John Simm, Timothy Dalton, Catherine Tate, David Morrissey, Michelle Ryan,Lindsay Duncan, Matt Smith
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All photos © BBC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ome called it the best of times, others claimed it the worst of times, but when it comes right down to it, wasn’t it really just The End of Time? Yeah, the big finish which brought to a dual close the eras of David Tennant and Russell T. Davies was nothing if not a controversial conclusion to the most revolutionary period in the long history of “Doctor Who.” This Blu-ray set is a grand celebration of the Tennant/Davies era, and a fitting coda to the past five years of “Who.” Over five episodes, these stories offer up examples of everything that was glorious, right alongside everything that didn’t work quite as well. Anyone interested in this set likely already knows how they feel about this block of episodes, as this is for the folks who’ve been paying attention. If you’ve never seen “Doctor Who,” this is no more the right place to start than it would be to dive into the “Star Wars” movies with “Return of the Jedi.”
The set kicks off with the 2008 Christmas special “The Next Doctor,” which is in turn followed by the 2009 Easter special “Planet of the Dead.” Having reviewed both stories before here at Bullz-Eye, I’m not going to concentrate on either from a plot standpoint, however each merits some discussion from a presentation angle. “The Next Doctor” was the last “Who” story to be shot in SD, and so for this Blu-ray collection, it’s been upscaled to 1080i to accommodate the format. (All of these specials are presented in 1080i, as “Doctor Who” remains a series shot on video.) While the results are not astounding, there is a noticeable improvement when compared to the DVD release. It’s a neat experiment to be sure, but it’s not improvement enough to warrant the previous four seasons going through the same process so that we have to buy them all over again, probably at a higher price. Your mileage, of course, may vary, and I urge you to find out for yourself.
“Planet of the Dead” has been available on Blu-ray for some time now, although I never saw the original Blu-ray release, so I’ve no basis for comparison. Of the four high-def episodes on this set, it’s the least impressive, and occasionally has a softness the rest lack. Regardless, for as much as I dislike this story, I have to confess to finding it visually seductive in high-def. Despite whatever minor faults this transfer of “Planet” may have, it’s just a beautiful story to look at, and the use of color throughout is particularly impressive, often in simple areas, such as the set dressing in Malcolm’s (Lee Evans) trailer. Likewise, the deserts of San Helios fare much better here than they did on DVD. The story is clearly never going to be a fan favorite, but it warrants some reevaluation on a technical level. Aside from the visuals, both of these stories have been given 5.1 Surround tracks, while the previous DVD releases only had stereo sound. One wonders, in hindsight, if the plan all along was to wait for this collection to present this pair in 5.1 – but what is, is, and since the previous four seasons have all been presented in 5.1, the new mixes alone warrant an upgrade to Blu-ray (more on that later).
“The Waters of Mars” is unquestionably the highlight of this collection. Set in the not too distant future (by “Who” standards anyway) of 2059, it sees the Doctor (still traveling alone) ending up on Mars at a research station called Bowie Base One. There he meets Earth’s first group of colonists – a group he knows to be doomed. He even knows the date of their demise, and it just so happens that’s the day he’s arrived. His instinct is to leave, as this is an important, fixed moment in time for mankind, and “what happens here must always happen.” Yet he is the Doctor and cannot help but become involved once the scientists start succumbing to a lethal virus that uses water as casually as we use oxygen. This episode is a serious game-changer for the series, and it takes the central character into some bleak and un-Doctor-like areas, which is precisely what makes it must-see and love. I recently named it one of the “Top Ten ‘Doctor Who’ Stories of the Decade,” and I stand by that.
And so we come to “The End of Time,” a two-part spectacle which, for the time being, sees the exit of Davies, Tennant, and the rest of the onscreen talent we’ve met over the past five years. “The End of Time” clocks in at nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes, which makes it, for all intents and purposes, an epic “Doctor Who” movie. Indeed, if there is one great failing of this set, it’s that each part of “The End” is presented on a separate disc. (Had I designed this set, I’d have put both episodes on the same disc.) “The End of Time” is an affair of which I was highly critical all of a month ago. I still am, yet through this set, and the informed opinions of folks who are near and dear to me, I’ve come to appreciate it more than I did upon the initial viewings. It chronicles the “final” (hopefully not) battle between the Doctor and the Master (John Simm), and brings back into play the Time Lords, who’d been obliterated right before Chris Eccleston showed up.
Yes, I understand it better now than I did around New Year’s, but there’s a large portion of this story – the meat of the plot – that remains cumbersome and hard to hook into. If this had actually been a theatrical film, it would’ve gotten atrocious reviews across the board and tanked at the box office. Yet there’s another large portion (at 135 minutes, there’s room for several portions) that works gorgeously, miraculously, perfectly. It’s all the intimate character stuff, in between the big set pieces – that sails – anything with Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), the one on ones between the Doctor and the Master, and any time Timothy Dalton is simply speaking. And then there’s the montage wherein the Doctor revisits his old friends that’s heartbreaking and beautiful simultaneously – in the way only “Doctor Who” can be.
“The End of Time” probably gets more right than it gets wrong; much of the problem with it is that we hoped it would get every single beat right, and that wrong wouldn’t enter into the equation. Oh well, it’s too much to expect “The Caves of Androzani” every time, and besides, Robert Holmes is dead. If you don’t get that reference, then you’re one of the newbies, and maybe you’re even one of those people who swears you won’t be watching once Matt Smith takes over. If so, then I feel for you, because you just don’t get it. You can bitch, moan and cry all you want, but this is how “Doctor Who” works. It’s the end of an era, and a new one – one that will likely be equal to but different than the one we’ve just witnessed – is upon us.
If you’re a hardcore fan of this show, there’s no better time than now to invest in Blu-ray. I understand not everyone can afford it. For those who cannot, the DVDs will still be there, and you’ll still dig the show that way. But man-oh-man, as someone who’s watched a great deal of “Doctor Who” on SLP VHS, the notion that the show now exists in high-def Blu-ray is a joy to behold. This series has simply never been as visually impressive as it is on this set.
Special Features: There are no commentary tracks on the first three episodes, but as this set contains five hour-long installments of “Doctor Who Confidential,” (one for each episode) I didn’t find myself missing them. The final “Confidential,” titled “Allon-sy,” is a standout, and is in some ways more moving than the finale proper. Both parts of “The End of Time” do have commentaries; Part One features Tennant, Catherine Tate and director Euros Lyn, while Part Two has Tennant, John Simm, and Lyn. “Doctor Who at the Proms” resurfaces here on “The Next Doctor” disc, although it’s unfortunately presented in SD. “David Tennant’s Video Diary – The Final Days” is another great feature; one of its many highlights sees Tennant and Tate subbing for Jonathan Ross, and Tennant sings “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” with The Proclaimers in studio. There are also the BBC Christmas idents featuring Tennant and some reindeer, which are nice little addition; “Doctor Who at Comic-Con,” which is exactly what you’d expect it to be; and finally some deleted scenes, most of which aren’t terribly exciting, with the exception of the ones from “The Waters of Mars,” which are actually pretty interesting.