Friday, October 26, 2007
2007’s Doctor Who DVDs To Buy (or: Get The Key To Time!)
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that The Key To Time has been selling so fast, though even people working for the BBC’s commercial arm have admitted they underestimated the demand. The release rate of DVDs from the old series has shot up this year from about seven or eight stories to seventeen, several of them bundled together; partly because they’ve decided they’d like to get them all out ready for repackaging in the 50th anniversary of the show (2013), and partly because they’ve been selling so much better since the new series has been on TV and a big hit. Oh, and there are plenty of new series releases out this year, too, but I can’t review everything at once. And then there are a pile of repackaged and reissued stories as well, which’ll have to wait for another post, if at all! The biggest change this year, though, has been in the number of stories you can buy for Tom Baker, the longest-running Doctor with over forty adventures broadcast. In seven years of Who DVD releases to the end of last year, ten of his stories had become available – by the end of this year, there’ll be twenty-one of them on the shelves (possibly with a gap of six where The Key To Time’s out of stock). Having rather scarily not written a Doctor Who piece on here for half the year, I thought it was more than time that I caught up…
So, by way of updating my last year’s ‘Choosing Doctor Who DVDs Made Easy’, here are all the Doctor Who DVD releases of 2007 – in a very vague order of merit:
The Key to Time Boxed Set
A compelling Doctor and companion having masses of fun, witty scripts, emotion, magic, a ‘story arc’ (in those days less portentously called an ‘umbrella theme’), vivid women characters and even filming in Wales… This 1978-9 set of six stories making up the show’s Sixteenth Season could almost be the new series – well, all right, without the pace, budget or all the old enemies. How much you enjoy this may depend on how much you like The Tom Baker Show, but if you see a sparkly pinky-blue box on sale, I’d recommend it. Tom is accompanied by Mary Tamm’s Romana (surely his most beautiful companion) and the tin dog… And I’d say this is the one year where K9 really worked, so you’ll see him at his best. It’s surprisingly short of monsters, and towards the end noticeably short of cash, but it has wit, character and imagination in abundance, as well as a fabulous set of villains. Striking out into science fantasy with castles and royals and the Doctor as a wizard on a quest, this is the series at its most fairy-tale, but with a darker undertone that gods aren’t to be trusted. The stories are by some of the best writers ever to work on Doctor Who: famous Douglas Adams; Robert Holmes, who Russell T Davies says wrote “the best dialogue ever written”; David Fisher, who for my money gets the best balance of character and wit, and quite grown-up about sex; and Bob Baker and Dave Martin, never as highly rated, but then, Bob’s the only Who writer with an Oscar, so don’t knock him…
I was aged six and seven when this lot was first broadcast – when it took six months to watch, rather than eleven hours (excluding the commentaries, text notes, documentaries, deleted scenes…) – so perhaps it’s unsurprising that I love it so. It was the first Doctor Who season I saw in colour; my Mum tells me that I’d pleaded for us to get a colour TV on the grounds that “having to watch the Multi-coloured Swap Shop in black and white is the mark of a deprived childhood.” So rather than just gush, I’ve written a paragraph on what’s to like in each of the six stories. Before then, on the first disc you’ll find an in-depth documentary covering the 1977-1980 years of Doctor Who produced by Graham Williams, when the series moved from horror and movies towards wit and books – it’s the heart of the extras, and has some great contributions, including actors, writers, directors, new series writer Gareth Roberts and archive footage of the late Graham Williams and Douglas Adams. Even three decades later, it’s still a period that divides fans: for those who didn’t like it, this does a good job of explaining the curses it was under… Such as Mary Whitehouse, runaway inflation destroying the budget, and Tom Baker eating directors for breakfast. My only complaints are that it gives away one of the best gags in The Power of Kroll, and that for fear of shocking parents it doesn’t include the most famous out-take of the time, when Tom Baker snaps at K9 that
“Yeah, you never fucking know the answer when it’s important.”If that hasn’t convinced you to read on, try this smashing trailer for the DVD, which sums up all the stories and even includes an explosion that BBC health and safety said was too dangerous for the studio – so they filmed it in a nuclear power station instead. Halcyon days!
