Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor Blu-ray review

Should read: "As endured on BBC America"
At Christmas, I was not a particularly happy Whovian - in direct contrast to the excitable boy I’d been back in November during the 50th Anniversary celebrations. How could Steven Moffat pen one of his greatest episodes of Doctor Who, only to follow it with one of his worst? And as the grand finale to an entire era of the series, no less? My recap for Vulture was pretty scathing, yet, believe it or not, I held back a bit for fear of coming across like a crazed, fanboy lunatic. I quickly discovered, though, through the comments section of the recap, other online commentaries, and simply chatting with friends in person and on Facebook, that I wasn’t alone: “The Time of the Doctor” appeared divisive even by often divided modern Who standards, and folks normally given to an open-minded approach to the current series were having difficulties accepting that this jumbled, frenetic mess was indeed the last hurrah for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.

Fast forward two months, at which point I received a review copy of the Blu-ray disc. I had only viewed the episode once back on Christmas night, as once felt painful enough (never before have I been so quick to delete an episode of Who off the DVR). So, with a fair amount of trepidation, I put on the Blu-ray and gave it another spin, in an attempt to see it with fresh eyes. My reaction this time around was not one of crushing disappointment for the material. Such a reaction can easily manifest itself in a word like hate, as in “I hated that episode so much!” Truth is, I’ve never truly hated an episode of Doctor Who, probably because hate is so not what the show is about. And this second viewing revealed that “The Time of the Doctor” wasn’t much different than all the “Silver Nemeses” and “Underworlds” that came before it. “Time” is an episode overflowing with so much good will, that hate was no longer on the table. (This does not mean I suddenly fell in love with it.) More on this later.

"You're in for a *big* surprise!"
One might think that unrealistic expectations for “Time” played a part in my initial reaction, but that wasn’t at all the case. In fact, if anything, some of that reaction had to do with fears being realized. When it was announced last summer that Smith would be leaving at Christmas, it was disheartening. We hadn’t even seen the 50th yet, and Matt was now due to exit the TARDIS a month later. The game-changing “The Name of the Doctor” had just aired a few weeks earlier – an episode which felt as though big things were in store for Eleven. Everything seemed to be happening so fast in comparison to the exits of previous Doctors. Tennant had a lengthy series of four specials built around his exit, which culminated in a nearly two and a half hour, two-part send-off. This smacked of suddenness, reminiscent of Eccleston’s hasty exit from the series.

When November rolled around, and “The Day of the Doctor” was finally unveiled, sure enough – nothing in that monumental episode’s narrative indicated that the following episode would be the fall of the Eleventh. Quite the contrary, it ends with a Doctor who has a renewed sense of purpose. It seems obvious in hindsight, to me at least, that somewhere after shooting “Day,” during the 4 month break he took before shooting “Time,” Matt decided to leave the show, for whatever reasons. Who knows what they were? We may never find out. I know that conventional wisdom and logic dictates that these things are planned out far in advance, but if that had been the case, then why did Steven Moffat do such a sloppy job of dramatizing Matt’s exit, especially given the care that had clearly gone into the previous two episodes?

The script is as clumsy as this Cyberman
“The Time of the Doctor” feels hastily written, as though boxes are being ticked off, one by one, from one scene to the next. It’s not organic like the very best Steven Moffat writing is. Even Moffat-penned episodes that I don’t much care for are put together with considerably more thought than this. It’s like an entire season has been squished into a single episode – as if Moffat had very definite long term plans (or at least plans that extended to another season) for the Eleventh Doctor that were cut short, but he had to execute them anyway, in order to complete his vision. (For instance, he must have known for some time – perhaps since creating the War Doctor – that he would address the 13-incarnation limit at the close of Matt’s tenure.) Because I can maybe imagine a version of these events that play out over a season, and it feels more dramatically right. Maybe a town called Christmas would’ve been involved, but likely not…which brings me to another issue.

Christmas - not just the town, but the holiday, and the now ubiquitous Christmas specials. It wouldn’t be sporting to call for an end to the annual special (though it feels like the areas in which it can be taken have run their course), but please, for the love of all that is Gallifreyan, can we never again have the Doctor regenerate at Christmas? A regeneration episode should be a dangerous, difficult scenario infused with all manner of gravitas – not the treacly sort of sentimentality this was made up of. (RTD at least had the good sense to wait a week and regenerate him on New Year’s Day.) But a holiday regeneration? Never again, I say! This further underscores my above theories, which, it should be reiterated, is all they are - theories and speculation: Moffat must have begrudgingly settled on this, as I simply cannot believe that his plan all along was to have the Doctor end his regeneration cycle at Christmas. Indeed, the town called Christmas feels entirely at odds with everything concerning the doom-laden Trenzalore that was set up in “Name.”

"My turkey isn't the only thing half-baked here..."
So, either some version of the events I’ve laid out above is true, or Steven Moffat is the most incompetent dramatist in the kingdom. Now I’ve had my issues with the Moff here and there over the years, but never has my opinion of his talents changed: He is one of the best and smartest TV writers working today, which is why I must believe something along the lines of what I’ve laid out above is closer to the truth than accepting that the events as they went down in “Time” were his plan all along. It simply makes no narrative sense whatsoever, given what came before in the previous two installments.

Having gotten all of that off my chest, let’s go back to my minor reappraisal of the episode. What struck me as worthy on the second viewing was the emotion of it all, which is pretty sound. And I do believe that for a substantial portion of the viewing audience, the emotions and feelings of the series are amongst its strongest attributes, hence the reason it worked for about half the people who tuned in. Another thing that I was pretty blinded to on the first viewing was Matt’s performance, which is pretty great, especially given all the different stages of his Doctor’s life he has to wade through. I don’t think it’s the best work of his tenure by a long shot, but given the frequently subpar material he has to work with here, it’s a touching showing on his part. “The Time of the Doctor” is essentially a “Greatest Hits” package, and like all such collections, it can please in the short term on its own, but is ultimately hollow, and shown up by the bigger picture of everything that led up to it.

