Tuesday, August 29, 2006

 

Choosing Doctor Who DVDs Made Easy

Doctor Who: one of the longest-running and best TV series ever made. When there have been over 180 stories made so far, and even the 50-odd adventures now available on DVD can be daunting, where do you start? The obvious DVDs to recommend are the 2005 and (due November) 2006 season boxed sets, but there are also plenty of superb DVDs available to introduce the 1963-1989 series. Depending on what you’re looking for, I’ve picked out sets of half a dozen DVD releases you might pick up as a ‘beginner’s guide’, as exceptional DVD releases, or simply as great stories. Inspired by Tero’s request for an introduction to the series, here are some suggestions if you want to try some as well.

I love all periods of Doctor Who and can recommend any of them, but of course I have my own favourites. Though each set presents a mix of decades and Doctors, you’ll find my selections favouring William Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor and stories from Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor. Each of the different sets has a balance of some of the defining features of Doctor Who; a traveller in time and space who finds fun and fights oppression, a dash of horror, adventures in history, memorable characters and memorable images, but each has its own particular strengths, too. Each even has its own colour scheme, though that’s of no significance other than making it easier to divide all the text into three distinct groups.

Update Note: In addition to the three sets immediately below, I’ve placed updates with outstanding releases from subsequent years down at the bottom. The tips on bargains from 2006 obviously no longer apply, but it’s always well worth shopping around; you can usually find some of them somewhere for under a tenner in shops or online once they’ve been out more than a few months.


A Beginner’s Guide

Designed to be fairly easy to get into if you’ve never seen the series before. A particularly strong selection if you want to see alien worlds, big ideas, monsters and links to the new series, and introducing the idea of regeneration from one Doctor into another.

The Beginning (An Unearthly Child / The Daleks / The Edge of Destruction)
Doctor Who’s first three stories, both inspiring and quite different to what’s to come; a 1960s mystery leads to a trip to the Stone Age, then to a dead planet and the Daleks before psychodrama in the TARDIS. Great characters, solid stories, brilliantly done. An impressive set of documentaries and other bits across three discs, too, including
the original Pilot episode. Oh, and it’s currently only £15.99 at play.com, which is about half the price on the shop shelf.

Carnival of Monsters
The TARDIS lands on a cargo ship crossing the Indian Ocean in 1926… Or does it? Plus fearsome beasties, a satirical if gaudy alien world and a witty, intriguing script, along with extra extended scenes on the DVD.

The Ark in Space
Humanity sleeps to live past the end of the world… But alien horror awaits them. A huge influence on both Ridley Scott and Doctor Who’s 2005 relaunch. Gripping and brilliantly designed (save for the monsters). The DVD comes with the option of a shiny new CGI space station, too.

Pyramids of Mars
It’s 1911, and a malevolent alien once taken as a god by the ancient Egyptians now prepares to rise and destroy the world… Archetypal Doctor Who, a superbly atmospheric chiller with great period detail, music and probably the most terrifying villain in the series (heard again in 2006 as the voice of the Beast), accompanied by an great set of extras – particularly a celebration of the stories from this period of the show’s remarkable producer.

The Robots of Death (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
A futuristic murder mystery where robots are the weapon, not the real murderers, gorgeously designed and featuring a particularly memorable ‘explanation’ of the TARDIS for the Doctor’s sceptical, skin-clad companion Leela. This was only the second Who DVD released, so it has fewer extras than many of them, though.

The Caves of Androzani (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
The Doctor gets caught up in a drama of war, revenge and money, all superbly directed by Graeme Harper, now back directing stories for the 2006 series. Outstanding acting, music and lots of special features on a Doctor’s departure.

Alternatives: if you fancy more black and white Doctor Who, you might try The Tomb of the Cybermen in place of The Ark in Space, another monster chiller featuring a superb performance for the Doctor, frozen sleep and transformation from human to alien, though this one has monsters that are a little more effectively realised but a little less horrifying in concept. If you feel like more 1980s Doctor Who, you might try The Visitation in place of Pyramids of Mars, featuring more aliens in an historical setting with a great musical score, though it’s more ‘textbook’ than ‘terrifyingly evil’. Oh, and with a different closing take on a famous historical event.


