‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ review

Change. Regeneration. It’s the very thing that’s kept Doctor Who running for half a century and we take it for granted now. It’s exciting, partly because it’s expected. Doctor, companion, showrunner, whoever. The song ends, but the story goes on (to paraphrase an Ood). And we continue to huddle round the screen like kids in the ‘60s.

In many ways change is the core theme of BBC Two’s An Adventure in Space and Time. It’s a force that gives and takes away. A lesson everyone learns first hand.

More than just the story of Doctor Who‘s genesis, Adventure is a tale of two parts, of two people – producer Verity Lambert (Call the Midwife‘s Jessica Raine) and actor William Hartnell (Broadchurch‘s David Bradley) – each at opposing stages in their careers, but both trying to make a change. Lambert is the up-and-coming producer, kicking her way through the glass ceiling and the sumptuously evocative surroundings of ‘60s BBC Television Centre; Hartnell is the ageing thespian in need of a role to regenerate his career and escape typecasting.

Mark Gatiss’ script is poignant and witty, and written with the love that only a super-fan such as he could provide; a reverence to a show made by passionate people for passionate people. And though it is filled with rewards for Whovians, and the original TARDIS set has been recreated to a fangasmically painstaking degree, such visual treats thankfully remain as a backdrop; the sci-fi scenery against which a touching human story plays out.

Though Brian Cox’s cartoonish ebullience as Sydney Newman, and the understated performance of Sacha Dhawan as director Waris Hussein are to be applauded, this is Raine and Bradley’s show (both should be polishing their shoes for awards season now). It’s testament to their performances that you quickly forget they look exactly like the people they’re playing and instead focus on the soul of their performances.

Bradley’s Hartnell is an almost tragic figure. Vulnerable, grumpy, kind, lost… he’s so very human in contrast to his alien alter ego. As the First Doctor he changes the face of TV and yet fails to realise that the change is bigger than he is. ‘You can’t have Doctor Who without Doctor Who, can you!’ he states. But companions leave and crew move on one by one until Hartnell is left, bewildered, frail, isolated; a man out of time in every sense. Regeneration beckons.

It could be an incredibly sad finale to the first chapter of a story without end, were it not for a powerful if indulgent piece of dramatic licence. Hartnell, resigned to his fate, looks across the console and sees Matt Smith. Well, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who without a bit of fantasy, would it? It’s unashamedly sentimental and hopeful. A reassurance for the fans of now as much it is to the Doctor of then.

While ‘The Day of The Doctor’ carries the weighty mantle of Doctor Who’s ’50th Anniversary Special’, An Adventure in Space and Time may well end up being the most special TV treat to come out of the BBC’s Whozapalooza golden jubilee celebrations.

Aired at 9pm on Thursday 21 November 2013 on BBC Two.

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