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Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
February 15, 2010

It’s long been said that your favorite Doctor is the one you first watched. For many Americans of a certain generation, that was Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, whose run from 1974 – 1981 was the longest and most commonly shown in the U.S. I first saw him in the role when I lived in England during the 70s, but he wasn’t my favorite. That was Peter Davison, the first time around, and then it was David Tennant, the star featured here.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials cover
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
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Christopher Eccleston did a magnificent job reinventing the role for the modern age in 2005, but Tennant was the one who fleshed out the role with humor and passion and sadness. Unfortunately, he only did three series, and then this last set of four specials. Frankly, by this point, I’d lost some of my interest in the show. I missed seeing it every week, once it had switched to a special every season. I missed the companions (and while I appreciated the different, non-romantic take with Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, I found her a bit grating), and I didn’t know how they could keep making things bigger and bigger with season-ending universe-saving.

For the first disc in this set of five, containing The Next Doctor, they went a different way. It’s set during a Victorian Christmas in which the Cybermen are invading. The title character, played by David Morrissey, is hinted at being a time-lost future regeneration of the Doctor, but his real story is much smaller and sadder. I also found it a bit cutesy in the way it tweaks the audience, with Morrissey’s dark-skinned companion (reminiscent of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and his pocket watch and so on.

The behind-the-scenes Confidential (all of which, on this set, are 50+ minutes) that accompanies this special made me appreciate it a bit more, with executive producer and writer Russell T. Davies talking about what the Cybermen meant and his goals with the show. The montage of archive footage of previous versions of the Cybermen was alternately amusing (the early ones did look like people with socks over their heads) and surprisingly frightening. The actors also talk about effects, stunts, and performances, and there’s a look back at the previous Christmas specials, reminding the view of how silly and yet thrilling they could be. Plus, a set of mentions of Doctor Who in other ancient British shows and sketches, including Doctor Emu, with the guy with the bird puppet. (Made me laugh, anyway.) I don’t care so much about the “making of” details of the show I’ve just seen, but these historical comparisons and archive material have my rapt attention. I wish there was an easier way to see just that content.

Also on disc one is “Doctor Who at the Proms”, which is apparently a series of classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Freema Agyeman hosted this presentation of incidental music from the series, accompanied by video clips from the show and costumed guests and monsters. It’s quite creative as a way to introduce children to orchestral music, and the audience is full of them.

Plus, there’s a mini-episode, “Music of the Spheres”, in which the Doctor talks to the audience and conducts the orchestra in playing his “Ode to the Universe”. Wikipedia has a full description of the concert, its purpose and history, but note that the presentation on the DVD doesn’t include the non-Doctor Who pieces of music. I had no idea this existed, so this was a wonderful discovery for me, one of the best bits of the DVD set and a unique tie-in to the Doctor’s history.

I’m assuming that, if you’re interested in this set, you’ve already seen the episodes and are mostly curious about the extras. If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ve got a whole bunch of new Doctor Who stories to enjoy, which should be enough information right there. If you haven’t seen any modern Who yet, don’t start here; start with the beginning of Tennant’s run, so you understand the wonder and joy and sorrow of the character before seeing how he ends.

Of the specials, the second, Planet of the Dead (disc two), is my favorite, because it introduced the high-class thief and adventuress Lady Christina, played by Michelle Ryan (The Bionic Woman). She was sparkling and spunky and a truly creative companion. I wish we’d seen more of her, but perhaps that’s the key, to leave the audience wanting more. This is the one where a bus gets taken to another planet, where metal-eating aliens are about to destroy them and then Earth.

The only extra on this disc is the special’s Confidential. Since it was filmed in the desert of Dubai, there’s lots to talk about in terms of location problems making the episode, as well as the new characters and actors. The brief historical material this time around talks about other times the show went on location abroad, but it’s barely a blip in the rest of the coverage.

The Waters of Mars is the third disc and special. A base on the red planet is destroyed after alien water possesses its inhabitants (very creepy villain!), and the Doctor tackles the question of how much he can change events fixed in time. This disc also has the Confidential as the only extra, which in addition to lots of behind-the-scenes filming material, explores how the character of the Doctor is changing as he faces his upcoming death. That highlighted for me why this “season” was less enjoyable for me — it was too much doom and gloom, death and destruction. I wish everyone hadn’t been focused on how Tennant was leaving at the end, because I think bringing that real-life factor into the fiction made it unbalanced, with no way to capture the fun and excitement of traveling through time and space, having adventures.

The last two discs have The End of Time parts one and two, in which the Master returns, as do most of the key characters from the modern series in cameos, plus the Time Lords, led by Timothy Dalton. On the first disc, in addition to the now-expected Confidential — which points out just how much work John Simm had to do to create the effect of the Master race, the coolest part of the episode in my opinion, and I also liked the mini-features on “Trinity Wells”, the American newscaster character who runs throughout the series, and the history of the Master — there are also:

  • A set of BBC Christmas channel breaks, which starred the Doctor, the TARDIS, some reindeer, and lots of snow. There’s one long one and three short ones.
  • Tennant’s video diary.
  • Commentary by Tennant, Catherine Tate, and director Euros Lyn.

