We want to do a science fiction series. The legitimate stuff though — no tin robots or BEM... Bug-Eyed Monsters! You know... mutations and death rays, brains in glass jars, that kind of crap. We will run all year long. So a good-looking guy, a good-looking girl and a kid who gets herself into all kinds of trouble. Plus an older man. Quirky. I'll come back to him.
What appears to be a TARDIS on a film set turns out to be a real police box.
What appears to be a close-up of a Dalek turns out to be JFK's assassin.
Blatant Lies: The producers buttering up William Hartnell on how great the show is. Ironically it all turns out to be true.
Book Ends: The show starts off with William Hartnell at a dead stop at the sight of a Police Box at the side of the road. You find out at the end it was right after he was told he was being cut from the show and was still in shock.
Butt Monkey: Len the extra, who is usually on the receiving end of an irate director, when he doesn't have sand in his undies.
Call Forward: As he breaks down over being recast as the Doctor, despite accepting it, William Hartnell says the immortal final words of the 10th Doctor.
William Hartnell: "I don't want to go!"
The Cameo: William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, who played the original companions Ian Chesterton and Susan Foreman in the show's first seasons, appear. Anneke Wills, known for her role as Polly Wright, and Jean Marsh (companion Sara Kingdom, Morgana Le Fay) show up in the cheering crowd during the celebrations after finishing "The Web Planet". (In real life, Verity Lambert stayed on later.)
Casting Gag: Current Dalek voice-actor Nicholas Briggs plays then Dalek voice-actor Peter Hawkins. Mark Eden, the title character of "Marco Polo", appears as the executive who orders Doctor Who cancelled. (One scene shows the cast filming "Marco Polo".)
Decoy Protagonist: Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein appear to be the leads with Hartnell in a supporting role... until Waris leaves halfway through the film and Verity follows shortly afterwards, leaving the weight of the drama squarely on Hartnell's shoulders.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: Producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein are given a lot of crap for being female and Jewish and homosexual and Indian, respectively. In an unusual move for the Beeb, an awful lot of smoking is shown, though probably because since Mad Men became a hit, it's become more acceptable to show era-appropriate vices.
Dramatic Irony: Hartnell on realising how famous he's become. "No-one's irreplacable, eh?"
Executive Meddling: (In-Universe) Subverted somewhat with Sydney Newmann who admittedly did meddle in Doctor Who's early days, but this was out of a genuine love of the show and wanting to see it be the best it could be. Played straight with Newmann's superiors who want to kill Doctor Who after only one night's viewing figures, figures which had been hugely skewed by the previous night's assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Gilligan Cut: When Verity is trying to sell William Hartnell on the idea of the series. When she describes the "state of the art facilities", we cut to the Lime Grove studio in disrepair and when she talks about how the sound effects are created with the latest technology, we cut to BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Delia Derbyshire revealing that sound tech Brian Hodgson was just scraping metal keys across piano strings to create the signature TARDIS sound effect.
And "The scripts are going wonderfully! Wonderfully!" Cut to script being thrown in the waste paper basket.
Halfway Plot Switch: The first half focuses on producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein's struggle to get Doctor Who off the ground with actor William Hartnell just being one of many puzzle pieces they must fit together. Then after the Daleks have ensured that the series will be a smash-hit we start to make time-skips following Hartnell and his failing health and how he was forced to bow out from the show in order to save it.
Happily Married: The Hartnells. Mrs. Hartnell is clearly dedicated to looking after her husband as his health is failing.
How We Got Here: Starts in 1966 with the production of The Tenth Planet, then jumps back to 1963 and works its way from there. As a result, the initial scene of Hartnell's angry outburst in his dressing room takes on a new context when we return to it later on.
Jerkass: Rex Tucker, the interim producer of the show prior to Verity Lambert being installed in the position, is depicted as being a boorish, sexist idiot who insists on casting a younger actor as the Doctor, and basically ignores every comment Verity makes. She quickly sends him packing.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: After Hartnell realised he'd badly upset Carole Ann Ford by taking umbrage with her spending her money on frivolously items and "new togs", she later finds her dressing room table covered with roses and an apology note. Hartnell was grouchy and unapproachable in general, and tended to suffer with snobbery over being a "legitimate character actor", but Doctor Who really helped him become somewhat more mellow and he would happily go into character when approached by children.
Sydney Newmann wasn't afraid to throw his weight around and be quite mean, but this tended to be more about lighting a fire under people he knew could do better than it was about being genuinely a jerk. He was also man enough to give people second chances and didn't mind eating crow when Verity proves him wrong about the Daleks.
