TV preview: An Adventure In Space and Time

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It’s not everybody who gets to live their dreams - so Mark Gatiss should consider himself a very lucky man.

He’s a lifelong Doctor Who fan who’s written for the series and even played a villain in one episode, but for many years he harboured the desire to pen a drama about the show’s origins - and An Adventure in Space and Time is the result.

“The origins of this beloved show have always fascinated me,” says Gatiss. “But, above all, I wanted it to strike a chord on a human level. These were brilliant, complex, talented people making something revolutionary.”

He first pitched the idea to BBC Four when Doctor Who was approaching its 40th anniversary, but was turned away. However, it seems far more fitting to do it now, as the Time Lord’s show reaches its half-century on Saturday.

At the centre of this fascinating story are three people pulled together by Sydney Newman, the charismatic Canadian TV executive who was, back in 1963, working as the BBC’s head of drama.

A sci-fi lover, Newman believed a family drama about an old man who could travel the universe in a battered old police box (then commonplace in the UK) would fill an awkward gap in the schedule between the end of sports show Grandstand and music programme Juke Box Jury.

He collaborated with several people to find a workable format, then employed fledgling producer Verity Lambert to bring it to life; she’d been a production assistant during his time at ABC TV, and was, at the time she was employed by the Beeb, the youngest and only female drama producer there.

Waris Hussein (the sole Indian-born director at the BBC) was then brought in to direct, along with veteran actor William Hartnell in the role of the Doctor; he was a surprise choice, having spent most of his career playing hard-man roles. He was initially disinterested in the part, but grew to love it - and only retired from it due to ill health.

“Principally, this is the story of how Doctor Who was created, so we concentrate on the very beginnings and the first few episodes,” explains Gatiss. “There are lots of treats for the fans.

“These were brilliant, complex, talented people making something revolutionary. And, in William Hartnell, we have the very affecting story of a man redeemed by the role of a lifetime, who then, sadly, had to let it go. I think we can all relate to something like that in our lives.”

Brian Cox plays Newman, while David Bradley, Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan portray Hartnell, Lambert and Hussein respectively - and Gatiss couldn’t be happier with the way it’s all turned out.

“This is my love-letter to Doctor Who!” he smiles. “In this 50th anniversary year, I hope fans will enjoy and be thrilled by it and all the kisses to the past it’s laden with. But my greatest wish is that it appeals to people who know very little or nothing about Doctor Who and see the struggle of talented people (almost) accidentally creating a legend!”

And in case you’re wondering where the title comes from, it was the tagline given to the series by the Radio Times back in 1963.

AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME, BBC2, Thursday 9pm