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 Doctors five through eight (that'd be Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann), offers up four great stories, each a showcase for the respective star to headline, but as with the first set in the line, it 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.
Originally broadcast in 1982, Earthshock brought on board Paul Davison as the Doctor for the first time in a pretty solid storyline that understandably remains a fan favorite to this day, thanks in no small part to the presence of… The Cybermen!
The story begins when the TARDIS lands on Earth and materializes inside a cave. The Doctor and his friend, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), are squabbling because the later feels the former teases him too much and doesn't take him seriously. In short, Adric is done with this and wants to go home, but that won't be easy because getting him back to E-Space will be incredibly dangerous. Adric is understandably upset, the Doctor too, and rather than get into it with him the Doctor steps outside for a walk. Cooler heads prevail, and all that.
In another part of the cave, a group of archeologists have been attacked. One woman survives and calls in the military and when they show up, they're also attacked… by some strange androids. When the survivors find the Doctor, they assume he has something to do with all of this and deem him guilty until proven innocent. It's not long, however, until he does just that by dispatching some of the androids alongside the troops. As it turns out, the Doctor is all too familiar with what's going on here: the Cybermen have placed a massive explosive device in the cave which they intend to detonate in hopes of destroying the Earth before an interplanetary commission can sign a treaty in which they'll work together to eliminate the Cybermen scourge. When the Doctor manages to diffuse the explosive before their plan can go off, they quickly come up with an alternate method of mass destruction and the Doctor will have his work cut out for him. Thankfully Adric as well as Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (Janet Fielding) are around to help.
Full of a few good twists and, without wanting to spoil things, one genuine shock, this is a solid serial and a great introduction to Davison in the role. His take on things is definitely very different than Baker's but if he's not quite as iconic in the part, he still manages to make it his own while remaining true to form. Supporting efforts from the companions played by Waterhouse, Sutton and Fielding are also fun, they each bring some welcome quirk and personality to their supporting roles, but the script lets Davison do most of the heavy lifting.
The story itself is a solid one. The Cybermen plot to destroy Earth might not necessarily seem like anything all that original but the design work employed to bring them to life is fun to watch and it's a kick to see these top tier Who villains in action against newcomer Davison. Yes, the effects and the costumes are as ropey as ever but this is a classic tale of good against evil that moves at a good pace and features a fun cast. Lots of entertainment value to be had with this one!
Vengeance On Varos:
Colin Baker gets his shot with this serial from 1985 from the twenty-second season of the long running show. The story picks up after Attack Of The Cybermen as Peri Brown (Nicole Bryant), the Doctor's companion, works away trying to fix the TARDIS' console. Given that the TARDIS has just sort of given up the ghost in the middle of space and the Doctor is unable to fix it, it stands to reason that Peri isn't particularly happy. The Doctor soon figures out what's needed to get the blue box going again: Zeiton-7, a rare element only found on the planet Varos.
The Doctor manages to rig things up in order to get the TARDIS there but Varos, a former prison planet now run by a shady governor (Martin Jarvis) and the reptilian head of the Galatron Mining Corporation named Sil (Nabil Shaban), is a most unwelcoming place where executions and corruption are all too common. The TARDIES materializes just in time for one such execution, a rebel leader named Jondar (Jason Connery) is to be put to death at the ‘Punishment Dome.' Though guards are put upon the TARDIS as soon as it arrives, the Doctor and Peri escape and save Jondar but soon find, after meeting up with his wife Areta (Geraldine Alexander), that escape will not be easy. The Governor's crew gives chase and arrest everyone except for the Doctor, who is left alone and whose escape attempts are broadcast across the planet. As the psychological effects caused by the planet take their toll on the Doctor, and escape will not be easy. Throw in some cannibals, some killer plants and all manner of nastiness and you can see how the Doctor will have his hands full with this one.
