Who knew? Few could have foreseen the enduring success of Doctor Who given its inauspicious origins a half-century ago — a fascinating story of pluck, luck and imagination delightfully rendered in An Adventure in Space and Time, a new TV movie (Friday, 9/8c) airing as part of BBC America's 50th-anniversary Who celebration this weekend.
You don't have to be a Whovian to appreciate this jaunty re-creation of a simpler, scrappier time in TV history. A "year-ometer" (cute touch) dials back to 1963, when the staid BBC's brash new head of drama, Canadian showman Sydney Newman (a marvelously uncouth Brian Cox), greenlights a new sci-fi serial to appeal to kids and fickle sports fans. With a miniscule budget, an overheated "broom cupboard" of a studio and an edict of "no tin robots or BEM (bug-eyed monsters)," Newman appoints an unorthodox team to realize his vision: Verity Lambert (Call the Midwife's Jessica Raine), an ambitious pioneering female producer, and Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), a novice Indian director.
To inhabit the role of the time-traveling Doctor, they select William Hartnell, an irascible and underappreciated character actor of the era who's none too impressed by all of this childishly primitive, seat-of-the-pants nonsense — until the whimsical show with its magical TARDIS and menacing Daleks (so much for the robot ban) unexpectedly takes off, turning Hartnell into a celebrity in the twilight of his career. As Hartnell, the wonderful David Bradley captures the first Doctor's authority and "twinkle," but also poignantly conveys a journeyman actor's insecurity that nothing this good can last forever. Space may be infinite, but time is unforgiving.
For Bradley, this role caps an outstanding year that includes presiding over Game of Thrones' Red Wedding as the evil Walder Frey and playing a tragic shopkeeper in Broadchurch. (He has also just been cast in FX's new horror series The Strain.) With warmth and gravity, he's the heart and soul of this grand Adventure.
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This is just one highlight of BBC America's 50th-anniversary Who fest. Friday's movie is preceded by a daylong marathon (starting at 9 am/8c) of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith's best episodes, leading to a new special, Doctor Who Explained (8/7c), which includes interviews with past and present Doctors and companions to fully appreciate this undying Time Lord. All of which is a prelude to the milestone's main event: the 50th-anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, a new adventure teaming Smith with his predecessor David Tennant for a grand romp that encompasses 2013 London, 16th-century Elizabethan England and, naturally, outer space. Guests include John Hurt and Billie Piper (former companion Rose Tyler). The special will air as a global simulcast (2:50 pm ET/1:50c), and if you miss it during the day, it will be replayed in the evening (7/6c), and both Smith and Tennant will appear on The Graham Norton Show (10/9c) afterward to dish all things Who. Still craving more? The most current chapter of the Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited (Sunday, 8/7c) series gets up to date with The Eleventh Doctor, celebrating Smith's tenure in the role, which will end when the Doctor "regenerates" into Peter Capaldi in this year's Christmas special next month.
WHO DONE IT? Back in the more grounded world of CBS crime procedurals, another epic "who" is addressed. Namely: Who is Red John, a question answered once and for all on The Mentalist (10/9c) as Patrick Jane (the underrated Simon Baker, who's at his best here) finally comes face to face with the serial-killing mastermind who murdered his wife and daughter a decade ago. "It's all very suspenseful," Jane remarks to Lisbon (Robin Tunney), somewhat self-mockingly once he becomes a fugitive when the FBI shuts down the CBI office and attempts to get between the hunter and hunted (although who's baiting who isn't always clear). Nothing ironic about the ultimate showdown between Jane and his deadly prey, which takes on a savage desperation in the grim conclusion to this series-long arc. It's quite the turning point, because when The Mentalist picks up the action after this pivotal event, two years will have passed — and as they say, everything will have changed.