The Ribos Operation
The Doctor is rather unwillingly sent on a mission to find the scattered parts of the all-powerful ‘Key to Time’, by someone who may or may not be God but is pretty scary either way… So off he goes to a brilliantly conceived world in its medieval times, surrounded by such vivid characters as a conman, a brutal old general and a psychotic deposed prince, though for many the story’s stolen by this world’s version of Gallileo, tortured for saying the stars are suns and not ice crystals in the sky. It’s funny, intelligent, has impressive music and a lovely Russian-esque design – though new viewers might find it lacks action and that the monster’s a bit rubbish, the season starts with a winner, and the commentary by Tom Baker and Mary Tamm is delightfully bitchy. I’ve written an in-depth review of this one, by the way, but as it refers to the final story, too, you might not want to read it until you’ve watched the lot; the same applies for Millennium’s contrary and rather brilliant theory of who Tom Baker thinks is god.
The Pirate Planet
Douglas Adams’ first TV script, and K9 as a hero… What could possibly go wrong? Well, surprisingly little. This is a brilliantly structured story, with a great mystery that moves gradually and seamlessly from being very silly to being very serious, and Tom Baker is terrific. On the downside, it starts a little slowly, and it’s evident that the budget’s not been spent on the crowd scenes or the video effects. There are two commentaries here, one rather dry one a few years old from the US release (which had little restoration work and very few extras, while this one is packed with them from deleted scenes, to a charming ‘making of’, to a rather overlong and unwise comedy feature that really can’t compete with Mr Adams) and a new commentary in which Tom Baker tests the limits of what he can say for a PG-rated release. Of all these stories, this is the one where the old film and video stock has been polished up most impressively, though some fans are up in arms about an effect that’s been microscopically changed (actually, I spotted a more blatant one that’s been replaced altogether, wrongly, but I’d better not mention it for fear of starting another flame war). The cyborg Pirate Captain looks terrific, too; the local population are quite happy with their murderous dictator because he makes them rich; despite looking very ‘sci-fi,’ it’s still at heart a fairy tale with a wicked old witch and a giant in a castle. And you might notice that the mysterious Mentiads are all male, appear to live in a rave club, and a suburban conservative says he’s glad his son was shot rather than become “one of those – those…” Yes, they’re the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare: young people today who are gay hoodies.
The Stones of Blood
There’s rather a good little documentary about Hammer movies as an influence on Doctor Who here, appropriately enough when this is the story that combines Celtic mythology with two direct steals from Hammer (watch closely: they’re The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles). It’s even got that very horror film but very rare for Doctor Who ‘have sex and die’ attitude, in the scene Russell T Davies thinks is the scariest ever. So, is this a return to the Doctor Who horror movie? Well… No. It starts off that way, but twists around into something quite different, and both approaches partly work. Rather than just gothic horror, this is definitely female gothic, with very strong parts for women and (after the gay Mentiads) blatant lesbians. What’s brilliant about it is its wit and cleverness, its actors, and that it beats off several other stories this season to be the campest Doctor Who of the lot. What’s less brilliant is that the first half is plagued by erratic and obviously fake ‘night’ shots that suggest the sun’s bungee-jumping, while the second half is less inconsistent in look but lets itself down with some terribly inconsistent trial ‘rules’. Still, it has some occasionally scary living rocks, a deleted scene that inspired a League of Gentlemen sketch, and proof in another extra that Blue Peter was telling untruths to the nation’s youth as long ago as 1978…
The Androids of Tara
My favourite story of the season is wonderfully light and engaging, like a summer holiday week off from more serious things, running around the countryside, and having the most extraordinary fun for a show that’s never short of fun in the first place. Peter Jeffrey makes a fantastic moustache-twirling villain for an adventure that has a lot in common with The Prisoner of Zenda, but (for people who can only make lists of similarities rather than pay attention to the characters) has almost none of the same themes. Many fans hate this because it’s just light-hearted swashbuckling fluff, while I love it for much the same reason. Oh, and there’s a rubbish monster, but that’s polished off in five minutes for a joke. Among the extras, the ‘making of’ feature is stolen by one very animated, funny actor and another who’s a stylish old gentleman sort, and there’s a rather basic but jolly feature on doubles in Who that’s like an incomplete list illustrated by clips – probably to appeal to younger viewers. But the whole thing’s great fun. Sit back, enjoy K9 playing chess, Romana being disdainful, and a wicked Count exclaiming “Next time, I shall not be so lenient!” on his inevitable defeat. And there’s swordfighting with electric swords, too. Cool (says the seven-year-old me).
