With Doctor Who having hit newfound heights of popularity these days you really can't blame the BBC for repackaging some of the more popular serials from the series fifty year history. There's money to be made and if in the process some fans only familiar with the Doctor Who of 2005 to present find themselves sucked into the stories of the Doctors that came before Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith then hey, so much the better. This set, collecting one serial a piece for the first four men to step into the role (that'd be William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, John Pertwee and of course Tom Baker to those keeping score), offers up four great stories, each a showcase for the respective star to headline, but does not come without its reservations in the audio, video and extras departments.
But let's talk about the stories before we get into that.
When this early Doctor Who serial from 1964 begins, the TARDIS materializes and out comes the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and their schoolteacher companions Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill). As they wander about, they realize that the TARDIS has materialized inside a massive tomb in Mexico during the reign of the Aztecs - which explains why when Barbara walks through a trap door and comes face to face with some Aztecs, that they presume her to be their goddess, Yutaxa. Rather than try to dissuade the Aztecs from believing her to be something she obviously is not, Barbara instead opts to go along with it and let them believe her to be a goddess in hopes that she'll be able to convince the Aztecs to put an end to their practice of human sacrifice, among other traditions she finds distasteful and which she also feels would help save them from the conquest they would soon feel courtesy of the Spanish forces..
This quickly puts Barbara at odds with The Doctor - he tells her in no uncertain terms that she cannot rewrite history, the ramifications would be too hard to control and predict and possibly result in them doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are starting to question why their Yutaxa has suddenly begun to discourage them from old traditions such as arranged marriage and capital punishment, and some among them raise their doubts as to the authenticity of their newly found deity. Ian, not to be outdone, through some rather odd circumstances soon finds himself being courted as a possible replacement for the leader of the Aztec's army, but in order to win the position he'll be forced to fight the current leader, Ixta (Ian Cullen). If that weren't enough, Susan gets wrapped up in a just as bad situation wherein she's expected to marry the victim of the upcoming sacrificial rite spearheaded by Tlotoxl (John Ringham)! All of this, of course, leaves The Doctor to try and figure out how to save his friends without disrupting the flow of history as we know it - except that he unwitting shared a cup of cocoa with a woman named Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh) and is now expected to take her as his bride!
Featuring some interesting music composed by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, The Aztecs is, like many of the early serials with an educational slant, light on the science fiction trappings that the series would soon become known for but an entertaining tale of time travel and adventure nevertheless. At just under one hundred minutes in length the four part storyline moves at quite a brisk pace and manages to pack a whole lot of clever twists and turns into its storyline before the inevitable finale. There's adventure, intrigue, some action (when Ian has to fight one of the Aztecs towards the end, it really does look for a minute or so that this might be the end of him) and, surprisingly enough, even a small hint of romance. Susan isn't featured as prominently here as she has been in other stories from her run through the Hartnell years as she took a vacation for some of the time the production was in the works, so get a bit more of Ian and Barbara here but the storyline makes it work.
The main issue with the story is why an educated and intelligent woman like Barbara would think it would be okay to mess with the time stream at all. Granted, her motivation is well meaning and her heart obviously in the right place but she does go to great lengths to try to do something that logic would dictate would have huge ramifications on the future. This plot device does offer a few interesting scenes that see her at odds with Hartnell's Doctor, however, and that can make for some interesting moments of tension between the two characters. The art direction here is maybe a little better than average when compared to other stories from the same era, and the story is mature enough (and surprisingly bleak enough) to keep us interested from start to finish. Jacqueline Hill deserves commendation for her work here, turning in one of her better performances, though she is occasionally upstaged by John Ringham as the main antagonist in the story. Overall, this is good stuff and well worth seeing for fans of the early years of the show.
The Tomb Of The Cybermen:
This storyline, which originally aired in September of 1967 in four parts, stars Patrick Troughton as The Doctor who, along with his companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) and friend Jamie, lands the TARDIS on the planet Telos where an expedition at a mountain has uncovered a heretofore unknown entrance. The Doctor talks to Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards) who explains to them that he and his team are out to find what's left of a race known as The Cybermen, thought to have been made extinct five hundred years ago. He feels that this entrance may lead to whatever may remain of their existence.
Parry reports to a woman named Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin), the woman in charge of the funds that have given he and his team this opportunity. She and her bodyguard, Toberman (Roy Stewart) keep a close eye on things. When The Doctor is able to get the entrance partially open, Parry and some others keep at it while Victoria and Kaftan uncover a room that is, as the title implies, essentially a tomb. In it are some items including a strange projection device. When Kaftan finds this she tries to use it on Victoria but The Doctor is able to help her out, though he assumes she foolishly trapped herself. While this is going on, Toberman is snooping around and one of Kaftan's compatriots, Eric Klieg (George Pastell), helps Parry.
