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An Adventure in Space and Time

(2013) *** 1/2 Unrated
90 min. BBC America. Director: Terry McDonough. Cast: David Bradley, Jessica Raine, Sacha Dhawan.

/content/films/4701/1.jpgThe existence of anything and anyone in our universe—indeed, the existence of the universe itself—is highly improbable, and possible only through a unique set of circumstances and happenstance. This is certainly true of the BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who, which overcame signifcant odds to make it onto the air in 1963 and remain there continuously for another twenty-six years before its cancellation and inevitable (hugely successful) reboot in 2005. Now the circumstances behind the birth of Doctor Who are the stuff of the highly entertaining BBC telefilm An Adventure in Space and Time, hatched by writer Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock).

An Adventure in Space and Time recreates the assemblage of the motley crew that birthed Who: BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman (a delightfully spitfire Brian Cox); Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine of Call the Midwife), the BBC's youngest producer, and only female drama producer; young British-Indian director Warris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan of 24: Live Another Day); and near-washed-up actor William Hartnell (David Bradley of Game of Thrones). Tasked with filling a Saturday-afternoon programming gap, Newman brainstorms a science-fiction show, but barks at his colleagues, "No bug-eyed monsters!" These, of course, are but a few of the "famous last words" Gatiss cheekily employs in hindsight: despite an original bent toward educational historical trips, the show would become famous on the slimy backs of such monsters, and the plunger-bearing cyborg Daleks (who also appear prominently in An Adventure in Space and Time).

Though only 55 at the time he landed the part of the Doctor, Hartnell suffered from ill health that accelerated once he underwent the daily grind of television. Hartnell's journey of insecurity, pride and glory, and finally the pain of separation from Doctor Who give Gatiss' script its beating heart, and there's a wonderful irony in Hartnell's cranky but loving relationship with his own grandaughter Judith (Cara Jenkins), a parallel to the Doctor's granddaughter Susan, played by Carole Ann Ford (Claudia Grant). Gatiss and director Terry McDonough take pains to make An Adventure in Space and Time a nerdgasm fan service, in part by making room for cameo appearances by Ford, William Russell (another original companion), and Matt Smith, and in large part by the super-cool color recreations of the original sets and props.

The results are both thrilling—you are there at the inception of Doctor Who!—and deeply poignant, sometimes at the same time. When Hartnell must cede the lead role to the rather brilliant science-fiction innovation of a "regeneration" (into the form of actor Patrick Troughton, played here by Reece Shearsmith), it's a key moment of Doctor Who history seen from a new, troubling, ground-level perspective: that of an ailing actor facing his retirement and, worse, his mortality. That said, An Adventure in Space and Time is mostly just great fun, a witty and colorful blast from the BBC's past that capitalizes on the recent The Hour. Gatiss had been trying to get this film off the ground since the 40th Anniversary celebration of Doctor Who; for the show's 50th, it was certainly high time, and with actors like Bradley and Cox in place, it's difficult to imagine a better treatment.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/27/2014

Distributor: BBC Worldwide

BBC Worldwide has done a beautiful job of bringing An Adventure in Space and Time to hi-def Blu-ray in a Blu-ray + DVD + Bonus DVD combo pack. The picture quality is superb, with gorgeous color and a finely resolved image alive with detail and texture (and only the briefest hint of artifacting at one point). Well-resolved contrast and solid black level help, though shadow detail isn't always the strongest. Overall, the feature looks fantastic, very pleasing to the eye. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't have great demands put on it, but it's an ideal presentation maximizing the material, which has some nice ambience (particularly in the many studio scenes), invariably clear dialogue, and a fullness to the music.

Bonus features add to the fun. On the Blu-ray, we get the history-minded "William Hartnell: The Original" (5:16, HD), which includes talking heads Matt Smith, Peter Davison, Mark Eden, Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, Waris Hussein, Peter Purves, Terrance Dicks, and Hartnell's granddaughter; the EPK-style "The Making of an Adventure" (11:25, HD); "Reconstructions" (6:34, HD) including "Scenes from an Unearthly Child and the Pilot," "Regenerations," "Farewell to Susan," and "Festive Greeting"; comparisons of "The Title Sequences" (1:24, HD), and two "Deleted Scenes" (1:32), which might more accurately be described as brief extended scenes.

In some ways, the biggest bonus here is the inclusion of the Doctor Who pilot on the "An Unearthly Child" DVD, complete with its own battery of extras. The feature portion of the disc includes the episodes "An Unearthly Child Pilot Episode, "An Unearthly Child," "The Cave of Skulls," "The Forest of Fear" and "The Firemaker." Bonuses include commentary for Episode 1 and Episode 4 and the Pilot Episode Studio Recording, the "Pilot Episode Studio Recording" (35:36, SD), "Theme Music Video in Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, or Dolby Digital Mono" (2:36, SD), Comedy Sketches "The Pitch of Fear," "The Corridor Sketch," "The Web of Caves," and "The Kidnappers"; and a "Gallery" (6:03, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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