Saturday, 16 January 2010

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Complete Specials Boxset

Since Dr Who blasted back into our lives in 2005, each new series has made its way onto DVD (after a series of lucrative vanilla releases) in time for Christmas in big chunky boxsets which boasted the entire run of episodes, cut-down versions of BBC3's behind-the-scenes Confidential shows, commentaries and extra featurettes and bloopers. With no full series in 2009, just a run of 'special' episodes which finished on 1st January this year, the latest boxset, which collects together all those specials (two of which have already been released on DVD) along with a raft of extras, arrives as an early New Year gift for completists and casual fans alike. The packaging is as attractive as ever - a fat, beautifully-presented five-disc pack complete with a souvenir booklet (which includes a rather charming little narrative by one David MacDonald who imagines the tenth Doctor popping in back in time to speak to the eight year-old David Tennant and forewarn him of the best time he'll be having as an actor in his late thirties) - and includes an entertaining, if hardly comprehensive raft of extras aimed more at the new regular audience rather than the hardcore we-want-to-know-it-all-and-more fan crowd.

You know the episodes; Stuff covered them in detail at the time of broadcast. Either written or co-written by Russell T Davies these are five big, brash, barmy adventures which make you realise just how much Davies loves this show and also how much light and shade the series' other writers bring to the table and how much Dr Who needs variety in its writing if it's not to become samey and one-note. Which is not to say these episodes are at all one-note. Across five big ol' yarns we see the tenth Doctor having fun on his own, having eschewed human travelling companions after his recent losses (Rose, Martha, Donna) and deciding to just yomp about the Universe (well, the UK mainly) having a laugh. 'The Next Doctor', from Christmas 2008,sees a bunch of Cybermen in Victorian London construct a giant robot-machine but it's really all about teasing the audience with the mystery of Jackson Lake (David Morrissey), a man who calls himself 'the Doctor' and dresses the way people always imagine the Doctor dresses - frock coats, cravats, waistcoats. It has its moments but, like many of the festive episodes it's not the series at its best because (usually) Dr Who at Christmas is big and loud and fairly unsubtle, aimed at an apathetic turkey-bloated audience who just want to be entetrtained and excited. So it is here. Last Easter's 'Planet of the Dead' is another romp as the Doctor and Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) and a handful of London bus passengers see themselves transported across Space to a desert planet infested by swarming metallic stingray creatures. Breathless stuff, about as way over-the-top as the show can get, it's an exultant, triumphant episode (considering its difficult production circumstances) and in its last moments it paves the way for the darker stuff to come. In November's outstanding 'Waters of Mars' the Doctor Goes Too Far as he dares to tamper with Time itself. This is a dark, thrilling tale, yer typical base-under-seige story with some superb guest turns (Lindsey Coulson, Peter O'Brien) and creepy water-gushing possessed human/aliens. Davies has shown us he can do episodes as dark as the best of them - 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' from season four are pretty much jet black - and the edginess of 'Waters of Mars' (co-written by 'Sarah Jane Adventures' mainstay Phil Ford) is a welcome relief from the relentless cheeriness of the previous two tales. Tennant's two finale episodes 'The End Of Time' are still being debated amongst the cogniscenti (and probably will be for years to come) and whatever you think of them - I still think the whole story is by turns frustratingly-mad and joyously brilliant - it's worth the price of admission for John Simm's extraordinary performance as the Master and that achingly-sad last twenty minutes as the Doctor says a last goodbye to the friends he's made in his tenth body. Sob.

So to the extras. Those who buy the so-called 'classic series' DVDs (and Stuff will be doing a round-up of some of the best old releases from last year for no other reason than the fact I've now picked up most of 'em cheap online!) have been spoilt by the range and depth of documentaries and features created for the old shows. Literally no vintage stone is left unturned. The new series episodes take a more general, lightweight approach but what's here is good stuff, even if it leaves you feeling you could do with twice as much. All five episodes feature the full-length 'Confidentials' and 'The Next Doctor' also includes the BBC Dr Who Prom from 2008 (already available on the episode's DVD release). Discs four and five - 'The End Of Time' - are the ones the fans will be prising out of the box first. David Tennant has contributed a fascinating forty-minute 'Video Diary'; always a highlight of previous releases this gives a candid behind-the-scenes look at the show and whilst most of the footage here centres on Tennant returning to Cardiff after his nine-month break and the shooting of 'Planet of the Dead', we see the actor trying (and largely failing) to keep it together as his last day on set approaches. Equally enjoyable is the twenty-minute 'Dr Who at Comic Con' featurette which shows Tennant, Davies and executive producer Julie Gardner in Chicago for last year's big sci-fi gathering. The trio meet the Press and their fans at a well-attended stage presentation. Great stuff and, much as I'm hyped for the new series and the new Doctor, it's hard not to wonder how on Earth we'll manage without Tennant's good humour and Davies' sheer joy in the series and its success. We also get commentaries for the last two episodes,those cheesy but fun Christmas BBC1 idents and a handful of deleted/extended scenes cheerfully introduced by Davies.

So that's it, then, an era ended. The Complete Specials Boxset wraps it all up in some style and whilst the episodes aren't really the series at its strongest they're still better than virtually anything else on the box in the UK at the moment and, with its poignant rear-cover shot of the Doctor walking off into the television sunset, it's really pretty much as essential a purchase as the boxsets of the last four series have been - and fortunately it's also a good deal cheaper.

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