Monday, February 28, 2011

 

Dial M For Monsters – Doctor Who DVDs 2011

With twenty old Doctor Who stories due out on DVD this year and my long having lost the habit of writing teaser reviews, I know the one or even two of you who come wondering which to buy have been confounded. So don’t worry: in single-paragraph reviews below, I reveal which are the most exciting (and which the… slightly less exciting) releases of 2011. Cheer as the late, great Nicholas Courtney stars in a record number of DVD releases; goggle at the bizarre ways different tales are combined; marvel as I reveal which letter of the alphabet inspired the schedule.

The Secret of the Schedule

While the continuing series of Doctor Who since 2005 all exist in their prime and are no harder to find than looking at BBC3 every single day, the stories made back in the Twentieth Century are a little more erratic, with some no longer existing on video and others requiring time-consuming restoration work before they can be released. So while every story from Rose onwards has simply been released in sequential order, the “Classic” Doctor Who DVD range is a little more complicated. With efforts made to balance the schedule between different Doctors and different qualities – not wanting to be left with the least loved stories to crawl out at the end – the release order has sometimes looked a bit random. But with only a few dozen left to appear on DVD, all expected by the show’s fiftieth anniversary in 2013, you can tell that Commissioning Editor Dan Hall has been putting a lot of thought into the remainder. Last year, for example, he ensured that not all the terrible stories would be left ’til last, by bringing most of them out early across six eye-watering months of tedium.

For the end of last year and the early months of this year’s range, the amazingly literal Restoration Team techies reported to Mr Hall’s desk and asked which stories, oh mighty master, they were to prepare to DVD standard. ‘Mmmmm…’ mused Dan, stuck for an idea.

And so the amazingly literal Restoration Team techies went away and buffed up for shiny silver disc tales of Magnus Greel, Magma Beast and Morgus, the Master, Meglos, Mutants, Monoids, Mara and Metebelis Spiders. Even the double-pack of the two original Auton stories is not to be titled, as any sane person would, ‘The Auton Invasions’, nor even ‘Plastic Fantastic’. No – they’re marketed as Mannequin Mania. It’s proof, I tell you! And what I want to know is, what have the Mandrels done to offend them?

Still, it could have been worse: Dan might have snored “Zzzz…” at them, and then they’d have prepped The Sensorites.

But on with the previews…

The 2011 Doctor Who DVDs In Brief(ish)

Meglos (starring Tom Baker; out since January)
This gets us off to a slightly misleading start, as it’s probably the weakest story scheduled for one of the DVD range’s more exciting years – and certainly the weakest of one of Doctor Who’s best years as broadcast, completing as it does the releases of 1980-81’s superb Season 18. Watch the whole thing on DVD (The Leisure Hive / Meglos / The E-Space Trilogy / New Beginnings) and it has a striking thematic coherence, with even Meglos displaying many of the running themes of decay and change. Add to that a very entertaining villain, some excellent DVD extras and a rather good isolated score, and it’s not that bad. Just try to ignore the lacklustre direction, the way it can’t decide if it’s meant to be undramatic drama or unfunny comedy, and how the author keeps praising his own limp script as if the terrible sci-fi clichés are all his own brilliant invention.

The Mutants (starring Jon Pertwee; out since January)
Well, it’s perhaps slightly better than Meglos… What’s good about it? It’s ambitious, certainly, and has a strong central story – both its sci-fi and its political ideas (though it features the smallest ‘rally’ ever seen). The location filming often looks terrific; the ‘monsters’ are a great piece of design; grave Geoffrey Palmer and wide-eyed Jo Grant are worth watching; and, again, there are some very strong DVD extras, from a documentary on race in Doctor Who to an hilarious interview with the Oscar-winning costume designer. On the down side, much of the actual script is awful, as are several of the actors delivering it, and the effects are at best variable. It sags very tediously in the middle, too, though if you can stay awake until Episode Five, that has several cracking scenes in a row. Then there’s the Universe’s only naturally occurring species of drag queen, so you’ve got that to look forward to.
Try the DVD Coming Soon Trailer today!

