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After three seasons David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, and possibly most wildly popular Doctor, announced his intent on leaving the Doctor Who series. His tenure ended with a series of five television specials – The Next Doctor, Planet of the Dead, Waters of Mars and The End of Time parts one and two. These specials were aired over a year period, from Christmas 2008 to New Years day 2010, basically equating a brief fourth season with Tennant. Unlike DVDActive’s resident ‘Who-perts’ (that’s supposed to be a mix of Doctor Who and ‘experts’), The Wilson Brothers, I am only a passing fan of the series, and my attention to the Tennant run on the series is speckled at best. Fans of the show should read these reviews of the specials with this in mind, and see my point of view as that of a barely educated outsider.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
The problem I have with the specials on the whole is that they don’t feel like movies, which goes against what I think the producers lead viewers to expect. As a five episode season this collection is pretty darn good, but the specials aren’t particularly ‘special’. Not to say Doctor Who has overstayed its welcome yet, but there are definitely better, and more theatrical episodes throughout the David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston versions of the series. Like Star Wars, Doctor Who gets away with some of its larger plot holes and unoriginal moments simply because it’s generally referential nature. Doctor Who thrives on what the audience knows about classic genre storytelling, in the same way standalone episodes of X-Files, Supernatural, or even Futurama do. Unlike Star Wars, however, the whole of the various Doctor Who series also succeed thanks to a potently cheeky sense of humour. Along with the less serialized nature of each episode, this keeps me coming back to the series above more ‘high-brow’ sci-fi television like Battlestar Galatica, which is so dead serious it kind of hurts. At the same time, this latest incarnation of the series has an uncanny ability to raise real emotion when needed, something that does not go missing from this collection.

The Next Doctor


The Doctor (David Tennant) lands happily in London on Christmas Eve, 1851, where he hears a woman named Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) calling for his help. Much to his surprise another man appears claiming the title of the Doctor as well (David Morrissey). Intrigued, the ‘real’ Doctor tags along on the ‘other’ Doctor’s little adventure, which leads them to an elaborate plot involving the Cybermen, and a surprising human ally, Miss Mercy Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). The Doctor now has little time to figure out who this other Doctor really is before the Cybermen’s plan comes to fruition.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
The Next Doctor feels like a proper Christmas special in that it’s both warm, fuzzy, charming and entirely disposable. The good news is that it’s a good standalone episode, and with the exception of a few amusing callbacks shouldn’t catch the uninitiated out of sorts. I suppose the specifics of the science of the series (a term I use very loosely) are kind of lost to assumption, but there is a lot of explanation for the noobs, which cleverly enough comes out of the basic thrust of the story (the Doctor has to fill in the other Doctor on quite a bit). As a character piece it’s successful, because the real Doctor could very easily be more mean-spirited about the entire mix-up. The mystery aspects definitely lose quite a bit on a second viewing, but the comedy and goofy last act action scene actually improved for me this time around. This episode has a pretty strong artistic streak, leaning towards the gothic, specifically the scene where Mercy Hartigan and the Cybermen attack a snowy funeral. The imagery is almost black and white except for Hartigan’s bright red dress and umbrella.

Planet of the Dead


After a slight miscalculation in an otherwise successful robbery, cat-like thief Christina (Michelle Ryan) hops aboard a double-decker city bus to make her less than stylish escape. As the bus is about to leave one more passenger hops aboard—it’s the Doctor (David Tennant), and he’s looking for temporal rifts (or something). The bus driver, paid off by Christina, leads the cops on a chase, and drives right into a dimensional portal, and onto a desert planet. Trapped, Christina, the Doctor, and the rest of the passengers begin looking for a way back to London. Meanwhile, an alien species watches their every move, and some kind of desert storm rockets towards them.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
Planet of the Dead starts with the basic classic plot kicker of protagonists trapped somewhere desolate with a broken vehicle, a trope that probably traces back to Flight of the Phoenix, but which has seen regular use throughout Star Trek, and in films like Pitch Black (the monster designs in PotD are also similar to those of David Twohy’s picture) and Enemy Mine. I personally found myself ahead of the story throughout, but still generally enjoying the experience. Planet of the Dead is generally more satisfying than its predecessor, at least in the sense of serious sci-fi, which was emotionally endearing, but only sporadically charming or funny. Tennant pulls some fantastic faces, lets loose some great one-liners, and has some palpable chemistry with episode co-star (a pseudo-companion) Michelle Ryan. Correct me if I’m wrong (I know you will), but from what I see here, based on my limited knowledge of the series, these two have more sexual tension sputtering between them than perhaps any other Doctor/Companion pairing. We’re not talking the ‘oh my God let’s do it on the floor’ brand of tension found on Torchwood, it’s more like the ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ brand featured in classic screwball comedy.

