Doctor Who: The Complete Specials gathers together all five feature length films containing the adventures of the latest incarnation of England's longest running science fiction character. This mainstay of the BBC took a few years off in the nineties but was quite successfully relaunched in 2005 with some help from the CBC. Brought on board to spearhead the revamp was writer Russell T. Davies, who rose to some prominence for his work on Queer As Folk and more recently Torchwood (which is actually a Doctor Who spin off). Davies' take on the character seems to have split longtime fans of the series more or less down the middle, with some seeing his work as childish and immature while others accepting it as an interesting new spin on a character that probably needed it.
The basic premise of Doctor Who follows a character named The Doctor (played this time around quite well by David Tennant) who travels around through space and time in his device, the TARDIS. He basically sets about trying to do good and help those who need it. The Doctor is also an alien, from the planet Gallifrey, and he has the ability to regenerate injured body parts but doing so changes his demeanor somewhat. Unlike some of the Doctor's who came before him, this version is fairly free spirited and goes through life with a good sense of humor. He comes across as a nice guy, and at times borders on goofy.
The first special is a standalone episode that simply plays out as good fun. The later four specials that are included in this collection, however, were made to bring the events that made up Davies' and Tennant's run on the series to a close, so there's some interesting foreshadowing throughout the films. A knowledge of the series itself isn't really necessary to enjoy this material, but it certainly will help as there are references to the series' past that may be a little impenetrable to those without a prior knowledge of w hat has come before. Most of this material is pretty accessible to new viewers, however. Here's a look at what you get...
The Next Doctor:
When the first movie in the set begins, the TARDIS lands in London. It's Christmas Eve, 1851 and as The Doctor (David Tennant) emerges from his machine he hears a woman calling for him. He goes to find her, but she doesn't recognize him and despite his insistence that he is who he is, she meets up with a man she recognizes as The Doctor (David Morrissey), and who calls her Rosita (Velile Tshabalala). The older Doctor and the new Doctor tackle a massive robotic dog creature with some help from Rosita and after this, the new Doctor explains that he seems to be suffering from amnesia.
The original Doctor knows that he's a new incarnation, and they head to the house of a local minister recently murdered. As they start putting together the pieces of the puzzle surrounding them, and follows him to the house of a murdered vicar where the new Doctor had his memory destroyed by the nefarious Cybermen. When the two Doctors arrive at the house they find some Cybermen lying in wait for them but after making short work of the villains, they discover the cause of the memory loss. Together the two Doctors try to piece together the new Doctors memory, figure out who he really is, how the Cybermen and the Daleks figure into all of this, and what exactly happened to his wife and young son with the fate of London and perhaps the world hanging in the balance.
The first special in this set isn't the best, but it's good entertainment. Tennant and Morrissey, who steals many of the scenes, have a good chemistry together and the series' trademark mix of action, adventure, effects and humor is in full swing. The big finale really does save the best for last as we witness one of the coolest set pieces of the entire set when the king of the Cybermen is unleashed upon the city and cuts through it a path of destruction. The plot is fairly straightforward, it's really a simple team up for the two Doctors to take down the Cybermen plot, but there's enough here to keep you guessing that it's never the less a fun watch.
The Planet Of The Dead:
Our second special puts The Doctor is modern day London where he gets on a bus which inexplicably winds up driving into a wormhole. The Doctor and the other bus passengers are whisked off to the middle of a desert where The Doctor deduces that they've actually travelled across the galaxy all the way to another planet. The Doctor, being the only passenger with experience in situations such as this, is tasked with trying to figure out how they got here and, more importantly, how to get all of these poor bus riders back to Earth. It's not just a matter of turning the bus around and driving back, and even if it were, well, it's stuck in the sand an in dire need of repairs. If that weren't bad enough, there are sinister creatures afoot.
Along for the ride with The Doctor is a sexy thief named Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) who was actually running from the law after ripping off a museum when the bus made its unscheduled detour. She's keen on helping him out and will be of some use, but complicating things is Captain Erisa Magambo (NomaDumezweni). Situated back in London, Magambo is faced with tough choice of whether to close the wormhole and strand The Doctor and the rest or leave it open and take the risk.
