British television operates on a fundamentally different level than American television. Imagine if a popular series – say House – announced that rather than doing a regular season of shows next year they were, instead, going to do a handful of really high budget episodes. It is unthinkable; it would never, ever, happen. On British television, however, such things can be done. Thus, rather than doing a traditional season of Doctor Who in 2009, the series produced two special episodes as well as a two-part Christmas special (Christmas specials have been an annual thing for the show ever since it was reborn). Now, those four hours of television, along with the 2008 Christmas Special (which didn't make it to the States until the summer) have been released in boxed set. The episodes included are, chronologically, "The Next Doctor," "Planet of the Dead," "The Waters of Mars," and "The End of Time, Parts One and Two."
All five of the episodes included in the set feature the tenth Doctor, David Tennant. They are, in fact, the final episodes featuring Tennant as the Doctor and with Russell T. Davies serving as the executive producer of the series. Davies has run the series since its return to television, with Tennant stepping into the role of the Doctor beginning in the second season.
The specials feature a Doctor who has taken quite an emotional battering over the past few years. Each of the past three seasons of the series saw the Doctor lose a companion – Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), whom he was deeply in love with; Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who was in love with him; and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who was the perfect best friend for him but whom he had to leave behind so that she could remain alive. Consequently, the Doctor has chosen to go companion-free, picking up and then leaving behind a new would-be companion each episode.
Although "The Next Doctor" doesn't fit quite as well as the others into the overarching storyline of the end of the tenth Doctor's life, it does still work in the set of specials as an opening "this is how it all begins" sense. That sense is made all the greater by the fact that the Doctor meets someone in the episode who too claims to be the Doctor. Though the Doctor's main enemy in the piece are the Cybermen, meeting a potential future version of himself forces the Doctor to question whether he is going to be forced to regenerate soon.
At the end of the second special, "Planet of the Dead," the Doctor is told explicitly that his time is nearly up and that "he will knock four times." It is by that knocking that the Doctor will know that his end is arrived. With that knowledge in hand, the Doctor goes on something of a power binge in "The Waters of Mars." By far the darkest of the specials, it is this one that is the best. It is an old school space-horror piece, one in which humans become monsters whose main desire is to return to Earth and take over the entire planet.
And then, of course, comes the "The End of Time," a massive two-part episode that features the return of another age-old enemy of the Doctor, the Master (John Simm). Last seen dead and burning on a funeral pyre at the end of the resurrected series' third season, the Master has a few new tricks up his sleeve when he returns. The two-parter also features the return of some old companions; a series of truly touching goodbyes; and a few secrets which, were they discussed herein, could truly ruin the story for anyone who has not yet seen them.
While not always better, it is clear from watching the episodes that the stories certainly are larger – or done in a larger fashion – than traditional episodes of the series. The perfect example of this is "Planet of the Dead," the production of which actually sent the cast to Dubai to film part of the episode. Doing that truly does create the desired effect – as stated in the episode of Doctor Who Confidential which accompanies it – of giving the feel of a true alien world, something the show doesn't always achieve.
The specials are bigger too in terms of the guest stars they feature. In addition to bringing back past companions from the new series, the specials feature David Morrissey ("The Next Doctor"), Michelle Ryan ("Planet of the Dead"), Lindsay Duncan ("The Waters of Mars"), Bernard Cribbins ("The End of Time"), June Whitfield ("The End of Time"), and Timothy Dalton ("The End of Time").
Tennant is at the top of his game as the Doctor for these last few episodes, being at turns funny and serious and creating one of the most likable incarnations of the Doctor the series has ever known. Fans of Doctor Who, at least fans of the new Doctor Who, will be incredibly pleased with this set. "Planet of the Dead," with its tale of the Doctor ending up on an alien world with a double-decker bus and an odd assortment of passengers and a new form of aliens who are going to destroy Earth is the most disappointing story-wise, simply because it feels as though the thought behind it went into the actual filming of it rather than the story itself. It, as noted in the aforementioned standalone review, makes for a good episode of the series but not something (outside of its production values) which feels truly "special."
Even with the relative disappointment of this entry however, the set is still a must-own for fans of the Who-niverse. People who have no prior relationship with the characters or story may find bits and pieces of it interesting — "The Waters of Mars" works best in this regard — but will probably not find themselves completely entranced.
In terms of video quality, it must be instantly noted that the first special, "The Next Doctor," was not originally filmed in high definition and has been upconverted for this release. The video quality isn't bad per se, but it is certainly a whole lot less detailed and defined than the others. The other entries feature better video quality, substantially more detail and a greater richness of colors, though they are only 1080i and not 1080p. There is some noise present in the image in all the episodes, though seemingly less in "The End of Time" than the others. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is crisp and clear, and the surrounds are put to good use with both music and effects. For a television series – and one must remember that they are watching a series here and not a massively big-budget blockbuster movie – everything sounds and looks good.
The set also includes several special features. There is an episode of Doctor Who Confidential which accompanies each of the specials (five in total as there is one for each part of "The End of Time"). Confidential is, essentially, an in-depth making-of series. Confidential episodes run nearly an hour and truly go into how an episode of Doctor Who comes into being. There are also deleted scenes for the specials as well as audio commentaries with Tennant and Euros Lyn (director) for both parts of "The End of Time." Catherine Tate is with Tennant and Lyn for part one of the special and John Simm for part two. There are video diaries kept by David Tennant, BBC Christmas Idents (promos for the BBC), moments from a trip Davies, Tennant, Euros Lyn, John Barrowman, and Julie Gardner (executive producer) made to Comic-Con in 2009, and "Doctor Who at the Proms." This last piece is a concert featuring Doctor Who music filmed at the Royal Albert Hall as a part of the long-running British concert series. The musical tribute features some favorite characters from the series, is hosted by Freema Agyeman, and is great fun to both listen to and watch.
This box set of Doctor Who serves as a very stark reminder of how much Russell T. Davies and David Tennant will be missed on the show. The two men helped define this new version of Doctor Who (even if Christopher Eccleston was the first Doctor in the reincarnation), and The Complete Specials show just how great an understanding both men have of who the Doctor is and can be. It is certainly not always a pretty picture, but it is a fascinating one.
What will happen to the show in the future? That, no one can definitively say. All we can do is yell out a good "allons y" and head off to find out together.