The Best DVD Releases

Showcasing what you can do with the shiny silver format, each of these has been chosen not just for the story but because they’re exceptional DVD releases. A particularly strong selection if you want to see villains, wit and flamboyant style, too.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
It’s 2167, and the Daleks are the masters of Earth… A futuristic take on ‘what if the Nazis has won the War’, complete with Daleks sieg-heiling around a deserted London. Some of it’s beyond the show’s budget, but there are fabulous CGI alternative flying saucer effects on the DVD, which also features particularly endearing documentaries and even how to make a Blue Peter Dalek cake amongst extras given room by two discs.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
A hugely enjoyable story of fog-bound Victorian murder and music hall, which despite the subject matter is one of the wittiest, most quotable pieces of television going. With two discs, there are plenty of extras, but the most striking one is Whose Doctor Who, a Melvyn Bragg The Lively Arts documentary from 1977. Arguably the best all-round release.

City of Death (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
An uneven but very amusing caper, with some great filming in Paris, beautiful music, Julian Glover as a very enjoyable villain, much of the script from Douglas Adams, the Mona Lisa and even a cameo from John Cleese. Two discs give an informative documentary, raw footage and some hit-and-miss comedy, though it rather lacks the participation of Tom Baker.

The Leisure Hive
War, science and the Mafia supply the backdrop for this stylishly made story, which gave a new look and sound to the series and now looks and sounds stunning on DVD. A good selection of extras include the gorgeous music on its own, various ‘making of’ features and a particularly acerbic commentary.

Earthshock
The Cybermen attack in a futuristic macho action thriller which is good dumb fun, but it’s almost more entertaining to watch when the actors are reunited for the bitchiest commentary going. Other extras that stand out include a review programme from the time, documentaries and a rudely entertaining sketch.

The Curse of Fenric (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
Doctor Who’s always been good at horror stories, and this is a particularly intelligent and creepy one of vampires in the Second World War. The outstanding bonus for this two-disc release is a wholesale new edit of the story, with new scenes, effects, music and a movie format, but there are many other extras, including features on the writing and on the Special Edition version, as well as convention footage.

Alternatives: if you fancy more black and white Doctor Who, you might try The Mind Robber, which features a particularly good ‘Making Of’, a documentary on the Doctor’s companion Jamie, and even some Basil Brush. Another excellent all-round release is Pyramids of Mars, with several documentaries about the story, a comedy sketch that’s actually funny and a superb piece on the producer of the time (arguably the best the series ever had).


Simply the Best

This selection’s simply been made up from what I reckon are absolutely the best Who stories available on DVD, most of which hadn’t fitted into the other two lists. A particularly strong selection if you want to see villains, adventures in history, big ideas and sheer drama.

The Aztecs (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
A fable about the perils of meddling in history with an outstanding script and performances (particularly for the Doctor, his companion Barbara, and the blood-soaked High Priest of Sacrifice). The DVD also has a South Park-style cocoa recipe which makes me laugh, along with informative documentaries and even an educational bit of Blue Peter.

The Mind Robber
A place where nothing is impossible… A great cliffhanger launches our heroes into the Land of Fiction for one of the most surreally imaginative stories, accompanied by well-known characters from literature and, on the DVD, entertaining and informative extras.

Genesis of the Daleks
This dark, Nazi-themed war story hinges on a moral dilemma and a fantastic lead villain’s performance. Brilliantly directed and scored, it’s also often voted the best story the series ever did. Two discs include pretty comprehensive documentaries on the making of the story and the history of the Daleks, along with a Doctor Who Annual from the time.

Pyramids of Mars
It’s 1911, and a malevolent alien once taken as a god by the ancient Egyptians now prepares to rise and destroy the world… Archetypal Doctor Who, a superbly atmospheric chiller with great period detail, music and probably the most terrifying villain in the series (heard again in 2006 as the voice of the Beast), accompanied by an great set of extras – particularly a celebration of the stories from this period of the show’s remarkable producer.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
A hugely enjoyable story of fog-bound Victorian murder and music hall, which despite the subject matter is one of the wittiest, most quotable pieces of television going. With two discs, there are plenty of extras, but the most striking one is Whose Doctor Who, a Melvyn Bragg The Lively Arts documentary from 1977. Arguably the best all-round release.

Revelation of the Daleks (currently on sale at HMV for a tenner)
A brilliantly black comedy of horror at the funeral parlour, with a villain enjoying himself enormously and perfectly chosen guest stars (William Gaunt, Alexei Sayle, Eleanor Bron…). It’s another one directed superbly by Graeme Harper, now back doing stories for the 2006 series. The DVD extras include new effects, a documentary and deleted scenes.