The Power of Kroll
New series viewers who were disappointed when the BBC refused to show Captain Jack’s buttocks may be surprised just how much rear flesh is on display here – albeit covered in green paint, and really not very attractive. On a water world, the oppressed ‘Swampies’ are fighting some human exploiters, while their giant squid god that occasionally looks rather exciting and occasionally rather absurd takes them in turns to eat. There’s a lot of King Kong here, and we can never resist singing along to ‘The Kroll Song’ (there aren’t many words), but though there’s some good location filming and some amusing moments in the script, the plot, sets and many of the actors are a bit flat. The most enjoyable person to watch if you know the gossip is Philip Madoc (who gets a little documentary to himself), who was originally offered the main villain part, couldn’t do it, suddenly became free, took the job… And found out too late that part had been cast, so he was now just the sidekick. His character’s visible winces at much of the villain’s acting give a perfect performance of a man who knows he can do a better job than his rubbish boss because he knows he could give a better performance as the boss.
The Armageddon Factor
This double-disc release includes the longer final story and a host of extras, of which the most intriguing are a set of short horror stories read by Tom Baker (one of them, Saki’s Sredni Vashtar, which was never broadcast… Because of a strike, rather than because it was too terrifying. As far as I know). There’s also a pdf of The Dr Who Annual 1979, which has some rather striking pictures of Tom Baker but obviously didn’t have any pictures of ‘Leela’, and is a bit thin; still, I remember finding The Planet of Dust and Terror on Tantalogus suitably eerie. Anyway, there’s a lot that’s brilliant in The Armageddon Factor, with a planet grimly at war, a superbly played character who echoes Churchill and Hitler at the same time, and another who eerily anticipates Princess Diana. Even K9 is great, by turns bitchy, sinister or disturbingly chummy with a talking WMD. Unfortunately, there’s a lot that’s far from brilliant, too; one of the actors is so unconvincing he could be a Tory MP, and the plot structure’s a mess, starting well and recovering by the end but meandering tediously in some beige corridors for a fortnight in the middle. It doesn’t help that all the serious bits are at the start, after which it gets less rather than more doom-laden, and that the ‘comic relief’ appears too late, not in the middle episodes that desperately needed a diversion but towards the end when it’s starving for some drama. But the Doctor does make entirely the Doctorish decision at the very end, and that’s what matters…
If you think you could do better, of course, you can assemble your very own Key to Time here.
New Beginnings Boxed Set
Way back at the beginning of the year, a boxed set of three stories re-introduced the Master, saw out Tom Baker and introduced Peter Davison, all in considerable style. This is another terrific release – with The Key To Time and last year’s The Beginning Box Set, the boxed sets have been strong contenders for the best in the range. Again, there are some superb documentaries, some lovely music that you can play separately, and you also get a pdf of The Doctor Who Annual 1982, which was clearly done in a hurry and without a lot of Peter Davison photos… Most of it’s not up to much, but the poorly-drawn comic strip satirising the publishers is quite amusing, as is the speculative feature inviting you to “Imagine… some hundred years from now” that everyone in the world might have their own private computer and something like GPS. Shame the giant hovercraft didn’t come about, though. I always rather liked hovercraft.
