As far as Judge Eric Profancik is concerned, the only thing that could improve this box set would be if Tom Baker himself delivered it to his door.
"Wait in here please, Susan. I won't be long."—The first words from "An Unearthly Child"
Four decades. Can you believe that Doctor Who premiered over forty years ago in 1963? My, the time does fly. From the beginning, the good Doctor struck a chord and became an instant sensation. That popularity flowed around the globe, but never fully took hold here in the United States. Nonetheless, the show has a solid following on this side of the pond, and we are currently rejoicing in the meanderings of the Ninth Doctor (a year behind England, which is delighting in the exploits of the Tenth Doctor).
1963, what a year. November 1963, what a month. Not only did Doctor Who first appear on the BBC, but it did so just days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. People still know where they were that fateful November day, and people can still remember many of the earliest travels of the Doctor. Though many of the earliest stories were lost in the great BBC archive purge, the very first episodes exist and are here, in this, The Beginning box set. The first words spoken in the series don't seem like much, but for the true Whovian they are something to relish.
Facts of the Case
I am going to presume that you, dear reader, are a Whovian at some level; hence, I won't be going into extreme detail on the stories. It's my belief you already know what's going on; thus, I'll let you know what you will find in this set.
The Beginning contains the first three stories about the First Doctor, William Hartnell. These stories are "An Unearthly Child," "The Daleks," and "The Edge of Destruction." Cleaned and remastered by the remarkable Restoration Team, these episodes are the very heart and soul of an institution. You can now revel in the details to see what is the same and what has changed over these years. It's not just the stories you get, though, but also a healthy bounty of bonus materials.
As each disc is fairly self-contained, focussing on one story, I will analyze each disc individually.
Disc One, "An Unearthly Child":
Here we meet a crotchety and almost unlikable Doctor, who appears to be nothing more than a wizened old man, but he has a big secret. Also here is Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter, who travels with the Doctor in a TARDIS—a fantastic machine that can journey through space and time. Unwillingly brought along for the ride are schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. Their first adventure will take them far into the past when cavemen struggled over fire.
When I first put in this disc and hit the "play all" button, I found myself totally confused. Many years ago, I saw "An Unearthly Child" on PBS, and this episode just didn't seem right. What was going on? It turns out that the first part of "An Unearthly Child" was filmed twice, and both recordings are contained on this disc. Selecting "play all" will give you the original, unaired pilot episode and then the entire aired story.
Let me list all of the bonus items on this disc:
• The aforementioned pilot episode studio recording (35.5 minutes): In this "raw recording," you'll see how it was all supposed to play out. But because Sydney Newman, the show's executive producer, did not like the characterizations, he gave Doctor Who a very rare opportunity to shoot it again. The main differences are with the Doctor and Susan, the former becoming friendlier and the latter less "freaky." Also of note is the slight difference in the opening bars of the music. I like that "explosion" sound that was later removed. (Note: There are no commentaries on this episode.)
• Audio commentary on Episode 1 by producer Verity Lambert, Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and William Russell (Ian Chesterton), hosted by Gary Russell: In probably the most interesting of all the audio commentaries in this set, the three talk about the genesis of Doctor Who. Throughout all of the various audio commentaries, you will find frank, lighthearted, and loving discussions about the episodes, giving valuable insights. Mixed with the interesting information is a bit too much talk of people and other shows that we Americans aren't necessarily familiar with.
• Audio commentary on Episode 4 by Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, and story director Waris Hussein, hosted by Gary Russell: Starting a slow downward trajectory, this commentary is a bit dry, already reiterating previously stated information.
• Text commentary (all episodes): Interesting tidbits, facts, and stories about "An Earthly Child." Some of this information will be repeated in other bonus items. I appreciate the inclusion of ratings at the beginning of each episode: It lets you see how quickly the Doctor caught on.
• Theme music video (2.5 minutes): Easily the simplest bonus feature, it is my favorite. You can listen to the original theme in either Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0, or mono. The 5.1 is absolutely perfect. You've never heard the Doctor's theme so perfectly presented. You really feel like you're in the middle of the music, so that when you listen to the other two options, you'll find them flat and lifeless. As for the video itself, it's unimportant, showing the title sequence's special effects and other brief snippets from the story.
• Comedy sketches: There are four sketches included, "The Pitch of Fear" (3.5 minutes), "The Corridor Sketch" (6 minutes), "The Web of Caves" (4 minutes), and "The Kidnappers" (3.5 minutes). "Pitch" is the funniest; "Kidnappers," the most disturbing; "Caves," the one that tries too hard; and "Corridor," the most boring and, of course, the longest.
• Photo gallery (6 minutes): A variety of pictures from the episode through the recording of the commentary tracks.
Are you wondering why there are audio commentaries on only two of the four episodes? Because of the limited budget for the discs, commentaries are relegated to select episodes.
