I think I’ve just seen the best episode of Doctor Who ever and it wasn’t even part of the series. An Adventure in Space and Time, the dramatized story of how the show came to be, was a thoroughly entertaining story. The plot kept at a brisk pace, there were a lot of fun facts about the show, and a few nods to the modern incarnation of Doctor Who (“I don’t want to go.”).
Sydney Newman came up with the idea for the show, but it’s made clear that the substance was very much supplied by Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein. Lambert was only 28 when Newman gave her the position as producer of the series. She was both the youngest producer working at the BBC and the only female drama producer. Hussein himself was only in his mid-twenties and at the time was the first Asian drama director at the BBC.
Most of the “old guard” thought the show would fail, but it connected with viewers and turned the gruff William Hartnell into a fan favorite amongst children across Britain. Hartnell really cared about the children, too. He insisted that every button and lever on the TARDIS control panel have a purpose because he knew the kids watching would spot inconsistencies.
Everything about the production almost seemed designed to fail. Besides the young directing and producing pair, they were stuck in a tiny soundstage that would overheat, causing the sprinkler system to dampen the entire set. Newman hated the first shoot of the pilot which had to be re-done and he nearly went through the roof when the idea of the Daleks was put before him (“No robots, no bug-eyed monsters!”). Then the premiere was the very day after President Kennedy was assassinated.
In spite of all this, the show was an almost instant success with 10 million people watching the pilot between its initial run and rebroadcast the following week.
As An Adventure in Space and Time headed toward a conclusion, things turned bittersweet. Hussein, then Ford (Susan), then Lambert all decided to move on, which took an emotional toll on Hartnell. The physical demands of the shooting schedule also wore on him and his health began to fail. Soon, he began to have trouble remembering lines and it became clear to everyone that a change was needed. Everyone, it seemed, except Hartnell himself.
Eventually, though, Hartnell began to accept that he was no longer able to keep up with the demands of a weekly television show. Unfortunately, by then it had been decided that a new lead would have to be brought in if Doctor Who were to continue. This is when the concept of regeneration was hatched.
In his office, Sydney Newman broke the news to Hartnell. Though saddened by the revelation, he took it well and even complimented the choice of Patrick Troughton as his successor. Later in his home, he said to his wife, “I don’t want to go.” These were the very same words spoken by David Tennant’s Doctor as his regeneration began and they still strike an emotional chord.
The final scene had Hartnell meeting Troughton as they’re about to film the very first regeneration. That’s when Gatiss decided to tear out our hearts and exterminate them with a poignant, but sad twist. If you weren’t in tears already, having Matt Smith appear next to Hartnell just before the senior actor filmed his final scene should’ve brought the waterworks.
The two men looked at each other with sadness and respect, two bookends to a half-century of wonder and excitement. Smith flipped a couple of levers, gave the console a firm grip, then disappeared, leaving Hartnell to film his last scene as the original Time Lord.
It really hurt to be reminded that very soon Matt Smith will be doing just what William Hartnell had to do. At the same time, it was a beautiful way to connect the two ends of the show’s history. It allowed newer viewers to understand that the loss of every Doctor has been emotionally powerful for fans since the 1960s and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come, even if it turned the knife of Smith’s impending departure ever so slightly.
Overall, An Adventure in Space and Time was both fun and informative. The two hours passed so quickly it was surprising, and because it went by so fast I was disappointed when it ended. Mark Gatiss’ creation had me wishing he’d do a series of docu-dramas covering the entire history of Doctor Who. He could call it Fifty Years of Piss and Vinegar.
Whaddya say, Mark? More please?