As all involved try, for various reasons of varying degrees of honorable intent, try to figure out what's going on the Cybermen and their leader, the Cyberman Controller, are freed and prove to be quite adapt at wreaking havoc. Of course, it'll be up to The Doctor to set things right and stop them before they can convert everyone and grow their race…
The earliest complete serial known to exist which stars Troughton in the lead role, this was, rather obviously, not the last time that The Doctor would run into the Cybermen. In fact, they appeared in an episode broadcast just this year penned by none other than Neil Gaiman. This is a fun early appearance though, and they understandably remain one of the more popular recurring Doctor Who villains. Though they may seem tame here by modern standards they demonstrate some interesting and creative design work and can be quite menacing when viewed through the eyes of the kids who were tuning in when this serial originally aired.
This one starts off quite strong, the first half of the story building tension nicely and letting the characters develop enough that we can decide for ourselves who is up to no good and who is not. Troughton delivers a pretty solid effort in the lead, he shows charisma and comes across as fairly righteous in the part, but not without demonstrating the requisite amount of quirky and crazy, two key elements that make The Doctor as interesting a character as he sometimes is. The supporting cast are also fine, with Aubrey Richards, Shirley Cooklin and Roy Stewart all doing fine with the material. Deborah Watling is a bit of a weak link here but that's got as much to do with the way that her character is written as it does her interpretation of it. Ultimately, this one holds up well. The acting is solid, the story is enjoyable and suspenseful, the creature designs are still as cool as ever and there is enough tension and excitement to satiate most fans.
Spearhead From Space:
The late John Pertwee played Doctor Who for the first time in this four part storyline which ran through the first few weeks of 1970, Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space, the first of the series to be shot on color film. Directed by Derek Martinus and written by Robert Holmes, the story begins when a bunch of meteorites hurtle through space and crash in the charming English countryside. A local man named Seeley (Neil Wilson) comes across them just as the TARDIS pops up and the new Dr. Who (Pertwee) steps out... only to basically fall flat on his face.
With the Doctor promptly shipped off to the hospital, UNIT steps in to see just what exactly is up with these meteors. Complicating matters is the presence of a local factory that specializes in manufacturing mannequins. As they've needed to change with the times, they've shifted from manual to automated labor but this has come at a strange cost. The mannequins coming out of the factory lately have been armed to the teeth and appear to be able to operate under their own power. Thankfully the Doctor is starting to feel a little better and with some help from his new companion Liz Shaw (Caroline John), he soon starts digging around to see what he can see - and what he does see points to a scheme courtesy of some alien invaders intent on replacing the population of the Earth with death dealing automated mannequins!
Dr. Who: Spearhead From Space is classic Who through and through. Pertwee hits the ground running and seems very comfortable in his role from the outset of the program. He exudes the right amount of confidence to make the role his own and never feels like he's reaching too far with his take on the Doctor. He also has a great on-screen chemistry with the lovely and charming Caroline John and some good humor comes out of the relationship the two characters share in this storyline. The supporting cast are all game here as well, but Pertwee and John really do steal the show - and rightly so as they're given quite a bit more to do than everyone else involved and its' interesting to note that here, the Doctor's accomplice is very much his equal.
While automated mannequins may not sound like such a menacing foil for the Doctor to have to go up against, the fact is that the mannequins in this storyline are quite a bit creepier than the Daleks or any other aliens that Who had gone up against in the past. They've got this soulless quality to them and such a macabre appearance to their very human like features that there's just something not quite right about them. They also slightly resemble concepts later explored in The Terminator films in many ways - while they're not the same sort of cyborgs that those creations were, they have similarly merciless qualities to them that make them interesting villains.
The first of the four chapters opens up with a bang and the series manages to hold that pace throughout the next three chapters. There's a lot of good suspense here and quite a bit more action than some of the other storylines have offered up. As such, it all goes by quite quickly and at a good pace. As it was all shot on film there seems to have been a bit more attention paid to the production values this time around as well, meaning we get a nicer looking series with Spearhead From Space than we do with many of the other Who entries made around the same time. Really, this is one of those entries in the long running series that just all comes together on every level that you'd want it to. It's fun, fast paced, reasonably intelligent and plenty entertaining - and it's also a very creative and genuinely different storyline for The Doctor and his companions, one that stands the test of time surprisingly well in the grand scheme of things. Of course, every Who fan will have his or her favorite storyline and this might not be it but it is generally a 'universally loved' four parter and after revisiting it by way of this excellent DVD release (more on that in the next few paragraphs), it's very easy to see just exactly why that is.
Pyramids Of Mars:
The fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, takes the lead in this four part serial originally shown in 1975. The storyline begins in the Mexico of the early 1900s where a man named Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard) is conducting an archeological dig. He discovers Egyptian symbols on the door of the tomb he's excavating and when it starts to glow, the men he had helping him out run away, obviously afraid. When they leave, someone or something in a dark cape shoots him with a laser. From here we cut to the TARDIS where The Doctor and his companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) are dealing with some sort of monster that has appeared in the control area. Tracing it to England they land and discover that the family home of the Scarman's is loaded with ancient Egyptian items but the butler tells them that a man named Ibrahim Namin (Peter Mayock) has more or less taken everything over.