The Keeper of Traken
A marvellous rationalist fairy story in Shakespearean dress and Art Nouveau sets, with a creepy walking statue. It’s a spellbinding tale of evil in Eden, with a sense of impending doom that’s only let down by the actress at the heart of the tragic love story being hammier than you can possibly believe. I wrote an extended review of it earlier in the year, so I’ll skip to the extras: several rather intriguing documentaries, with evil Geoffrey Beevers very watchable; a lumbering trailer from the time; the writer trying to remember which bits he wrote and which he didn’t on the commentary…
Tom Baker’s final story is thoroughly laden with doom and captivating – I wrote most of an in-depth review earlier in the year, but became slightly terrified when the writer found and commented on it! A threat to the Doctor unfolds into a threat to the Universe in a story informed by these new-fangled computers that manages to do three very unlikely things: make the TARDIS scary; make the Master scary; and make Maths interesting. It’s slow, packed with ideas and compelling. There’s another great documentary, particularly with Tom admitting what a monster he was, and the commentary is striking – with Tom Baker, Janet Fielding (Tegan) and writer Jesus H Bidmead, Richard exclaimed “When Egos Collide!” as they introduced themselves. And they’re all pretty… forthright (though Mr Bidmead has a tendency to say ‘That bit’s very clever. But that bit’s rubbish, and it was someone else’s fault’). The best extra for me, surprisingly, is the score: you can press a button to play just the music, and it’s gorgeous.
I should say up front that the music for this is extraordinarily lovely too, so have a listen; there are even some deleted scenes to watch, too. With this one, I was feeling slightly intimidated and never quite got round to the in-depth review, as it’s a beautiful and character-driven tale with an air of wonder that reflects both the innocence and the darkness of a fairy story, but it’s not quite up to the standard of the other two. There are interesting games with gender and with identity, with one ‘he must be the villain’ character seeming harsh and sinister but turning out to be the crucial ‘inside man’ (these days we’d call him ‘Snape’). Peter Davison is at his best here, giving us a Doctor that turns from reverie to sudden fierceness – he’s very revealing on the commentary, seeming both proud and embarrassed.
Planet of Evil
This earlier, much scarier Tom Baker story came out just last week – it’s from 1975 and the show’s Thirteenth Season, so it would be an ideal thirteenth anniversary present… Except that I think it’s great, and Richard doesn’t. Oh well. Anyway, it’s another science-as-fairy-tale story, borrowing from Shakespeare, Jekyll and Hyde, Forbidden Planet and werewolf legends, though it was so terrifying to kids at the time – I was one of them, and I still remember the ‘sci-fi burial alive’ nightmares – that viewers of the new series may find it eerily familiar, having evidently inspired the writers of The Impossible Planet and 42. Sarah Jane Smith’s in it, too. What most people talk about, though, is the alien jungle, and it looks absolutely awesome… Except in the scenes recorded on video rather than film, which look surprisingly flat. Not looking good at any point are the guest actors’ costumes; people say this season’s all Hammer films, but the only time we get people with seriously plunging necklines, they’re all men. And they’re really not worth it, either. Extras include behind-the-scenes footage, an impressive line-up on the commentary, a ‘making of’ and a slightly odd feature on the actors… If you want to see more, there’s a brilliant (if sometimes amusing for its over-the-topness) trailer on The Key to Time DVDs.
Tom Baker’s first story, and the first I ever saw; a middle-range story, but well worth seeing (and not unlike a sort of ‘Junior Avengers’ story). Sarah Jane Smith and the Brigadier are lovely, and fascist villain Miss Winters is fabulous, but this has two stars: Tom Baker, instantly seizing the show with hugely energetic performance; and the robot, which is huge and still looks terrific today. Until the last episode, that is, when several things go a little bit wrong (the script fizzles a bit, the characters get dafter, the special effects… Well, let’s say it’s unwise to move from Frankenstein to King Kong, and that we can sing along the ad jingle of a well-known toy of the time that’s used in a model shot). But on the whole, I’m very fond of it: it’s got such heart, humour and energy, it got me hooked, and it’s cleverer than Isaac Asimov, complete with a critique of utopianism. Again, Tom gives a good DVD commentary, there’s an informative mini-documentary on the definitive Doctor Who title sequence and a great one on the making of the story and how Tom started off as the Doctor.
