the modern incarnation of the show (and creator/writer/actor on the BBC's Sherlock). In particular, the film is a look at the three-year tenure of the First Doctor, William Hartnell, until his replacement in 1966.

As is often the case with biopic movies, An Adventure in Space and Time doesn't quite have any sort of grand message behind its narrative; it's simply showing how things were. On the other hand, biopics also rarely have much of a character arc either, beyond the exhaustive chronicling of the main subject's life. Here, this film does better, following the changes in the life of not just one person, but two.

William Hartnell's tale is a bittersweet one, of an aging actor almost resigned to being typecast in undesirable roles at the end of a long career. Suddenly, he's swept up in a wave of fandom that brings him success greater than he's ever known, but his own failing faculties sadly keep him from staying with it as long as he might have chosen. We get a happier story in the career of Verity Lambert, the tough producer who became the BBC's first female to occupy such a role. She comes to believe in the project even more than the executive who assigned her there, and succeeds despite impossible limitations in creating a massive hit.

Ultimately, the movie is more simple entertainment than anything else. It works as such mainly on two levels. One is the performances, from two actors in particular. Brian Cox plays BBC executive Sydney Newman in a way that's just enough cliche without being tired. And David Bradley is excellent as William Hartnell. Not only is he relatable and ultimately sympathetic, but dressed up in the Doctor's costume, he actually looks the spitting image of the real William Hartnell.

The other entertainment is in the numerous loving Doctor Who references and Galaxy Quest-style jokes peppered throughout. I'm sure I only caught half at best, as I'm hardly what you'd call a big fan. Still, I smiled at Hartnell's determination to make the buttons on his TARDIS console makes sense, at the executive's desire to cast a new Doctor to bring about a "renewal or regeneration" of the series, and much more.

An Adventure in Space and Time was hardly a revelatory movie, but as a loving look back at the roots of Doctor Who, it works quite well. I was entertained enough to give it a B.

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