Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Robots of Death, and The Three Doctors Special Edition DVD reviews

“The Robots of Death,” “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” and “The Three Doctors”  have all previously been released on DVD, and these special edition double dips are akin to last month’s “The Caves of Androzani,” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which came out late last year. Those two titles were originally bundled together with “Doctor Who: The Movie,” and sold as a box set entitled “Revisitations 1” over in the U.K. This month’s three special editions were sold as “Revisitations 3,” and here in the States, we’ve still not gotten the content of “Revisitations 2,” although beginning next month, that’s going to change with the release of the special edition of “Carnival of Monsters,” and then the June releases of both The Seeds of Death” and Resurrection of the Daleks,” all of which together made up the second set in the U.K.

So beyond potentially making more money off of you, the loyal customer, what’s it all about? I’ll try to explain based on what I know. Do the powers that be intend to rerelease the entire catalogue on DVD a second time? Not to my knowledge. As I understand it, there will be no more “Revisitations” sets released in the U.K., although there will be some single story rereleases such as “Vengeance on Varos.” Is the video/audio quality an improvement? In some cases, yes, but in most cases upgrades in those areas are negligible at best, an assertion based strictly on my perception, mind you. (Much of what can visibly be done for old videotape was fixed for the original releases.) Recently, Dan Hall, the head honcho at 2 Entertain, was quoted as saying something along the lines of how his goal was to make the DVD range similar to a set of encyclopedias, and indeed, anyone who basks in the special features of the classic series DVDs will know that typically each disc offers up a substantial amount of extras that explore each story from numerous angles – commentaries, making of documentaries, vintage interviews, and so forth and so on.

From "Girls, Girls, Girls - The 1970s"
The range has been going on for such a long time (since 2001), that back when it started, the supplemental material prepared for each release wasn’t nearly as thorough as it would be today. The real problem this presents is that some of the most popular and best classic Who stories were released in those early years, so there are some big holes in the ongoing building of this video encyclopedia (the making of docs in particular go a long way toward achieving this goal). So, for the most part, what the special editions are about is providing you cool bonus features that you didn’t have before, and they are frequently really nice additions. If you don’t care about that kind of stuff, then more often than not these double dips won’t be of much interest to you...which brings me to the first special edition of the month, which is well worth picking up, even if you owned the original release and don’t care about extras, and that’s Patrick Troughton’s “The Tomb of the Cybermen.”

Surely you’re at this point familiar with VidFIRE, the process that’s applied to the Hartnell and Troughton stories so they look closer to their original, broadcast form? Well, it’s been used on all[1] of the existing released ‘60s stories except for one: “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” and that’s because the title was such an early release in the range that the process was only in its earliest testing stages. So now, finally, after all these years, VidFIRE has been used on “Tomb,” and the results are  predictably wonderful. It’s been a long, crazy ride for “Tomb”; I can still remember when this lost story was found in Hong Kong back in ’92, and subsequently released on VHS. To have discovered such a holy grail was indeed the Who equivalent of a religious experience (it’s probably the best existing Troughton story, and it may even be the best Cybermen story, period), and here we are, 20 years later, and it’s looking better than ever. Back then, on the cusp of that find, it felt like lost stories would start popping up right and left…but it was not to be. While individual episodes of various stories have since been discovered, no lost story has been found in its entirety since “Tomb” in ’92.

“The Tomb of the Cybermen” Special Edition DVD Extras: First things first: those who upgrade may want to hang on to their original release, because while most of the extras from the old disc have been ported over to the new set, not all of them have. In particular, the 30-minute “Tombwatch” documentary is gone from the new set due to rights issues. This was a piece that featured many of the story’s cast and crew gathering together after having watched “Tomb” after it was found in ’92. Also missing is a featurette entitled “Remastering for DVD,” although since that specifically addressed the work put into the first DVD release, it’s understandably excised, and the “Who’s Who” text featurette, which in this day and age of Wikipedia isn’t important anyway.

Deborah Watling as Victoria
What’s new to the encyclopedia? In addition to the commentary track from the first release (which featured Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines), there’s a new commentary track with both of those actors, as well as guest actors Bernard Holley, Shirley Cooklin, Reg Whitehead, and script editor Victor Pemberton, all moderated by Toby Hadoke. There’s a new 27-minute making of entitled “The Lost Giants,” a 15-minute piece entitled “The Curse of the Cybermen’s Tomb,” which explores the influence of mummy lore on the story, and a 32-minute featurette hosted by Matthew Sweet entitled “Cybermen Extended Edition.” This traces the history of the Cybermen from their beginning up to their reintroduction during David Tennant’s first season (a few clips from later new Who seasons dot its landscape as well, but there’s not much talk about new series Cybermen outside of the first “Rise of the Cybermen” two-parter). Even if it’s a tad incomplete, it doesn’t feel like it, and it’s a wonderful piece. There’s also a short featurette on VidFIRE, a lovely color TV commercial for Sky Ray popsicles featuring the Daleks battling a Second Doctor double, a coming soon trailer for “The Face of Evil,” and an Easter Egg on Disc One. In addition to the usual Radio Times listings in PDF form, that section of the disc also features tons (over 100 pages) of material centered around the Sky Ray popsicles, including Doctor Who’s Space Adventure Book.     

