BBC Video // 2009 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // February 2nd, 2010
"I don't want to go."
It doesn't properly reflect the tone of the "season," but the quote above feels like the best choice to introduce this review. These are the last words spoken by David Tennant before he enters his regeneration. As a regeneration is a momentous occasion in the land of Doctor Who, it is why I picked it. But the sadness and melancholy of a Time Lord only hints at the full drama of a year of "specials."
Coming after Series 4, The Complete Specials are not characterized as a series (season) by the British powers-that-be. Series 5 will be the first of the eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith. This year of specials is thus outside the standard nomenclature for the reboot of this venerable franchise. The first special aired on December 25, 2008, and the last aired on January 1, 2010; this was in Britain. Those of us in America had to wait until summer 2009 to catch the first special, but the rest quickly flooded us in December 2009 and on January 2, 2010. Doctor Who: The Complete Specials consists of four stories, highlighting the end of a successful run of David Tennant (Cassanova) as the Doctor.
Doctor Who: The Next Doctor
The Doctor, after the trauma of losing his best friend and companion, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate, The Catherine Tate Show), is now traveling alone for the first time in ages. He finds himself in Victorian England and almost immediately hears a woman screaming for "the Doctor." He goes running to find that the woman, Rosita, who isn't looking for him but another man called the Doctor (David Morrissey, Basic Instinct 2). It appears that the tenth Doctor has met a future regeneration of himself, who has no idea that he is meeting a previous version of himself. Intrigued by the conundrum, the tenth Doctor teams up with the next Doctor and they find themselves battling the Cybermen for control of England.
Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead
Almost out of the museum an alarm goes off, and the Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan, Bionic Woman) is about to be caught stealing a valuable piece of art. But she makes it out of the building only to find her lone means of escape is to hop on a passing double-decker bus. Just as she sits down, the Doctor joins her and offers her some Easter chocolate. Soon enough some gizmo in the Doctor's pocket begins making noise. It turns out he's trying to track down some unusual energy reading, and before you can say "unusual energy reading" the bus drives straight through a wormhole and ends up in the middle of the desert.
But it's not a desert on Earth. The bus, the Doctor, Christina, and the other passengers find themselves on another planet apparently devoid of life. It's now up to the Doctor to figure out the mystery of the dead planet, find a way to get everyone back to Earth, and close the expanding wormhole before it threatens to destroy Earth.
Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars
The Doctor lands on Mars and comes into contact with the inhabitants of the first permanent settlement on the planet, Bowie Base One. As soon as he discovers this, he knows he must leave. There are certain moments in time that cannot change, and what is about to unfold is one of those instances. And though he knows he must go, he finds himself pulled into the chaos as the explorers find themselves taken over by aliens. The aliens reside in the water found on Mars, and all it takes is one drop to infect a person. Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan, Alice in Wonderland) deduces the seriousness of the situation and also realizes the Doctor knows far more than he will say. As the water infects one person after another, the Doctor must decide whether to stay or go.
Doctor Who: The End of Time
This two-part story finds a reluctant Doctor back on Earth, battling a resurrected Master (John Simm, Life on Mars). In his recent travels, the Doctor was told a prophecy that "he will knock four times" and the Doctor will die. The Doctor has known that his death will come at the hands of the Master, who has spoken of the incessant four-beat drumming in his head since his latest regeneration on Utopia. But the Ood have expanded the prophecy by telling the Doctor that upon its return, it will cause the end of time. As the Doctor tracks down the Master, he learns that his best enemy is not his only concern.
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials represents a grand disappointment in the annals of this great show. Filled with such potential, these stories do not live up to the title of "special" and form the weakest year for the rebooted franchise. I know that my expectations for this season were unabashedly high. With only a sliver of the usual numbers of stories available and an imminent regeneration, this year was something that I couldn't wait to view. I believed that the fewer stories would yield a burst of extra creativity and thus produce some of the best material yet. Sadly, that did not come close to happening. Let's review each story and reveal why each doesn't quite work.