Soon enough The Doctor and Sarah meet a man named (Doctor Warlock (Peter Copley) who is mysteriously at odds with Namin. They take off together while Namin resurrects a mummy and using some sort of strange power ring he sends it after the three of them. After they make their escape they meet a Laurence Scarman (Michael Sheard) at a hunting lodge. It turns out that he's Marcus' brother and he's a scientist who has tuned into some sort of signal from Mars. The Doctor is able to interpret the message as a warning: "Beware Sutekh"… an Osirian alien who is out to kill anything and everything he can.
So with all of that revealed, The Doctor, Sarah and Doctor Warlock have to tie all of this together, figure out what happened to Marcus and content with various mummies and robots and time travelling aliens before Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) can launch a wave of mass destruction!
This one moves at a good pace and features a great cast and some excellent monsters. Tom Baker is a fan favorite for very good reason, he's ridiculously enthusiastic in the part when given a good script and even when he isn't, he's still manic and crazy enough that he's always worth watching. Here we get the best of both worlds, that is, Baker is firing on all cylinders and the story is solid too. He always had good chemistry with Sladen and this serial is no exception to that. Much of the humor in this story stems from their relationship and there are some clever, funny exchanges of dialogue between them. On top of that we get mummies and robots and action and suspense and all of the fun lunacy that makes a good Doctor Who episode a good Doctor Who episode.
Sutekh is a really memorable villain and throwing in Namin and mixing up all sorts of interesting Egyptian mythology proves to be a good way to have The Doctor do something other than just battle and outsmart a monster of the month. At times this almost feels like more of a Hammer horror mummy movie than a typical Doctor Who episode as the first episode in particular is quite dark, but this works well. The production values are better than average too, so the monsters and aliens look a little more intimidating than they sometimes do in the vintage serials. Really, this is just one of those storylines where it really all comes together, a fantastic example of just how good and how much fun this series can be.
Okay, here's where this release gets a bit… odd. There are two ways to watch each of the serials included in this set: feature version and individual episodes. The feature version crops the original 1.33.1 frame and presents in in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen using unrestored transfers. It's called the feature version because it chops out the ‘previously on Doctor Who style bits as well as the opening and closing credits for the ‘middle parts' so that each story plays like a feature film. It's a fine idea but the framing looks bad and the special edition releases that have come out of each serial contained here look much, much better not just in terms of framing but in terms of overall video quality. The feature versions are flat, washed out and soft looking.
Thankfully, if you watch each serial in its original format, meaning one individual episode at a time, you get them in their original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio using what look to be the most recent restorations. As such, video quality is much improved. The older material still looks like the older material and is taken from the only known existing elements, so don't expect miracles there, but as the newer material takes over it starts to look just as good as you'd hope it would. So, if you want to watch the ‘feature version' knock yourself out. It's there for those who want it. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and watch these episodically and enjoy the proper framing and vastly improved video quality.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks that span the four serials that make up this collection are fine, if not perfect (at least in the earlier stuff). Again, we can rightly assume that the BBC have done the best they can with what was available. It's all listenable, just expect some flatness and some hiss here and there on the black and white episodes. The later material sounds good though. Optional English subtitles are provided across each of the four storylines, and they're nice and easy to read.
Each of the four storylines gets an introduction from current Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat that introduces the feature versions and offers up a sort of basic rundown of each story. Nothing essential, but he's a likeable enough guy. More interesting are the Doctors Revisited featurettes. There are four of them included in this set, one covering the history of each of the four men who played the Doctor in each of their respective stories. They run about half an hour each and they aren't going to really enlighten fans already familiar with the series, but if you're new to the show they're nice, compact and concise history lessons that are quite worth watching. Aside from that we get the typical menus and chapter stops. The four discs fit inside a keepcase that in turn fits inside a slipcase. Also tucked away inside the case is a collection of four fridge magnets, one for each Doctor in the set. It should be noted that the special edition DVD release of the four serials in this set are all stacked with extras not included in this The Doctors Revisted set.
The Doctors Revisited: One To Four is going to be of interest to two parties: series completists and series newbies likely more familiar with the current and very popular Matt Smith run. If you're a fan and looking to sample some of the vintages serials but don't know where to start, this is a pretty solid collection of stories. If you're a completest and need to have everything, you do get some exclusive featurettes and nifty fridge magnets. Otherwise, however, if you have the existing special editions (which contain a LOT more in the way of supplements) this set is superfluous. So yeah, consider it recommended if you fall into either one of the aforementioned groups, but stay away from the rough looking feature versions and watch these in their original episode format.
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.