For me, Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor will always end with him surrounded by all of his previous selves, eagerly moving forward into a bold new direction that’s promise will hopefully be fulfilled by Moffat as we enter the Peter Capaldi era of the series later this year.

The Doctor carts around what's likely the remains of a human head for hundreds of years

Blu-ray Extras: In addition to the main program, there’s a touching “Behind the Lens” piece that runs about 13 minutes - a making-of that includes bits from the heartrending final table read, as well as the cast and crew saying goodbye to Matt on set. It will tug at your heartstrings, perhaps even more so than the episode proper. Also present are two, 45-minute BBC America-produced docs: “Tales from the TARDIS,” which features interviews with most of the previous living Doctors; and “Farewell to Matt Smith,” which is something of an overview of his era. All in all, a decent package given the asking price, and if, like me, you’re not a fan of the episode, there are at least these bonus goodies to justify the purchase.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet & The Moonbase DVD reviews


What, in the here and now, is potentially intriguing about the DVD releases of “The Tenth Planet” and “The Moobase” is that the amount of time between their R1 DVD release dates is nearly identical to the amount of time that lapsed in between their original airings on the BBC. “The Tenth Planet” aired throughout October of 1966 and was released on DVD in November of 2013; “The Moonbase” aired throughout February and March of ’67, and its DVD arrives on February 11th, 2014, exactly 47 years to the day of the airing of its first episode. It’s unlikely that this was someone’s plan (the R2 release dates are slightly different), but it is a sweet bit of serendipity regardless, especially for those who picked up and viewed “The Tenth Planet” last year, and intend to buy and watch “The Moonbase” now.

Why? Because the tales are nothing if not two sides of the same coin – the latter installment being something of a remake of the former – and viewed back-to-back they sort of exemplify some of the changes Doctor Who was going through at the time. It’s cool to be able to compare and contrast the two stories, and attempt to look at them with the same sort of eyes that viewers back in ’66 and ’67 had, given that most of us are experiencing the two stories, with their animated reconstructions, closer to their original visions than ever before. Now before going further let’s lay it out on the table: neither story is a true classic (though each has its virtues), and calling them flawed is probably being generous. For a truly successful Cybertale, it would be “third time’s a charm,” with “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” later on in ’67.

“The Tenth Planet” plot: The TARDIS materializes at the South Pole in the year 1986, where the crew - The Doctor (William Hartnell), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) - happen upon a space tracking station called Snowcap, staffed by an international crew of characters, and led by the Ripper-esque General Cutler (every time he obsesses on his son, just think “precious bodily fluids”). Snowcap is monitoring the launch of an Earth spaceship (which is where the son is) when they discover a new planet that looks suspiciously like Earth. A craft from the planet arrives, bringing to our world, for the first time, the Cybermen (why did they head for the South Pole?), who intend to drain all of Earth’s power for their dying planet Mondas, and convert the populace into more Cybermen. In the midst of everything, the Doctor appears to be growing weaker and weaker…

“The Moonbase” plot: The TARDIS materializes on the Moon in the year 2070, where the crew – The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Polly, Ben, and new TARDIS crewmember Jamie (Frazer Hines) – happen upon a weather control station called the Moonbase, staffed by an international crew of characters, and led by the considerably less insane Hobson (compared to Cutler, anyway). The center of the Moonbase is the Gravitron, which controls Earth’s weather. Meanwhile, some Moonbase crewmembers are afflicted with a peculiar virus, and soon enough, victims of the illness go missing. The Cybermen are back, this time with the intention of using the Gravitron to destroy all life on Earth.

As you can probably see, the story constructs are similar, even if some of the details are slightly different. Further, the Snowcap/Moonbase interiors and South Pole/Moon exteriors also add to the mounting textural resemblances, and of course, the villains are the same in name, even if not in appearance, which is probably what makes the two stories most easy to compare. The “base under siege” plot, as it is often referred to, would become a standard of the Troughton era, so it’s also worth noting that these two tales are probably the earliest examples of the formula.   

“The Tenth Planet” is rife with problems. It lurches from one episode to the next, changing tone every step of the way. The international cast of characters is riddled with stereotypes and clichés (though one must give the serial props for featuring a black astronaut played by Earl Cameron). William Hartnell is ill enough at this point that not only is his failing health written into the script, but he also disappears for the entirety of Episode Three. When I think of “The Tenth Planet,” the singular aspect that makes the story truly worthy (besides the fact that it features the first regeneration) is the Cybermen. 

These Cybermen are unlike any others that came after them, and one wonders what the villains might look like today if they hadn’t been redesigned for “The Moonbase” just a few months later. People often describe their vocal inflections as “sing song,” which I suppose is pretty apt, though I would argue that they really sort of defy description. Perhaps it is because I’m so much more familiar with every other incarnation of the Cybermen, that these are so unsettling. These cats are some of the weirdest Doctor Who villains in the history of the series. Episode Two here is very good. It gives ample screen time to both the Cybermen and the Doctor, and is probably Hartnell’s final great work on the series, as he has less to do in the fourth episode – which is also the only episode of this serial that’s missing.

“The Moonbase” improves upon some of the problems from the first serial. First and foremost, in the form of Patrick Troughton, it has an energetic, able-bodied and minded leading man, which of course makes a huge difference. There are lovely, inspired sequences set on the lunar surface, featuring both Cybermen and TARDIS crew (though the latter sequence, from Episode One, ends up animated). As this serial was devised prior to Jamie joining the crew, he is jammed into the narrative and injured in the first episode and doesn’t return to form until the final episode. Still, Jamie’s injury leads to one of the more wonderful flourishes of “The Moonbase,” and that’s his perception of a Cyberman as the “phantom piper,” coming to take Jamie off to the land of the dead. It’s neat to see the far less experienced McCrimmon at this stage of the game. “The Moonbase” is surely the better story of the two, but I would still argue that, at least from a historical standpoint, they’re stronger as a double feature than apart. Neil Gaiman might disagree, as it seemed clear that his “Nightmare in Silver” was heavily-influenced by the horror of watching “The Moonbase” as a child.

