Friday, 13 February 2009

DVD Review: Dr Who Series 4 and The Trial of a Time Lord

Catching up with some recent BBC DVD releases from two rather different eras of Dr Who...

Released just in time to catch the Christmas 2008 market, this beautifully-presented six-disc boxset collects together all thirteen episodes from the most recent full series of Dr Who plus 2007's blockbuster Christmas special 'Voyage of the Damned' as well as the Children in Need mini-episode 'Time Crash' featuring the return of the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. Aimed more at the mass market general audience the show has nowadays rather than the more completist, narrower audience of the so-called 'classic series' releases, the new series boxsets have been packed with fluffy, colourful, 'everything's wonderful' special features whereas the DVDs from the old show have occasionally taken a more warts'n'all approach, especially when presenting material from the show's more contraversial 1980s period.

Series 4 of new Dr Who was probably the slickest and most accomplished series since the show triumphantly returned in 2005. The episodes have a scale and confidence about them, a real sense that here is a programme which can do anything and go anywhere, made by people who know they can do it and who know they've got a big audience out there ready and waiting. Oddly though, the fourth series took a few weeks to find its real form. The series recalled Catherine Tate to companion duties as Donna Noble after her debut appearance in 2007's Christmas episode 'The Runaway Bride.' In all fairness the hardcore fans and the general public were a bit wary of Catherine taking up residence aboard the TARDIS - I really can't resist saying they were a bit 'bovvered' at the prospect, no matter hard I try. Many critics, though - even ones who should have known better - had anticipated a seaon of the shrill, shrieking, ranting Donna Noble who the Doctor first met at the beginning of 'The Runaway Bride', choosing to ignore the fact that by the end of the episode Donna had been mellowed and chastened by her experiences with the Doctor and had become a rather more mature and contemplative character. This is the Donna who stepped back into the Doctor's life in 'Partners in Crime', the first episode of season four, this is the Donna that Russell T Davies and his team clearly felt had a lot of potential for development throughout an entire series. Davies' 'Partners in Crime' is a brilliantly-irreverent first episode, packed with the mad energy and razzle dazzle we've come to expect from season openers these days. Sniffy fans shudder at the sight of cute but deadly Adipose trotting along the streets and bursting out of human bodies and some even had problems with the wonderful repartee between the Doctor as he's reunited with Donna (their mime-show meeting is Dr Who comedy gold) but the episode is superbly-paced and beautifully-judged. It even has that amazing 'I've-just-fallen-off-my-seat' moment as Donna, full of excitement at rejoining the Doctor and finally getting the chance to take up that offer he made a year or so earlier, tells a blonde girl out on the street where her mum Sylvia can find the keys to the car she's abandoned in favour of a rather more unusual form of transport. The blonde girl turns to camera and it's Rose (Billie Piper), back from a parallel world and looking a bit worried. Along with an early reference to planets going missing, this is the first hint of this series' running theme and there are further hints threaded throughout the series and even the odd flash-frame of Rose showing up in the oddest of places.

It's a long time until we get anoother script by Davies and until then it's business as usual for the show with a run of solid, spectacular, enjoyable episodes, all of which have their moments but many of which, because they're not by Davies, just don't have that extra something he brings to the party. Despite the undoubted brilliance of new showunner Steven Moffat, I still worry about a series of Dr Who without any involvement from Davies. But that's for the future. 'Fires of Pompeii' and its mix of cutesy modern colloquilism and on-the-spot location filming in Rome boasts some incredible FX whereas 'Planet of the Ood' sees a second - and hopefully final - appearance by the spagehetti-faced slave race The Ood who first debuted in season two. It's a tough and visceral episode but, despite its homily about the evils of slavery and the importance of freedom blah blah blah it really left me as cold as the snowy wastes the TARDIS pitches up in. Helen Rayner's two-part Sontaran story could have been torn straight from the Jon Pertwee era with its pitched battles with UNIT soldiers and its military hardware but the story ultimately raises its stakes a bit too high - the Earth choking to death from carbon monoxide poisoning, the whole atmosphere on fire the burn off the fumes - and the new Sontaran masks and costumes, impressive as they are, still can't hold a candle to John Friedlander's 1973 original, still the best after all these years. But at least we've got our Martha back; Freema Agyeman, fresh from her three-episode stint on 'Torchwood' is back where she belongs and at the end of the story finds herself back aboard the TARDIS for one final trip which sends her to the war-torn planet Messaline where she, the Doctor and Donna meet 'The Doctor's Daughter'. Here's a high concept idea which really needed more than 45 minutes to do it justice; Stephen Greenhorn's ambitious script needs more room to breathe and, for a series which has now learnt to pride itself on its emotional maturity, it doesn't really get to the core of its drama - the Doctor coming to terms with the fact that he's a father, of sorts (albeit courtesy of a bit of sci-fi technobabble machinery) - but it does allow David Tennant to indulge himself with a bit of shouty moral high ground acting which he always seems to enjoy.

