I'm ashamed to admit that I'm a newcomer to the longest-running science fiction series in history, 'Doctor Who.' Created eighteen years before I was, with countless episodes and specials made from its inception on to the current day, it almost seems like I was avoiding it, all things considered. Until now, if you had asked me, "What is a TARDIS?" my response would probably have been less than politically correct. With a new actor playing the titular Time Lord every few years, the show reinvents itself, yet maintains basic themes and creatures and situations that appeal to existing fans, spawning wave after wave of new fans, furthering the fact that there was no excuse for my lack of experience with the good Doctor.
The Doctor's debut on Blu-ray happened a few months back, when 'Planet of the Dead,' the first high def filmed special bowed, possibly to gauge interest. It must have met expectations, as the new collection ('Doctor Who: The Complete Specials') has now been released. This release is comprised of the specials that aired from Christmas day 2008 on to the last special with the current Doctor, David Tennant. All of the specials are being released individually, as well, save for the first, which was the last 'Doctor Who' special to be made in standard definition. I won't bore you any longer, so on with the details!
'The Next Doctor' (4/5) - The Doctor arrives in London on December 24, 1851, and immediately stumbles across another man claiming to be The Doctor (David Morrissey), as well as a burgeoning Cybermen infestation. While hiding his true identity from this new hero, it is up to The Doctor to discover what plot is afoot, and find out what link it may have to the memory loss of his newfound companion. Danger lurks around every corner, as the Cybermen and their leader, Miss Mercy Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan), are ratcheting up their plans for a very hostile takeover.
I must be blessed, as I had the impending sense of doom going in to a series so late, with no knowledge of the program (or its spin-off 'Torchwood'). I felt as though 'The Next Doctor' held me by the hand for the first few segments, guiding me along, getting me up to speed on what to expect from the program and its protagonist, then set me free to discover what lies ahead. The show may be catered to existing audiences all too familiar with the proceedings, and I'm more than certain devoted audiences would find much more to voice enjoyment or dismay over, but from this newfound instant fan, it was an enjoyable hoot.
'The Next Doctor' is crafted quite fantastically, with Tennant's wild expressions and mannerisms being countered nicely by Morrissey's straight read. It's easy to fall in love with The Doctor just for his quirk and charm, but add in the dash of heroism and intelligence, and it's an enjoyable callback to science fiction of old, where story reigned supreme over special effects glitz and glamor (or glamour). Not all is well, though, as the background acting can range from bad to awful, particularly in Kirwan, who hams the place up like it's a turkey-free Thanksgiving. Sure, I understand that camp may be a part of the series, and I'm open to more than a fair amount of hamminess, but she's so over the top that her scenes border on unwatchable. Acting alongside "robots" should draw the viewers eyes to you, not make them appreciate the fine performance of the Cyberman two in from the left.
'Planet of the Dead' (2/5) - "You named a unit of measure after...yourself?!"
It was somewhat funny the vibe I got watching 'Planet of the Dead.' On one hand, it's a science-heavy hypothetical adventure with looming crisis, plenty of fun characters, and some hilariously bad special effects and alien outfits, which would put even some of the cantina patrons in 'Star Wars' to shame with their nearly solid, immobile head constructs. On the other hand, It's just poorly done in nearly every aspect.
When a double decker bus containing The Doctor and a cat burglar (Michelle Ryan), along with a few other random riders, falls into a wormhole and is sent to the desert planet San Helios with no logical or feasible return route, it's up to the group of strangers to band together and return home, and, at the same time, save the Earth from a swarm of metallic destructive aliens who resemble stingrays.
There just isn't much to like from what is given, despite the massive possibilities and potential. Tennant is more a flailing buffoon with all the answers than he is in 'The Next Doctor,' and is nowhere near as likable, while Ryan is abysmal in her role as Lady Christina de Souza. The opening scenes containing her had potential, but her chemistry with the leading man of the show was flat awful, to the point I felt she were channeling the (lack of) acting prowess of Heather Graham. The inclusion of a passenger who is psychic is an entirely unnecessary development, meant to foreshadow the coming to an end of this Doctor's time, but every other scene with her, or the other passengers, was painful due to the poor performances. The characters are enjoyable, but with third rate (if even that) acting, they're quite aggravating. The story is also a tad too predictable, with no real tension, despite the constant build up. The entire special feels thrown together on a lark, just to get by and appease fans until a better special is made.
'The Waters of Mars ' (5/5) - "State your name, rank, and intention."
"The Doctor. Doctor. Fun."
After failing miserably in the previous special, 'Doctor Who' is back with one hell of a bang, with an absolutely riveting and breathtaking tale in 'The Waters of Mars.' I let my guard down, considering how much 'Planet of the Dead' disappointed me, and lowered my expectations, only to be blown out of the water with probably the best story I've ever seen told in just one full hour. It's deep, rich, tense, thought provoking, emotion evoking, and balls to the wall amazing.