From a first to the last; this double-disc release contains the final story of the original series, starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor in 1989. It’s good, solid, average Who: story-driven, with something familiar, a few surprises, mostly rather well done drama and the odd let-down. Londoners are being abducted by giant cat people on horseback, a strikingly effective sight, and carried off to their stormy home world… Where the Master waits. The modern setting prefigures the new series, though the council estate is rather less well done – and the little cat ‘familiars’ badly betray the budget (it’s easier to suspend your disbelief with an alien cat-person than with a stuffed moggie that everyone can look at and know doesn’t look right). The alien world casts a strange spell in this allegorical tale which shows no love for machismo and ’80s values… It’s difficult to tell if the score is mocking or overdoing screaming ’80s guitars, too. The Master is underplayed and threatening, though, and one of the extras features him being really rather good for a computer game, as well as cut scenes from this story. As for the other extras… Well, there are a lot of them, and the making of and story of what might have happened next if the series hadn’t been cancelled are interesting (though the ‘fan commentary’ is a disappointment), but – despite the presence of Lisa Bowerman, Professor Bernice Summerfield herself – it leaves a sour taste that there’s nothing about the New Adventures, the magnificent book series that carried Doctor Who on through the ’90s. So, in the end, the DVD is a disappointment, though the story ends with a beautiful, elegiac speech from the Doctor that still echoes today…
The Time Warrior
Jon Pertwee stars in the story that introduces both Sarah Jane Smith and moderately well-known monsters the Sontarans – both new arrivals are great from the start, and Pertwee’s not bad either (terribly sexist at times, but also occasionally charming). Like Survival, this is a ‘kidnap’ story, though here the alien is dragging people into the past rather than to another planet, and it’s a lot funnier. There’s even a gag about the Doctor finding “a young girl” (the first time someone says what everyone thinks about him) and a marvellous line from Sarah about the Middle Ages. Oh, and it’s got Dot Cotton and Boba Fett in it! On the downside, and despite some rather fab location shooting at a real castle (well, a real folly), the direction is very flat and dull, and it’s very poorly edited, so the story doesn’t always flow too well. You won’t be impressed by the robot knight, either. As well as a commentary, interesting but badly proofread text notes and another so-so Annual, the extras include rather a fine ‘making of’ – despite producer Barry Letts getting some ratings facts entirely wrong – and new CGI effects, which are all good bar, unfortunately, the climax in which a dragon apparently sneezes through some slightly singed gates. I suspect The Invasion of Time may get a DVD release next year, so that they can flog it in a ‘Sontaran box set’ with this, The Sontaran Experiment, The Two Doctors and Horror of Fang Rock (featuring their arch-enemies)…
Destiny of the Daleks
Due out a month from today, the last of this year’s old series releases stars Tom Baker in the sequel to the smashing Genesis of the Daleks, and it doesn’t compare all that well. It follows directly from The Key To Time, and like The Armageddon Factor is a mixture of great bits and rather feeble bits. Romana regenerates into a new body (rather unsteadily), and she and the Doctor have amusing dialogue and instant chemistry; there’s some superb hand-held camerawork and an intriguing ‘planet of the dead’ feel that doesn’t quite come off. More original but more flawed is the logical impasse of the latter half of the story, which is a good idea but requires the Daleks and their beautiful disco opponents to be a bit thick. And Davros… Well, the actor, the script and the mask all suffer by comparison to his first story: he’s a ranting maniac rather than a brilliantly persuasive fascist. I’m looking forward to the commentary (not reuniting Tom Baker and his ex-wife for a chat, sadly), the documentary about dependable Dalek writer Terry Nation and, of course, the thrilling new CGI effects. Still, I like it in the right mood, and if you watch the Coming Soon Trailer for it on the Planet of Evil DVD (and not yet added to YouTube, apparently), it looks fantastic.
There are still the two poorest releases to do, and the exciting new series, but it's late, I'm feeling very ill, and my lovely Richard wants to look after me!
