Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Doctor Who DVDs 2012 Preview

With the “Classic” Doctor Who DVD collection hurtling towards completion in next year’s fiftieth anniversary year, most of the remaining stories are due out during 2012. There are long-awaited favourites; “missing” stories restored; others it made sense to leave ’til last. I’ll probably review several of them in detail later, but here to start with are single-paragraph summaries in which I reveal which are the most exciting (and which the… slightly less exciting) 2012 releases, and predict some as yet-unannounced releases*. Unconvincing Daleks! Unconvincing dinosaurs! The Master at his best! Billy’s big hat! Tom’s deadly jelly babies! Sylv’s hot arse!

The 2012 Doctor Who DVDs In Brief(ish)

The UNIT Files: Invasion of the Dinosaurs / The Android Invasion
(starring Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker; out since January)

Not the year’s strongest stories, but rather good DVDs with engaging and extensive extras, these two stories have much in common with each other – though neither is what you’d expect from the Doctor’s military chums in the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. In both, the Doctor’s already finished his exile to Earth and so is only dropping in; each has an “Invasion” title that rather gives the game away; each stars the great Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Yet only one has Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest this might be called the ‘UNIT Goes A Bit Iffy’ box set. Both stories have some superb location footage; both have uneven scripts (one a striking central story with quite a bit of politics but some pretty poor plotting, the other intriguing but often dumb); only one has the least convincing dinosaurs known to humanity. Well, I’ve warned you. And yet I have a massive soft spot for them both, and have been enjoying them hugely.
Try the DVD Coming Soon Trailer today!

The Sensorites
(starring William Hartnell; out since January)

Starring the original and best Doctor and from the end of the original and one of the best seasons, this is… Still a contender for the weakest release of the year. It’s not that the story is bad, exactly, as that the way it’s done is long, dull and the most aimed at rather dim and undemanding children that the series has ever been. Nearing the end of a nine-month-long first season, even the superb TARDIS crew look like they need a holiday (and one of them gets one. You can get a great suntan cooped up on a spaceship). Along the way, though, there are some nice pieces of design – both architecture and aliens that inspired the Ood – a few creepy moments and the series’ first steps from ‘monsters’ to aliens with individual characters. Very small steps. With very big feet. The extras are a bit light, but one of them’s fascinating, too (probably best to watch it before the current massive luxury overdose of the lovely-but-ubiquitous Toby Hadoke puts you off).
With another exciting DVD Coming Soon Trailer

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 since February)

This boxed set might well be the best release of the year, an absolute must-have purchase… At least, if you don’t have them already. Picture restoration techniques, DVD technology and expectations of extra features have all improved strikingly since the first Doctor Who DVD was released in 1999, 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. Like its two predecessors, this boxed set features three stories that may already be on your DVD shelves, and it’s a great improvement on last year’s Revisitations 2. Though The Three Doctors is less impressive than the other two, that’s largely because they’re among the best the series has ever produced. The Tomb of the Cybermen is probably the definitive story for the steel giants, really getting across what they’re about and 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 might gloss over many dated attitudes. And 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 superb story, a 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.
Ooh. Another DVD Coming Soon Trailer. Cool, but in just that one respect Revisitations 2’s was better.

The Face of Evil
(starring Tom Baker; out in March)

Next week’s DVD release completes Doctor Who’s best ever season (so far) on DVD and introduces Louise Jameson as bright, questioning, heretic action hero Leela – who too many people think was just a dumb savage, because they can’t see past her leather bikini. Slightly oddly, as with three of last year’s releases, this is coming out back-to-front: The Robots of Death and The Face of Evil are out in consecutive months and were indeed broadcast right next to each other, but they’re out in reverse order. Originally titled The Day God Went Mad, the story’s a particularly intelligent piece of sci-fi, with twists, political in-fighting and such a blatant religious theme that it must have been trying hard to get up Mrs Whitehouse’s nose (and end up climbing Tom’s), though also with considerable wit, including a strategically deployed jelly baby. The Doctor is cast as Satan, predating Mr Moffat’s ‘Doctor as mythical figure’ by several decades and, thankfully, much shorter. It’s just a shame that the design and direction aren’t nearly as impressive in the rest of the season…
And the latest DVD Coming Soon Trailer so far available; it still seems weird to have this on The Robot of Death for the story before it…

The Dæmons
(starring Jon Pertwee; out in March)

Surely the most anticipated release of the year and possibly the best, this is an iconic story of the Doctor fighting the Master’s plan to raise the Devil (or is it?) in an archetypal English village. The religion / science story isn’t as intelligent as The Face of Evil (and has a famously wobbly ending), but it looks an awful lot better and the characters are much more memorable. Unfortunately, the Doctor is mainly memorable in this one for being a patronising git, so it’s easy to warm to the Master (Pertwee is far more likeable in the two new releases out already). Terrific cliffhangers, a bit of TV satire, a much more cosily familiar use of UNIT than either of The UNIT Files… I admit I’m looking forward to it. The only thing I can’t understand is the timing: after courting controversy by releasing last year’s terrorism-themed Day of the Daleks on September 12th because that was the exact date on which it was set (though no-one noticed, still less took offence), why not release this Beltane tale on April 30th?

