News Column

'Adventure in Space and Time' review: Loving salute

November 21, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 21--An Adventure in Space and Time: Feature film. 9 p.m. Friday on BBC America.

BBC America can be forgiven for becoming a bit teary-eyed as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who," the improbable science fiction show that premiered the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That coincidence is part of the lore of "Doctor Who," because many at the BBC, including the man who starred as the first doctor, were convinced everyone would be watching coverage of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and no one would tune in for the premiere of the sci-fi series.

They were off by about 10 million viewers.

That was just one of many ways this loopy and, early on, cheesy sci-fi masterpiece would defy the odds, time and time again.

BBC America is not only airing marathons of past "Doctor Who" seasons, it's also ordered up a raft of special programming that will continue through the week and hit selected movie theaters Monday for a special showing of "The Day of the Doctor," the anniversary special airing Saturday on BBC America.

If you haven't been slavishly devoted to the enigmatic Time Lord, you'll get a sentimental crash course in the beginnings of the series with "An Adventure in Space and Time," created by Mark Gatiss ("Sherlock") and directed by Terry McDonough ("Breaking Bad"). The film airs Friday night as well.

Similarities to BBCA's regrettably canceled "The Hour" are more than coincidental because both that series and "Space and Time" focus on pivotal moments in the evolution of the BBC.

One of the many engaging themes of Abi Morgan's "The Hour," for example, was its depiction of the changing status of women among the tweedy greybeards of the Beeb back in the late '50s.

Although "Space and Time" is set a few years later, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine, "Call the Midwife") faces the same kind of sexist dismissal when she walks into her new office to produce "Doctor Who." She's been hired by the network's Canadian-born head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox, "Deadwood"), who has given her free rein to create the show, as long as she doesn't include any robots or "BEMs"- bug-eyed monsters.

After developing the concept of a time-traveling "doctor," she and her team, including director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan, "Last Tango in Halifax"), go looking for the right actor to play the title role. Hussein, by the way, experiences prejudice as well as the first Indian hired as a series director at the BBC.

They happen upon a crusty, hard-drinking veteran actor named William Hartnell (David Bradley, "Game of Thrones"), who's sick of doing war films and not getting any other intriguing offers.

Technical difficulties

Hartnell is difficult to deal with, and not a little skeptical about doing a sci-fi show "for children." Because he considers himself a serious actor, he wants to know, for example, what all the switches do inside the TARDIS -- for Time and Relative Dimension in Space -- the tricked-out policeman's box that will become the Doctor's mode of time-traveling transit.

The first episode gets made, somehow, and is set to air on Nov. 23, 1963. It's not easy getting the show on the air, though. For one thing, "Doctor Who" is given a small, inefficient studio where the sprinklers go off when the temperature rises to a certain point.

What can go wrong in the filming does go wrong, but the equipment is so substandard, Hussein is able to make only four edits in the film per hour, which means many of the snafus wind up on telly screens when the show finally airs -- doors opening when they shouldn't, crew members walking into shots and the occasional line delivery error, especially by Hartnell.

"Space and Time" doesn't come right out and say so, but the truth is, the absence of polish in those early years of the series was one of the things that so endeared it to early fans.

Besides, it didn't matter that the evil mutants known as Daleks resembled upended wastebaskets or the costumes looked less than convincing: Fans fell in love with the crusty but belatedly lovable Doctor Who.

The film is cleverly structured as a time-travel flashback, beginning in 1966, at the end of Hartnell's tenancy of the lead role. Hartnell is sitting alone in his car at night, and a policeman taps at the window, advising him, "Move along now, sir -- you're in the way." Even without knowing where the ensuing film will lead, we understand the sad irony of those words.

"Space and Time" is all about transition, the passage of time and certain inevitabilities. Cast members, including Hartnell, think the show and their roles will go on forever. The irony, of course, is that they've failed to remember that in real life, nothing is forever.

But "Doctor Who" is still giving it a good shot and has since the beginning. People did tune in on Nov. 23, 1963, in England, and they have continued to tune in over the years all over the world.

Staying power

The first incarnation of the show lasted until 1989, resurfaced as a television film in 1996, and was revived by 2005 as a series by Russell T. Davies ("Queer as Folk"), who served as executive producer until 2010 when he was succeeded by Steven Moffat.

There have been 11 doctors to date, with the departing Matt Smith being the youngest actor in the role. He'll be succeeded by Peter Capaldi ("The Thick of It"), who, coincidentally, played BBC executive Randall Brown in "The Hour."

Television and film production has become more sophisticated over the years, but one way "Doctor Who" remains credible is by eschewing fancy CGI effects.

The sets and costumes may no longer be cheesy, but they remain comparatively low key. Yet, it's because the show is more focused on endearing instead of making aliens look like they haven't been costumed by Target at Halloween that "Doctor Who" has amassed such a die-hard fan base.

Was it a kind of prescience years ago? Did the pioneers of "Doctor Who" suspect that someday, CGI would lard up so many sci-fi film and TV shows that the most effective thing a low-budget show could do was to keep things simple? Probably not. It was just that magic combination of a lack of money and an overabundance of imagination that made "Doctor Who" that improbable but enduring hit.

Here's to another half century.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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