Doctor Who: The Complete Specials

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials cover

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.

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.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials cover

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.)

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