By Darren Franich
Updated November 22, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Hal Shinnie/BBC Worldwide

Doctor Who is one of the running miracles of the television age. On paper, it’s a ridiculous concept: An alien with a time machine shaped like a blue police box zip-zaps around space and time. It was planned as an educational show. It debuted the day after Kennedy was shot. They replace the lead character every few years. It more or less disappeared from television for over a decade. This weekend sees the franchise turn half a century old, and by most metrics, it’s never been more popular.

An Adventure in Space and Time is essentially the appetizer in the Whovian Golden Jubilee feast. Saturday sees the debut of Day of the Doctor, the 50th Anniversary Special which has Doctors aplenty. You would think that Adventure — which tells the true story behind the making of Doctor Who — would feel like a pat-on-the-back victory lap. But the screenplay by Mark Gatiss is much smarter than that. Gatiss has written several Doctor Who scripts, and it’s striking to see how he adapts the story behind the story into a vintage Who tale: A tale of misfits triumphing over long odds.

Far from sanctifying the franchise, Adventure takes playful note of the haphazard way Who originally came together. Sydney Newman (a majestic Brian Cox) conceives of it as pure-fun adventure series with just a bit of education, and initially makes just one request: “No tin robots, no bug-eyed monsters.” Newman decides that the show needs an old man, an authority figure: Why not make him a doctor? The process of actually making the show falls to two untried talents: Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) and Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan). Verity is the first female drama producer in the BBC. Waris is Indian, and gay. And Sydney is Canadian. Outsiders, the lot of them, all coming together for a show that began with an episode about cavemen.

And then there’s William Hartnell, the actor who played the original Doctor. I’m a few generations removed from Hartnell’s stint like a typical American, I mostly know Who from the post-reboot 00s era — but even a complete Who newbie would need a heart of stone to not be moved by David Bradley’s performance. Bradley finds the proud soul in the aging actor: His Hartnell initially seems put off by all the Who psychobabble, but then takes near-royal ownership of the character when the show becomes popular. (At one point, he chastises a newbie producer: “This glass cylinder should be going up and down! The ship is in flight!)

There was a lot in Adventure in Space and Time that felt like a pure fan-feast, like the first appearance of the Daleks or the moment when a set designer creates the iconic TARDIS set in about thirty spiteful seconds. And at the very end of the film — SPOILER ALERT — there’s a genuine leap into magical realism, when a declining Hartnell has a sudden vision of current Doctor Matt Smith in his TARDIS. When Smith appeared, I initially thought it was a bit much. Then, fellow viewers, I started to tear up. Like many of the great Doctor Who episodes in recent years, Adventure in Space and Time dares to be silly and winds up being profoundly moving.

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Doctor Who

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