Nightmare of Eden
(starring Tom Baker; out in April)

The 2012 release most likely to split fan opinion – and I’m on its side. A script from an Oscar winner, hilariously, has many strong ideas and some grim reality (if overdoing its ‘Drugs are BAD!’ message), with many fewer laughs than you’d expect from this 1979 season with Douglas Adams in charge of the writers. The images are more of a mix, from some striking spaceships to over-lovable monsters, while the acting is… Variable. No, scratch that: Tom Baker is variable (with some outstanding moments but one scene infamous and another on which he’s previously been recorded laughing and telling the camera, “But it was funny, wasn’t it?”); most of the others are just bad, with the notable exception of David Daker, who gets a priceless scene watching TV. Romana seems overwhelmed by her hideous frock, but K9 has plenty to do. Still, don’t let that put you off…

There’s a possibility that the final story planned for that season, the Cambridge-set famous ‘unfinished’ Shada by Douglas Adams – unfinished, surprisingly, not because he didn’t finish the script in time but because of strikes at the BBC – may be released, completed in some way or other, later in the year as part of a Doctor Who – The Legacy box set. Or that may be next year. I admit I’ve never warmed to Shada, thinking it probably Mr Adams’ weakest work, but I’m hoping I’ll change my mind when there’s more of it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Gareth Roberts’ decades-delayed novelisation of it next month.

Ace Adventures: Dragonfire / The Happiness Patrol
(starring Sylvester McCoy; out in May)

Did I say that Nightmare of Eden was the release most likely to split fan opinion? How quickly I’m proved wrong. Sophie Aldred’s Ace is a popular companion, but these two of her stories (one introducing her) have more controversial reputations. For me, Dragonfire is the more mixed of the two, with great villains – and terrible bit-part actors; feeble sets – and a spectacular special effect; and a tone that veers wildly from film noir sex to ineffectively macho ’80s. The Happiness Patrol, with its high politics, high camp and sweet villain, is either loved or hated. I love it, and it’s one of Sylvester’s most marvellous performances. The question is, will they include the more-than-twenty-years-later Newsnight ‘scoop’ from last year that it didn’t like Mrs Thatcher?

Death to the Daleks
(starring Jon Pertwee; out in June)

It has been observed among Doctor Who fans that any story with “Time” in the title is a stinker, and though that’s a catty and unfair generalisation, it’s usually true. I’d add the presence of the word “To”, after which every story seems to give up all hope (the execrable ‘radio’ adventure Death Comes To Time seems to prove both effects). The most tired story of Doctor Who’s most tired season, this is another obvious contender for the weakest release of the year, and arguably the worst Dalek story (when I reviewed every Dalek story a couple of years ago, there were three or four in with a shot at that. Though I still picked this one). It’s also probably the story that treats Sarah Jane Smith least well. And as for the music… Yet even the feeblest of Doctor Who stories has much to enjoy in it, with some interesting ideas under the mud: ancient alien cultures falling to dust; an elegiac ending; religious maniacs determined to wipe out their non-conformist naturist cousins (the ones who looked so thrillingly like living rock when I first saw their photos in The Doctor Who Monster Book as a kid). Nick Briggs loves it, bless him.

The Reign of Terror
(starring William Hartnell; probably out later in 2012)

The rest of the DVD schedule for the year hasn’t yet been announced, though this one’s been given as very likely; at the least, there are bound to be several more releases when the series returns in the Autumn, as the DVDs sell more copies when Doctor Who’s on the telly. But while the continuing Who stories 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 many requiring time-consuming restoration work before they can be released and some no longer even existing on video. So if you’ve ever wondered why the “Classic” Who DVD range isn’t released in sequential order, this is a prime example. It’ll have some Doctor Who that I’ve never seen before – that no-one has seen before. Because a third of The Reign of Terror was among those episodes the BBC call “missing” and that other people call ‘the ones the BBC had burnt before they realised they could make money out of them’. Fortunately, the soundtrack still exists for every story, and this release will include all-new animation to match it on the “missing” parts. The Doctor lands in revolutionary France and struts about loving it in a massive hat; his companions have rather a rougher time, involving gaol, the guillotine and, worst of all, being chatted up. But, basically, Bill Hartnell is fabulous in this, not least crossing wits with the enigmatically sinister Lemaitre (the series’ first character with that name and, no, it’s not him yet) and – this will be one of the ‘new’ bits I’m looking forward to – Robespierre, as well as giving the rather lovely closing monologue that finishes the first season.

