This is a preview for you of "An Adventure in Space and Time" that will air on BBC America at 8/9C on Friday. This is the BBC's recreation of the events leading up to the launch of the series in 1963 until the original Doctor, William Hartnell, left; not the 50th Anniversary edition that will be shown worldwide and simultaneously on Saturday. It was first shown on BBC Two on Thursday night.
Based on that showing, I think it will be useful for US viewers to have a little background to the characters which will help explain some of the dynamics in the events and help you locate some of the places that may also need some explanation. I will attempt to not give any spoilers but scenes to look after.
First, let me comment that a combination of the choice of actor and makeup means at times you can easily mistake the central characters in the first Dr Who for the original actors. especially when you view them through the eyes of 1960s 405 line black and white television. This extends to the behind the camera staff - in particular Jessica Raines' portrayal of Verity Lambert.
Some fall down - the very short appearance by Reese Sheersmith's as Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, portrays his character but Sheersmith is too young and not craggy enough. (On the other hand, a cameo by another Doctor is dead right). Brian Cox as usual plays Brian Cox playing a role.
The four central characters in the TV movie are all outsiders.
William Hartnell, the first Doctor (an amazing performance by David Bradley) was a serious actor who had become typecast as a bullying army sargeant-major type. His main TV prior to Dr Who was in The Army Game, a comedy series made by ITV, the BBC's rival commercial network.
Sidney Newman (Brian Cox), the BBC's Head of Drama. Originally a film editor, Newman had worked his way up to Supervisor of Drama Production at the Canadian Broadcasting Company. From there he moved to become Head of Drama at the Associated British Company (ABC), the commercial regional television franchise holder for the English Midlands and North. The show he originated while there which is best known in the USA is probably "The Avengers". Newman was "head hunted" by the BBC and he joined them when his ABC contract ended in December 1982.
It is difficult to understate the influence of Newman on British television. He promoted "kitchen sink" drama. In 1964 he instituted "The Wednesday Play" strand of one-off drama. One of these, "Cathy Come Home" was to lead to changes in UK law on provision for homeless families - the charity Shelter was founded shortly after it showed. However at first he was resented by others in the BBC for his comparatively high salary (although less than he had received at ABC).
Verity Lambert started in the press office of Granada Television (another ITV regional franchise holder) but was sacked. She moved to ABC as a typist and progressed to become a production assistant on drama productions. After a break working for a film producer, she returned to ABC but was unhappy at not getting advancement.
Newman had overseen her work at ABC and recruited her to the BBC to produce Dr Who - a sci-fi show for children that should scare, but not too much. At the time, there were very few women producers at the BBC (you should note the difference between the roles of producer in American and British television).
Waris Hussein (Sacha Darwan) came with his family to the UK from his native Indi a in 1946 aged 10. Educated in Britain, he joined the BBC as a trainee director from university. He went on to have a distinguished career directing television and film. In 1979 he won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for "Edward and Mrs Simpson" (in collaboration with Verity Lambert) and in 1986 an Emmy for "Copacabana". In 1987 he directed the first play about AIDS on television ("Intimate Contact" made by Central Television, the ITV licencee that replace ABC), a subject close to home as his partner of 12 years died as a result of HIV infection)
In the early 1960s the BBC was very much hidebound and a middle class reserve. There was bitter rivalry between it and the upstart Independent Television companies which were eroding their viewer figures with populist shows. Sexism and racism was a norm so the combination of three of the principals in Dr Who (Head of Drama, producer and actor) from ITV rankled. Lambert was seen as being given the job and promotion by Newman on the basis of her gender rather than her ability. In addition, at the time Children's Television was seen as very low in the pecking order.
Lambert and Hussein (the "the posh wog and the pushy Jewish bird" in Lambert's words quoted in the film) faced resentment and some ostracism. One scene (in what appears to be a bar) is set in the BBC Club in Television Centre - note an allusion to Hussein's homosexuality.
Most of the outside scenes are set in the BBC Television Centre (BBC TvC) - it has a distinctive ? shape. The central circle which features prominently is circular with a large fountain topped by a guilded figure of Ariel holding the ring to "girdle the earth in 40 minutes" from Shakespear's Tempest. The name is also a homonym for "aerial", the British term for an antenna. (The fountain is authentically turned off as its noise drowned out conversations in the surrounding offices). The building's circular corridors also feature in the film.
The BBC TvC was fairly new with purpose built television studios. Prior to mid 1960 the BBC had used old film studios in Lime Grove as their base. Lime Grove was still in use, although even then in very poor condition with small stages. It's there that Lambert and Hussein bring Dr Who to the screen.
There are some nice moments to savor. Look out for how the set for the inside of the Tardis was designed. The Cyberman who wants to take of his head so he can smoke. The Dalek operator who cannot keep on course on Westminster Bridge. Not least the conversation about the autocue.
If you are into Dr Who, this is a must see. If not, it is a great piece of TV entertainment about TV with some powerful performances.
The BBC Two showing ended with a post-credits follow up of "what happened to them" but I suspect that this 10 minute element might be taken up by advertising on BBC America.