Definitely darker than your average Doctor Who story, Vengeance On Varos is top tier storytelling with some memorable performances and characters serving to make this one for the istory books. There's a strong political angel to the story, as the citizens of Varos are basically allowed to vote on things, and if the votes disagree with The Governor's take on things he's disintegrated live on television. Of course, this comes into play as the Doctor's exploits unfold and as Sil does what he can to keep the cost of Zeiton-7 as low as he can, we see commerce and government intertwine in the worst way possible. The serial may not offer any seriously deep observations as to the pros and cons of that relationship but it's an interesting setup for the story that follows.
Performance wise, things shape up well here. By this point in the run, Colin Baker seems to have found a pretty good take on the character. He's come into his own and given the Doctor some unique personality traits while the writers give him a more mature story to tackle. It's a tense story, on that moves quickly and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next. As such, there's a good amount of suspense the helps to keep this exciting. Throw in some better than average effects work for Sil and some lighting work and set design and this stands as one of the high points in Colin Baker's run on the series.
Remembrance Of The Daleks:
Sylvester McCoy's entry, Remembrance Of The Daleks, from the series' twenty-fifth season in 1988, once again pits the Doctor against his mortal enemies, the Daleks. When the serial begins, the Doctor and his companion Ace (Sophia Aldred) arrive in the London of 1963 where they meet Professor Rachel Jensen (Pamela Salem) and Sergeant Mike Smith (Dursley McLinden). It seems that something is causing some strange magnetic interference in the area near a school and again near a junkyard. Group Captain Gilmore (Simon Williams) and his men check out the scene and are promptly attacked by a rogue Dalek, in turn taken out by the Doctor.
Meanwhile, a Mr. Ratcliffe (George Sewell) recovers what's left of the Dalek and brings them to a Dalek computer hidden away in the warehouse. The Doctor knows something isn't right with all of this and so he sets out investigating the school. It turns out that the Daleks have crossed through time to follow him to this location in hopes of acquiring The Hand Of Omega (which ties this story into the series' very first episode), a device he brought with him on his first trip to Earth… also in 1963. So the Doctor, with some help from Ace, sets out to make all of this right and keep the device out of the Daleks' reach, but when it turns out that there are actually two separate Dalek factions vying for control of the Hand Of Omega, that will be trickier than he originally anticipated.
Clever in how it ties into the series' origins and at the same time keeps the character of the Doctor mysterious and interesting, the serial moves quickly and features enough action and insanity from the ever popular Daleks to understandably rank at the top of the McCoy years. Of course, how much you get out of this is going to depend on your appreciation his take on the character, which is definitely a bit quirkier and goofier in the first half of his tenure than most probably wanted. Here, in more or less the middle of his run, things do get darker and more interesting but there's still a bit of that overdone eccentricity here in spots.
The story is one worth revisiting, however. The Daleks are all in fine form and Ace makes for an interesting companion, well played by spunky Sophia Aldred. The supporting characters are well played and we get some memorable set pieces of tension and excitement. There is some impressive creativity on display here, from the sets and costumes to the way that the storyline itself unfolds and this turns out to be a worthy entry in the Doctor Who pantheon.
Doctor Who: The Movie:
Doctor Who: The Movie was broadcast in 1996 in an attempt to revamp the long running classic sci-fi series. Made as a feature length effort rather than as a series of episodes as the show had become known for, the movie is set in 1999 and begins when what's left of the seventh Doctor Who (Sylvester McCoy) is brought to San Francisco. Here the Doctor regenerates into his eighth incarnation (Paul McGann) after he's promptly injured in a gunfight and he befriends a pretty heart surgeon named Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook). Of course, Doctor Who soon learns that The Master (Eric Roberts) is once again wreaking havoc with things and is this time bent on destroying the entire planet, so it's into the TARDIS they go to save us all from certain doom.