Waters of Mars


While happily and aimlessly wandering face of Mars, the Doctor (David Tennant) is captured and detained by the inhabitants of the human colony Bowie Base One (no Major Tom is aboard), under the command of Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan). During his gun-point interrogation, he learns that the date is 21 November 2059, and recalls the date as the day BB1 was destroyed in an explosion, and Brooke and her crew were all killed. Realizing the event is ‘fixed in time’, and that he should not meddle, the Doctor decides not to interfere, and tries to leave. But the events work against him, and soon crew members are finding themselves taken over by some kind of living water, which transforms them into water leaking monsters.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
Waters of Mars is a smashing little alien/body horror story, but like Planet of the Dead it is very, very derivative. Part classic Red Scare Sci-Fi story, part Twilight Zone episode, Waters of Mars unravels a time travel mystery tale that is also perfectly tailored to the Doctor Who universe (or, you know, the Star Trek universe, with shades of First Contact). The majority of the episode is devoted to the somewhat disposable little Invasion of the Body Snatchers on a space station (it’s about as gruesome as the family friendly series gets), but the last act is a surprising emotional feast of desperation and redemption, capped off with the first ‘game changer’ of the specials, which leads nicely into the two part finale. Strangely enough I’m tempted to label this one both the weakest and strongest special in the collection. Perhaps with a little more time to fully develop the characters Waters of Mars would’ve made a fine theatrical release. It’s definitely better than Mission to Mars or Red Planet.

The End of Time Part One and Two


Following the events of Waters of Mars the Doctor (David Tennant) is visited by the Ood, who warn him of the return of his strongest adversary – the Master (John Simm). The news is further soiled by the promised arrival of ‘the end of time’. Following a botched ceremony, the Master is indeed resurrected, with new powers that threaten to drain his life force to nothing. Driven mad by ravenous hunger he begins feeding on homeless people. Meanwhile, Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), grandfather of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), and his ‘Silver Cloak’ (a group of his elderly friends with nothing better to do) set out on a mission to find the Doctor, while the Doctor looks to confront the Master.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
The problem with the final episodes is that people like me have a lot of trouble keeping up. I had a friend on my right giving me most of the back-story, but these episodes didn’t hold the appropriate weight for me, and I’m not the best judge of its closure, having missed a great deal of the David Tennent episodes. The first act of the first part fills in a lot of back-story, but I had no emotional attachment to the events, which I’m pretty sure hurt the whole experience. Plot aside, the final special does feature some show-stopping special effects, and a fine mix of tonal elements from the epic and serious, to the intimate and quirky. Probably the tastiest morsel in the entire collection is Timothy Dalton’s performance. It appears that the producers handed him a robe and a metal glove and told him to ‘go forth, and eat scenery’. The Timelords’ return is a bit of a Deus Ex Machina moment, but you have to adore its almost literal translation of the classical storytelling concept. John Simm’s performance is another highlight, giving real weight to what could’ve (and by all accounts should’ve) been a very silly final arch, as is Tennant, who’s final action is dulled a bit by an over-sentimental coda.