…And at long last I’ve come back to it, after a month of illness, procrastination, doing other things, more illness and more procrastination. Why wasn’t I filled with enthusiasm for the next two releases? Read on.
Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity Box
Ah well. The straight run of really impressive stories making up the boxed set releases had to end somewhere, and it ended with a small box of two adjoining stories starring Peter Davison as the Doctor and Janet Fielding as Tegan (and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, but she’s less gobby). There’s quite a nice picture of Tegan on the front, but the covers for the individual stories inside are far poorer designs than usual. And the stories?
Written by an impressive director, directed by a… less impressive one, you really want to know what it looked like in the writer’s head, with an intriguingly weird Arabian Nights-flavoured fantasy. The dialogue and ‘climax’ by lots of made-up technical gubbins would still be terrible, though. It’s another kidnap through time story, and this time the Master (cementing his image as ‘the camp one’ and with a truly barking plan) is taking Concordes to prehistory to try and rip off an alien ‘super-race’. The Doctor behaves like a credulous idiot, too, and sides with one half of the self-styled super-race to crush individuality and freedom of choice for the other half. Uh huh? Even the music’s terrible (though it’s still a shame it’s not included as a separate track). The commentary is mean-spirited in the extreme, too, though there are some deleted scenes to let you know how much more it could have gone on. Um… The aircraft crew actors are quite jolly, as is some of the Concorde
Arc of Infinity
This story follows straight on, and while it’s not very good, it is at least a lot better, though the director makes no better use of Amsterdam than he did Concorde. It’s got an impressive set of extras, led by glowy new CGI, two excellent documentaries – I particularly like the one on Omega, linking to the Big Finish audio play – and boasts an amusing commentary by two Doctors, as this is the Peter Davison story with a bit part made ever so much larger by Colin Baker (plus, though the music’s not great, at least you can listen to it separately on this one). In its favour, the villain’s got a great gravelly voice and is nicely designed, though most of the other design is a bit naff: a monster like a man-sized chicken; Time Lords with little horns; Gallifrey not as the stately citadel glimpsed in the new series but more of a bland wine bar. Meanwhile, the similarity of some of it to a porn flick is emphasised by the typo-packed text notes quoting extensively from Freudian slip-packed original script. And you can be inappropriately amused by the ‘murder mystery’ with a High Councillor creeping about in a huge ceremonial collar, which is rather like a Peer of the Realm committing a stealthy murder while wearing a coronet and a long robe trimmed with real cat with a signed donation to the Labour Party pinned to the back of it.
As you know, I love Doctor Who. All Doctor Who. And I would of course encourage you to purchase every Doctor Who DVD release, as we do. It’s just that there are some I might encourage you to buy… Once you’ve already bought all the others. Well, you might consider getting 180 or so other stories before you pick up this one but, oh, I’m beyond redemption and can still find things to enjoy about it. Colin Baker is always entertaining, though this is one of his least sympathetic scripts as the Doctor, with rather too much squabbling; Paul Darrow, Avon from Blake’s 7, gives one of the most over-the-top performances ever allowed to be broadcast; and both are fun on the commentary and ‘making of’ (few extras, and again the music is omitted), one trying to look on the bright side, the other mercilessly up-front about how bad it was. The budget is non-existent, the alien Bandrils are hilarious Grant Shapps-like creations and the script is packed with characters telling each other things they must know in such a clumsy way that only the most wooden of actors could deliver them. And they do. Featuring a young HG Wells, these days it would be called a ‘celebrity historical’, but makes a shocking mess of it: not only is he depicted as a prat; not only is it ludicrous to claim his great stories were inspired by this; but the writer of Timelash makes the Calvinist / atheist Mr Wells into a Catholic spiritualist. The only explanation for which is that he mixed HG Wells up with Arthur Conan Doyle. Sigh. Our lovely friend Simon has a moderately more generous review here.
Labels: Colin Baker, Doctor Who, DVD, Jon Pertwee, New Beginnings, Peter Davison, Peter Jeffrey, Philip Madoc, Professor Bernice Summerfield, Reviews, Richard, Sylvester McCoy, The Key To Time, Tom Baker