As previously mentioned, both stories remain incomplete in the BBC archives, so animation has once again come to the rescue, with “The Tenth Planet” Episode Four, and “The Moonbase” Episodes One and Three being given the treatment. After the less than stellar animation style used for “The Ice Warriors,” I was happy to see that the methods used for each of these stories were much closer to the artiness of “The Reign of Terror.”

UPDATED (02/26/2014): It’s been revealed, since I wrote this review, that the R1 version of “The Moonbase” has a pretty serious mastering error, and as a result the episodes run about a minute longer than they should. The problem has also resulted in the eradication of the VidFire process. I wish I could say I’d taken note of this when I was viewing the disc, but I did not. I did, as I recall, at one point wonder why the episodes were so long, but it was days before I was headed out to Gallifrey One, and I wanted to get this review up before I left, so I didn’t give it much thought.

This is, of course, terrible news, and there’s been no talk of a recall or replacement discs…however, the good news is that I watched the entire story and didn’t even notice. 50% of “The Moonbase” is animated, so the VidFire is irrelevant on those episodes anyway. So if you already own the old Lost in Time DVD set, which contains the VidFired episodes 2 & 4, perhaps with that, alongside the two animated episodes here, you, the fan, can sort of try to make it all work.

So take all of that for whatever it’s worth. I know that for the hardcore collector, this is not a pleasing development, and certainly something that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense as we near the end of the classic series DVD range. Further, this tidbit about missing credits on the disc was revealed today. Sure seems like “The Moonbase” DVD could do with a do-over for all parties involved. If I find out anything more, I'll update this space again.


DVD Extras: The double-disc set of “The Tenth Planet” doesn’t skimp on the extras, so even if the story is a bit of a letdown, there’s plenty of other stuff here to keep the hardcore fan entertained. A revolving commentary track for the first three episodes is moderated by Toby Hadoke and features actors Anneke Wills, Christopher Matthews (Radar Technician), Gregg Palmer (Cybermen), Earl Cameron (Williams), Alan White (Schultz), and production designer Peter Kindred. “Frozen Out” is a half-hour making of – fascinating warts and all, including some talk of Hartnell’s alleged racism. In addition to the animated Episode Four, there’s also the reconstructed version from the VHS tape. Far and away the most exciting and memorable extra here in also the shortest – and that’s the three-minute interview with Hartnell, conducted after he’d left Who, in the dressing room of a theatre, while he applies makeup in the mirror. He’s irritable, yes, but what is surprising about it, I think, is how alert Hartnell is. The signs of his failing health are nowhere to be seen, and it’s easy to simply savor every single second of it, since it’s the only on-camera interview with Hartnell I guess we’ll ever see.

But wait! There’s more. Another installment of “Doctor Who Stories,” this time with Anneke Wills, is always a welcome addition. “The Golden Age” seeks to examine the “myth” of the golden age of Doctor Who. “Boys! Boys! Boys!” is an answer to the previous multi-part featurette “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” which featured on a trio of previous DVDs. This one features Peter Purves, Frazer Hines, and Mark Strickson.  “Companion Piece” lives up to its title by examining the role of the companion. There’s a 9-minute clip from Blue Peter, which was celebrating the Tenth anniversary of Who at the time of its broadcast. It is in this clip that the only surviving footage of Episode Four exists – the regeneration scene. Finally there’s a photo gallery, Radio Times listings in PDF form, the production notes subtitle option, and a coming soon trailer for “The Moonbase.”

Speaking of, “The Moonbase,” on only a single disc, is much lighter in the extras department. There’s audio commentary for the extant episodes (2 & 4) again moderated by Hadoke, and again with Anneke Wills, as well as Frazer Hines, actor Edward Phillips, and special sounds creator Brian Hodgson. The animated episodes (1 & 3) feature interviews with writer Kit Pedler’s daughters, as well as archive interviews with producer Innes Lloyd, assistant floor manager Lovett Bickford, and a trio of Cyber-actors. “Lunar Landing” is a serviceable making of doc, and the disc is rounded out with the usual photo gallery, Radio Times listings, production note subtitle option, and a coming soon trailer for “The Underwater Menace,” which may not be coming all that soon after all (but I would hope before the end of the year). 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dallas: The Complete Second Season DVD review

The second season of Dallas is also available to stream on Netflix.

It’s not often that one can discuss and even recommend an entire season of a television series because of a single episode, which sort of goes to show how special of a TV series Dallas (in any incarnation) really is. But episode 8 of this second helping of the rejiggered soap juggernaut, entitled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” is such a fascinating slice of TV, from both sides of the camera, that it makes this season must-see.

When Larry Hagman lost his battle with cancer at the age of 81, on Nov. 23rd, 2012, Dallas was smack in the middle of shooting its second season – a season that had already been planned and plotted out through to the end, much of it involving J.R. Indeed, J.R.’s machinations were as essential to the show now as they were back in its ‘80s heyday, and likewise, Hagman was just as committed to the series as ever, and was working on it as recently as four days prior to his passing.

Yes, Dallas is a special series, and J.R. Ewing was more than “just” a TV character (as Hagman was so much more than just an actor). It could be said that J.R. Ewing is the greatest or most important TV character ever created, and few would argue. J.R.’s sudden absence could not simply be explained away with a few lines of dialogue, so showrunner Cynthia Cidre and her cohorts went in a direction that few shows would (or even could) if similar circumstances afflicted their production, and not just devoted an entire episode to celebrating J.R., but also structured an entire mystery that rippled throughout the remainder of the season: “Who Killed J.R.?”

