The Doctor, one of the most beloved characters in television history, has never been portrayed by a woman or a minority.
While the TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time, about the making of the original Doctor Who series, doesn’t make up for that oversight, it at least stresses the importance that a female producer and a minority director had in laying the groundwork for what would become a sci-fi juggernaut.
That producer is Verity Lambert, who is portrayed in the film with a very realistic balance of naivete and bravado by Jessica Raine, and it is by focusing primarily on her story that many of the details of the show’s creation that Who-fanatics might be craving get completely overlooked and neglected. Thank God for that, too, as this leads to a much more emotionally resonate film than just a dry rescitation of facts that the film could have taken.
The opening scenes of the film — before and just as the Lambert character is introduced — are clunky and confusing, despite the presence of the always entertaining Brian Cox as Sydney Newman, the network executive who appears to have dreamed up Doctor Who by just as a ratings gambit to keep kids tuned to the BBC following a music variety program. It’s then not clear why Newman appoints Lambert, his former assistant, to run this new show, particularly since we don’t see the two together until he promotes her.
Really, that’s all ok because the film doesn’t kick into high gear when Lambert shows up for her first day on the job and we see her getting spoken down to by the cranky older men who are now magically her subordinates. Yes, this is to be an “underdog succeeds” story where we see Lambert battling sexism and her own insecurities to produce a damn fine show despite numerous limitations, primarily budgetary in nature. And, along the way, Lambert will learn from Newman how to be tough and charming, depending on the circumstances of whatever situation.
Lambert also gets good back-up support from her first director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), who, being from India, seems to be the only person of color on the Doctor Who set, or even the only person of color in the entire British TV industry at the time. There’s also one odd bar scene that appears to imply that Hussein was gay, even though that storyline goes nowhere. Regardless of Hussein’s sexuality, he and Lambert are the two outcast kids taking on an entrenched cultural mindset, perhaps lending enough counterculturalism to the program they’ve been assigned to make a hit, to actually, yes, make it a hit despite nobody’s belief in it.
Well, there’s one other believer, of course: William Hartnell (David Bradley), who portrayed the first Doctor. When first introduced, Hartnell is, to put it bluntly, a complete dick, yelling at his cutie pie granddaughter for playing with her dolls too loudly just because he’s a washed-up character actor. Bradley plays the part with such acerbity, too, we tend to figure that Hartnell will remain a dick throughout his entire participation of the series. But, of course, like his fellow countryman Mr. Scrooge, Hartnell eventually warms up and charms the socks off of everybody he meets when he realizes what a beloved figure his Doctor has quickly become. To his credit, Bradley makes this a completely believable, gradual transformation.
Hartnell’s character evolution is about equal to the evolution of the plot of An Adventure in Space and Time, imperfect and distant at the beginning, but eventually growing into quite a charming adventure through time, i.e. about 1963 to ’65.