The Greatest Show In the Galaxy
(starring Sylvester McCoy; probably out later in 2012)

This will be a milestone in the DVD range – with this, every story from the ’80s will be available to buy. It’s rather good, with both this Doctor’s and Ace’s performances strong (I’d say it’s a better part for her than either of the “Ace Adventures”, and he gets arguably his coolest moment – which, ironically, involves his arse being on fire). Shot entirely on location, by accident and then clever design, it has many ideas, impressive guest stars and a striking look. I like the theme of the hippy dream turned sour; I enjoy the pokes at the ’80s and the enforcement of ‘family values’; I marvel at the pre-emptive strike on The X-Factor. But I don’t like the ending at all, and I’m the one person on Earth who prefers the same author’s Paradise Towers. Still, if you want to see the show’s real target, just imagine if they’d cast Jon Pertwee instead of TP McKenna…

Vengeance On Varos
(starring Colin Baker; probably out later in 2012)

Another “Special Edition”, this is a sort of Revisitations Three and a Half (though I’d have swapped it with The Three Doctors, personally, both to balance the decades and because that story’s more likely to sell more on its own). It’s one of Colin Baker’s best stories, and another that presciently swipes at reality TV – as well as introducing possibly ’80s Doctor Who’s most memorable villain, Nabil Shaban as gurgling slimy alien Sil. Martin Jarvis is excellent as a suffering politician; Jason Connery is… pretty, half-naked; few of the other actors are worth bothering with. It starts a bit slowly, and for an ’80s story about the corrupting influence of big business and the powerlessness of the ordinary person against market forces, the ending doesn’t have a clue about supply and demand. Still, ‘Press the red button to electrocute the Prime Minister’ might catch on…

The Krotons
(starring Patrick Troughton; probably out later in 2012)

The first story from Doctor Who’s greatest writer; outstanding chemistry between the three regular leads (and more chemistry later); guest-starring the mighty Philip Madoc. Pity it’s not very good. Cheaply made even by Doctor Who standards of the time and with infamously unimpressive monsters (to show how ’60s they are, they have mini-skirts and do acid, but neither fetchingly), much of the characterisation is poor and many of the actors worse. On the bright side, the sound design’s good, one of the other guest actors is much more lively than he was in The Reign of Terror, and the Doctor gets a fabulous scene making a mess of standardised testing.

Planet of Giants
(starring William Hartnell; probably out later in 2012)

Visually ambitious though rather banally plotted, this started Doctor Who’s second season and, comparing it with the first, you’re now left in no doubt that the Doctor’s the unmistakeable star, taking all the actions and having all the ideas, while Ian is staggeringly slow and unobservant and Barbara just gets to… come over all faint. The latter two are a shame, but I can’t resist Bill Hartnell taking such delight in his arson around. It’s described as an early ecological fable, but really that’s just a hook to hang the ‘giants’ on; the giant fly’s the high point. Still, I may find myself re-evaluating it; of all the completely existing Doctor Who stories, it’s probably the one I’ve watched least often, and I suspect it may be similarly obscure to many other fans – with the video release long ago deleted, this is the only Who story of the ’60s that you can’t get hold of in the shops today, with all the others out on DVD, CD (notably for the “missing” story soundtracks), or both.

The Ambassadors of Death
(starring Jon Pertwee; probably out later in 2012)

This story was originally planned for release last year, but delayed for more restoration work; while every Jon Pertwee story still exists in full, they don’t all exist in their original full colour, and this is one of the worst-hit. Apparently, though, the colour restoration is now going rather well, so I’m hoping to see it by the end of the year. While two of this year’s Pertwee releases are from his last and most lacklustre year, The Ambassadors of Death would complete his first and by far his best – uniquely, set entirely on Earth (even if two of the stories suggest in their different ways that it may not be Earth), this is the nearest we get to adventures in space, as the Doctor makes a brief rocket trip. It’s long, strange, but exciting, packed with intriguing characters and thrilling mini-adventures, far more episodic than usual, and ahead of the ’70s fashion for conspiracy thrillers. It’ll probably be the fourth or fifth story released this year to feature its own TV-show-within-a-TV-show (and they’re all good), as well as at least the second to nick major set-pieces shamelessly from The Avengers. A splendid story to finish the year with. If indeed it does.

