I admitted when I went into the review for 'Doctor Who: The Complete Specials' that I had zero background, a newcomer who hadn't even taken the time to read up on the series, and what made it what it was, the relevance of the last few specials of David Tennant's turn as the iconic British sci-fi creation. I was left with a strong impression, and the desire to learn more, but the vast, vast history of the show, plus the fact that more than a few episodes have literally been lost to time (oh the irony), it was an abandoned thought before a month had passed. Hell, I couldn't even find a way to stream the 'Blink' episode I had heard so much about (which won more than a few awards and tons of praise), featuring the debut of the Weeping Angels, a supposedly creepy, creepy creation that was all sorts of win for a science fiction horror genre blend. I couldn't import the UK releases of the new season, as their video format (1080i/50 encodes) were incompatible with my players. I had to wait, and hope, to see a domestic release.
As much as I enjoyed Tennant's extended curtain call, as I have all his performances, the final minute of his last special offered a great point to jump into the series from, as like a phoenix, the Doctor regenerated, taking on the appearance very much like that Matt Smith guy, in his eleventh body. This first slate of episodes featuring Smith, called the fifth series (as Tennant had four seasons, in a sense, and those crazy Brits call years of these shows series), is a rare breed, a loving homage to the past, while at the same time a show capitalizing on recent successes, crafting a twisty, turvy affair across thirteen episodes, with one large story arc that allows for numerous standalone adventures to still work in the narrative flow.
As The Doctor regenerates from his most recent death, the TARDIS crashes to Earth, leading to a chance meeting with the lonely adolescent Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood). As The Doctor begins to work in his new personality and get familiar with himself anew, he promises to return that evening, to take the young lass along as his newest companion...only he doesn't. Instead, he shows up years later, where Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) has grown up to be a lovely young firecracker of a kissogram, who holds a slight bit of a grudge for his not following through on his promise (the fault of which was caused by the peculiar workings of the TARDIS itself). Despite outward appearances, The Doctor's return is Pond's dream come true, as the man she dismissed as an imaginary friend was back in her life, her own "Raggedy Doctor," only now it isn't like a dream. She has even run out the day before her wedding to spend time with her new friend.
As the pair adventure across time and space, a crack begins to trail them, like the worst kind of ex-girlfriend. You know, the kind that can end all existence. These cracks have been around Pond as long as she can remember, and played a pivotal role in the night she met her Doctor. Now they're removing anything that touches them from ever existing. A variety of creatures, some choice encounters with famous humans in their timelines, and a look at the future after Earth await, as does one of the deadliest pairings of foes in 'Doctor Who' history.
There is a wonderful, nostalgic charm to this first go round for Smith. Tennant's time as the Time Lord has left its mark, and the success found with the younger audiences is parlayed with the youngest Doctor in history doing his best to leave his mark on this amazingly successful, borderline legendary program. Smith is still Tennant-Lite, in my eyes, as he lacks the emotive capabilities of his predecessor, but he most certainly has the charm, charisma, and quirkiness of the 906 year old down pat. The only knowledge I had of Gillan going in to this series was that she was quite the looker, and while this much was very, very much true, she doesn't make for a bad companion. Heck, her companion, Rory (Arthur Darvill), isn't half bad, either, as the use of the character (somewhat sparingly) helps make his arc believable and enjoyable, keeping him as a complimentary piece rather than a headliner. Chemistry is great between the trio, and their interactions bring the majority of the laughs this time around.
The cheesy special effects aren't quite as chintzy this time around, but they're still often pretty cheap feeling. Creatures from 'Doctor Who' past get major makeovers with their appearances in this series, with the infamous Daleks receiving a rainbow reboot, and the lizardmen-esque Silurians going from Swamp-Things into real, believable, very well defined scaley creatures that don't have obvious seams. The TARDIS effects can be soft and sloppy, particularly in the revamped opening sequence, but the low budget effects are very much welcome and fun parts of this series.
