As hard as it may be to believe, the same year Superman turned 75, the venerable TV show Doctor Who turned 50 (albeit not in consecutive production years like the Man of Steel can boast). In that the BBC’s groundbreaking Doctor Who still, in fact, holds the record for the longest running Science Fiction Television show in history, there is great cause to celebrate this anniversary.
BBC Home Entertainment’s contribution to the celebration is to release a short series of DVDs entitled “Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited” with the first release in July commemorating the first four incarnations of “The Doctor”. In the series’ mythology, The Doctor is a centuries-old alien time traveller with a unique ability to “regenerate” into a younger form (with physical and personality changes, but retaining the same memories and core traits) whenever his present form nears death. To date there have been 11 incarnations of this mysterious character since 1963, with a 12th announced to appear at the end of 2013.
It’s rare for the feature programming on a DVD release to be actually outshined by the extras included in the release, but in some of the cases on this release that is exactly what has happened. The BBC has created four superbly produced documentaries as well as four quality introductions to each serial by current show-runner Steven Moffat. So well done and informative are these documentaries that the featured stories (covering multiple episodes, as was common in the original series) actually feel more like the extras on the discs provided as accompaniments to these deeper docs and examples of the larger tales these allude to.
Part of the reason for this reversal is that these documentaries cover so very much of each era of the show. Current Doctor Who cast and crew as well as casts and crews of the past are interviewed and offer opinions, histories and depth. Both David Tennant (the actor who played the Tenth incarnation of the Time Lord) and Moffat himself prove themselves to be complete and total Whovian geeks as they chronicle the histories and trivia surrounding the first four Doctors.
Naturally, the assumption would be that for a release of this kind, the four best examples of each Doctor’s tenure would be chosen. However, in the era surrounding William Hartnell’s episodes featuring “The First Doctor”, there was a decidedly different attitude about television preservation. Film was often destroyed and tapes often recorded over by new episodes. After all, who could have imagined in the mid-1960s that people would still be talking about Doctor Who, much less that there would be a demand for the episodes. Therefore Hartnell’s representation in the collection, “The Aztecs”, isn’t necessarily the best example of his tenure, but the best surviving example from his run on the show.
“The Aztecs” exemplifies a period from Hartnell’s time during which the show was still very much still figuring itself out. There was no indication there would ever be a “Regenerated” second Doctor and the curmudgeonly elder star of the show is a far cry from the much more fun later versions like Matt Smith or Tennant himself. Still, this is where the character originated and Hartnell’s grandfatherly figure (to the point that his granddaughter is literally portrayed on the show) was endearing and funny in his overt seriousness. The DVD Transfer is the best one can expect from old video and the images are crisp to the point that one could occasionally assume one is in the room with these characters (albeit in a colorblind world).
The same can be said for the second disc’s feature “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, which proves to be the best serial in the entire release. Featuring Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor, this is the earliest serial known to exist in its entirety from this second era of Doctor Who and fans couldn’t ask for a better representation. The capable, if clownish Doctor facing off with The Cybermen for the third time (it was a battle against the Cybermen, incidentally, that caused the “death” of the first Doctor and his regeneration into the second). “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is the most “Sci-Fi” of the serials here and delivers both an action-packed and terrifying plot, involving the first appearances of the Cybermats and Cyber Controler and gives a truly scary early look at assimilation.
The third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, is represented here by the serial “Spearhead from Space” and, as this incarnation’s first serial, it also represents a large amount of other changes in the show at large. This is the first serial filmed in color, the first (and only) to feature the new paradigm of the “Exiled” Doctor forced to live and adventure on Earth (as opposed to throughout the galaxy, but especially Earth) and the first appearance of the plastic robotic menace of the Autons. While the Autons are an interesting new angle on alien invaders, especially since the mannequin-like villains can ultimately come to impersonate anyone they wish. However, the promise isn’t always fulfilled and, while Pertwee’s Doctor is exciting, there are slow parts of this serial.
“Pyramids of Mars” represents the Fourth Doctor’s time on the show, which has, to date, been the longest individual and consecutive run of any one of the actors to play the Doctor. Tom Baker remains the most recognizable actor to play the Doctor with his bushy hairdo, trench coat and impossibly long scarf. “Pyramids of Mars” details the concept of the “Ancient Astronauts” who built the pyramids of Egypt on a quest to return to their home planet of Mars. Featuring robotic mummies, a truly scary (if budget-compromised villain in Sutekh and amazingly psychedelic special effects against chroma-key walls, “Pyramids of Mars” is a great story that makes it almost intact to the screen and gives another challenging take on the now-popular sci-fi concept of extra-terrestrial pyramid builders.
While there are no commentaries on the programs, the documentaries alone are worth the purchase for Who fans and each serial can be viewed as one continuous presentation, or as individual episodes (as originally presented). Not every disc has necessarily the best of the best episodes from each era of the Doctor (many fans might have clamored for the Douglas Adams-penned “City of Death” from the Tom Baker years), but because the extras are so representative of each series and the Doctor’s evolution throughout, the overall package is a fine catch for the Whovians, if not for casual viewers.