LEGENDS: Doctor Who isn't the only TV icon being celebrated this weekend. I can't recommend highly enough PBS's Sunday night broadcast of Carol Burnett: The Mark Twain Prize (check tvguide.com listings), in which TV's most versatile female comedian, Carol Burnett, is honored by peers and co-stars (including the hilariously self-effacing Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence), with tongue-in-cheek tributes and marvelous anecdotes scattered amid the timelessly funny clips from The Carol Burnett Show (and her breakthrough clowning on The Garry Moore Show, represented by a Neil Simon-penned "Jack & Jill" parody). Among the show-stopping moments: Amy Poehler appearing in character as "Roz," Carol's beleaguered personal assistant/dog walker, earning laughs with a zeal befitting one of Burnett's classic sketches. (A welcome reminder that as fine as Poehler is on Parks and Recreation, this is the kind of knock-'em-dead TV comedy she needs to be doing.) ... As if we needed more proof of Burnett's vitality at 80, she returns to her former network CBS to guest on Hawaii Five-0 this week (Friday, 9/8c) as McGarrett's Aunt Deb. (Hawaii is her adopted state, but still: Kudos, Carol!)
Another fabled TV comedian still going strong, 76-year-old Bill Cosby (a former Mark Twain Prize recipient) is showcased in his first televised stand-up special in 30 years, on Comedy Central's well-titled Bill Cosby: Far From Finished (Saturday, 8/7c). Cosby is in fine form as he mugs with that expressive face and riffs in his distinctive voice on his favorite topics of love, marriage and family. His timing is masterful, at one point coaxing the audience (in call-and-response patter) to almost literally eat out of the palm of his hand. As he likens marriage to a chess game — "The queen moves anywhere she wants" — he even tickles himself. He opens his set by commenting on what a seemingly odd fit his old-school approach is with Comedy Central's edgier reputation. ("Mr. Cosby's gonna curse," he imagines someone crying.) Cosby has been around too long to change his stripes to fit any fad, and when he gets a rise by nostalgically noting, "There used to be a time when songwriters wrote words," we're transported back to a time when comedy was both timeless and universal.
You want edge and self-conscious shock value in your humor? HBO complies with Sarah Silverman's first comedy special for the network, Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles (Saturday, 10/9c), which opens with a graphic rhapsody on cell-phone porn ("The heart wants what it wants"), moving on to skewer religion before morphing into a pungent vagina-humor monologue. (Critics are often accused of being sexist for not swooning over this sort of thing, but it can be just as tiresome as penis jokes.) Silverman performs her proudly raunchy set before an intimate 39-seat audience, which is only fitting for someone who is so defiantly in-your-face.
THE FRIDAY GUIDE: The JFK remembrances culminate on the actual 50th-anniversary date of the assassination. Tom Brokaw hosts and reports NBC News' Where Were You: The Day JFK Died (9/8c), while HBO replays the 1988 documentary JFK: In His Own Words (9/8c). History weighs in with JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide (8/7c), a survey of the myriad conspiracy theories regarding what happened in Dallas, followed by Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (10/9c), a minute-by-minute rundown of the assassin's fate in the aftermath of the shooting. ... Fictional mayhem is on the menu as The CW's underrated spy thriller Nikita (9/8c) begins its final six-episode season with its title heroine (Maggie Q) a fugitive, framed for the (fictional) president's murder and working with her old team to take down the arch-villain Amanda (Melinda Clarke). I'll write more about this as we get closer to the end, which is coming way too soon for some of us. ... In a special edition recap episode of CBS's Undercover Boss (8/7c), seven "boss" men and women from past episodes recall how tough it was to maintain their undercover identity, and provide updates on some of the more memorable workers they encountered. ... Reminiscent of Supernatural's Ghostfacers, Syfy's Haven (10/9c) introduces reality-TV paranormal investigators who call themselves the Darkside Seekers (played by That '70s Show's Danny Masterson and Kris Lemche), in an episode borrowing from the show's social-media storyline. ... PBS's Arts Fall Festival goes country in the music-stuffed documentary Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana (check tvguide.com listings), featuring legendary performers (Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakum) and a few who may be discoveries.
