Doctor Who - Dreamland (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros watch Doctor Who's Dreamland - isn't that in Margate?
A mysterious stranger enters a hole-in-the-desert diner, on a causal trip to the area. When introducing himself as ‘The Doctor’, the waitress and a Native American have no idea of the chaos about to unfold around them, with aliens, spacecraft, and a plot to destroy the world at hand. Yes, not only does ‘50s America have Reds under the bed, but it seems that Uncle Sam’s military has made a very curious alliance with the Viperox, a deadly race of war-hungry insects, to take care of the imminent threat from the Soviet homeland.
After a disastrous meeting with a crazed general, an attempt to wipe their memories and being pursued by the Alliance of Shades—a group of mysterious men-in-black—the Doctor, Cassie and Jimmy Stalking-Wolf have to stop an invading alien hoard and prevent the unleashing of a genetic weapon capable of wiping out entire species—all centring around ‘Dreamland’, the almost mythical Area 51. Yes folks, animated Doctor Who finally comes of age with this superbly realised adventure.
We’ll keep the specifics of the story mechanics scant, as this is one which passed many people by, and there are a lot of pleasures to unfold before you. We’ll concentrate on the individual elements, rather than blowing one of the last gasps of Tennant’s appearances as the Doctor.
In terms of originality, the opening doesn’t inspire much confidence, with the path of a ship tracked as it falls to earth, with the action picking up a few years later. If this sounds rather familiar, then you might want to cast your mind back to the start of 1987’s Predator, which was similar to the beginning of The Thing. This is the first of an amalgam of sci-fi ideas, but we are happy to say that Dreamland has much more going for it than merely being a thief of parts.
No tale of American involvement aliens (particularly with involving Roswell) would be complete without covert agents being a pain in the arse to the protagonists and covering up all traces of extra-terrestrials, and Dreamland rises to the challenge whilst overriding cliché. Thwarting the Doctor’s plans at every turn come the Alliance of Shades, not merely servants of a national agency, but of an interstellar organisation charged with eradicating all traces of interplanetary meddling. Happily, they put a new spin on it—which we won’t reveal here, in case you haven’t seen it—but The Day the Earth Stood Still was doing the same thing fifty years ago. Borrowing aside, the Men in Black element works well, and Phil Ford wisely chose it to be a recurring element rather than the focus of the story.
The animated nature of the story allows for a more elaborate set of adversaries, and we get them in the form of the Viperox, a hoard of giant, intelligent cockroach-based life forms. They walk upright, are clearly intelligent, and where their Earth-bound relatives are chiefly adept at doing various things with excrement, the Viperox are born warriors, invading entire planets at a time. Doctor Who rarely has the budget to do vast swarms of alien invaders, but the animation allows just that, however upon first encounter with our heroes, a Viperox battle drone disgraces himself by proving to be a really lousy shot.
Speaking of the aesthetics, there are times when the animation reaches the level of ‘photo-realistic’, snapping back into CG when the human characters reappear. Creating convincing CGI characters for a show has never been an easy task, and whilst the rendering of skin gets increasingly better, such efforts are always knackered by the uniformly unsuccessful way mouths are handled, and Dreamland is no exception. The insides of the mushes never completely integrate into the rest of the face, often resulting in an entire row of teeth being seen during something as mundane as dialogue being delivered. Sure, Pixar have loads of both time and money to take care of these problems, but you always do when limitless resources are at your disposal. Regardless, the animation in Dreamland is excellent, with gorgeous, sweeping deserts, deeply cool spaceships, and bags of atmosphere. It’ll help you to forget the slapdash efforts of The Infinite Quest.
To foreign eyes, there is a certain expectation when it comes to American military personnel, and none are more imprinted in the collective consciousness than the terse, flag-worshipping, nuke-em’ variety from the 50s—again something associated with sci-fi films from that particular decade. Colonel Starke embodies all these elements, going into business with the Lord Azlok and his Viperox warriors seems to be based on Charles Napier, and you can’t fault that for a choice. He comes equipped with a nicely formed character-arc, which we are loathe to reveal here, and is given a better shake of the stick than you would have expected.