Moffat's back with his massively-imaginative two-parter 'Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead' which is packed with more spiffing SF ideas and plenty of scares - cannibalistic shadows, skulls in spacesuits, misshapen faces, yikes! - than ten whole seasons of 'Demons' (and let's not even dream of a world where such a terrible thing might be possible). Moffat's playing to his strengths and there are themes here we've seen in some of his earlier work in the series - salvation and redemption and not much death, scary catchphrases eminmently repeatable in the playground ("Hey! Who turned out the lights?") - but let's not worry about that here as I'm sure Moffat will have plenty more surprises up his sleeve when he gets a whole series or three to play with. Davies is back in 'Midnight' and he shows, almost effortlessly, that he can out-Moffat Moffat in the hair-standing-up-on-the-neck department. This is great stuff, virtually Dr Who-as-stage-play with the Doctor on his own (Donna's off sun-bathing) trapped in a vehicle travelling across the inhospitable surface of an alien planet while something nasty and invisible is trying to get in. Series-best performance by Tennant is matched word for word (literally|) by guest star Lesley Sharp, the UK's most under-rated actress - fact. Davies is on fire as we coast towards the end of the series and 'Turn Left' is one of those bold, format-breaking episodes we've come to expect. With Tennant taking time off, Tate handles an episode which weaves in four years worth of potentially-arcane recent Dr Who continuity in a story which tells the audience what might have happened to Donna - and to the world - if she'd made a very different decision two years previously and ended up never meeting the Doctor at all. Bold, cold, stark and terrifying (despite the plastic beetle) this is new Dr Who on top form.

So to the barking two-part series climax, very much a 'greatest hits' of the last four years as Davies delivers his final finale. The gang's (nearly) all here; the Doctor, Donna, Rose, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane Smith, Martha, Mickey (the idiot), Jackie Tyler,K9....and the Daleks,reunited with their evil creator Davros (brilliantly reimagined by Julian Bleech) in an insane story where Davies allows the Daleks to try to go one step further. They've always been determined to wipe out all non-Dalek life; now their game's raised - they want to destroy reality itself so that nothing exists except the Daleks. Forget the illogicality of it all, ignore the breathless scientific impossibility of it and just go along for the ride of a lifetime. Just as the audience has finished punching the air as the TARDIS tows earth back to its rightful place in space Davies goes and breaks our hearts again as the Doctor is forced to erase Donna's memory of him and all their exploits together for the sake of her own life and a tearful, rain-soaked Doctor trudges back to the TARDIS with the good wishes of Bernard Cribbins ringing in his ears, the last of the Time Lords on his own again. Sob.

Despite taking a few weeks to find its pacing, this is another monstrously boisterous, imaginative series of Dr Who. Catherine Tate's nay-sayers were silenced almost immediately (apart from the stubborn ones who were obviously lying and/or just being awkward) and David Tennant cemented his reputation as...yes, the best Dr Who of 'em all. I remain excited about what Matt Smith can bring to the series in 2010 but watching these episodes again just reminds me what a very tough act he's got to follow...

THE DVDs: Outstanding picture quality, of course, and 5.1 surround sound for those with speakers dotted all around their living rooms. Special features are copious if not hugely revealing. There are 2 15-minute David Tennant video diaries which are a bit like crashing a private party, such is the fun being had amongst the contributors, a nice clip-packed retrospective called 'The Journey (So Far)', deleted and extended scenes, commentaries, trailers and, most poignantly, the scenes filmed by actor Howard Attfield who plays Donna's Dad. Attfield died during filming so rather than recast Bernard Cribbins was recruited to film the scenes (brilliantly) as Donna'a Grandad Wilf. All in all it's another cracking boxset and one which I suspect will be well-worn as we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the next batch of episodes...