But back to “J.R’s Masterpiece,” which lives up to its title and instantly leaps onto the list of seminal, cornerstone Dallas episodes. In the final moments of the episode prior to it (“The Furious and the Fast”), thanks to slick editing and a bit of CGI mixed with leftover footage of Hagman, J.R. meets his untimely demise. “Masterpiece” traces the Ewing clan traveling to Mexico where the deed occurred, in an effort to learn more of the mysterious goings-on, as well as indentify the body. Does Carlos Del Sol know more than he’s letting on? The body is taken back to Dallas, where a public wake and a private funeral – which together make up the meatiest portions of the episode – are held.

The wake is a lively affair, with numerous faces from days of Dallas past making appearances alongside real life Dallas (the city, not the show) icons, like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban, playing themselves. Then the fun is put into funeral with the unceremonious arrival of Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), which leads to a classic, if not slightly abbreviated, Dallas brawl. By contrast, the funeral held at Southfork, is a somber affair, in which family members take turns telling stories and remembrances of J.R. After the funeral comes the twist, which I won’t go into here, because it’s what gives the rest of the season so much of its heft.

What is ultimately so moving about “J.R.’s Masterpiece” is its clever and careful melding of fiction and reality (the altered opening credits sequence alone will move you to silence). It was shot in January of 2013, less than two months after Hagman’s passing. The emotions on display from much of the cast are very real, contemplative, and raw. Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy in particular give some of the very best work of their Dallas careers here. I’m not sure if there’s ever been an episode of TV quite like this, and of those shows that have celebrated an actor’s passing through the demise of the fictitious character they played (the recent episode of Glee that dealt with Cory Monteith’s passing through Finn’s death leaps instantly to mind), few have done it with such class and grace as what Cidre (who wrote the episode) and executive producer Michael S. Robin (who directed it) have achieved here.

Further, “J.R.’s Masterpiece” isn’t just a hermetically sealed one-off. No, what happens in this episode goes on to inform and shape the remainder of the season – Cidre and her team came together to reformat the ongoing plot in order to honor J.R.’s larger than life legacy. While the mystery of “Who killed J.R.?” was certainly not the cultural touchstone its infamous forefather, “Who shot J.R.?,” was, there’s no question that it’s an engaging storyline with a befitting series of endings that culminate in the season finale, “Legacies.” No doubt, Hagman would be tickled pink to know what went down with the remainder of this season of Dallas in his absence.

Of course, there are 14 other episodes on this set (6 or 7 of which feature Hagman prominently, doing the final work of his career). This season, with the success of the first season behind it, fires on all cylinders, despite the behind the scenes turmoil, and the loss of its patriarchal figure. It moves at an almost breakneck pace, offering up one episodic cliffhanger after the next, miring its large cast of characters in the stickiest of situations. What blows me away the most about it, is that even with Hagman sadly gone, I can think of no solid reason to shut this series down, any more so than the original series should’ve shut down over the passing of Jim Davis. This version of Dallas could conceivably go for many more years, such is the sprawling, devious cast of new characters Cidre has brought to life, as well as the nerve-rattling situations she so often places them in. Fine, fine TV, and the rowdiest, most riveting nighttime soap on TV today, just as the original Dallas was in its day.

DVD Extras: “J.R’s Masterpiece” gets an optional extended cut, which runs about 7 minutes longer than the TV cut. To watch it, you must go into the special features menu to activate it. Also present is a commentary track for the extended cut with Cidre and Robin, in which they detail the effects of Hagman’s death on the cast and crew, creating the episode, and how they had to rearrange the entire season - unquestionably illuminating, and much more interesting than your standard, run of the mill TV episode commentary.  

There are at least a half dozen installments of an ongoing series called “Dallas: Fashion Files” which feature costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin discussing her many decisions throughout the season (typically alongside Jordana Brewster). “Dallas at PaleyFest 2013” is a 30-minute panel discussion with the core cast, sans Hagman, as he was already gone. Three more featurettes: “The Battle for Ewing Energies: Blood is Thicker Than Oil” is a sort of season overview; “Memories of Larry Hagman: A Cast and Crew Tribute” is self-explanatory; and “One Last Conversation with Larry Hagman” appears to date back to the first season. Lastly, there are roughly 33 minutes worth of deleted scenes scattered across the four discs.

Special thanks to Harry Thomas of MySA’s DVD Extra blog for passing his copy of this DVD set my way.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor

You know that maxim that says the third movie in a trilogy will suck? It’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of movies that buck it, but likewise there are enough failures to justify the coining of the rule in the first place. I thought of that rule often while watching “The Time of the Doctor,” which, after the exhilarating one-two punch of “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor,” was a letdown of, I dare suggest, epic proportions. Ambitious to a fault, it never achieves the grandeur of the previous two “… of the Doctor” episodes, though it appears hell bent on outdoing both as hard as it possibly can. And you know what they say about trying hard — actually, I’m not sure, but it must be something awful. I’ll stop short of describing the episode as just that, because there was some nice stuff nestled in between all the loud, incomprehensible bits, which were countless.

Read the rest of this recap/commentary by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD review

Surely the one thing that every Doctor Who fan will want this Christmas, “The Day of the Doctor” on DVD or Blu-ray is the perfect stocking stuffer for fans of all things Time Lord, TARDIS, and Tennant. On the weekend of the 50th, I only had a night and a morning to collect and figure out my thoughts in order to craft a recap for Vulture, but I’ve had plenty of time to ponder it since. Further, I saw it theatrically in 3D (as transcendent and religious an experience as an atheist Whovian can have, I imagine), and numerous times on the DVR and now this disc. I can’t recall the last time I wanted to watch an episode of new Who so many times, which must surely speak to the quality of the anniversary episode.

