BBC America can be forgiven for becoming a bit teary-eyed as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” the improbable science fiction show that premiered the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
That coincidence is part of the lore of “Doctor Who,” because many at the BBC, including the man who starred as the first doctor, were convinced everyone would be watching coverage of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and no one would tune in for the premiere of the sci-fi series.
They were off by about 10 million viewers.
That was just one of many ways this loopy and, early on, cheesy sci-fi masterpiece would defy the odds, time and time again.
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BBC America is not only airing marathons of past “Doctor Who” seasons, it’s also ordered up a special showing of “The Day of the Doctor,” an anniversary special airing on Saturday, and a movie called “An Adventure in Space and Time,” created by Mark Gatiss and directed by Terry McDonough, which airs on Friday.
In “Space and Time,” Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), has been hired by the network’s Canadian-born head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), who has given her free rein to create the show, as long as she doesn’t include any robots or “BEM’s” – bug-eyed monsters.
After developing the concept of a time-traveling “doctor,” she and her team, including director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), go looking for the right actor to play the title role.
They happen upon a crusty, hard-drinking veteran actor named William Hartnell (David Bradley), who’s sick of doing war films and not getting any other intriguing offers.
The first episode gets made, somehow, and is set to air on Nov. 23, 1963. It’s not easy getting the show on the air, though.
What can go wrong in the filming does go wrong, but the equipment is so substandard, Hussein is only able to make four edits in the film per hour, which means many of the snafus wind up on telly screens when the show finally airs – doors opening when they shouldn’t, crew members walking into shots and the occasional line delivery error, especially by Hartnell.
“Space and Time” doesn’t come right out and say so, but the truth is, the absence of polish in those early years of the series was one of the things that so endeared it to early fans.
Besides, it didn’t matter that the evil mutants known as Daleks resembled upended waste baskets, or the costumes looked less than convincing: Fans fell in love with the crusty but belatedly lovable Doctor Who.
The film is cleverly structured as a time-travel flashback, beginning in 1966, at the end of Hartnell’s tenancy of the lead role. Hartnell is sitting alone in his car at night and a policeman taps at the window, advising him, “Move along now, sir – you’re in the way.” Even without knowing where the ensuing film will lead, we understand the sad irony of those words.
“Space and Time” is all about transition, about the passage of time and certain inevitabilities. Cast members, including Hartnell, think the show and their roles will go on forever. The irony, of course, is that they’ve failed to remember that in real life, nothing is forever.
Television and film production has become more sophisticated over the years, but one of the ways that “Doctor Who” remains credible is by eschewing fancy CGI effects.
The sets and costumes may no longer be cheesy, but they remain comparatively low-key. Yet, it’s because the show is more focused on endearing instead of making aliens look like they haven’t been costumed by Target at Halloween that “Doctor Who” has amassed such a die-hard fan base.
Here’s to another half century.