The Ark (starring William Hartnell; out since February)
A noticeable step up in quality, the most important thing to say if you plan to buy this DVD without knowing the story is just to buy it, and start watching straight away. Perhaps trying to avoid spoilers from 1966 is as ambitious as the story’s impressive design work, but steer clear, if you can, from summaries, trailers and even the DVD menu, which (as usual) gives away half the story. Set in the far future (in the same time as a famous 2005 story), this looks good, has a great concept, and unfortunately rather cardboard characters, but like The Mutants, has an intriguing mix of sci-fi and political ideas – though in this case the sci-fi is rather more elegiac, and the politics rather more shonky (it’s as close as ’60s Doctor Who ever gets to Star Trek). Again, there are superb extras – particularly the one on Doctor Who and HG Wells from the excellent Mr Guerrier – while you get a chance to admire Peter Purves in one of his finest acting performances, and wonder what they were thinking with the Doctor’s other companion, who’s perky to the point of sociopathy… It also has an elephant in it, so get cracking.
Tragically, a version of a well-known Beatles song featuring clips from this story and a Monoid demanding “Get Back!” appears to have been double-copyright-bombed off YouTube, but if anyone should find it lurking anywhere on the Internet, please let me know. It made me laugh.

Mara Tales: Kinda / Snakedance (starring Peter Davison; out in March)
Two of the Fifth Doctor’s most compelling ‘arthouse’ stories, I’ve previously taken a critical look at Kinda (and marvelled at how Christmassy Snakedance is). With a giant leap in story quality, this might well be the best release of the year; psychodramas of the Dark Places of the Inside, with superb guest stars and intelligent, frightening scripts. Snakedance looks terrific, too, and for me is even better than its predecessor. This boxed set contains both original stories of the Mara, an inner demon that looks rather like a giant snake (and, with luck and a spot of Special Edition CGI, may look rather more so than it used to), will have lots of lovely isolated music to listen to, and it’s 2011’s first absolute must-have purchase.
Try the DVD Coming Soon Trailer today!

Revisitations 2: The Seeds of Death / Carnival of Monsters / Resurrection of the Daleks (starring Patrick Troughton / Jon Pertwee / Peter Davison; out in March)
Picture restoration techniques, DVD technology and expectations of extra features have all improved strikingly since the first Doctor Who DVD was released twelve years ago, and so it’s no surprise that some of the earlier releases have been scheduled for up-to-today’s-standard Special Editions, based on their having video quality that could now be sharply improved, documentaries that could now be made, or egregious cock-ups that could now be corrected. This boxed set features three stories that may already be on your DVD shelves, much like last year’s Revisitations Box 1, which boasted two of the absolute very best Doctor Who stories ever made, which everyone should have. And the 1996 TV Movie. Unfortunately, in this forthcoming monster-packed selection the ratio is the other way round; while Carnival of Monsters is rather brilliant, the other two had better look bloody fantastic to justify buying them again, particularly as the far-superior Vengeance on Varos has been dropped from the line-up [3rd March Update: it’s been announced this evening that, due to popular demand, a Varos SE will be released next year. Hurrah!]. Carnival is witty, satirical, has some great monsters and is very silly indeed. Seeds is a bit more tired; the very last of the Second Doctor’s monster extravaganzas, it’s something of a Troughton megamix and, despite a great villain and occasionally inventive direction, one of his weakest. With horrible outfits. Resurrection, similarly, has a feel of many other Dalek stories, and while it starts excitingly, has fabulous music and some strong guest stars, it also has a script that falls apart, a string of pointless macho killings, and an author that can see Davros’ point but not the Doctor’s when it comes to a moral argument. On the bright side, though, if you’re suffering David Tennant withdrawal symptoms, he’s got a lot to do with the star extra here.

I’m not having a great time at the moment, and so am having a lot of trouble writing, but hope at some point I’ll be able to write something about the marvellous Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier through five decades of Doctor Who and who sadly died last week. In the meantime, among many tributes, Richard’s piece for Millennium about Nick Courtney is rather wonderful, and Nick’s friend Tom Baker wrote a touching memorial. Though not planned this way, it turns out that the Doctor Who DVD range is also mounting something of a tribute to the Brigadier in 2011, with more of his stories due out this year than in any other so far: three stories released for the first time; two re-released as Special Editions; and just possibly another coming soon (though The Ambassadors of Death has been dropped for the time being due to more complex than hoped restoration problems, The Dæmons is likely to be out either at the end of this year or the beginning of the next). And the first of these is…