What gets me about this anniversary story is how it’s so much better by leaps and bounds than its predecessors. It’s often said that new Who isn’t as good as old Who, but then even back when the classic series was still on, people were saying “it isn’t as a good as it used to be.” But “The Day of the Doctor” is such a vastly superior anniversary offering than either of its multi-Doc predecessors (I’m not bringing “The Two Doctors” into the equation since it was a slightly different animal), that it’s a clear instance of an area where the new series blows away the classic – how the complexities of today’s storytelling trumps the days of old. No, new Who isn’t always better than classic, but nor is it always inferior, and here we have a sterling example of new trumping old. “The Day of the Doctor” is proof of how much life is left in this beast called Doctor Who, and it appears to be vast quantities.

I can’t recall if I shared this with Morgue readers before, but it’s a lengthy quote from Steven Moffat that I got from a conference call I was on with him. This was from back before the second half of season seven had kicked off, and someone asked a question about the upcoming anniversary special. Moffat's reply?

“The show must never feel old. It must always feel brand new, and a 50th anniversary can play against that. The show must be seen to be going forward. It's all about the next 50 years, not about the last 50 years. If you start putting a full stop on it, if you start thinking it's all about nostalgia, then you're finished. It's about moving forward. So, you know, the Doctor is moving forward as he always does…he's not thinking about all his previous incarnations and his previous adventures, he's thinking about the future. And that, for me, is important.”

And it was so refreshing to see that philosophy he espoused so many months ago finally play out onscreen, almost to the letter. The show that is seemingly more ancient than any other, once again feels fresh, and the load the Doctor has carried since the start of the new series has been lifted. It will hopefully be fascinating to see how this all plays out in the coming years.

As far as the Blu-ray goes, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being disappointed with the DTS-HD 5.1 sound or the 1080p video, though I don’t have a 3D capable TV, so I wasn’t able to explore that avenue of the disc; there’s so much more to this story than its 3D draw anyway. It seems unlikely that “The Day of the Doctor” will end up on any sort of season box set anytime soon, so whereas I might normally suggest that you could always wait a few months for the eventual season box set release, that seems less of an option for this title. Who knows? It may not even end up on the eventual season eight box set (which likely wont even be released until 2015). So this is an easy recommendation: Your collection craves this set. 

Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Normally minisodes are fun but ultimately a little forgettable. With this disc, however, we get one that’s downright imperative viewing, and that’s “The Night of the Doctor,” which was released a week and a half prior to “Day.” Featuring the return of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, and showing his regeneration into John Hurt’s War Doctor, “Night” is the sort of thing Who dreams are made of, and it’s a brilliant prequel to “Day,” and its inclusion on this set, while not necessary, is surely the most welcome extra. I imagine some people will buy this disc especially for it, in fact. The other minisode, “The Last Day,” got sort of lost in much of the celebratory shuffle, but it’s set on Gallifrey in the midst of the Time War, and provides a bit of extra shading for the main feature. Indeed, watching both of these minis in order prior to the special proper is the way to do it.

Additionally, there’s the 45-minute “Doctor Who Explained” talking heads documentary produced by and shown on BBC America, and the 14-minute “Behind the Scenes” [of “The Day of the Doctor”] narrated by Colin Baker, which was shown theatrically, after the anniversary special (though the disc has neither of the pre-show featurette bits with Strax and Smith & Tennant). Lastly, there’s the “Day” trailer that was first screened at Comic-Con this summer, as well as that awesome collage teaser trailer that seemingly dragged us all the way through the Doctors many lives in just one minute, and ended with Smith pointing his screwdriver at the heavens.

Finally, this early edition contains a deck of twelve trading cards – one for each Doctor, including Hurt - that assemble together to make one large collage.

The only thing this set is missing – and its inclusion would’ve taken it right up over the top - is “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot,” written and directed by Peter Davison. Let's hope that makes its way onto home video in some form or fashion, as it was integral to the anniversary celebrations.

Note: All of the above extras are included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD inside the set.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited - Ninth to Eleventh DVD review

After two volumes of “The Doctors Revisited,” featuring classic stories with classic Doctors, we reach the third and presumably final volume of this series, which features the three modern Doctors who’ve so dominated the landscape of Doctor Who since the show was resuscitated back in 2005. This is also the toughest of the three to recommend, simply because most people either have these on DVD or Blu-ray, or have access to these stories already via Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime. Further, these episodes frequently play on BBC America. So it would be very easy to view this set as redundant to your collection, and yet it had to be released.

If I know Doctor Who fans, those who picked up the first two volumes will look down at them and feel something’s missing if they don’t buy the third. After all, there are three half-hour talking head documentaries on here, covering the eras of Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith, which are part of the tapestry of “The Doctors Revisited” series. And there are also the fridge magnets – we mustn’t forget the fridge magnets! Indeed, the other eight magnets are going to look mighty incomplete without the final four - the last of which is a collage of all eleven Doctors (see pics below).

The storylines featured in this set are: “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways” which closed out Season One; “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” which closed out Season Four; and “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon” which kicked off Season Six – all presented here in movie length edits as well as in their original two-part versions.

Fridge Magnets, 9-11
Also, it’s worth mentioning, even though it seems obvious to me, that all of the aspect ratio and quality issues I had with portions of the previous two collections do not apply to this set. In fact, these might look even better than some of the older DVDs (in particular the Eccleston two-parter – though admittedly I didn’t do any comparisons.) And the feature length movie versions have seamlessly married the two episodes together, which I was sort of skeptical about them being able to pull off, so basically you get what feels very much like three Doctor Who movies.  