Alternatives: looking at the two I’ve picked in other lists too, you might try as alternate ‘repeats’ The Caves of Androzani for The Talons of Weng-Chiang (both having a touch of Phantom of the Opera) or The Curse of Fenric for Pyramids of Mars (both really going for the ‘horror’ element, as well as a trapped god of evil plotting to escape). The Tomb of the Cybermen, which nearly made it to the first list, nearly made it to this one, too. But didn’t. Awwhh.


For American readers in particular, an alternative six stories to try might be The Key to Time, the 1978-9 season of the show following Tom Baker’s Doctor on a quest through all six stories. It’s Doctor Who at its most fairy-tale and fun, all castles and nearly-wizards and royals, a series of comfortingly familiar adventures in faux-history. All charm, wit and science fantasy with very few monsters, it’s very different from much of the series, but enormously enjoyable. The drawbacks are the way the last couple of stories run out of steam, and that its very lightness of touch means the Key to Time as a threat of impending chaos and destruction is a bit of a washout (as a big sparkly excuse for a quest, though, it’s magic). Why just for Americans, then? Because it’s been released as a fairly minimal DVD box set in the States, but not yet on Region 2. My advice for non-completists on this side of the Atlantic is to wait, as they’re bound to come out here eventually and as a much more impressive DVD release with many more extras and fully restored prints.

I’ve tried to give a few ‘balanced’ samples, but in the end it’s all down to what you fancy – you might just as well simply pick up ones you like the look of (though the DVD covers are variable, to say the least). It’s always worth looking out for which ones are on special offer at the moment, too; at the time of writing, HMV has several Doctor Who DVDs knocked down to £9.99, so I’ve highlighted some of the best of those along the way. And, of course, it’s not an exhaustive list – there are great stories I’ve missed out for space, there are plenty of elements of Doctor Who there wasn’t room to showcase, and there are new DVDs coming out all the time. Whichever Doctor Who DVDs you decide on, give them a spin, and enjoy.



2007 Update: With The Key To Time at last released as a British box, a great set of DVDs with a great set of extras, it seems time for a small update for any visitors clicking on this link at the side with releases since the list above. For the ‘beginner’s guide’, you might consider the whole of The Key To Time, the scariness and fabulous alien jungle of Planet of Evil, or Robot, Tom Baker’s first story (and mine); exceptional DVD releases for extras and other features have included The Invasion with its striking noir-style animations, plus two boxed sets each bursting with extras, The Key To Time (probably the most impressive and enjoyable set overall) and New Beginnings; while New Beginnings may just pip The Key To Time as the best stories released in the last year, with two really top-notch tales out of three.


2008 Update: The Beneath the Surface box set was the highlight of the year, with one of the very best stories, Doctor Who and the Silurians (accompanied by a superb ‘DVD essay’ about the times in which it was made), plus a middling story that looks great and, all right, a rather poor one. The extras on The Brain of Morbius lift a terrific story to a must-buy DVD, too. The other 2008 releases aren’t essential, but The Time Meddler stands out as an intriguing ‘beginner’s guide’ story that sets out what the series is about. Both that and the fun Black Orchid have splendid little comics features, while relatively extras-light The War Machines is a rather impressive story (again, good as a beginning).


January 2009 Update: There’s a stand-out boxed set release scheduled for late January: Tom Baker’s E-Space Trilogy (Full Circle, State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate) has two stunning stories and one rather good one, and looks chock-full of extras. Due February is a William Hartnell double box of The Rescue and The Romans, a little re-introduction story and a near-farce, both worth a look; but among the other DVD releases that have been announced for sometime in the rest of the year are by my lights the three best that aren’t out already, so I’m happy. There’s Image of the Fendahl and The War Games (a three-disc special), both absolutely brilliant tales, and best of all, my favourite story in the whole of Who, The Deadly Assassin. 2009 looks promising, then…

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Comments:
Blatant plug alert!

If you buy any of these from Amazon using this link, the party earns commission to help pay for our campaigning (and for my supply of bones).
 
Excellent point, Mr Pink, and special kudos for offering a financial incentive for people to nominate you in the well-known awards ;-)

Will you be posting again soon? I know Millennium was looking to see if you’d written anything last week when he was doing a seven-day round-up of Lib Dem blogging, but tragically…
 
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