The Doctor arrives on Mars on November 21, 2059, and is quickly taken into custody by the first group of Mars settlers on Bowie Base One. Once the confusion settles (somewhat), The Doctor realizes what he is about to witness, when he is about to witness: a crucial point in the history of mankind, a tragedy that will inspire future generations to great acts of courage. Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) heads her team of scientists in trying to prevent a growing anomaly, as her crew begins turning into vile creatures with severe water-based powers. But can The Doctor change the fate of all of mankind by changing the fate of the remaining colonists?
If that 5/5 score isn't evidence enough, I'll say it again, 'The Waters of Mars' utterly blew me away. The outbreak may be somewhat generic, but the time-traveling twist on the situation, with historic repercussions, simply makes the tale. It's like Marty McFly meets Bub ('Day of the Dead'), with unpredictable results and responsibilities. The complexities of his predicament are well played by Tennant, who shows a human side exceeding any of the colonists, having to juggle his own safety with that of the damned people he read about in the past. Brooke has the responsibility of the safety and survival of her crew, whilst juggling the curious Doctor and his somewhat prophetic ramblings and carrying ons. The supporting cast is there to rack up a body count, but the battle of the minds and wits put on display between the two leads is an ethical dilemma that plays out beautifully in just a brief amount of time, with a pitch perfect pace, growing tension (though knowing the titles and outcome of the next two specials does tone down the tension in concerns to The Doctor's survival), and a fantastic peak at what is to come by the emotional state of our hero, and his growing hubris. Even better yet, the dilemma, while a bit of a stretch, is based on the most powerful force that gets no respect for its creative and destructive capabilities: water. While I'm certain the ending (featuring a character named Ood Sigma, who I have no bloody fucking clue about) would be even more fitting if I were a hardcore 'Who' fanatic, I cannot imagine I could have enjoyed this special any more than I already did, as I cannot find one fault in the story arc, acting, or direction of this simplistic, surrealistic science fiction story. This is one for the ages.
'The End of Time, Parts One (3/5) and Two' (3/5) - This two part special is the end of the end (as the beginning of the end was told in 'Planet of the Dead'), not so much the end of the entire Doctor Who tale, but that of its Tenth Doctor.
Part One, the 2009 Christmas special, sets the final arc in motion. The Master, Harold Saxon (John Simm), has returned. The entire world is having nightmares it cannot remember. Old friends (Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, Catherine Tate as Donna Noble) have returned, whilst a new power (David Harewood as Joshua Naismith) has opened the gates of change. The Doctor is in remorse for his lack of responsible keeping following the events of 'The Waters of Mars,' but will have renewed vigor and purpose as his greatest threat looms.
Part Two continues where Part One of 'The End of Time' left off. The entire world seems awful uniform, save for a handful of unfortunates. This is the day the Time Lords returned, and The Doctor must confront The Master, and the Lords, led by The President (Timothy Dalton). There will be four knocks that lead to the passing of the Tenth Doctor, but who or what is knocking is to be revealed, and what little time is left must be put to good use.
Part One of this two part feature was far too heavy in exposition, and too light in payoff, as the show obviously saves the goodies for the program that would air the next week to deliver all of the payoffs. In particular, the discussion of President Obama delivering the end of the recession was distracting, peculiar, and awful, a completely unnecessary element in the story's narrative. We don't need to know the state of financial and economical affairs in what may be the final days of mankind. Really, it doesn't matter. Every line about Obama, every second with a body double, they take away time from the main plot, the conflict between a returned villain and the hero meant to stop him. Tennant and his role as The Doctor plays such a minor, irrelevant role in his next to last appearance in the program, that it feels like some awful apocalyptic tale best left for the likes of Roland Emmerich, rather than Doctor Who.
Part Two has the unfortunate duty of wrapping up loose ends on top of delivering a finale worthy of the character and actor, all within 72 minutes. This daunting task is a nearly impossible chore, and reminded me much of the absolute cluster fuck that was the montage of loose ends being closed in 'Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.' There is too much to do, and not enough to do it in. The finale of the 'The End of Time' portion of the episode is hardly overpowering, and is somewhat a whimper, but that is where this story begins. The situation The Doctor is put in is fairly heartbreaking, if not predictable. You see it coming a mile away once the pieces are in place, but the manner in which it happens is one viewers would be hard pressed to see coming from the start of the two part special. The remainder of the program is more a bit of fan-service, as past characters and story lines are given brief nods and closure, as they will play no part in the future, what with a new Doctor and all... It is somewhat difficult to find the finale emotional, considering my lack of Doctor Who experience, but those who have followed the run of the Tenth Doctor may find it moving. And once things are said and done, to conclude the series of specials, we get a short glimpse of the Eleventh Doctor, as played by Matt Smith. 'Doctor Who' isn't going away any time soon, it's just the the run played by the enigmatic Tennant has had its curtain call.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Doctor Who: The Complete Specials' arrives on Blu-ray from BBC Video in a five disc edition, with each disc featuring an individual special. Each disc is a BD50 dual layer disc. The packaging features a foiled slide out box, with a four part gatefold disc box, which also includes an episode guide booklet that breaks down each special by chapter break and lists the extras, and includes a foreword from David Tennant, The Doctor himself. Lastly, this disc is reportedly region free, and will play on any Blu-ray player...not that it matters all that much, considering the set was released in Europe.