There’s not too much to complain about here, except that since this set is comprised of three discs rather than four, the retail price point really shouldn’t be the same as the previous collections, though it is. Surely $34.95 or even $29.95 would have been a better move? Especially given that with this set, people are likely being asked to double dip. Well, we’ll leave that to you and your wallet or purse to figure out.

Check out the previous “The Doctors Revisited DVD reviews by clicking here and here.

The entire collection of "The Doctors Revisited" fridge magnets on my hideous yellow filing cabinet

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Doctor Who Can Make the World a Better Place

Monday night I went to see the Doctor Who anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” in 3-D and on the big screen via Fathom Events, and it was glorious. Not only did they show the 75-minute special, but they kicked things off with a specially-made policy trailer intro featuring Strax (Dan Starkey) that had the auditorium in stitches. There’s a priceless bit with popcorn that has to be seen to be appreciated. That was followed by David Tennant and Matt Smith (in costume and character) against a stark white background, “turning on” the 3-D, which led to the special proper. Once that was over, there was a ten-minute making of special narrated by Colin Baker, so the entire program ended up probably going just over the 90-minute mark, and thus making it all feel like a true theatrical experience. As if watching the anniversary special on Saturday wasn’t enough, this kicked the whole thing up to a new level, and the folks who viewed this same presentation theatrically on Saturday truly experienced the Mona Lisa of Doctor Who anniversaries (and it was not a fake!).

Seeing the same program two days later was nearly as special, as was evidenced by the enthusiasm of the crowd. The B.O. take for this massive experiment is pretty impressive, and the BBC bean counters are surely over the moon. I do not know the specifics of how this entire event was handled, but when I purchased tickets the day they went on sale, as far as I could tell there was just a single showing, at 7:30 PM. Yet Monday night there were numerous showings – at 7:30 and at 10 PM, in both 2-D & 3-D! So it seems that somewhere along the way, more screenings had to be arranged, presumably to accommodate the demand for tickets. When we emerged from our screening at about 9ish, the entire theatre was packed with people waiting for the next screenings. It seems that the initial expectations were obliterated, and a proper Doctor Who theatrical movie, likely starring Peter Capaldi, needs to happen in the next couple years.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to publicly recant something I’ve said numerous times over the years (though probably never online - which makes this as much confession as retraction), and that’s that I do not like Doctor Who fans, an opinion I formed back during the lean years when the show was off the air, about an unhappy, grumpy group of folks who often sort of seemed to dislike even one another (there was probably a fair amount of self-loathing involved, on my part, too). That’s all changed now, and with each new convention I attend, and each new batch of Whovians I engage with, I realize that not only do I like Doctor Who fans, but I might just love them.

I love their passion. I love their ingenuity. I love their intelligence. And what I loved more than anything else Monday night at the movie theatre was the love they have for one another. I wore my Tom Baker scarf – one my aunt knitted for me back in, like, ’84 or someting - and people just fawned and squealed over it. Men longed to have one just like it, and women wanted to wrap it around themselves – and it was just a scarf! Still, folks admiring my wares is also not what I’m here to discuss.

It’s Doctor Who families that blow me away – parents that have in-Doctor-nated their children, and they were all there on Monday: so many enthusiastic families – children waving around their sonic screwdrivers, parents wearing fezzes. It was such a sight to behold…and it gets better. My initial reaction to seeing all these children in the auditorium was one of fear – how are these little ones going to ruin my one and only chance at this particular cinematic experience? How many crying fits and bored kids getting up and running around will I have to suffer through?

None of that ever happened. They were so into the program that beyond the laughter and squeals in the appropriate places, there were utterly, silently transfixed. Some of it was because the program was so awesome, but much of it, I believe, was also down to just plain good parenting. Maybe Harry Potter started all this, with its books and movies, and now Doctor Who is picking up where J.K. Rowling left off, by helping to make smarter, more imaginative children, by demonstrating that intelligence and kindness and patience are attributes to strive for, not to be ashamed of. As far as our TV entertainment goes, families don’t have much to watch and enjoy together anymore. TV networks and cable channels have splintered all the choices into specific groups and demographics. Very little on TV tries to please everyone, and the networks have given up on trying to create something the entire family can enjoy.

Families coming together to view Who isn’t news to anyone living in the U.K., but over here in the States, it’s a much more recent development. It probably started with the arrival of the Eleventh Doctor, and has been gathering steam ever since. At the L.A. convention Gallifrey One back in February (where I took all the pictures on display here), I recall seeing similar families, and similarly well behaved, polite children, and I realize that this wasn’t just some anomaly the other night, and that the show is engaged in doing something very special and important to the people who discover and watch it: Doctor Who makes people want to strive for something better. A hero makes others want to be heroic as well, and this is perhaps why the Doctor is the world’s greatest hero right now. We need the Doctor now more than ever. It’s like Rose Tyler said in “The Parting of the Ways,” “The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life.” So not only can Doctor Who make the world a better place, but it is making the world a better place, right here, right now.

This holiday season, figure out a way to turn a kid onto Doctor Who. Share and connect. You’ll be doing the world a favor.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

From the very first moments of “The Day of the Doctor,” it was pretty obvious we were in for something special. They dared to go old school, with Hartnell-era style credits, coupled with a classic London bobby walking past a sign pointing toward the Totters Lane junkyard, which was then revealed to be on a wall outside Coal Hill Secondary School – all nods to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” But things got modern quickly, upon discovering that we were not in the past, but the present, and Clara (Jenna Coleman) is now teaching at the school, gracing the very same hallways and classrooms as her predecessors Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright did 50 years ago (there’s actually a shout out to Ian on the Coal Hill sign if you look closely).

