To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, the BBC couldn’t have done anything better than An Adventure In Space And Time, one of the best British TV dramas in a long time.
In many ways, the story of how an empty Saturday slot was filled up with a programme that is still going strong five decades later shouldn’t have been so compelling.
Doctor Who was a gamble, but a fairly low-risk one, on the part of the BBC. They gave it to their first female producer, stuck her in a tiny run-down studio and almost cancelled it within weeks. However, it quickly became a success, and this programme covered the run of The First Doctor.
There’s not a massive amount of drama in there, beyond the physical and mental deterioration of William Hartnell, and the story arc is hardly conventional ‘underdogs win!’ stuff. It ends with him replaced by Patrick Troughton, while most of the other main players on and off screen have already moved on.
Most notably of all, for a British TV drama, the only murder takes place in Dallas, with JFK’s assassination overshadowing the first screening of Doctor Who, and the only policeman is a local bobby that we see at the start and end of the story.
This is an important point, because the greatest failing of our TV dramas (both BBC and ‘commercial’) is a feeble over-reliance on murder mysteries and enigmatic detectives trying to solve them. Most painfully on The Hour, a show that had the potential to exude the class of AAISAT was ruined in the first episode when it threw in a dead body.
It almost felt like it lacked the confidence NOT to have a murder, like they had to shoehorn it in to cover what otherwise would have been simply a show about a TV show. Happily, there was no way to do so here, and Mark Gatiss’ exquisite script was brought to life with class and confidence.
The cast was perfect, with David Bradley adding to recent excellent performances in Game Of Thrones and Broadchurch as Hartnell, capturing so many levels of pride, anger, sorrow, insecurity, prejudice and warmth. It was a role you felt he could have played for weeks on end.
Elsewhere, Jessica Raine was very believable as Verity Lambert, capturing her struggles in a sexist world without ever making her feel like a victim, while the likes of Jeff Rawle and Brian Cox brought in added gravitas.
And the recreation of 60s Doctor Who was very special, with the sets looking like you’d imagine those original ones looked, alongside little thrills like seeing the Daleks and a smoking Cyberman, as well as the creation of the iconic theme tune and effects.
With an unexpected and beautifully done surprise at the end, An Adventure In Time And Space was as good as it could possibly have been and was a great celebration of British invention and spirit. If only more of what gets on our screens could aim so high.