I know I'm a little late on this, but I wanted to make sure I covered it before the Christmas Special anyway. With all the fanfare and retrospective love surrounding the recent 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, I'm surprised I haven't heard more about the feature length docudrama released about the show's first years. Written by long time new Who and Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss, An Adventure In Space And Time is easily as fitting and as moving a tribute to the history of the series as the special it was meant to help promote, and works so well on its own that I almost feel bad that we had to wait this long for a milestone to justify its production. Not sure if it will get a larger release as it seems to have been overshadowed by the 50th and the upcoming last outing for Matt Smith, but it would be a shame if more Whovians weren't given the chance to see it if they understandably missed it the first time around.
Particularly in the realm of science fiction where so much hinges on a grand mythology and continuity, its easy to succumb to the fallacy that any great television show was just as intricate and brilliant and fully formed when it started as it is at its peak. Its hard to imagine that for a show like Doctor Who, there never was any grand plan that was leading to all these classic characters and alien races, and that just like any other serialized creative endeavor, they were mostly just making things up as they went along, forced to adapt to budgetary and practical shortfalls through creative compromises. The arc of history smooths out the rough edges, allowing the fans to know which parts to forget and which parts to integrate into their conception of what the series is now, a constantly growing patchwork of good and bad. An Adventure In Space And Time pulls back the curtain on just how haphazardly this unwieldy project was started, and in retrospect, the most amazing thing might be that it ever found its footing at all.
Take for instance, the notion of Regeneration. The idea that the Doctor happens to be a member of a specific alien race that can change its form at the moment of death (conveniently with a new face and actor to wear it) is something that is now seen as not only key to the show's continued longevity, but intrinsic to the character and mythos of the series. And yet, when the show first started, the producers didn't even know what species the Doctor was, what planet he was from, or what differentiated him from humans other than his mastery of time travel. The desperate need to keep a popular show going despite the rapidly failing health of its star led to a gimmicky plot device that now 50 years later ranks up there with The Force and The Prime Directive as sci fi concepts every nerd worth his salt should know. It defines the show not only in the freedom it allows for as new actors take up the mantle of The Doctor, but also in what the show represents culturally for its many devoted fans, a cycle of death, change, and rebirth, and ultimately, immortality.
William Hartnel was the first Doctor, a cantankerous old coot taking his niece on Holiday through time and space with a couple of well meaning teachers as unwilling hitchhikers. Though most often thought of as the first Doctor to leave the role, An Adventure In Space And Time sees him as the last to leave his post, struggling to maintain his commitment to embodying a character beloved by so many children even as all of his companions and so many of the people behind the scenes who brought him here have moved on. If like me you previously only knew David Bradley as the groundskeeper at Hogwarts and the creepy old bastard from Game of Thrones (and maybe the Cornetto Trilogy if you're nerdy enough), than you need to do yourself a service and watch him bring so much depth and quiet dignity to this surprisingly complex old man. He's gruff, often unruly and unthinking, but so dedicated to the mission of entertaining and educating the children who love him that at times he seems like the only one who knows just how important this silly little sci fi show is.
Then again, one of the best parts of this special is seeing just how dedicated the people behind Doctor Who were and how much faith they had in what at the time no doubt seemed like a pretty silly concept. What now seems like a brilliant amalgamation of different styles and genres must have made no sense to people who still thought science fiction was simply pulp nonsense and kid stuff. To say that it was ahead of its time seems kind of quaint 50 years later, but seeing the first female producer in BBC history and the first Indian director come together to craft a show unlike anyone had ever seen before, in hindsight it almost feels like it was destiny. We know the outcome, and yet at every set back and complication the threat to the show's continued existence still feels real because you can see that the characters believe it. When the first show airs only to be crushed in the ratings by news of the Kennedy Assassination, all hope seems lost even though we know for a fact that it wasn't.
An Adventure In Space And Time ends with a poignant cameo very reminiscent of the one seen in The Day Of The Doctor, though in this case I suppose its in reverse. I won't spoil it any more than that, except to say that its a quick, wordless moment that says everything that needs to be said about the magic of Doctor Who and why so many people, myself included, are still drawn to it after all these years. The whole special is filled with little moments like this, heartwarming little reminders for why all this was worth it, interconnected by sad remembrances of a history that perseveres, even as it moves on from the past and leaves behind so many great creative people. On the eve of another regeneration and another rebirth of a show that deserves all the praise it gets, this is a film that not only respects and honors the legacy of Doctor Who, but brings a piece of it back to life for a new generation.
Sorry, I guess good Who related material just brings out my sentimental side. Maybe I should go re-watch The Rings Of Akhaten to build up my cynicism again...