As mentioned earlier, there are obviously a number of thefts from other projects, with one the main ones being that of Independence Day, specifically going for a spin in a Roswell ship and having problems with the reversed controls. At one point, when planning an escape through an air duct, the Doctor muses that being in the 50s, no-one has ever seen Aliens. Clearly the writers had, with a number of elements pilfered from it, chiefly with the Viperox species being governed by a huge queen, sustaining the race by laying vast amounts of eggs to form an invasion force.
While the amount of pop-culture references are largely kept to a minimum, there are some elements which are thematically—rather than verbally—drafted into the story. Aside from the obvious nods to the certain Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones movie, the Roswell warehouse of government secrets is strikingly similar to the both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Sticking with Dr Jones, they even throw in a mine cart escape similar to Temple of Doom as our heroes try to escape the clutches of the military.
The flashbacks of Viperox invasion are impressive, and nicely boost the level of threat which doesn’t quite come across otherwise, with their cockroach-like appearance suggesting that a quick application of Deadex bug spray being enough to take care of them. They are a credible species to worry about, with a life-cycle carefully wrought and possessed of an intelligence which stops them from being mindless bringers of destruction, but willing to bargain with lower a tier of enemies to take out the more dangerous ones.
With events focusing on Roswell, there would have been many grumblings from UFO fans if ‘The Greys’ hadn’t been incorporated into the story, and we have to say that their inclusion constitutes some of the most sincere alien characters seen in Nu-Who. Here, they are intelligent, vengeful, wield horrifically powerful weapons, yet suffer heartache, loss, anguish and yearning. Sure, they have been depicted as beings of wonder in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, demonised in Whitley Streiber’s Communion, and even seen on a weekly basis in Stargate SG-1, but never as multi-dimensional as seen here.
There is a lot of comedy, but is kept firmly in check, not relying on the kind of delivery which Tennant can slip into if not reined in. Best of these is when pompous Col. Stark reveals the nuclear threat posed by the ‘Reds’, which temporarily confuses the Doctor as he tries to work out why Manchester United might be cause for military concern. It might be somewhat nitpicky—even though it goes with the territory—but another venture in humour come when the Doctor introduces himself to the denizens of the local diner with a greeting of ‘howdy, partners,’ with a cod-American accent. Is this really the same Doctor who admonished Rose for doing the same thing in Scotland? The rest of the writing is good enough to overcome a slip from the outset.
A prime example of the otherwise quality writing is a nice nod to stories past, which sees the Doctor in a position where he has the chance to completely eradicate a rampaging, malignant species from the face of time, but faces a crisis of conscience. Most reading will know that he refused to ‘pull the trigger’ in Genesis of the Daleks on the grounds that alliances form against them, with the universe a better place with them in it, but here he hesitates for different reasons. Can the imminent threat of the Earth being destroyed be the final straw which persuades him to commit genocide?
Tennant gives a good reading of his dialogue, but there are a couple of times where he briefly does just that: reading them. When interacting with other characters, he’s fine, to the point where he underplays it nicely. Bugging us during his time on the show were Tennant’s OTT exclamations, giving the dignity of previous incarnations a swift kick whenever he would rattle off a ‘Ooooowwwhhhh!!!’ at every realisation which hit him. This was toned down over the course of time, but this element is mercifully diminished in Dreamland. Sticking Tennant into a recording booth and depriving him of visual representation works very well, focusing him on delivering a more focused, dialogue-driven performance.
One of the real surprises comes in the form of Cassie, hallmarked by a nicely invisible return for Georgia Moffett, she who was the centre of the ‘cheat’ story, The Doctor’s Daughter. There have been a number of attempts to bring America into the British institution, with varying results. There will always be those who hate Peri, and let’s just try to forget Peter Purvis’ horrible stab at a redneck earl on in The Chase, but Moffett manages it nicely. She doesn’t try too hard, and is assisted by deft writing which steers clear of the usual forming of a cocoon of clichés around the performer, which many a British attempt to crystallise Americana.