Video


Things begin with The Next Doctor, which was not filmed in high definition. The special has been up-converted to 1080p, and the effect is better than expected. There’s quite a bit of edge-enhancement, specifically during the snowy wide-shots, and the brighter reds are definitely bleedy and compressed, but the details are pretty sharp (at least in close-up), and the colours are quite bright (even though they aren’t always entirely clean). The high definition episodes are basically as perfect as can be expected, which is an occasional shortcoming of sorts, as the utter clarity of the hi-def images does tend to make the show look even cheaper than it is. Of course, on the other hand, the kind of cheesy look is a lot of the charm, so it’s not really a problem. The colours are positively delectable, from source lit oddities, alien make-ups, silly costumes, and digital special effects. Greens, reds and blues are all especially pressing, and with a few exceptions (mostly the brightest reds) they’re clean and free of digital grain. The 1080p details are just as lavish, though the whole affair is a bit too smooth, like a live HD broadcast rather than a movie. This is a matter of taste, I suppose.

The look is pretty consistent throughout the HD episodes, revealing the same strengths and weaknesses. Planet of the Dead features the most unfortunate HD side effect, which is its apparently real Dubai backgrounds, which appear mighty fake in all heir clean redness. It’s a pretty and richly coloured backdrop, but it really doesn’t look like a real desert. Waters of Mars is the fuzziest and darkest of the HD transfers, but things are still quite detailed, especially those not quite amazing creature effects. The End of Time is especially sharp, eschewing some of the minor problems that affected the BBC’s Tourchwood Blu-rays, like blooming light sources and minor compression noise. You can really see the difference between the high definition and the older episodes can be fully appreciated during the brief flashbacks, which feature flatter, blobbier details, and thick white edge-enhancement.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials

Audio


Every disc in this set features a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. These specials really pull ahead of the regular show in the aural arena, especially when it comes to music, which is just as full-bodied and impressive as major motion picture release scores. Often the music is mixed quite wide, and the rear channels regularly acquire their own discrete instruments and beats. Sometimes the music cuts out or downs volume too quickly to make way for dialogue, but it’s mostly a consistently impressive score. The sound effects are delightful, equal parts exciting and goofy, in true Doctor Who fashion, and hearing them used in such an immersive environment is nearly as entertaining as re-living Star Trek or Star Wars in a good 5.1 remix. The less stylized effects are occasionally quite artificial, likely from a sound effects CD, but this usually just adds to the silly charm.

Each episode has its own extra special thing to add. The Next Doctor, which is the overall quietest of the five specials, ends with a pretty massive wall of sound as the Doctor does battle with the Cyberking. It doesn’t exactly engulf the surround channels, but it’s certainly loud. Planet of the Dead features a nerve-jangling racket of the flying steel stingrays, which whip about the channels with affecting frequency, and the flying double-decker bus, which bolsters the LFE with whirring motor sounds, and leads to a few cool directional effects. Waters of Mars, which features my favourite score in the collection, has the strongest bass presence, specifically concerning the massive rocket ship explosions, and the constant rumble of rushing water. The End of Time starts with the Master’s resurrection is a feast for the system’s speakers, including aggressively wrapping wind effects and the Master’s echoing voice, which is later repeated throughout ever channel as he laughs at the end of the first part. The lasers vs. nukes scene in part two features some of the coolest directional effects in the collection.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials

Extras


The Next Doctor starts with a five part ‘ Doctor Who Confidential’ featurette (55:30, HD/SD). These making-of featurettes actually fill out every disc in the set pertaining to each episode, and cover things through set footage, episode footage, and before and after interviews. Things start with a look at the some of the stunts, the casting, specifically of a ‘new Doctor’, but mostly the focus stays on the story, and it’s full of spoilers. From here we cover the stunts and production design of the funeral attack scene, and the casting of Dervla Kirwan, along with scenes from the original Cybermen episodes throughout the series. The middle section covers the other Tennant Christmas specials, some of the more beloved series spoofs, the redressing use of the Torchwood set, and dealing with children, before everything is wrapped up with a look at the overall themes and the casting of Velile Tshabalala. The first disc also features ‘Dr. Who at the Proms: 2008’ (59:10, SD), a live concert experience featuring the music of the latest series reboot, set to a mix of video sequences, and live costumed performers.