Pretty light hearted and hard to take seriously, Planet Of The Dead is fluffy entertainment and nothing more. Tennant is his usual charismatic self here but the character isn't really given a whole lot to do here. His interaction with Ryan's character feels forced, almost as if the writers felt that they had to throw in a strong female character simply for the sake of having one, but if nothing else she's fun to look at. The beasties are pretty cool once we get around to dealing with them and there is some really good foreshadowing at the end of the episode that serves as a precursor of things to come, but if this is harmless entertainment, it's far from classic Doctor Who.
Water Of Mars:
This third special puts The Doctor on Mars approximately fifty year in the future in 2059. Here he joins up with a colony of humans, the first of its kind on the planet, lead by a woman named Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan). What the citizens of the colony don't realize is that, according to history, the day that the Doctor arrives is the very same day that an epic disaster is supposed to lay waste to the entire populace. As times comes to pass, people in the colony start getting sick, infected by something they can't see and don't understand, and which soon turns them into zombie like beings.
Surprisingly enough, The Doctor isn't ready to save everyone threatened by this problem, including Brooke, who he quite reluctantly tells he cannot save. Completely worked up over what's happening, The Doctor decides that he has to do what he has to do, and actually goes so far as to break one of his cardinal rules despite the ramifications he knows will result of this choice.
A vast improvement over the first two entries in this collection, Water Of Mars may not be the most original storyline ever written (it feels like Prince Of Darkness meets 28 Days Later) but it is an exciting, tense, and well made piece of science fiction. Tennant is actually given quite a bit of material to work with here, proving that he's quite a capable actor and he really shines here. He handles the darker aspects of the script quite well, putting just enough anger and angst and melancholy into his performance that it's fully believable without ever feeling like too much or out of character for the series.
The storyline is a little bit predictable and it certainly doesn't take a genius to figure out the cause of the 'infection' that cripples the colony, but there are some interesting and at times almost scary moments here which represent a refreshing change from the first two, more kid-friendly, entries in the set. This movie also features some pretty impressive set design, painting Mars out as a fairly interesting looking place and effectively creating a believable alien world for all of this melodrama to play off of and against.
The End Of Time, Part One:
The penultimate entry in the collection sends The Doctor back to Earth fearing that The Master is going to return. Upon his arrival he teams up with Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) and tries his best to find The Master (John Simm) only to find that Joshua and Abigail Naismith are strange using alien technology hold him and to create their own ideal future for Earth. The Master, however, doesn't care about any of this and decides to recast all of Earth in his own image, completely unaware of the dangers that this poses for everyone. This leads quite neatly into the conclusion in...
The End Of Time, Part Two:
The Doctor and Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins) are held prisoner by The Master who is now surrounded only by enemies. When he learns that Donna () is still alive, sends minions out to capture her and things are starting to look completely hopeless until Rossiter (Lawry Lewin), Addams (Sinead Keenan) and Wilfred escape with The Doctor in tow. After they teleport to an orbiting spaceship, they decide to lay low for a while as they try and figure out how to communicate with The Master. The come up with a plan, but The Lord President Rassilon of Gallifrey (Timothy Dalton) helps The Master bring them all to Earth. After The Doctor jumps from the ship, he knows it's up to him to stop this madness before it can't be undone, which all leads in to the introduction of the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith).
While it takes a while to get where it's going, the payoff is pretty good with Tennant once again proving his worth by handling the material very well. The rest of the cast are quite good as well, and it's fun to see Timothy Dalton show up in the series, particularly in a role such as the one he plays here. John Simm is also very good as The Master and while maybe the plot gets muddy here and there and while some tighter script editing might have helped certain scenes flow better than they do, the good outweighs the bad here. The finale ties up some loose ends nicely, which makes sense as the earlier specials were written to lead up to this special, and it sets up the forthcoming adventures of the eleventh Doctor quite nicely.