Bringing us crashing back down to Earth comes this lavish four-disc boxset of the much-maligned and, to be honest, rather tacky 23rd season of the original series. 'The Trial of a Time Lord' aired in 1986 as Dr Who emerged from its 18-month suspension. Now starring Colin Baker in a dreadful, multi-coloured clown's coat, the 14 episode series mirrors the show's predicament at the time - out of favour with both the public and the BBC, Dr Who the series was fighting for its life on TV. The production team (predominantly long-time producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward) rather foolishly opted to put the Doctor himself on trial much as his TV show was. The resulting 14 weeks unfolded as the Time Lords put the Doctor on trial for his casual interference in the cosmic order of things (which they'd already done in one episode in 1969) with the series being split into multi-episode stories which purported to be both prosecution and defence evidence. Unfortunately none of the four stories are particularly inspired, and they're certainly not stories which were ever likely to reignite the series' affections in the hearts of an audience now more interested in flashy Amnerican fare. Veteran writer Robert Holmes' first four-parter (referred to as 'The Mysterious Planet' but, anal fanboy I am, I can't call it that as it's not referred to on screen by that name!) boasts some decent writing, jokes and characterisation and some atmospheric outside OB filming but its tired tale of a devastated Earth moved across space does nothing we've not seen before done better a dozen times. A couple of clumsy robots trundle about the place and much has been made about the impressive space statiopn model sequence which opens the series but beyond that there's not much to recommend to the modern viewer more accustomed to the slicker offerings of the latest series.

The second story (some call in 'Mindwarp') is marginally worse. It's the story of the Mentors, slug-like aliens on the planet Thoros Beta and specifially Sil (Nabil Shaban) who popped up in the previous series (the one which got the series suspended - maybe not really a hugely clever idea to bring back a character from a season which almost caused the axe to fall on the whole thing!). Largely studio-bound (this from the days of the BBC's videotape studios) this one is characterised by lots of shouting from guest star Brian Blessed (ow, my ears) and some silly plot about brain transference. The story seemed to redeem itself by its brave narrative decision to brutally kill of the Doctor's whiney American pal Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant)...or so we thought.

Backstage problems led to Dr Who's worst ever writers (Pip and Jane Baker)being commissioned to write an Agatha Christie in space story for the next four-parter ('Terror of the Vervoids', apparently) and it's a tacky thing of not much beauty, as rude-looking alien plant-men wake up up and rampage about a cheap-looking space cruiser on board which, for some reason, is Honor Blackman slumming it a bit. Fianlly we have the last two episodes (''The Ultimate Foe' if you like) which runs entriely out of steam, brings back ho-hum bad guy The Master (Anthony Ainley) and ends up with a final episode written hastily when Pip and Jane Baker were drafted in to replace the script written by Eric Saward (writing from ideas from Robert holmes who passed away during production of the series) which Saward withheld when Nathan-Turner vetoed the season ending Saward had written which effectively ended the entire series.

Back in 1986, writing for the now-defunct 'Starburst' Magazine I tried to put on a brave face and find the strengths in this batch of desperate episodes. 23 years later and it's harder to find anything positive to say beyond the fact that it's a season which, like much archive TV, needs to be watched with an eye to its cultural positioning, with an awareness of how TV was made back then and, particularly in Dr Who's case, set against the background to the appallingly turbulent and unsuppoortive times it was in. But however you chose to view these episodes (if you chose to view them at all) you'll be hard-pressed to come away doing much more than shaking your head sadly and thanking your lucky stars that days like these are gone forever for Dr Who.

I hope...

THE DVDs: The episodes may be eminently forgettable but the 4 DVDs are packed with amongst the best extras I've seen on a Dr Who set. Best of all is disc 4's enthralling 55-minute 'Trials and Truibulations' documentary which rattles threough Colin Baker's era with particular emphasis on many of the questionable creative decisions of the era, from, Baker's costume, the scripts, the stories, the behind-the-scenes bally-hoo and shenanigans. There's some remarkable candour on display here as Saward has a gentle 'go' at last producer Nathan-Turner (represented by pertinent archive interview clips) and honest comments from the BBC's Jonathan Powell who virtually admits to having no real interest in the series and that the BBC at the time weren't really bothered about it any more. How times change! This fascinating, raw documentary itself is worth the price of the boxset (well, if you can get it cheap, that is) but each story has its own twenty-odd minute 'making of', deleted scenes, trailers, variable commentaries and other odds'n'sods including a feature on location filming for the season and lots of at-the-time TV coverage with extracts from news shows, chat shows, etc. Altogether a fascinating and compheneive time capsule of a very difficult time in the history of Who. It's a set that's recommended for its extras if not its episodes. And I didn't even mention Bonnie Langford...

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