*Having already got some wrong, as it turns out we’ll have to wait until 2013 for the newly-discovered episodes.

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"I’m the one person on Earth who prefers the same author’s Paradise Towers."

No you're not. Also, I'm a fan of the Happiness Patrol. And Day of the Daleks too. I can't decide if I'm more excited about The Daemons or the new Vengeance on Varos, though. Does VoV have a new commentary? Because I'm a big fan of the old one, but that would be kind of cool.

And I know there is a dedicated (and quite right) band of Happiness followers (and many more for Day). I really ought to review that one - I've got a good photo for it...

No idea about the new VaM on VoV, except that there will be some, as the release is confirmed; though I've not previously been over-excited by The Reign of Terror, I have to admit I'm thrilled at the thought of its forthcoming cartoony goodness.
The one annoying thing about those Revisitations box sets is that they delete the old DVD versions of those stories when they come out -- which is really annoying to me because they're *always* a collection f two stories I already have on DVD plus one I haven't got round to yet - I have Talons and Androzani but not Grace: 1999, and likewise I have Seeds Of Death and Resurrection but not yet Carnival Of Monsters.

This time, however, I beat them. They released two I'd bought on DVD before (Three Doctors and Tomb) and one I'd not got round to (Robots) *but I'd lost my copy of The Three Doctors when our bags went missing in the US last year*, so I win for a change.

(Although Amazon are selling the boxes for not much more than an individual new-release DVD anyway)
You can't quite call Bob Baker an Oscar winner. He co-wrote the scripts of Oscar-winning films, but it wasnt the scripts that won it per se. Anyway, 'Nightmare of Eden' is far from being the Marmite story you claim. I and several people I know use it as the precise mid-point. I go a bit further and assess any story by asking 'would I rather be watching 'Nightmare of Eden?' Nothing with Matt Smith in has yet bobbed above this Plimsoll Line of watchability or ingenuity. 'The Sensorites' does. Yes, Lewis Fiander seems to be channelling Dr Doofenschmirtz (making the army of Platypus-monsters that bit mor prophetic) but it's nowhere near as tired as last year's efforts. And do you really think the design on 'Face of Evil' is less good than 'Hand of Fear' or the grotty-looking Gallifrey with purple fur throws and corridors that look like a giant Grundig cassette player?
I think it's fair to include a script in part of the victory of a Best Picture, surely? Besides, it's funnier that way.

I accept that Nightmare of Eden isn't Marmite to you - I don't think I have a "precise mid-point" yardstick, but that's an intriguing idea. Does that mean you end up watching Nightmare of Eden a lot? And if even The Sensorites bobs up past it, are there any this year (aside from the new ones) that wouldn't?

I've still read a lot of people either praising or damning it specifically, though, and - less specifically - as part of Season 17, which to many is still a battlefield of 'the year it got too silly' / 'the last year of proper Who' (yes, readers, it's not just when Matt Smith / Russell T Davies took over. Fans have been creating dividing lines for decades). So I still think, looking at the other options on offer above, it's likely to be something of a Marmite option - though less so than The Happiness Patrol. Would you pick any of the above as Marmites above those two?
And do you really think the design on 'Face of Evil' is less good than 'Hand of Fear' or the grotty-looking Gallifrey with purple fur throws and corridors that look like a giant Grundig cassette player?

I think The Deadly Assassin's design is outstanding, whether it's Gallifrey's techno-medieval cathedral with its strange, dark spaces or the Time Lord robes that have lasted ever since; The Hand of Fear's more complicated, because much of the success of its look is from location shooting and functional sets that follow on from that. I think a lot of the Kastrian sets are pretty ropey, but at least they only arrive in Part Four (similarly, one Eldrad looks as good as her performance, while the other...).

The Face of Evil, though, doesn't really convince me from the off to look at, whether it's pasty, scrawny actors being an outdoor tribe (though with better-designed outfits than the Tesh, who always look a bit silly to me) or a forest that wants to pull off the same trick as Planet of Evil, but for me really doesn't (and not just because of the hoover attachments dangling among the trees). I'm not saying it's all bad - the spaceship interior's all right, though the spacesuit's bloody awful, while Xoanon's sanctum is a simple idea done very memorably (even there, though, they mess up the visual effects).

I suspect I'd overlook more of it if it weren't for the director, who's good with actors but really hasn't mastered visual storytelling at this point, if he ever did (it's difficult to think of a more confused mess than the 'attack on the Wall'). For me, the overall effect - despite the outstanding script - is the only one of the season that just doesn't look very good. But I've not watched it for a while; perhaps it'll grow on me on Monday...
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