Those who don't appreciate Russell T. Davies' take on the character aren't going to be won over by this finale, as his style is still all over things but there are some great moments in here that make it a pretty satisfactory conclusion to an interesting and, more importantly, fun run on the classic character. Yes, much of this material seems to have been aimed at a younger audience but with that kept in mind there's no reason that adults can't get in on the fun. It's often times pretty goofy and even a bit silly, but that's not always been uncommon in the series' past. The ending, and in fact much of the material leading up to it, is about as subtle as a brick but there's always enough going on throughout The End Of Time and the earlier entries that it's pretty easy to enjoy this stuff.
Aside from The Next Doctor, which is presented here upscaled (something that, in the interest of full disclosure, is spelled out on the back of the packaging and should come as a surprise to no one), the films in this collection were shot in HD and are presented here in VC-1 encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. The Next Doctor understandably looks less impressive than the four that follow the movie, showing some aliasing and softness that the others don't. As we move through the series, video quality improves quite a bit. Planet Of The Dead is sometimes a little noisy looking and at times a bit too shimmery but shows better detail, a quality that only gets better as we move on to the newer films in the collection. Black levels are generally pretty strong and, The Next Doctor notwithstanding, detail is generally good. Some of the CGI work looks a little goofy in spots and there are occasional bursts of aliasing that are hard not to notice from time to time but if these aren't reference quality they're at least pretty good looking transfers.
English language DTS-HD High Resolution 5.1 tracks are provided for each of the five films in the set. While it would have been nice to see true lossless audio, what's here is still pretty impressive. Despite some mild distortion in the lower end from time to time (you might notice it any time something explodes), these tracks have some good bass response and a fairly hefty low end going for them. The high end borders on shrill from time to time but these instances are pretty rare and generally it sounds stable. Surround activity is pretty constant with the action scenes not surprisingly having the most going on in that department. Dialogue stays crisp and clear and is never hard to follow while the really wide spectrum of sound effects used throughout the movies adds some fun to the proceedings. The electronic scores that have been employed also sound quite good, punctuating the action rather than burying it, and generally, minor complaints aside, the BBC have done a very solid job in the audio department.
The extras in this set are spread across the five discs in the collection as follows and are all presented in 1080i high definition except where noted. Each disc also contains menus and chapter selection.
Disc One starts off with a featurette called The Next Doctor Confidential. Aside from that, look for a bit called Doctor Who At The Prom (SD) from 2008 that originally aired to promote the character's return. Here you'll find some live performances of music from the series and a very cool mini-episode called Music Of The Spheres that was produced to tie in with the annual BBC Proms event. Disc Two contains its own featurette in the form of The Planet Of The Dead Confidential. Also on this disc is a High Definition Setup Guide. It's there for those who want or need it. The singular extra on Disc Three is The Waters of Mars Confidential featurette. Disc Four has a bit more supplemental material than the others, as here you'll find The End of Time, Part One Confidential. Also on this disc is the David Tennant Video Diary -- The Final Days (SD). Rounding out Disc Four are some amusing Doctor Who BBC Christmas Idents (SD). Disc Five finishes the set off with The End of Time, Part Two Confidential which picks up where the last featurette left off. Doctor Who at Comic-Con is an interesting panel discussion held by the cast and crew in San Diego. Last but not least are some Deleted Scenes With Introduction From Russell T. Davies.
The Confidential documentaries let Russell T. Davies do most of the heavy lifting as he explains the how's and why's behind bringing this series back. Each one of the five documentaries, which are quite lengthy, provides amusing and interesting looks at the making of each episode and fans of this revamp of the character will certainly enjoy hearing from the people who made it all happen. David Tennant and John Simm also pop up and chime in here and there and provide some interesting insight into what it was like working on the series in front of, rather than from behind, the camera. Aside from the fact that there aren't any commentaries here (which was quite surprising, really), the BBC has done a pretty amazing job in the extras department, providing roughly seven hours worth of additional content that is often times as amusing and entertaining as it is genuinely interesting.
Those who enjoyed David Tennant's run as the good doctor already know they need this but for the uninitiated, Doctor Who: The Complete Specials offers up five feature length slices of smart, funny, exciting and original science fiction that helps the long running series tread some new ground while remaining true to the spirit of what came before it. BBC's Blu-ray boxed set doesn't offer up reference quality audio or video but the look and sound of the five films here is certainly strong enough and the massive array of supplements and featurettes go a long way towards making up for that. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.