As difficult to comprehend as it may be in our geek-obsessed culture, there was a time when concepts like Time Lords, the TARDIS and Daleks all seemed a bit odd. Back in 1963, Doctor Who was just another BBC program, a quirky little sci-fi venture that had the unfortunate luck to premiere the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. Beyond that, the network was iffy on the whole idea, which was headed by a pair of ambitious yet untested producers, and starred a curmudgeonly actor many people felt was past his prime.
But 50 years later, here we are, discussing the long history of the series, which is arguably at its peak in popularity, when the announcement of a new actor taking over the lead role becomes an international event.
An Adventure in Space and Time takes us back to the beginning, lovingly re-creating the sets and costumes of the era in a way that’s sure to make Doctor Who fans swoon. The story gets going when legendary network executive Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) hands the reins of the in-development Doctor Who to neophyte producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan). While seeing how their bold and insistent leadership helped the show survive makes for compelling enough viewing, it’s really the story of the original Doctor, William Hartnell (David Bradley), that is the heart of the piece.
Well in his 50s when he was cast, Hartnell had soured on a career of playing domineering authority figures. Though he was as skeptical as anyone at first, the part of the time-traveling doctor turned out to be one of his greatest joys.
“He realized he could have a bit of fun and do something his grandchildren would like,” Bradley says. “It was the chance to do something that was comic as well as mysterious. He could expand and be given a chance to show a kind of playfulness that the character embodies.”
Indeed some of the most affecting scenes in the film are watching Hartnell, who early on has little time for entertaining even his granddaughter, warm up to young fans as they are starstruck meeting their favorite TV hero.
It’s also a nice parallel for Bradley, who despite a long career of playing various types of roles, is known to his largest audiences as the grumpy caretaker Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, and the murderous Walder Frey on Game of Thrones.
“When people meet me on the street, they’ll say, ‘Oh I expected you to be a bit more unpleasant,’” he says. “Or that it was a surprise to see me smile.”
An Adventure in Space in Time airs at 9pm Friday, Nov. 22, on BBC America.