This compilation of thirteen episodes is a bit uneven, as it reaches amazing heights early and often, but has some of the most boring, uninteresting sci-fi I've had to suffer through, despite my interest in the character. 'The Eleventh Hour,' the debut episode, is handled wonderfully, with tons of prolonged moments helping establish our new Doctor as he readjusts to his environment, and his instant chemistry with Amelia/Amy Pond, which plays like a wonderful fairy tale, of sorts, which The Doctor most certainly is akin to. The villain is somewhat lame, and the drama not so dramatic, but the highlight is the way characters are introduced, making them instantly empathetic and enjoyable.
'Victory of the Daleks,' the third episode, gives us Winston Churchill and the classic robotic fiends, with a new twist, as they're employed on the British side of World War II, against the Germans. It's quite fun to see killing machines acting like domesticated servants, and their lines of dialogue can be quite hilarious due to such. As the episode progresses, though, the show reminds you that this is 2010, as the classic robots are destroyed as newer, more dangerous versions are created. The fun, vintage sci-fi atmosphere is engrossing, almost suffocating.
'The Time of Angels' and 'Flesh and Stone' are, by far, the highlights of this series in my eyes. The Weeping Angel two part story is great, great sci-fi horror-lite, with the perfect amount of knowledge facing against mystery and the unknown, as this amazingly dangerous race of creatures show what makes them the best 'Doctor Who' villain as voted by fans. We get some serious creepy moments, a great pace, and some very scary, unsettling moments. Sadly, these are the only real bits of horror in this season. 'Amy's Choice' is a fun standalone, that has no bearing whatsoever on the main story arc, and a nefarious villain played by Toby Jones gives this mind twisting mystery some great thrills. It also foreshadows the upcoming events in the series quite nicely, something that one won't get the first time viewing the episode. We get some great comedy as The Doctor is stranded on Earth without his TARDIS in 'The Lodger,' which has a creepy feel, but never truly raises hairs due to its constant comedy beats and somewhat generic romantic subplot.
The only episode that comes close to the effectiveness of the Angels stories is found in the eighth episode this go-round, as 'Vincent and the Doctor' has Amy and The Doctor going back in time to help the greatest painter ever to live, Vincent van Gogh. The story is two toned, as an invisible beast provides the main plot developments, but the actions of the time travelers as they attempt to affect the emotional, sensitive failing artist are truly fascinating. The climax is an utterly heartbreaking, gut wrenching, tear jerker, a powerful punch that knocks the air right out of you, especially since the episode doesn't quite show it has that potential until it throws it on us and brings down the house. Guest spots from Bill Nighy and Tony Curran are eye catchers, but the excellent actors do great jobs, readily becoming their characters.
Not all is good, though. For all the great episodes, the few stinkers do leave a lingering presence. The two part Silurian story arc ('The Hungry Earth' and 'Cold Blood') is amazingly boring, despite having some very intelligent twists and evolutionary nods. 'The Beast Below,' the second episode this series, takes all the momentum from the first episode and undoes it, leaving us unsure what to expect the rest of the way: brilliance, or pointlessness. 'The Vampires of Venice,' though, may take the cake, as it takes our first time traveling moment with Rory, and turns the three way adventure into a ridiculous alien story that lacks drama in any fashion, rocking the Deus Ex Machina as no other episode can.
Steven Moffat and Matt Smith do create a positive, enjoyable experience with their first pairing, and nearly every one of their efforts is a success. Unfortunately, there are too many lulling moments and silly one shot characters that fail to create tension. Time travel is shown as both simplistic and amazingly complex, and the intricacies and paradoxes are engrossing. Still, you may wish you could travel back in time and remove the time spent on some of the lesser efforts. Fans of the series, both new and old, will have plenty to enjoy here, and may even forgive some of the shows shortcomings. After marathoning these thirteen episodes, I can say I can't wait to see what the next set of episodes will bring, and I know I won't be alone in this feeling. Flawed as it is, this will be a tough one to surpass, due to the great integration of the main plot across most of the episodes, and the complex pay off that comes with it.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series' arrives on Blu-ray across six BD50 Dual Layer discs, housed in an unusual package similar to the 'Torchwood' sets similarly released by BBC. The lenticular covered slipbox holds a book-like case, that has six page-like blue plastic trays that house the discs. It's not quite as attractive as the book-like packaging found in sets like the 'Alien Anthology,' but it's still very nice. The package also includes a few postcards, but due to the way the book has a two-fold cover, they constantly slip over and are in danger of being creased.