A lot of people didn't appreciate the efforts of writer Matthew Jacobs screenplay, as it's consistently criticized in certain fan circles for its rather large plot-holes and its tendency to jump from scene to scene out of convenience rather than narrative flow or logic. Revisiting the movie after not having seen it in some time, yeah, these complaints are still pretty valid ones. Much of the criticism stems from the fact that Jacobs was gearing his script towards an American audience (and intended as a pilot for a U.S TV series), and as many of us are well aware, American TV audiences and British TV audiences can and often do expect certain things. This resulted in an entirely different tone for this new Doctor Who, as the script concentrates quite a bit too much on the romance between the Doctor and, well, the other doctor, the lovely heart surgeon Holloway. Not a franchise known for love stories, this all feels rather forced and while McGann and Ashbrook are both fine actors and not at all bad in their parts here, their chemistry seems born of convenience and necessity rather than natural attraction.
As far as the requisite special effects are concerned, CGI was not used as well in the mid-nineties as it is these days and while James Cameron proved that it could be cinematically viable when working on a massive Hollywood budget, Doctor Who: The Movie wasn't doing that and so the computer generated effects here have not aged well. At all. In fact, they're generally pretty dire and will probably make fans yearn for the old school cheap effects that were seen on British TV for all those years. The whole thing is just bizarrely put together, pulling from successful nineties television series like The X-Files more than the classic and not so classic Doctor Who material churned out over the years, even going so far as to completely reinvent the TARDIS into something unrecognizable to established fans of the series.
What makes this work, however, is a really great performance from Paul McGann. Yes he does play up the bizarre romantic side of the character more than some of us probably want him to but he's got charm, he's got charisma, and if nothing else, you can see why Holloway's character would be attracted to him. He brings a good bit of fun to the role, and you can see why the powers that be cast him in this part expecting it to turn into something more - he has that screen presence. Eric Roberts is also pretty good as The Master. He's got the right sense of menace and nastiness to him and seems to be really putting himself into the part with all he's got. Often quite good at playing eccentric types, Roberts infuses a bit of effective humor into his part as well, and unlike the romantic aspect of the storyline, it fits naturally. The performances save this one, really. Even the supporting cast is quite good here, and as such, the movie is a lot more fun to watch than it would be otherwise. If you can get past the fact that this is an altered version of the Who that people love and accept it for the oddball entry into the series that it is, you can accept it as the goofy slice of pop entertainment that it is and have fun with it.
Okay, here's where this release gets a bit… odd. As it was with the first set, so too is it with this second collection: 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 it in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen, and it's even stretched a bit on the sides to fill the frame. 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… off. To the BBC's credit these four stories do generally look better than those presented in the first collection even in the reframed versions, simply because they're newer and the elements were likely in better shape.
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 (where they exist: Vengeance On Varos and Doctor Who: The Movie would appear to be better). As such, video quality is improved. The older material still looks like the older material and so it is a little bit soft, you have to expect this to an extent. So again, if you want to watch the ‘feature version' knock yourself out. It's there for those who want it but some of us are going to find the reframing/stretching very distracting. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and watch these episodically and enjoy the proper framing and see these as they were meant to be seen.
Check out the screen caps: the new Doctors Revisited reframed/stretched versions are up top, the fullframe broadcast versions are underneath them.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks that span the four serials that make up this collection are fine, if not perfect. 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. The one for Earthshock is actually the most interesting as it gives us some insight into what it was like with Peter Davison playing the Doctor for the first time in the wake of the insanely popular Tom Baker run that preceded his time in the TARDIS. Overall though, these are interesting, packed full of neat trivia and behind the scenes images and information. Definitely 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. The first The Doctors Revisited set included with it a collection of four fridge magnets, one for each Doctor in the set, but this second set doesn't include that (at least not the one that was sent for review). 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 Revisited set.
The Doctors Revisited: Five To Eight is a solid collection of stories from the latter half of the original series' run. The transfers of the ‘feature' versions are questionable but thankfully the fullframe versions are included here as well. These stories have all been released individually and with a lot more extra features than they're afforded here, but the documentary pieces that accompany each of the four episodes are worthwhile. Mandatory for competists, because they're completists, and a nice stepping on point recommended for those newer to the series who want to experience some of the middle run stories.
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.