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Blu-ray Review: Doctor Who: The Complete Specials

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Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi program in the world, had a niche following for many, many years, but more recently the show is experiencing a more widespread popularity. When most people hear Doctor Who they think of Tom Baker’s portrayal of the fourth incarnation, with his curly hair and scarf that seemed to go on for miles. His Doctor dominated PBS stations for a good part of the '70s and '80s.

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, starting when my dad took me to see Star Wars when I wasn’t quite three back in 1977. I was hooked, and Star Wars has been a major part of my life ever since. I would go on to enjoy more sci-fi, like Star Trek, Quantum Leap, and more. I think I was vaguely aware of Doctor Who, but never saw an episode growing up. When I went away to college in the early '90s and joined the local sci-fi group it was mentioned but I didn’t have any interest.

Then I slowly started to discover other British shows like Black Adder and Red Dwarf, but I still wasn’t interested in the good Doctor. I watched the 1996 movie co-produced by FOX and the BBC which starred Paul McGaan as the eighth incarnation of the Time Lord and while I liked it, it didn’t make me want to see more Who adventures. My attitude was the same as that of the FOX executives since ratings in the US were less than they expected. Meanwhile it did very well in the UK, but since FOX contributed part of the funding, they chose not to go forward as the movie was testing the waters for the return of Who to the airwaves. And to this day legal issues prevent the movie from being released in the US while the UK has seen two editions released.

Doctor Who began in 1963 and starred William Hartnell as the first incarnation of the Doctor. When his health started to be an issue, producers had to come up with a way to replace him, or the show would have been done. The device used was that the Doctor’s already established race, The Gallifreyans, can regenerate when confronted with life-ending injuries. This allowed the show to become more than just a three-year footnote in broadcast history.

Between 1963 and 1989 there were seven incarnations of the Doctor and in the latter half of the 1980s there were problems as the executives at BBC felt the show had run past its time. Many of the actions after the fifth Doctor (played by Peter Davison) left were questionable at best — the show’s timeslot was changed, the format was experimented with,  there was an 18-month hiatus between seasons, and they even changed actors. Finally after the show’s 26th season in 1989, the producers were told they were done. Although it was never officially canceled,  Doctor Who was “on hiatus.”

Over the years there were rumors that the show was returning, and it finally did in 2005 — 16 years after the last episode and nine years after the movie. The show was headed by producer Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk) and starred Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion, Rose. I first saw ads for the show on the Sci-Fi Channel and thought that it looked really interesting. I started watching the show and while I liked Eccleston, I was watching more for the various aliens and Rose. Then after the first 13 episodes, the regeneration occurred and Eccleston’s Doctor left, and there was now the tenth incarnation, portrayed by David Tennant.

I didn’t really think about Doctor Who in between series one and two before it returned to the airwaves, but after a couple of episodes with Tennant in the Doctor's shoes (or sneakers as it were) I was really hooked. I never latched onto Eccleston, and maybe that’s because he only stayed for one season, but there was something about Tennant, who is serious one moment and manic the next. He’s bright, enthusiastic, and just fun to watch, plus he has cool gadgets, travels in time, and does things his own way.

That did it for me. I was officially hooked and I started to want to learn about the past incarnations of the Doctor. I started with a few “classic” episodes which didn’t really thrill me. I laughed at the sets which looked like they cost pennies to make (and after listening to the commentaries for those episodes, I wasn’t that far off) but then I started watching some episodes long-time fans recommended and found more of the Doctor to love. Then I discovered the novels, comics, Doctor Who Magazine, and most importantly, audio adventures! Back before the revival, classic episodes were novelized, some of which were read, years later, by the Doctor himself or companions from the show.

But even better is that Big Finish Audio has been doing new Who audio adventures since 1999! There are hundreds of stories, which include new stories with the fifth, sixth, and seventh Doctors and their companions. They even got the original actors to perform the stories. This adds to their tenure in the role, and since it's audio, the actors don’t need to look exactly like they did some 25 years ago. There are also “seasons” with Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor as he only had one outing and these stories have added many dimensions to his character, and there were some unfilmed scripts for the sixth and seventh Doctor that will soon become the “Lost Adventures.” Also under the Doctor Who banner are stories dedicated to companions, allies, and villains, including the Daleks.  I could go happily broke trying to get all the Doctor Who merchandise, but since I have a family I get what I can and keep a list of things I want for future purchases.

Most fans have a favorite Doctor. There are many who like to be diplomatic (including myself) and say that their favorite Doctor is the one they’re currently watching. But since Tennant is the Doctor who really caught my attention he will always be my Doctor. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other actors' portrayals; each brings something unique to the Doctor and that’s always fun to watch. But with Tennant’s Doctor, I felt his loss when Rose had to stay in the parallel universe, saw him love and lose, fight classic foes, go back in time, to the far future, and galaxies far away, I saw the return of classic companions Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, and had my heart in my throat during “The Stolen Earth” when he was shot by a Dalek and the regeneration started. Luckily there was a way around it and he didn’t regenerate. But then came word that the show was taking a year off so Tennant could do Hamlet and would just do several specials before the show resumed a normal series the following years. Rumors were that the BBC were negotiating with Tennant for him to return for the fifth series, but sadly that was not to be, as Tennant announced he would be leaving after the specials were done.