The pre-menu content across these releases is all skippable through the top menu button. Each of the first four discs have a unique trailer ('Torchwood' Seasons One and Two, 'Torchwood: Children of the Earth,' 'Hamlet' (2009, starring former Doctor David Tennant), and 'Sherlock: Season One'), and the first disc also has the annoying BBC trailer that I not-so-fondly refer to as the 'ello guv'nah trailer, which encourages viewers to see more BBC product. The menus themselves are archaic at best, and are far too reminiscent of the DVD era.
I will say that there is one massive flaw in this release that bugged the hell out of me, and it isn't one that is found throughout the release. Some of the chapter stops don't allow you to skip the opening credits without missing a minute or two of the show without rewinding.
'Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series' is given a series of VC-1 encodes at 1080i (in the 1.78:1 ratio) that are pure stunner, nearly perfect looking releases that prove that there is an i in win.
It's all about the details. The Doctor has never, ever looked this good, though to be fair, he was always filmed in SD until the most recent batch of specials, the last of Tennant's time in the role, making the jump after the first Christmas Special in the set. This Blu-ray release is breathtaking, with the most crisp, sharp, and gorgeous looking 1080i content I've seen yet on Blu-ray. Facial features are beyond phenomenal, and easily rank up near the top of the list in terms of the best available on disc, period. Sure, this is a good bad thing, as it was awesome to see the amazing character in people's faces, while it was not so good to see a peachfuzz-stache or random splotchy blemish concealer on the gorgeous Gillan. To be fair, the dry, chalky concealer did look quite amazing, borderline crackly, but it just ruined that fantasy in one fell swoop. Thanks, Blu-ray.
Skin tones are beautiful and natural, only tinted when the lighting in scenes wears heavy on everything. Stray hairs, the way they pop, they deserve their own paragraph, even if they're not getting it. They're exquisite! The depth in the picture is astonishing at times, and artifacting and crush are told to get out and stay out, never entering the picture for even a moment. Of course, when a single BD50 disc has only two episodes on it, it had better look outright amazing. I will say that I felt there was a tiny step backwards in overall quality on the discs that had three episodes rather than two, but it's not a major ordeal. Even they look pretty damn good!
This set does have a small assortment of minor nuisances. Some very slight aliasing can pop up, particularly in pans, which can even lightly flicker on a few spots. Some edges ring, though it isn't massive, and there's a few bands here and there that can be a little distracting. There is only the tiniest amount of soft shots, but in thirteen episodes, eventually there will be a misfire. BBC America has done their job on this release: astonishing this humble reviewer, presenting a striking picture that can placate even the most difficult to please.