Planet of the Dead features a solitary ‘ Doctor Who Confidential’ featurette (57:00, HD). Focus leans towards location shooting and production design. The desert itself was shot in war torn Dubai, and a full sized double-decker was sent to the site. Even if the bus hadn’t been damaged in transit this seems like a risky proposition (though the damage to the bus was written into the story, which likely saved them the money they got back from transit insurance. The filming of the opening heist sequence and the subsequent escape are then covered with more of a look at the actual filming process, and focus on the new pseudo-companion, Christina. Things wrap up with glances at the process of filming the interiors of the bus, the hell of the Dubai desert, making fly-man prosthetics and digital stingrays, and working with Lee Evans.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
Waters of Mars also features a single ‘ Doctor Who Confidential’ (58:00, HD). This one starts with footage from a script meeting, intercut with interviews concerning the episode’s inspiration, and the usual behind the scenes footage from the sets. There’s a lot of attention lobed at the production design here, from the practical to the fantastical. I quite enjoyed the discussions of the creature effects in this section, the balance of scariness is interesting, as are the practical make-up solutions. The staging of all the water effects is another highlight, specifically the difficulties of keeping some cast consistently wet, while others are left entirely dry. Other subject matter here includes the design and production of the episode’s robot sidekick, casting, and the chances they took with the episode thematically.

The End of Time Part 1 starts with a commentary featuring Tennant, actress Catherine Tate, and episode director Euros Lyn. The track features some decent bits of behind the scenes knowledge we couldn’t have known otherwise, but is more of a fun-time track than an informative track. Tate hasn’t seen the episode, and there are a few sweet moments where Tennant quizzes her (she doesn’t get that Brian Cox is the lead Ood). Next up is another ‘ Doctor Who Confidential’ (57:00, HD). This time the usual mix of behind the scenes and interviews cover the difficulties of faking a helicopter stunt, the reintroduction of the Master, along with his history (very valuable to people like me), bringing back Donna and Wilfred, along with a little past explanation (thanks again), the creature designs, the digital and practical Master effects, the sets, and the Timelords casting, costumes, and history. This is followed by ‘David Tennant’s Video Diary: The Final Days’ (40:41, SD), which follows the process from Planet of the Dead. This is rather endearing look behind the scenes of both the episodes and the chaos of selling the product, without the produced and edited veneer of the ‘Confidentials’. Tennant singing with the Proclaimers is the brief highlight. The disc is completed with Tennant’s Christmas promos for BBC One.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials
The End of Time Part 2 also starts with a commentary track, this time with Tennant, actor John Simm, and director Euros Lyn. This track is a hair more informative than the first part track, but about equal on general entertainment value and time filling. There’s a lot of time devoted to the oddness of the multiple versions of Simm for the ‘Master Race’ sequences, and a few enjoyable jabs at the new Doctor, but like the other extras there’s a major focus on the sentimentality of the final moments. The final ‘ Doctor Who Confidential’ (57:00, HD) is pretty sentimental, understandably, with a big focus on Tennant’s final days, for better or worse. I especially appreciate the explanation of the multiple codas, which meant very little to me as someone that had missed almost all the episodes they reference. The rest of the special focuses on the usual – sets, locations, casting (specifically Dalton, who was a fan), the story elements, along with looks back at the series elements that crafted the episode. ‘ Doctor Who at Comic-con’ (21:00, HD) is a sort of travel log of the crew’s trip to the huge geek event, including general behind the scenes footage, and scenes from the panel. The disc, and set, is wrapped up with a series of deleted scenes (17:20, HD), with introductions from writer Russell T. Davies. These are from all five episodes.

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials

Overall


I’m not the ideal candidate to review this collection, but I enjoyed myself enough, and am looking into catching up on the David Tennant run of Doctor Who, even if the finale has been ‘spoiled’ for me. The collection is a little silly from the standpoint of disc space, as the first four specials are only an hour a piece, and the fifth one is 75 minutes, and it could probably fit onto two Blu-ray discs with room to spare, but the overall quality of each disc is pretty consistent. Even the non-HD episode, The Next Doctor, looks pretty good in its up-converted state, while the full HD episodes are next to perfect, with a solid collection of extra features, and full-bodied DTS-HD soundtracks. Fortunately for collectors there’s nothing here unavailable in the single disc release versions, so there’s no need to repurchase the first few specials, unless you really need to see The Next Doctor in officially up-converted 1080p.

*Reviewer Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray release.


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