Disc Two, "The Daleks":
History will show that Doctor Who cemented its iconic status in this, its second story line. With the appearance of the diabolical pepperpots known as the Daleks, fans tuned in by the millions, hungry to watch the Doctor fight these menacing aliens. A children's show that might not last more than thirteen episodes would instantly transform into a bona fide hit.
The seven-part story doesn't leave much room for bonus features:
• Audio commentary on Episode 2 by Verity Lambert and episode director Christopher Barry; hosted by Gary Russell: It's a hit-and-miss commentary, sometimes providing interesting information and sometimes not.
• Audio commentary on Episode 4 by Christopher Barry, Carole Ann Ford, and William Russell; hosted by Gary Russell: Same as what I said for the commentary on Episode 2.
• Audio commentary on Episode 7 by Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, and episode director Richard Martin; hosted by Gary Russell: Same as what I said for the commentary on the other two episodes.
• Text commentary (all episodes): Interesting tidbits, facts, and stories about "The Daleks."
• "Creation of the Daleks" (17 minutes): An interesting yet too brief look at the genesis of the Doctor's greatest metallic foe and everyone's rocket to instant infamy and fame.
• Photo gallery (5.5 minutes): A variety of pictures from the episode through the recording of the commentary tracks.
Disc Three, "The Edge of Destruction":
In my opinion the weakest of the three stories yet heralded as a great character piece that would lay groundwork for years to come, "The Edge of Destruction" has the four travelers trapped inside the TARDIS. Very odd things are afoot, the least of which is everyone's altered behavior, and it appears that their journey through time and space is about to come to an early and abrupt end.
Being the shortest story in the set (two episodes), the disc has the most room for bonus items, and it is overflowing with goodies related to the entirety of the Beginning box set:
• Text commentary (on both episodes): Interesting tidbits, facts, and stories about "The Edge of Destruction."
• Alternate Arabic soundtrack on Episode 2: It's not something many of us will listen to, but here's your chance to hear the Doctor in Arabic. You have to applaud the effort to include all sorts of interesting things.
• "Over the Edge" (29.5 minutes): An in-depth analysis of this story, showing how it evolved the series greatly, leading up to Christopher Eccleston's (Ninth) Doctor, including some minor spoilers about his final story, "The Parting of the Ways."
• "Doctor Who: Origins" (54 minutes): A fantastic analysis of how it all started, overflowing with details about the early days of the series. Don't let the early Depeche Mode soundtrack frighten you. This feature alone is worth the price of the set.
• "Inside the Spaceship" (10 minutes): How did the TARDIS control room come to be? This featurette will give you the rundown.
• "Masters of Sound" (12 minutes): This featurette focuses on the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with special emphasis on Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire for their work on the opening theme music.
• "Marco Polo" (31 minutes): The next story aired after "Edge" was "Marco Polo." Sadly it was lost to the archive purge, but it has been reconstituted from an off-air sound track, production stills, and off-screen photos called "tele-snaps" so you can see this story for the first time in decades. How this story is presented is exactly what I was looking for on the Lost in Time box set, with the audio-only portion of the missing episodes.
• Photo gallery (5 minutes): Photos from "The Edge of Destruction" and "Marco Polo" (including color stills).
• PDF documents: Put this disc in your computer to find billings from the Radio Times and the script for "An Unearthly Child."
I love these Doctor Who DVDs. Look at the incredible assortment of material you get above and beyond these historic stories. It's an amazing and impressive feat of love.
It's now time to talk about the transfers on these discs, and they are a mixed bag. Again, you are probably familiar with the Restoration Team at this point. They're the group responsible for putting these DVDs together, and you are surely aware of the great lengths they go through to do it. Take a moment to follow the link provided on the right and read their synopsis of the work they did for this box set. You should be impressed. Reading that, you understand that it is, at best, an exceptionally difficult process to restore and remaster the episodes. Regardless, they work at it, making tough choices on what they can and should do. And when all is finished, you get Doctor Who looking as good as it possibly can. With that in mind, however, there is no doubt these episodes look 43 years old. The black-and-white stories are muddy and murky, low on details, high on grain, and speckled with an assortment of other blemishes. But it's as good as it is going to get. The original mono track has also been cleaned up, but dialogue is still a bit muffled in spots. Regardless, you aren't buying these discs for the technical quality but for the stories and the stories behind the stories.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This mean-spirited, absentminded man has become one of the most beloved science fiction characters of all time? Surely not! Let's not even discuss how boring "An Unearthly Child" and "The Edge of Destruction" are. If it weren't for that Dalek story, the series would have closed up shop long, long ago and saved us a lot bad effects, wobbly walls, and men in rubber suits.
You either love the Doctor or couldn't care less about his travels. For the Whovian, this set is an honest must-own, containing his earliest adventures and a wonderful abundance of bonus features. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying this set. There is nothing, nothing, that should keep you from putting this one in your personal collection.
Doctor Who: The Beginning is hereby found not guilty of meddling in time. He is free to go wherever or whenever he wants.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentaries
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