Planet of the Spiders (starring Jon Pertwee; out in April)
Jon Pertwee’s grand finale, this has almost everything you’d expect of his era, along with many of its strengths – and weaknesses. The Brigadier is loveable; Sarah Jane is intrepid (and may surprise you); the villains are both more down to Earth and more grand than you might expect; actors, effects and alien landscapes all vary wildly in their effectiveness; it’s a bigger Buddhist parable even than the Mara Tales; and there’s a car chase that goes on for ever. Well, I say a car chase – it’s also a gyrocopter, motorboat and hovercraft chase. And unlike everyone else, I love it, though I suspect it may be cut from the movie-style edition that’s going to be one of the extras. Though I have problems with the story’s philosophy, the Doctor’s final confrontation with his last enemy remains, for me, one of the greatest scenes in Doctor Who.
Try the cheeky UK Gold Trailer today!

Mannequin Mania: Spearhead from Space / Terror of the Autons (starring Jon Pertwee; out in May)
Spearhead from Space was one of the first DVD releases, and vies with Genesis of the Daleks as perhaps the best-known single Doctor Who story – and here it’s given a brace of Special Edition features, and packaged with its first sequel, new to DVD. I say its first, as 2005’s Rose was another, with Russell T Davies clearly seeing the deadly plastic Autons as the perfect way to reintroduce Doctor Who, while Steven Moffat’s brought them back too, as well as borrowing from Spearhead again in The Eleventh Hour. Much as I love Rose, though, it’s Spearhead From Space for me: like its massively successful descendant, it relaunches Doctor Who for a new decade, a new Doctor and, most importantly, a new audience, and in each there’s not only a considerable amount of comedy amidst the horror, but the Doctor isn’t really the lead character. In Rose, we see much of the story from the point of view of Billie Piper’s Rose; back in 1970, it was Nicholas Courtney’s finest hour, as the Brigadier takes the lead. Like Russell’s carefully crafted introduction, each episode really ramps up the tension more than the last, and gets steadily more sci-fi until the final episode’s famously memorable set-piece scariness on the high street. I expect it to look more terrific than ever, too, as it was made entirely on film, and the restoration promises to be exceptional. Also from Robert Holmes, still Doctor Who’s greatest author, Terror of the Autons isn’t quite as strong (with the Brigadier less prominent and Pertwee at his most insufferable), but has almost as much to do – introducing more new regular characters, friendly, ditzy or just plain evil: this is the Master’s first story, and he grabs it and takes over, particularly with some of his brilliantly nasty marketing ideas. The whole thing’s like a circus – colourful, funny and slapdash, not really much of a plot, but if you don’t like one act, there’ll be another along in a minute. And it’s the second DVD this year to have elephants! This boxed set, too, might well be the best release of the year, and is another absolute must-have purchase.

Frontios (starring Peter Davison; probably out in May)
Now here’s a strange thing. With all of the Sixth Doctor’s stories already available on DVD, this year it’s the Fifth’s turn to be completed – with (after the Mara Tales) three stories that were originally broadcast consecutively. But they’re all to be released in different boxes. And in reverse order. So what Frontios is doing on its own is anyone’s guess, when there’s an obvious, perfect companion for it also out on DVD in 2011. I refer, of course, to The Ark. Who could have resisted those two boxed as The Ends of the Earth, ideally with a The Ark In Space Special Edition on top? Anyway, it’s well worth buying even on its tod – they’ve kept half the best of Peter’s ’til last, with all four of his new-to-DVD stories this year among his strongest, and all with a strong streak of horror to them. This is the last written by another of the series’ finest authors, Christopher H Bidmead, and in which the Doctor wears his brainy glasses and fights terrible monsters, and shocking things happen to the TARDIS. And it’s much, much better than Outcasts.