What happened to the Doctor and Clara being caught in his timestream at the close of “The Name of the Doctor”? Seems some time has passed, and some escapades have been glossed over. It’s business as usual, and Clara is off on a motorbike (the same one from “The Bells of Saint John,” right?) and into the TARDIS for more adventures. Soon enough she and the Doctor (Matt Smith) are on one, when they realize the TARDIS is caught in the grip of a crane attached to a helicopter, and they’re being dragged to UNIT HQ by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), which was a far more thrilling sequence than expected. Or are they? Kate’s acting on orders from the Queen – Queen Elizabeth I, that is.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited - Fifth to Eighth DVD review

And so BBC America’s celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who continues with “The Doctors Revisited” series, not only on the network, but also on DVD, where its presentation is considerably more celebratory, rather than an irritant. As you may recall, in my recent review of the first volume of this DVD series, I ranted and raved about the decision to stretch the 4:3 image to fit 16x9 flatscreen TVs, but ultimately forgave it since the DVD presents, alongside the distorted version, the original square(ish) imagery, in its original episodic format.

The presentation has not changed for the second volume, though it’s worth mentioning that the prints used for the stretched feature presentations are in much better shape than some of those used on the previous set (no doubt due largely to the newer age of the serials). One thing that I didn’t make room for in the previous review is the method used to stretch the serials, which is something I’m not sure I’ve seen before. If you look closely at the images, you’ll see that about the center third of the original image – the area where the eye is typically focused – is not actually stretched at all, and that the real stretching is only of either side of the image. This is a pretty fascinating technique, and is probably why these presentations don’t look particularly offensive to many an eye (most people are not as fussy as I am). Of course, this presents a problem if you use the aspect ratio buttons on the TV remote to try to alter the image back to its 4:3 image – it simply doesn’t work, and results in a different kind of stretching altogether.

So once again we come back to the original episodic broadcast versions to get us through the night. Given that the aim of these sets is to introduce viewers of the new incarnation of the series to the classic, this volume strikes me as being friendlier toward modern audiences than the last one. While I find it difficult to believe that “Pyramids of Mars” would turn anyone off the classics, who but the most hardcore among us will find a great deal of entertainment value in “The Aztecs?” The serials (and movie) presented here are somewhat closer in pacing and characterization to what audiences of today are used to seeing. 

Peter Davison: A Doctor of action?
This set kicks off with friggin’ “Earthshock,” – a hugely entertaining serial brimming with action, suspense and emotion, featuring redesigned Cybermen, making their return to the series after a mind-boggling seven year absence and…something else. On the off chance that somebody unfamiliar with this serial is reading this, I don’t want to get into the “something else,” as it’s rather special, and should be viewed spoiler-free by virgin eyes...which the accompanying 25-minute Fifth Doctor retrospective on here doesn’t take into account - it completely lays out the end of this story! So my advice when watching this set is to just go ahead and dive into the serial, and then come back and watch the Fifth Doctor piece afterward. Two other things worthy of mention: The single disc edition of “Earthshock” is currently out of print on DVD, and now going for $50 $100 on Amazon, and the version presented on this set is the original, not the one with updated effects work, which was available to view on the now OOP single disc DVD.

Of the other three stories presented here, “Remembrance of the Daleks” is another major highlight, and, like “Earthshock,” is almost sure to entertain new series fans. Funny that it took getting to Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s era for “Revisited” to showcase a Dalek tale, but what a tale it is! Any fan who was around at the time will tell you how enthralled we all were with this story, as it seemed to signal a bold new era for a series that for several years seemed to many to be in a fair amount of trouble. The versions presented on this set still omit the Beatles tunes, as did the previous DVD incarnations – sorry folks. My review of the double disc special edition of “Remembrance” is over at Bullz-Eye.

The 1996 TV movie stars Paul McGann in his sole TV outing as the Doctor (as well as McCoy in his final TV appearance, prior to regenerating into the new leading man), and Eric Roberts as the Master. The movie is tricky, and I’ve still no idea what newbies think of it. It lacks many of the fantastical elements we associate with Doctor Who – there’s no question this is largely a product of ‘90s American television. Shot in Vancouver for Fox, its texture and look is comparable to The X-Files. While many will not care for Roberts on principle, few will dislike McGann, who’s utterly charming as the George Lazenby of the TV Doctors. Likewise, the TARDIS interior is really rather gobsmacking, all decked out in Jules Verne décor; clearly the bulk of the film’s design budget went into creating it. My extremely long-winded review of the special edition DVD of the TV movie can also be found over at Bullz-Eye.

And finally there’s “Vengeance on Varos,” which I wrote about here at the Morgue not too long ago when its special edition was released. It’s the true wild card of this set, and it’s anyone’s guess what a newbie might think of this entry from Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s era, but folks with a taste for wicked satire and black humor will surely find something to appreciate within this tale of a society gone mad. Indeed, I personally think “Varos” is stronger now than it was back in ’85, but then I expend far more energy and thought being angry and disappointed with my government than I did when I was I was a teenager.

As with the previous collection, there are no extras, beyond a set of four fridge magnets, featuring each Doctor from this set.

Fridge Magnets

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series Blu-ray review

Though all the episodes contained within this set have been available on several different platforms for a while now, for a lot of patient fans, this is the collection they’ve been waiting for – the one with all the goodies, which everyone knows will eventually hit the market. But just how good are the goodies? Hang tight. We’ll get there.

First, some stray paragraphs/thoughts about Season Seven. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for Season Six, or conversely, how much I enjoyed the bulk of Season Seven (I have issues with certain episodes, sure, but that’s the case with any season of this series). The biggest reason I disliked much of Season Six is because its overarching storyline felt too convoluted. Season Seven was very much the opposite of this – a collection of largely standalone episodes, with some connections and arcs that ultimately have little effect on the drama of the individual installments. Doctor Who, it’s my belief, simply works better this way. Not every series should strive for the complexity of Battlestar Galactica or Lost, and Doctor Who just seems to dramatically work better the cleaner and more efficiently it’s presented.