I was crestfallen Tennant was leaving, but at least there were five more adventures to view. I braced myself for the transition and planned to enjoy these last outings.

My review of Doctor Who: The Complete Specials has my review of the specials and extras. As I said in that review, “since the only difference between the standard edition and Blu-ray edition is the sound and picture quality, I’m going to use that space in the Blu-ray review to elaborate on these specials how I came to be a Who fan and more.”

“The Next Doctor” was shot in standard definition and was up-converted from 576i to 1080i for the complete specials release (when it was originally released there was only the standard edition). So while it doesn’t look as good as the other four specials which were shot in high definition, it looks better than the standard edition release.

Besides the Blu-ray release for “Planet of the Dead,” this is the first large-scale release of Doctor Who in high def.

The Picture

The images are superior to anything we’ve seen before; they are sharper, clearer, and brighter. When I think of colors and Doctor Who I think of the color blue, because of the TARDIS, one of his two suits, and the blue glow of the sonic screwdriver. In “The Waters of Mars” the red planet is very vibrant and colorful, just as it should look. Both “Mars” and “End of Time” are darker in tone than the previous specials, with the corridors in “Mars” and many of Dalton’s monologues set in black interiors. The black levels are dark and menacing.

The Audio

The audio is a higher resolution than what was previously heard on DVD, however there were some issues with the audio track. There are some moments in each of the episodes where Murray Gold’s soundtrack overpowers the dialogue and you can hear the continued vibrations of the score after it’s done and bleeds over the dialogue. But in scenes where there’s running down corridors, you can hear the echoes of the footsteps, or hear that they’re in large caverns. Most of the time the sound is crisp and clear with no loss of transfer from episode to Blu-ray.

This is the best the episodes have ever looked and sounded it’s worth your time and investment.

The TARDIS was destroyed during the Tennant/Smith regeneration — part of the reason was so the set could be rebuilt for High Definition filming. I thought the four specials shot in HD looked good; hopefully the new set will be even better.

The Shows

I did say I would talk a bit more about the shows themselves. “The Next Doctor” was a fun adventure in the vein of the classic series with misdirects since the new Doctor hadn’t been announced yet. “Planet of The Dead” wasn’t the best episode, but Michelle Ryan’s thief, Lady Christina de Souza, was a great companion for the Doctor. Her character sounds a lot like the companion planned for the seventh Doctor before the series was put on hiatus and rumors are still floating around that she could come back. Since she got away at the end of the story, a return could happen. “The Water of Mars” was creepy and highlighted Donna’s concern that the Doctor needs a companion to keep him stable. Once he defies all of space and time, he causes his own downfall and after he realizes what he’s done, it’s too late to repent.

SPOILERS AHEAD…

This leads directly into the two-part finale “The End of Time," parts one and two. I loved the return of John Simm’s Master, the brief appearances of the other Time Lords and Timothy Dalton, but besides Tennant, Bernard Cribbins gives the best performance of these specials. His character Wilf has been a fan favorite since appearing in season four and here he finally gets to become a companion and journey with the Doctor, whom he truly believes can save us all.

That’s why it was a surprise that the prophecy — “he will knock four times” — came not from The Master, but from Wilf, who is trapped in a control room that always has to have a person in one of the two control booths. To let Wilf out means the Doctor will have to absorb the lethal radiation the control booth is about to contain. But of course the Doctor will do the right thing and save Wilf. This leads to a lengthy epilogue which some fans have said is a bit much, considering the fourth series finale “Journey’s End” featured all of the companions from the past four seasons and even classic series companions as well. However it really is a nice little bow on the Tennant/Davies era (Davies is also leaving the series with these specials) as we probably won’t see these companions again. But then again I liked “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” and liked the check-in with all the companions, especially the brief scene with Rose not too long before she meets Eccleston’s Doctor. Tennant’s sorrowful “I don’t want to go” perfectly expresses what many fans are thinking.

So with this I bid a fond farewell to the adventures of David Tennant as the Doctor, but there’s always his many episodes to rewatch, the books and comics, as well as a few audio adventures. It wouldn’t surprise me if Big Finish gets him to record some new adventures in the years to come, and 2013 sees the 50th anniversary of The Doctor — I’m sure there will be a big anniversary episode and more than likely Tennant will be part of that as well.

Now my Doctor has left and we have Matt Smith. Smith has some very big shoes to fill. He’s in the unenviable position of following arguably the most popular Doctor ever, much like Peter Davison did when he replaced Tom Baker back in 1981. Comparisons are inevitable — each new actor is always compared to his predecessor — but I think Smith will be scrutinized a bit more. Thankfully we have Steven Moffat taking over Davies' role as showrunner, and he’s written some of the best episodes since the show’s return, including “The Girl in The Fireplace” (which is one of my favorite episodes) and has been nominated for and won numerous awards, so the show is in very capable hands.

I will be watching Smith’s interpretation of The Doctor with great interest and though it might take a season or two for him to grow on me, I’ll be looking forward to the new Doctor’s adventures for years to come.

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