One of the most enduring and popular classic Doctor Who stories is surely “The Robots of Death” - so popular, it was chosen as one of the first three Who DVDs to be released here in the States way back on that horrible date of Sept. 11th, 2001 (yes, that’s as true as Who’s Kennedy connection). It’s easy to see why the serial is so memorable, too, as it’s a murder mystery (albeit one set in outer space), in which its characters, one by one, get picked off, all while the viewer wonders who the killer is. As TV tropes go, you almost can’t find one more accessible and easy to understand than that. Yet that all too familiar trope could just as easily have been turned into a boring stinker. Thankfully, “The Robots of Death” rises to the occasion by sporting an alternately witty and horrifying script by Chris Boucher, one of the best guest casts the series ever assembled in one studio, and costume and set design work that’s truly out of this world.

A Host and a Voc
If you don’t like “The Robots of Death,” then you probably don’t like classic Doctor Who. The Robots themselves have become iconic Who imagery, and they were an obvious influence on the Heavenly Hosts from the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned” (one could even make an argument that “Voyage” was influenced by “Robots” on a number of levels). I simply cannot recommend highly enough doing a marathon of the consecutive stories “The Face of Evil,” “The Robots of Death,” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is a nearly perfect unofficial classic series trilogy.

“The Robots of Death” Special Edition DVD Extras: Aside from the “Who’s Who” bit and the Howard Da Silva intros, the important stuff’s been ported over from the first release (of course, for some American fans, those Da Silva bits are gold), including the Philip Hinchcliffe/Chris Boucher commentary track, which I believe remains Boucher’s sole contribution to the DVD range. But there’s a lovely new commentary track with Tom Baker, Louise Jamseon, Pamela Salem, who plays Toos, and director Michael E. Briant. It’s worth buying this disc for this track alone, as its four participants seem to be having a wonderful time. “The Sandmine Murders” is a 32-minute making of featuring numerous people involved in the production of this serial, including Baker and Jameson (unlike “The Face of Evil” DVD, there’s plenty of Baker on this go ‘round). “Robophobia” is an hilarious 12-minute piece starring Toby Hadoke that’s one of “those” comedy bits bound to divide fans on its merits. There’s also an unsweetened scene of a Voc Robot for comparison purposes, a continuity bit, PDF Radio Times listings, and the coming soon trailer for “The Face of Evil.” While this may not seem like an extensive double dip, keep in mind that it’s a single disc release, and what is new here, is a lot of fun.

Finally we come to “The Three Doctors,” and I’ve spoken about multi-Doctor stories before (both here and here), and don’t feel the need to rehash those thoughts. Further, this is my least favorite of the multi-Doc stories, and, from a direction, design and script standpoint, may even be one of my least favorite stories of the Pertwee era. Nevertheless, how can I truly hate a story that brings together onscreen the Second and Third Doctors, as well as features the last work William Hartnell did in his life? Answer: I cannot, nor should I. “The Three Doctors” as they say, “is what it is” and I’m not here to pee all over it, and if you enjoy it, then by all means that’s your prerogative, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to try to talk you out of it. All that said, this set has a couple of really sweet new bonus features…

“The Three Doctors” Special Edition DVD Extras: As with the “Tomb” DVD, there’s a pretty good reason to hang on to your old copy of “The Three Doctors,” even if you buy this special edition, which doesn’t port over a 30-minute panel from the convention PanoptiCon ’93, which featured Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, and Nicholas Courtney. As you might imagine, this will be coveted by those who didn’t own the original release. 

Also excised is the “Who’s Who” bit, but everything else from the old disc seems to be intact. There’s no new commentary on this disc, which is unsurprising given how many of the important people involved in the making of this story are no longer with us; two of the participants (Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts) from the old commentary track have even passed since its recording. New to this edition is a 23-minute making of entitled “Happy Birthday to Who,” and a 14-minute piece called “Was Doctor Who Rubbish?,” which is a defense against detractors of the classic series, that I thought was really rather excellent, even given its brief running time. “Girls, Girls, Girls – The 1970s” is a 21-minute piece that on first glance looks like it will be a letdown. After all, how can we have this discussion without Elisabeth Sladen? (Including either of the Romanas sure wouldn’t have hurt, either.) However, Caroline John, Katy Manning and Louise Jameson have a fantastic, funny, revealing conversation comparing and contrasting their respective times on the series. This featurette’s a keeper, folks. There are also Radio Times Listings in PDF format (which, as you might imagine, are rather nice for this particular tale), and once again, that same trailer for “The Face of Evil.”

And since I didn’t throw out these old standbys, which should, by this point, go without saying, all three of these DVDs feature the usual production notes subtitle option as well as photo galleries.

[1] I've been reminded by a reader that, for technical reasons, “The Time Meddler” was not able to have the VidFIRE process applied to it.