Having said that, one thing Steven Moffat has done with the structures of each of his seasons so far is experiment – which is something Russell T Davies didn’t really do. In fact, for those of you who were around at the time, I recall that we all felt a bit weary of the nearly identical structure of his seasons by the time the Fourth (with Catherine Tate) rolled around (i.e. opening sci-fi romp followed by trip to history followed by action-packed two-parter and later on another two-parter that’s darker and deeper, a Doctor-lite episode, and then of course the big “everything and the kitchen sink” finale that pays off the seasonal mystery (Bad Wolf/Torchwood/Harold Saxon/Rose’s return). Moffat, to his credit, keeps us guessing – not just with his individual episodes, but in the way he’s plotted each season as a whole so far. It stands to reason that with Season Eight, he will do it yet another way.

Season Seven - from “Asylum of the Daleks” all the way through to “The Name of the Doctor” - is quite the ride, particularly in regards to how the character of Clara was introduced to us…and then reintroduced, and then reintroduced again. I like that the Christmas special “The Snowmen” functions as a necessary dramatic component of the storyline, and doesn’t feel like a complete one-off as so many of them often do. I enjoy how part of the season is one thing, and the other part of the season is something else entirely. And then there’s a finale that’s been built up to since the Season Six finale that seems to take the show to a whole new place, as it sets up the 50th, which we now know will be titled “The Day of the Doctor.” Indeed, for a series whose history is rooted in the art of the cliffhanger, new Doctor Who has never really ended a season on one. A freshly regenerated Doctor is not a cliffhanger, nor is stuff like Donna suddenly appearing, or the Titantic crashing into the TARDIS - both of which are too silly to be taken seriously. Here we’ve been given one of the great cliffhangers in sci-fi TV history – the reveal at the close of “The Name of the Doctor” is right up there with Picard being turned into Locutus.     

Over at Vulture where I’ve been writing Who recaps, a commenter recently complained that an episode I’d given high marks to was merely “a monster of the week,” and therefore I was being too generous. Doctor Who was built on Monster of the Week. That’s what the show is, and has largely always been. This is another reason I take issue with Season Six – it somehow seemed to “train” some viewers into thinking that a labyrinthine, character-driven storyline is somehow what this show should strive to be. Season Six was an experiment – not a failed one by any means, but not an entirely successful one either. Having been a fan for over half my life, Season Seven as a whole is much closer to my sensibilities, but then that’s sort of the rub with this show – what works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa. It could be an episode we vehemently disagree on, or an ongoing story thread, or it could be a character, or even a piece of dialogue. It seems that all the many elements that come together to make this program mean something different to everyone that views it. This is one of the strongest testaments I can think of for Doctor Who: It’s the show that actually does have something for everyone. Didn’t like an episode? Just sit tight, because there’s one coming up that you’re gonna adore.

So I suppose this was my rather disjointed attempt at explaining why this season works for me, when clearly it didn’t always appear to work for the entire audience. Moving on to the goods…

Blu-ray Extras: For the first time on Blu-ray, a season of the series is being presented in 1080p, rather than 1080i. (Likewise, the massive Blu-ray box set of the entire new series that’s being released in November will also be in 1080p.) While this is potentially good news, if I’m being honest, I have to say I cannot tell the difference from the previous 1080i discs: the show looked spectacular in high-def before, and it looks (and sounds) spectacular now. Doctor Who remains one of the most visually dazzling shows on TV, and there’s simply no better way to experience it than via these Blu-ray sets.

Most exciting are the three new minisodes here: “INFORARIUM” is a clever, Moffat-y bit featuring the Doctor removing info about himself from the timeline of the universe; “Clara and the TARDIS” is a “discussion” between the pair – sure to rumple the feathers of a fan or two; and lastly there’s “Rain Gods,” which is a fun bit with the Doctor and River on a brief adventure to an alien world.

Two short featurettes were certainly new to me. “The Last Days of the Ponds” is an emotional behind the scenes look at Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s last days working on the show. I dare suggest it is actually more moving than “The Angels Take Manhattan,” but by no means take that as gospel. “Creating Clara,” with Jenna Coleman, is sort of self explanatory. There are also 14 short making-of docs (one for each episode [sans “Wardrobe”], including “Clara’s White Christmas,” which previously featured on “The Snowmen” disc) that together total about 55 minutes.

There are four commentary tracks spread throughout the set. “The Snowmen” features production designer Michael Pickwoad and art director Paul Spriggs. “Cold War” features writer Mark Gatiss, VFX supervisor Murray Barber, and VFX producer Jenna Powell. “Hide” somewhat surprisingly features Matt Smith gabbing with director Jamie Payne, who’ll also be directing this year’s Christmas special – the final tale of the Eleventh. And “The Crimson Horror” features the lovely trio of Neve McIntosh (Vastra), Dan Starkey (Strax), and Catrin Stewart (Jenny). All in all, not a total letdown on the commentary front, but not as exciting a lineup as I can imagine in my mind (none of the key episodes - “Asylum,” “Angels,” “Name” - of the season have commentaries, which is a bit of a shame).

Further, all the appropriate minisodes and prequels from previous Blu-rays and DVDs are presented here, as well as “She Said, He Said” and “Demon’s Run: Two Days Later,” which are both making their home video debuts (both were available on the internet.) Full-length specials from BBC America making their home video debuts are “Doctor Who in the U.S.” and “The Companions,” while “The Science of Doctor Who” and “Doctor Who at Comic Con,” both previously available on the “Series Seven, Part One” disc, are repeated here. Also present are two interviews with Smith and one from Coleman, all from the show The Nerdist.

If you purchased the previous vanilla releases and choose to upgrade, feel free to trade in or pass on those old discs – except for “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe,” which you may want to hang onto, as the three BBC America specials presented on that disc are not duplicated here.