'An Adventure in Space and Time' explores 'Doctor Who's' origin story

Adventure-in-space-and-time-david-bradley-william-hartnell.jpgEvery superhero has an origin story, but so does every TV show or movie about superheroes -- and those seldom involve outrageous powers,ancient gods or radioactive spiders.

In the case of the BBC's time-traveling-alien sci-fi drama "Doctor Who," which turns 50 years old tomorrow -- having premiered on Nov. 23, 1963, one day after the JFK assassination -- it involves a producer and a director viewed at the BBC as being about as out of place as a blue London police box on far distant planet.

Airing tonight, Friday, Nov. 22, on BBC America, "An Adventure in Space and Time" tells that origin story, starring Jessica Raine (" Call the Midwife") as producer Verity Lambert, a rare female in the overwhelmingly male BBC; and Sacha Dhawan ("Last Tango in Halifax") as director Waris Hussein, the first Indian hired as a series director at the Beeb.

Given free rein to create a children's show called "Doctor Who," Lambert concocted the idea of a highly evolved humanoid alien with a mind-bending craft called the TARDIS that allows him to travel across space and time (hence the title of the movie).

And since someone incessantly soliloquizing on an adventure could cause viewers to question an individual's sanity, Doctor Who, as he was called, needed a human companion to whom (and thereby to us) he could explain what in the universe was going on.

And 50 years later, with 11 actors playing the role -- and many more companions -- over the decades, that's what the Doctor is sitll doing.

While the most recent doctor, Matt Smith, was a very young man, in a somewhat appropriate time inversion, the first was was an older man, played by then-55-year-old character actor William Hartnell in a white wig and frock coat.

Hartnell was not universally charming, a perpetually faithful husband nor a teetoaler (not by a long shot), but he was the key to "Doctor Who's" early success, and therefore, it's ongoing life (a 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, has been announced).

Playing Hartnell is British actor David Bradley, who's become beloved of young sci-fi fans for his roles as nasty custodian Argus Filch in the "Harry Potter" movies, and Lord Walder Frey, the host of the notorious and bloody Red Wedding on "Game of Thrones."

"I met up with some of the Stark cast at dinner one night," Bradley tells Zap2it over coffee in Beverly Hills this past summer, "and all was forgiven, all hugs."

Bradley recalls watching Hartnell (and his immediate successors) as Doctor Who, but it wasn't a big priority for him at the time.

"I remember seeing William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee," he says. "I wasn't absolutely avid, because I was 20 or so, and Saturday nights for me were going to the pub and having a dance. But quite regularly, I'd watch it, because it was so scary then, with the Daleks, very impressive."

But he did stick with "Doctor Who," especially when circumstances conspired in favor of it.

"I watched Tom Baker probably more than any of them," Bradley says, "because my flatmate's girlfriend was Louise Jameson, who played {warrior woman| Leela. So she'd be around the flat a lot. I saw her at a convention in England last year. We chatted, hadn't seen her for years. She still looks great."

Hartnell wasn't in a good place when he got the show, with interesting roles drying up and idle time making him restless and unhappy. And he didn't get much happier during shooting of the first pilot. But then, he got a second chance.

"I watched the original pilot," says Bradley, "in which he was irritable and suspicious of everything. And he wanted to play it a lot more lighthearted and whimsical, with a sense of fun. So, when they reshot the pilot, he did that.

"He was toying with these people who were curious about what was in that box or in the junkyard, and what happened to the young girl who came in here a moment ago? He would just tease them along with a twinkle in his eyes.

"That's when he realized he could have fun with his character. When he took off, he said, 'This could run five years.'"
Photo/Video credit: BBC America
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