THE SATURDAY GUIDE: One of the year's most quietly gripping series, Sundance's redemption drama Rectify, is shown in its entirety in a six-hour marathon starting at 2 pm/1c. Aden Young is soulfully stirring as a death row prisoner released to his family after 20 years, a homecoming fraught with tension and peril. ... Already in Turkey Day hell? The experts of Food Network are there to help you through it, and in a two-hour Thanksgiving Live! special (noon/11c), Ina Garten, Alton Brown, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis will be on hand to take questions on everything from basting to baking. ... Not all British fantasy series are as enduring as Doctor Who. As if to prove it, BBC America uses the anniversary weekend to launch an especially hokey new "Once Upon a Myth" series set in Atlantis (9/8c), where a contemporary Jason (Jack Donnelly), searching for his shipwrecked father in a deep-diving submersible, is transported via an underwater whirlpool to the legendary lost city. He washes up naked and confused, befriending a young brainiac Pythagoras (Robert Emms) and a hammy revisionist Hercules (Mark Addy) who's more bluff coward than hero. The local Oracle (Juliet Stevenson, dreaming of better days) can only hint at Jason's destiny, which in the opener includes descending into the labyrinth to take down the Minotaur. As one does. ... Atlantis is almost as cheesy as one of those Syfy Saturday-night horror spoofs. The latest of which shamelessly hopes to ride the Sharknado wave, but is clearly for stoners only. Stonados (9/8c) stars One Tree Hill's Paul Johansson and The X-Files' immortal Cigarette Smoking Man William B. Davis in a disaster movie about a freak storm that hurls deadly boulders in its wake. ... Jane Lynch narrates Discovery's up-close-and-personal nature special Penguins: Waddle All the Way (9/8c), which uses spy cameras to provide intimate footage of Emperor penguins in Antarctica, Rockhopper penguins in the Falklands and Humboldt penguins in Peru. ... The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson hosts NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c), with HAIM as musical guest. Will his Katniss show up to help him through it? Peeta's pretty useless without her.
THE SUNDAY GUIDE: As HBO's Boardwalk Empire signs off for the season (9/8c), the channel continues its long comedy drought with two peculiar new series being burned off during the holiday season. Getting On (10/9c) is an incredibly dour, bleak hospital dramedy adapted from a British series by the producers of Big Love, set in an "extended care" ward for elderly female patients, staffed by an overqualified cast: Laurie Metcalf as a doctor who resents this "dead end" gig, Mad TV/Family Guy's Alex Borstein as a long-suffering nurse who works with Reno 911!'s Niecy Nash as the least neurotic caregiver on the wing. The pilot episode involves an endless debate over a mysterious "fecal deposit" left on a chair. Let that be a metaphor. ... The show that follows, Ja'mie: Private School Girl (10:30/9:30c), is the latest indulgence from Australia's chameleon comic Chris Lilley, a Down Under version of Tracey Ullman who in past and better series (Summer Heights High, Angry Boys) has played multiple characters of all ages and genders. As Ja'mie (pronounced Ja-may as an adolescent affection), Lilley is a literal drag as an arrogantly spoiled, preening mean-girl prepster who bullies everyone at her school while fancying herself everyone's dearest friend. It's a painfully obvious shtick, so camp and arch it's impossible to enjoy the joke. Both HBO series are only scheduled for a six-week run, which still feels much too long. ... Pitbull hosts ABC's American Music Awards (8/7c), with an all-star lineup of usual-suspect headliners (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake) performing at L.A.'s Nokia Theater. Among the highlights: Rihanna performs and accepts the first AMA Icon Award, Jennifer Lopez pays tribute to Celia Cruz, and TLC brings along a special guest for their AMA return. ... CBS's excellent The Good Wife (9/8c) welcomes Jason O'Mara (most recently of Vegas) in a guest-star arc as the newest recruit at LG — formerly Lockhart/Gardner — playing a brash lawyer brought on by Will against Diane's better judgment. The juicy fun never ends on this show.