Disc two has commentary by Tennant, Lyn, and John Simm; the by-now requisite Confidential where everyone is all about it being the end of an era, with showrunner Davies and executive producer Julie Gardner leaving along with Tennant; a piece on “Doctor Who at Comic-Con” (in which David Tennant and John Barrowman kiss!); and deleted scenes from all four of the specials. I think I’d be more in sympathy with the elegiac mood of the character’s passing if it hadn’t depended on such a stupid gimmick: a magic nuclear box with a door you can’t open from the inside? Who dreams up that beyond a writer playing God incompetently?

With Matt Smith taking over as the new, Eleventh Doctor, I’m not sure I’ll be back. He doesn’t interest me in either looks or performance, based on this admittedly tiny glimpse. So for me, this is a fine farewell to the era that reinvolved me in Doctor Who. Oh, except for this: While the lightly-animated BBC America ad voiced by John Oliver is quite amusing the first couple of times, it’s annoying that it’s forcibly shown at the beginning of every DVD but the last. (The studio provided a review copy.)

8 Responses  
John Steventon writes:  

I only saw the first two specials, and look forward to the others. Michelle Ryan’s character was great, and they do leave it open for her return, but I doubt the chemistry will be the same without Tennant in the role.

I would say “let’s wait and see and trust that the new guy will work out” because I certainly was against Tennant at the beginning, since I thought Eccleston could not be topped. However, with Davies out, it’s awhole new ballgame. Same with Torchwood. That show is supposed to come back, but after Children of Earth, I’m not sure I want to see it. That movie was brilliant, and so intense, but honestly, a bit too much for me.

Cheers, JOHN :0)
PS Red Dwarf returned as well last year. Yay!

 
Thad writes:  

I don’t have much opinion one way or the other on Smith just yet (except, from a granfalloon perspective, that he and I were born the same month), but Moffat as showrunner? I couldn’t be happier. RTD had his moments (Midnight was a personal best IMO), but his emphasis on spectacle, his desire to throw stuff in without pausing to make it make any sense (my favorite example being in season 4, where Dalek Caan, the last of his race, decides his race must be destroyed — and so he goes back in time and saves several thousand of them), and his obsessive need to top himself every season made for many a train wreck. He was usually very good at creating a scenario and then absolutely ruining it in the last part — Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords is a pretty good example. (I’d also argue Torchwood: Children of Earth — I absolutely loved the first four episodes, and then the fifth was just silly and maudlin.)

RTD’s finale was actually subtle by his standards — though let’s keep in mind that “subtle by his standards” still includes the Doctor jumping out of a spaceship with a gun and then crashing through a skylight.

…Moffat, by contrast: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. I just listed all the best episodes of the series. Three of which won Hugos (and the fourth lost to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which there’s no shame in).

I don’t know if Smith’s going to be any good or not — and Tennant is one hell of a tough act to follow. But I’m pretty confident he’ll have some great scripts to work with.

 
Johanna writes:  

Oh, what excellent points! I hadn’t thought much about that aspect of the changeover, but the episodes you list are some of my very favorite. I hope Moffat is able to carry that through a whole season. You’ve just made me excited to see it again! Thanks!

 
James Schee writes:  

I’d been curious about Doctor Who in the past, went and got some old DVDs before the new series even started. It was okay, but never hit for me. I LOVED the first season of the new series, and was at first turned off by Tennant’s first appearance. (thought he looked like a goofy looking young David Copperfield)

Yet Tennant had so much talent and heart and so he worn me over very quickly and made me pretty much forget Eccleston.

I’m just glad that i didn’t have to decide for a while if i want to follow the new Doctor or not. (given that it’ll be months before we see it) Right now I’d have to say no, as he didn’t do anything for me.

Yet also that final special, it seemed like we said goodbye to more than just Tennant or Davies. It also seemed a goodbye to Rose, Martha and the rest of the characters from this era. Maybe I’m wrong there, but that’s what it felt like anyway.

 
Mike Godwin writes:  

Moffat is great at everything he does, so there’s every reason to think he’ll be great running “Doctor Who”. (His series “Coupling” is one of the few series I own a complete run of.)

Smith did well in a very different role — but acting opposite Billie Piper — in the Philip Pullman adaptations for the BBC.

 
Johanna writes:  

Oh, THAT Moffat. I loved Coupling, too — now I’m back on board with the Doctor!

 
William George writes:  

I’m a Tom Baker generation Who fan.

But I really liked RTD’s era when the writing wasn’t *facepalm*-tastic, and the Doctor wasn’t a crying emo doofus.

I’ve heard that Smith’s Doctor will be more along the lines of the third Doctor: More behind-the-sofa stuff, more of a willingness to throw down on evil with some Venusian Aikido. I don’t think he’ll be driving a hovercar or wearing frills any time soon.

But it would awesome if he did.

 
Doctor Who to Film in the U.S. for First Time for Season Opener ยป DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] BBC announced that season six of Doctor Who will film in the U.S. for the first time. […]

 

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