This is why the star system doesn't always work. 'Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series' is a bi-polar audio experience, to be sure, flashing moments of superb clarity and amazing design alongside some of the most annoyingly difficult to comprehend scenes (and they're not short ones, either), making it a near impossible job to score fairly. Going in, with the first few episodes, I wanted to heap a strong four star score on the DTS-HD HR 5.1 tracks (that's HR, not Master Audio, remember that), as I could hear every word perfectly, never needed to adjust volume settings between action and dialogue sequences, and was really enjoying the overall design of the program and how well it kept the rear speakers busy with noises that weren't just put there to...make noise, basically. Bass levels would bump and thump, even if it wasn't all too powerful, and range and dynamics seemed top notch. Then it happened. Later in the series, starting around the half-way point in this release, when things got hectic, the audio just couldn't present a discernible experience. I lost more than my fair share of lines of dialogue beneath louder scores or ambient effects that were way too powerful, and I even gave up on a sequence that was longer than thirty seconds, since it was just a mess, like yelling at a DJ to turn that music down. The more this release went on, the lower the score I wanted to give it, as even room dynamics got questionable, and some of the effects seemed forced and tacked on (which really does fit the theme of the show. This isn't your average $300 million budgeted Michael Bay explosion-fest). After finishing this release in marathon fashion, I went from enthused and excited to tired and glad it was over. Those stars you see for this part of the disc? It doesn't matter what number of stars are shown here. This set sounds great one minute, awful the next, and there's no real way to show that with a sliding point scale.
Disc Two - 'Victory of the Daleks,' with Mark Gatiss, Barnaby Edwards, and Nicholas Briggs. This track is filled with too much meandering, but lots of fun conversation concerning one of The Doctor's more infamous foes. The discussion of voice acting and operating the mechanical monsters is by far the best part of this track, as the writing conversation gets rather boring quite fast. There is also a track for 'The Time of Angels, with Karen Gillan and Steven Moffat. Don't worry, that feedback clicking early in the track is part of the recording (their phone equipment), it's not your equipment, and they fix it in time for the title sequence. Moffat and Gillan are a fun and lively listen, constantly mocking continuity and having a ball, though the information about actress Alex Kingston somewhat disgusted me, if it was truth and not just sarcasm (with these two, it's hard to tell. They're quite believable, and it's one of the few moments they weren't laughing).
Disc Three - 'The Vampires of Venice,' with Alex Price, Toby Whithouse, and Jonny Campbell. These participants are fun listens, but really give us very little information beyond the basic background casting and location scouting. No real insight into the series, the characters, or themes of this season. As such, it's somewhat an odd duck here. Not a bad track, as it is quite enjoyable, but it's not up to snuff compared to the rest.
Disc Four - 'Cold Blood,' with Ashley Way, Alun Raglan, and James Dehaviland. It's interesting hearing that one participant's qualifications is the fact that he fell down a hole in the previous episode. These guys are actually quite informative, and a very good listen, a theme that keeps recurring with these commentaries. They're funny, fast, provide amazingly thick coverage, and spend most of their time talking about the Silurian creatures that are the focus of a two episode arc this Series.
Disc Five - 'Big Bang,' with Karen Gillan, Toby Haynes, and Arthur Darvill. My goodness, the worst track on this release. The duo of actors and the director are fast and frequent talkers, with great balance between participants, but they talk about hte most annoying, mundane, unnecessary stuff for the pivotal episode this series. Fans may enjoy it, but really, I found this one insufferable.
As for the "In Vision" portion of this extra, it's pretty damn lame. The participants are just sitting down, moving around and fidgeting as they watch the episodes they're talking over. There's no added visual footage, so this is really just really, really voyeuristic, that eventually drives you to watch the show rather than the participants, with a pop up box that takes up about 33% of the screen tall by 40% wide that never moves. Using this track will also disable your pop-up menu, so be warned. It would have been nice to have the option to turn off the video portion of the commentary, as it really wasn't necessary. It also would have been more than nice to feature, I don't know, MATT SMITH, the star of this series.
The Doctor is dead. Long live the Doctor.
While it is a shame I had to let go of David Tennant just when I got into his performance, Matt Smith is hardly chopped liver, and may have what it takes to have a nice long run as the titular character of the most successful sci-fi series of all time. This first arc of episodes for the new Doctor have a fun storyline, even though there are a few misfire episodes. This is still a great starting point for anyone interested in the series. I'm two box sets in, now and I'm already dying to see the next set of episodes. The Blu-ray release for this Fifth Series features astonishing video, annoying audio, and a healthy slate of extras, making it come with an easy recommendation, even though the current price point may be a bit much for a thirteen episode season.