While the latter four entries in this box set are somewhat uniform in presentation quality, 'The Next Doctor,' the first in the series, somewhat begins on the wrong foot, with an upconvert that screams of one word, and one word alone: FAIL. There is a reason why each of the other four discs are released individually on Blu-ray, with this feature nowhere to be found, save for the original DVD release.
'The Next Doctor' upconvert is superior to the upconvert found on the 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas' Blu-ray, but that isn't exactly saying much. The rundown: Aliasing is often present, often annoying. Black levels are utterly unresolved, while delineation is seemingly more out of place in 1851 London than the Cybermen (in other words, bad, very very bad). Contrast levels are unpleasant and pathetic, the picture is entirely flat, and there is often an undefined blur in moments of movement. Whites are a tad hot, there's a bit of faint blocking, skin tones are varied (from somewhat splotchy, to full on crimson or orange, as the lighting in this feature wears heavy on skin tones), soft shots are abundant, and to top it all off, a nice light bit of ringing is beyond evident.
'Doctor Who' began airing in 1080i beginning with 'Planet of the Dead,' so each of the latter four specials look much improved compared to 'The Next Doctor.' The video can still be a bit jerky and stuttered, while pans remain particularly nightmarish. Still, movement is much, much more natural. Fine object detail receives a fantastic boost, while soft shots are diminished in quantity and duration dramatically. Ringing is also much less noticeable, though still present at times. Other video aspects that remain present, just to a lesser extent, include aliasing (though it is extremely apparent in the dark settings of 'The Waters of Mars'), and shadow definition. Colors are bolder, and hold up quite well, with a varying smattering of themes for which they adapt in brighter and duller tone. Skin tones can run orange a bit too often for my tastes, though. CG effects have a light pulse at times, and can stand out from their surroundings very distractingly, just as characters do from time to time. Grain levels vary lightly, but not to the point it draws the eye. There's a few slip ups here and there, but all in all, a perfectly acceptable set of transfers, considering the source, that are not to be dismissed due to the fact that they cannot compare to bigger budgeted modern fare.
While the video transitions in this set (much like in the 20th season of 'The Simpsons,' though with much less obviousness), the audio remains a constant, with a set of five DTS-HD HR 5.1 mixes. That's HR for High Resolution (not Human Resources), not MA for Master Audio.
What we get from these specials is uniform, both in strength and weakness. That's a good/bad thing, as the strengths you hear, you can look forward to hearing again, but the moments of utter failure come back to haunt the experience as well. The biggest problem in this release has to be dialogue clarity. For the majority of the show, every line is pitch perfect and crystal clear, understandable for even this dumb yankee, but when the score picks up, there are entire minutes that get lost in the shuffle, utterly drowned out and indiscernible even with rewinding and replaying a moment. It is utterly frustrating and an absolute shame, as the dialogue of the show is often so witty that it negates the absolutely ridiculous sets and props. This happens far too often to dismiss, sadly.
Movement through channels isn't all that apparent, but localized effects are somewhat constant, with clean cuts and noises in random channels firing off frequently, filling the room nicely along with the score from all angles. Bass levels are pleasant, though hardly show stopping (one moment is utterly awesome, with a bass drop that feels like it delves into the catacombs of one's soul, ever so briefly). Dynamic range is one of two portions of the audio that isn't a constant, as some episodes have supreme range, while others are stuck in gear, meddling in the middle, with no capabilities to spread their wings. The other inconsistent element is the amount of liveliness per episode, which is hardly a fault of the mixes but rather the original recordings, as some episodes feel somewhat stale and ho-hum, while others are boisterous. The audio for this release is solid, but it could have been better.
The list of extras may seem a bit short, but they make up for it with quality of content and length. Each special has a full length feature discussing it and its roots, and a few have extras atop these extensive 'Doctor Who' Confidentials.
Disc 1 - 'The Next Doctor'
Disc 2 - 'Planet of the Dead'
Disc 3 - 'The Waters of Mars'
Disc 4 - 'The End of Time, Part One'
Disc 5 - 'The End of Time, Part Two'
Call me sheltered, call me crazy, hell, even call me Shirley (something Leslie Nielsen isn't a fan of), but before this box set, I had zero experience with any incarnation of 'Doctor Who.' Thank goodness for this job opening new doors and providing opportunities to sample the previously unexperienced world of television and cinema to someone like myself, as I was made an instant fan of the program, even if there were some severe ups and downs in this set of five specials. The video and audio qualities of this release aren't show stoppers, but they get the job done nicely, and the extras may look small, but it's easy to underestimate them (somewhat reminiscent of the supplements for 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Complete First Season'). Fans of the show will get much more enjoyment from these final five specials than newcomers, so they get an easy recommendation. Newcomers should give it a look, but they may not like what they see. I sure as hell did, and am on my way now to finding myself a set of the spin-off 'Torchwood' on Blu-ray.