The Next Doctor
Of all the specials, this one is the best; but I did not realize that at first. I was expecting a grand adventure, but we get a more intimate encounter. Yes we have the Cybermen, but we have the Cybermen again. If the new series has one weakness, it's the lazy reliance on the Daleks and Cybermen. Give me new adversaries, not the same one trying to destroy London and hence take over the world. Add to that a wonderful tease with the next Doctor that goes unfulfilled, and you have an opportunity wasted. Yet repeated viewings allowed me to see the exceptional acting from David Morrissey, and it let me fall in love with the wickedly delightful Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). It's the acting from the supporting players that saves this one from complete mediocrity.
Planet of the Dead
Featuring David Tennant's last chance to have fun, this story is silly from the start. Silly isn't a bad thing, but it has to be done right, especially when taken in context of this "special" season. We don't have time for silly. That's my expectations rearing its ugly head again. I was still clamoring for something grandiose only to get this trifle of a story that amounts to nothing. If this episode were part of a regular season, it wouldn't hurt so much. As with "The Next Doctor," the saving grace in this episode is the supporting cast, namely Michelle Ryan. She brings a spicy energy to the mix, and it would have been fun to travel with her a bit more.
Waters of Mars
Here is where grand ideas are born. Here is where we see a dramatic implementation of a shocking change in the character of the Doctor. Here is where we see a once benevolent Time Lord go astray.
"The laws of time are mine, and they will obey me."
"I'm the winner. That's who I am: a Time Lord victorious."
"Is there nothing you can't do?"
We find a Doctor consumed by events that he isn't supposed to change, yet he now feels compelled to break the laws of time. For someone who has fought against such actions for decades (millennia), it's a truly interesting character shift. But it's simply not right, and we know this in our heart. We don't want to see the Doctor act like this. He is supposed to be the last, truest keeper of all that is right in the universe. We need our hero.
The End of Time
Part One of the story lays down an incredible amount of information. In and of itself that first hour is unsatisfying, but you give it some slack in hopes that the foundation it's crafting will yield spectacular results with its last minute, stunning revelation. Then Part Two tells its story and it does nothing with the setup. It adds further complications, never explains itself, and ends quite unspectacularly. End of Time is a disjointed mess that wants to do so much but accomplishes little. It wants to expand on a Doctor gone astray, fighting his mortal enemy while dealing with the return of a powerful menace; but it never puts the pieces into place. It introduces characters, situations, and plot twists but doesn't interlock the pieces nor show you what the final result is supposed to look like. It complicates the storyline, creates a faux mystery, and wastes "the return" by doing nothing with it. You can list question after question about this episode and find no answers. Without spoiling anything here's a simple question, "What is with the Matrix Master? Where is this electricity coming from? How can he fly?" There needs to be an explanation for all this randomness, but Russell T. Davies failed to bring it all together. It's all smoke and mirrors.
Par for the course, only one thing saves this episode: Bernard Cribbins. His portrayal of ex-companion Donna Noble's grandfather, Wilfred, pulls at your heart more than the regeneration of the Doctor. He brings warmth and depth to his character, one who unexpectedly grew so much during Tennant's time. Fortunately his impeccable performance brings Tennant's back down to Earth and their scenes together are magic. Just the simplicity of the two, sitting in a diner discussing life and death is better than anything else in the story.
In a year lost, filled with monumental disappointment, it's the small moments that give the Whovian hope. Even in the most dire episodes we can find moments that make us smile, make us cry, and allow us forgive the shoddiness of everything around it. Yes, even though I find this the worst "season" of the new Who, it must still find a home in my collection; for without it would be woefully incomplete. We find those special moments to rationalize why we must own it all.
Outside of the Blu-ray release for Planet of the Dead, this is the first large-scale release of any Doctor Who in high def, and it's an excellent set. Each story gets its own disc (with each part of End of Time allocated a separate disc for each), so there's plenty of room for whatever the BBC may or may not do. Transfers are the same for all stories -- 1.85:1, 1080i video with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio -- and are consistently good as well. Many of you are probably most curious about "The Next Doctor," which was the last story filmed in standard definition. How does it look here, upconverted to Blu? It looks marvelous. I never saw the DVD, but watching this story first on BBC America then BBC America HD, I can see a tremendous difference. There's nothing to worry about on this story, and there's nothing to worry about on any of the stories. All of them have rich, bold, and accurate colors, deep, luxurious blacks, and an abundance of detail. Doctor Who has never looked so good. It hasn't sounded so good either. The DTS-HD track is an aural bonanza with crisp, clear dialogue from the center, tons of immersion from the surrounds, and a nice serving of bass from the LFE. All in all, the transfers are great and I noticed nary a problem. My only quibble is that on a few occasions the dialogue was a touch overshadowed by all the music and sound effects. For those who may have read and remembered my somewhat negative stance on the Planet of the Dead Blu, I went back and compared that disc to the one in this set. They are identical, and I have to admit that I was way too harsh in that review. Once again my high expectations tainted my perceptions, and my scores should be higher. (But the gunfire at the end of the episode is still weak.)