Large Ham: Sydney Newman. His brash, Hollywood-style personality is in stark contrast to the sedate, by-the-rules approach of the BBC. And for a double helping of ham, Newman is played by Brian Cox.
Mascot Mook: Verity Lambert insists on keeping the Daleks in the programme, despite the skepticism of her superiors, and they quickly become this with the younger viewers.
Mood Whiplash: Lambert ropes in Sydney to butter up Hartnell when he becomes difficult. Sydney expertly flatters his ego, but when Verity thanks him he bluntly states that she needs to start acting like a producer. Verity takes the lesson to heart by forcing the set designer to start working on the TARDIS interior set.
When an extra refuses to have his teeth blackened for the caveman story, Waris Hussein says with exasperation that, "It's 100,000 BC! It's the Tribe of Gum!". The first Doctor Who serial was known as both 100,000 BC and The Tribe Of Gum. The name An Unearthly Child is often used erroneously to refer to this serial, but it was in fact only the name of the first episode.
The narration over the BBC ident at the start of the film has a memorable one:
Newspaper Dating (variant): The opening scene features a close-up of William Hartnell’s windscreen, with his tax disc set to expire Hallowe’en 1966.
In the aftermath of the airing of An Unearthly Child, Sydney Newmann holds up a newspaper about the Kennedy assassination that occurred the day before it had aired.
Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Invoked by William Hartnell in the interview footage at the end. He attributes his popularity with children despite being somewhat grumpy as being because both he and the Doctor are a mix of "the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas".
At the start of the film everyone's waiting on Hartnell, who's moping in the dressing room.
"What's the hold up?"
"You know who."
Patrick Troughton uses a "Who's who?" joke as a way of trying to defuse the tension when getting ready to shoot the regeneration scene with Bill
One of Us: After Sydney Newmann tells the BBC stiffs that science fiction was popular last time he checks and one of them replies "with juvenile boys, perhaps", he replies "I like it" under his breath
Reasonable Authority Figure: Sydney Newman zig-zags this trope. On the one hand he gives Verity Lambert the job of producing the show and sees enough potential in the pilot to let it be reshot (which was expensive), as well as, you know, commissioning the show to begin with. On the other hand he's heavily opposed to the Daleks, and several other aspects of the show which would become popular, though even then he's man enough to admit when he's wrong.
Rule of Drama: In real life, Hartnell's departure due to his deteriorating health was his own choice, and the casting of Patrick Troughton was on his recommendation. It plays out here as Hartnell asking for a reduced workload and Newman regretfully telling him he's out, but still conveys how the show has impacted Hartnell, and vice versa.
Saved by Canon: Verity Lambert's fears that the show will be cancelled are a little anti-climactic when you're watching the special with a big '50TH ANNIVERSARY OF DOCTOR WHO' stamp in the corner of the screen. Ditto with Sydney Newman's skepticism that the Daleks will catch on, after they've become so iconic and representative of the franchise.
Self-Deprecation: Hartnell is getting ready to (unwillingly) hand over the show to Patrick Troughton and, trying to be a good sport, tells him how he told the producers there was only one man who could take over the show. Troughton sweetly defuses the tension by asking, "Couldn't they get him?"
Spear Carrier: Hartnell himself invokes this about a minor role he once had in a stage production of King Lear, alluding to his acting career in general.
Straight Gay: Waris Hussein, appropriately for the time period.
Surrounded by Idiots: Long after the original production crew have moved on, Hartnell is contending with a new crew he doesn't know very well and who don't know the ins and outs of the show they're producing. They don't even know how to make the glass cylinder in the TARDIS console move up and down. Thoroughly exasperated and fed up, Hartnell bellows the question of whether anybody knows how to do anything on the set.
Waris: It's what you do so well, Mr Hartnell. Stern and scary! (sees Hartnell's expression) ...with a twinkle!
Took a Level in Kindness: Hartnell's character development over the programme, from a brusque, temperamental character actor to a man who became an icon to children across the UK and adored it.
Troubled Production: (In-Universe) Since this covers the filming of An Unearthly Child and the early days of the show, this is a major given. As for the docudrama itself, getting it commissioned for the 50th Anniversary year wasn't difficult; however, Gatiss originally had the idea for the 40th anniversary back in 2003 before the revival of Doctor Who, and at that time there was far less interest.
Type Casting: Bill Hartnell was keen to take the role as The Doctor because he was becoming sick of being handed nothing but "Criminals and perishing Sergent Majors" to play. Ironic, given that subsequent Doctors would be worried that appearing on Doctor Who would get them typecast.