The character of Jimmy Stalking-Wolf isn‘t as breezily flowing as the immediately appealing Cassie, but this is purely because he in some way adheres to the typical depiction of Native Americans in the media at the time. There have been precious few ethic assistants throughout the run of the show, and while he is a welcome addition, he seems to be there purely to enable the story to be told whilst adding another ethic dimension previously unseen.
The voice of David Warner is a welcome addition to the cast, giving his usual, measured performance he keeps in reserve for the genre he hates, but is happy to make a decent living from. A real problem is that the animation doesn’t convincingly sync up the mouths of the Viperox with the actor’s voices, but this is more to do with the design of the creature than the abilities of the artists. Warner’s frequent appearances in sci-fi irk us; he sells his name and puts in an almost identical (although adequate) performance every time, and for this reason, we have always labelled him a ‘genre-whore’.
There is an ambition to Dreamland’s storytelling which is unleashed by using CGI. It’s a nice example of what could be achieved in live action on the show with the grace of a larger budget. There are many who would be put off just by the fact that it is CG. One of our Missus’ scoffed at the thought of watching it, even though she has enthusiastically watched all of Nu-Who. She can cook, though. Whatever their reasons for letting it slip past them, it’s clearly their loss. Now, how does the disc look?
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is a very nice rendering of the source material. Colours look particularly strong, with a pleasing level of detail which showcases the work put into the CG animation. Blisteringly hot Nevada deserts look terrific, while the moonlit streets of ghost town Solitude keep its eerie secrets firmly in the shadows. An excellent job.
The 2.0 audio provides decodes very nicely into a satisfying surround experience, with booming explosions and careening ships bringing a smile to the lips. Dialogue is robust, but with audio recordings playing a key role, they weren’t going to slip up on that one. Murray Gold’s score is in no way diminished by the animated nature of the project, and this is true of the sound as a whole. Well done, guys.
The extras are confined to a secondary disc, and it is unfortunately here that we have to pack up our box of superlatives for this review. Grouped in the bracket of ‘Doctor Who Greatest Moments’, they comprise of:
- The Doctor
- The Companions
- The Enemies
We’ll lump them all together, as this is essentially what the BBC are happy to do with all of their publicity material for the show. These are talking-head shots interspersed with clips from the programmes. We put all three shows in the SKY+ over Christmas, and ended up watching them all on fast-forward. They are strictly self-congratulatory in nature, not only concentrating on Nu-Who, but almost shutting out Christopher Eccleston from the proceedings. Well, OK, he appears a couple of times, but only because either Billie Piper or John Barrowman were the focus of what they needed. The only bridge comes in the form of Elisabeth Sladen and strictly through association. This was the woman who criticised the original show (and her character) in a radio interview when she was brought back for School Reunion, but The Sarah Jane Adventures ain’t that crash-hot, honey. The correct title for this collection should have been the David Tennant Memorial Service.
In any case, these are very disappointing extras, with virtually no effort made. Would it have killed them to have stuck a camera in during the various recording sessions, if just for a split-screen comparison? The fact that fans are paying for a forty-five minute DVD should have given them the incentive to make an effort with the trimmings. This the only black mark for a very good disc.
There are a lot of people who missed the TV broadcasts of Dreamland, mainly because it was shown during kids’ programming, or poorly scheduled on BBC HD. Many are still unaware that you originally watched them as a mini-series by ‘pushing the red button’ on the BBC. The DVD represents a golden opportunity to see a story more satisfying than a lot of episodes from the last three years, and shows the Doctor in a completely foreign landscape from the rest of the of the run. If only there could be more of these things. Recommended.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 1st February 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Doctor Who Greatest Moments
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gary Russell
Cast: David Tennant, Georgia Moffett, David Warner
Length: 45 minutes
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