Bonus materials are spread throughout the discs, with each story's features included on the same disc. The special features on Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead are identical to their previous releases.
Planet of the Dead
* "Confidential" (55:33): An hour-long look at the making of the episode. Each story gets its own confidential, and each being as long as the story itself presents a lot of great information that every Whovian will enjoy.
* "Doctor Who at the Proms" (59:10): My favorite bonus item, this one is a concert of music from the series performed at the Royal Albert Hall. If you're into soundtracks and Who music in general, you'll get great delight from this. I wish this would tour in the States.
Planet of the Dead
* "Confidential" (57:00)
* Trailer for Torchwood: Children of Earth
* HD Set-Up Guide
Waters of Mars
* "Confidential" (57:58)
End of Time, Part I
* "Confidential" (57:03)
* David Tennant's Video Diaries (40:41): They start off a bit slowly, focusing on Planet of the Dead but eventually get around to this story and its emotional finish.
* BBC One Christmas Idents
* Audio Commentary with David Tennant, Catherine Tate, and director Euros Lyn: A surprisingly disappointing commentary that is completely positive, never addresses any of the weaknesses, and never explains any of the obvious questions. Worse, they often speak of minor topics during important scenes; for example, they only talk about Tennant's clothing during the confrontation between the Doctor and the Master in the warehouse. Double worse, the commentary is not listed in the special features menu; it's hidden under the Set Up/Audio options only.
End of Time, Part II
* "Confidential" (56:53)
* "Doctor Who at Comic-Con" (21:06): A fun piece that follows David, Euros, and Russell T. Davies as they go to the great geek Mecca and show the first trailer for End of Time and talk about the show.
* Deleted Scenes (17:16): A small selection of deleted scenes from all four stories, with introductions by Russell explaining the cuts and where they would have fit in the story.
* Audio Commentary with David Tennant, John Simm, and director Euros Lyn: Another disappointing commentary that avoids the tough questions and shines all happy on the story. This one too is hidden under the Set Up menu.
Here are a few odds and ends:
* Much to my infinite dismay, The Next Doctor canonizes Paul McGann's tenure as the Eighth Doctor. I've always hated that Fox movie and considered it my right to ignore it. Alas, I cannot do that any longer...but I still don't like it.
* I mentioned my affection for Dervla's and her character of Miss Hartigan in "The Next Doctor." Not only does she give a great performance but I adore her voice. It's sensual, menacing, and something I could listen to for hours on end. I also really liked the "look" of the old gentlemen in the story. They had such a Victorian look to them, regal and proper; it helped me believe the episode all the more.
* The menu for End of Time episodes have a poorly designed color scheme. It's gray on black, and I constantly had to move the cursor around to figure out which option I was highlighting.
* The packaging has a disc stacking layout I haven't seen before. At first it looks like the typical, one disc on top of another; but there's a larger gap between the two. The bottom disc now has a little portion of plastic sleeve to tuck into. I'm not sure I actually like that or not.
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials is an obvious disappointment. Four stories stretched over a year, all failing to engage the audience with the pomp and circumstance to which we've grown accustomed. Nonetheless, it's wholly irrelevant. I didn't enjoy the season but I still must own it, and I know many Whovians who will follow the same illogic. Fortunately the discs are worthy of purchase, with excellent transfers and a solid assortment of bonus materials. You may not have enjoyed the "season," but you will enjoy the set. Go out and proudly add it to your collection.
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials is hereby found guilty of disappointing its fans.
Review content copyright © 2010 Eric Profancik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Video Diaries
* IMDb: Doctor Who
* Official Site
* IMDb: The Next Doctor
* IMDb: Planet of the Dead
* IMDb: The Waters of Mars
* IMDb: The End of Time, Part One
* IMDb: The End of Time, Part Two