Earth Story: The Gunfighters / The Awakening (starring William Hartnell / Peter Davison; probably out in June)
Although most Doctor Who stories have been released as single DVDs (often with an extra special features disc of their very own), there have now also been nearly twenty box sets. Sometimes these have been for stories that make much more sense seen together, such as the linked The Key To Time sequence. About half of them have featured consecutive tales, so they’ll make sense on your shelf in the order originally broadcast. The other half have had different themes to connect them, such as the same friend, enemy, or planet. All of them have helped get more DVDs onto the shelves, speeding up the release schedule but in a way that makes sense, where you can nod and think, ‘I can see why they did that’. Until now. “Earth Story” is the first box that’s connected by sheer desperation: all that links the two stories is that they’re both… set on Earth. As this applies to well over half of all the Doctor Who ever made for TV, it’s not the most distinctive connection. Still, if you can get over wondering why The Gunfighters wasn’t packaged with The Sun Makers in a comedy box set, or The Awakening with Frontios as two consecutive stories, or indeed either of them with (not due this year, but surely soon) The Android Invasion as, respectively, ‘Doctor Doppelgängers’ or ‘Spooky Villages’, both are very enjoyable little stories. While many fans hate The Gunfighters for its saloon-bar ballad, appalling American accents and wittily comic script, I love it for two of those reasons and can put up with the middle one; it’s a send-up of Westerns, and Billy is often at his best when playing comedy. The Awakening is, instead, a Sapphire and Steel-ish ghost story of the 1980s crossing over with the British Civil Wars and, like Frontios, has Peter really nailing his Doctor close to the end. Which absolutely should not have been packaged with The Dæmons, however soon it’s due, as that might have given the game away.

Paradise Towers (starring Sylvester McCoy; out later in 2011)
This usually makes it to the all-time ‘bottom ten’ in fan favourite polls, so you might expect me to lament a dip in quality in the promising range of 2011 DVDs. Nope. All the other fans are wrong – Paradise Towers is brilliant. Well, I admit the final episode goes off the rails a bit, and not all of the guest stars’ acting is as impressive as the best, but it’s still a brilliant story: putting a traditional Doctor Who ‘ancient powers awakening’ tale into an ahead-of-contemporary urban setting, with a witty and inventive script. Plus, cookies! But be careful who you eat them with…

Revisitations 3: The Tomb of the Cybermen / The Three Doctors / The Robots of Death (starring Patrick Troughton / Jon Pertwee, with Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell / Tom Baker; out later in 2011)
The last of this year’s Special Edition reissues is a great improvement on Revisitations 2 – none of these stories are on the weak side. Though The Three Doctors is less impressive than the other two, that’s only because they’re among the best the series has ever produced. The Tomb of the Cybermen is the one I’m most excited about here: probably the definitive story for the steel giants, this really gets across what they’re about, and has been copied ever after. It sounds and looks fabulous, from location filming in a quarry that, for once, could pass for ancient Egypt, to the Tombs themselves, almost a temple to maths. As you’d guess from the title, this has a strong horror inspiration – but, most importantly, it’s probably Patrick Troughton’s best performance as the Doctor, and possibly the best by anyone. It’s the story that Matt Smith saw and decided Pat was The Man, and that bow ties were cool (though you can gloss over such elements as the sexism and yet more terrible American accents. Points for homoeroticism, though). The Three Doctors has more variable design, but many utterly loveable performances, and an operatic villain whose moment of despairing realisation clutches my heartstrings like no other – and finally, The Robots of Death is another masterpiece of design, with gorgeous décor and robots, a tightly twisted murder mystery (though don’t look too hard when you’re only meant to see a bit of the murderer) and a terrific script. Particularly if you’ve not bought these stories already, then, this is another must-have release.

The Sun Makers (starring Tom Baker; out later in 2011)
Like The Robots of Death, this stars Tom Baker as the Doctor and Louise Jameson as his skins-clad companion Leela, both terrific; this adds K9 to the mix to make one of the series’ most memorable line-ups, though has noticeably cheaper design. Another strong script from Robert Holmes, this is rather more shakily brought to the screen, but look out for Tom at his Tommiest, some entertainingly enormous villains, and most of all a story that attacks left, and right, and mostly sends up politics, business and having to fill out your tax return…

Day of the Daleks (starring Jon Pertwee; out later in 2011)
One of Doctor Who’s cleverest scripts about time travel – very Moffat, decades before he started talking timey-wimily – this skips between the Brigadier’s time and a much bleaker, Dalek-infested future, joined by interesting direction and rather lacklustre Daleks, whose numbers and vocal performances have always left much to be desired. So I’m looking forward to the cleaned-up original version being joined on a Special Edition disc (they’re not just for re-issues!) by a new version complete with supercharged Daleks. Will it be able to stop Pertwee sneering at MPs’ expenses and then drinking all the wine? Though I suspect that, in both versions, the most ambiguous character will still be fascinating, and the Doctor working out the big twist will still be stunning.
There's even an exciting trailer already available.

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