Thursday, June 07, 2012

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death, Resurrection of the Daleks, and Carnival of Monsters Special Edition DVD reviews

David Tennant hosts "Come in Number Five"

Back in March I did a big piece on the three classic Doctor Who Special Edition DVD sets released that month, and outlined my feelings about the SEs in general. April saw the debut of another such set, “Carnival of Monsters,” and now June sees two more, with “Resurrection of the Daleks” and “The Seeds of Death.” Together, these three titles made up the “Revisitations 2” box set in the U.K. Unlike previous double dips such as “The Caves of Androzani,” “The Robots of Death,” or even “The Three Doctors” (which, despite being a story of dubious quality, is clearly worthy of its own SE on principle alone), these tales are, simply put, not nearly as “classic.”

“The Seeds of Death” is the least successful of the trio, and I say that as a diehard Patrick Troughton fan. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the worst of the surviving stories of his era (yes, I’d rather watch “The Dominators” than “The Seeds of Death,” but only by a slim margin). This is a six-parter featuring one of the series’ big bads, The Ice Warriors, and the viewer will feel every minute of it. It likely would’ve worked better at four episodes, and yet even that wouldn’t have helped the uninspired guest cast/characters and the often times shockingly na├»ve script. On the plus side, “Seeds” does offer a mildly interesting look at a potential Earth future, where the planet is completely dependent on a technology called T-Mat, which is basically teleportation. The Ice Warriors cripple the Earth by hijacking the tech from the moon, where exists the T-Mat relay station. Much wackiness ensues (well, not really).  Since the breakdown of technology is a big issue for me personally, I find at least that aspect of “Seeds” rather fascinating, though as an idea it’s hardly sustained in any kind of engaging way across six episodes.

Speaking of technological screw ups, as I understand it, a mistake was made on the original DVD release, and the film sequences of the story were VidFIREd when they shouldn’t have been, hence part of the reason for the SE. As you can see from the screengrabs at the right, the differences in quality between the two releases is imperceptible (to my eyes anyway). Perhaps the SE film sequences are a tad brighter? Beyond that, the primary extras have been ported over from the original release, although “The Last Dalek” featurette has, for obvious reasons, been moved over to the “Resurrection of the Daleks” SE, and the New Zealand censor clips from “The Web of Fear” and “The Wheel in Space” have been removed as they exist on the “Lost in Time” box set (as does “The Last Dalek,” actually).

While there is no new commentary track, original to this SE is a 30-minute doc entitled “Lords of the Red Planet,” which the DVD cover claims is a history of the Ice Warriors. While it does contain some fascinating info on the origins of their creation, that’s not quite how I’d describe it, as it’s basically just a making of “Seeds.” Also new is a very short bit with director Michael Ferguson called “Monster Masterclass” and a neat interview featurette titled “Monsters Who Came Back for More!,” with Nicholas Briggs and Peter Ware discussing many of the monsters who made return appearances over the years, as well as the ones they’d like to see return on the new series. Lastly, there are Radio Times listings in PDF form and a coming soon trailer for “Death to the Daleks,” which comes out next month. While these few new extras are fun, “The Seeds of Death” SE remains difficult to recommend to folks who own the previous edition, and equally to those who’ve never even owned it at all.

1984’s “Resurrection of the Daleks,” from Peter Davison’s final season, I’m torn over, and even this new DVD hasn’t helped me to nail down my feelings on it, though to clear up any confusion beforehand, it is a quality story on most levels. A cameo in “The Five Doctors” aside, this was the first appearance of the Daleks in the series since 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks,” and this more or less picks up where that one left off. From a production standpoint, this thing is the tits: Excellent location shooting, tight direction, above par effects work, and even some pretty good studio work. Terry Molloy plays Davros for the first time, successfully reinventing the character for the ‘80s, and he and Peter Davison are surrounded by a sprawling, believable guest cast.

The problem with “Resurrection” is that it’s so damn bleak and without any wit or humor (though there is one scene with Davros that gives me the giggles, yet I’m unsure if that was the intention). It supposedly has the highest onscreen body count of any Doctor Who story, but the violence itself isn’t really the issue. It’s the tone of the whole thing, which just feels so un-Who-like; this is more like Blake’s 7 (specifically the final episode of that show). Now, I’ve got nothing against bringing on the darkness from time to time, and Davison’s final season as well as Colin Baker’s first are frequently loaded with grittiness, but there’s something about the balance in this particular story that simply feels off; it’s just too much. Obviously, your mileage may vary. Also, this is Tegan’s (Janet Fielding) final story, and though she has a beautiful and heartrending exit scene, she’s given barely anything to do in the 90 minutes prior to it. It just kills me that Janet Fielding didn’t get a better send-off, as Turlough (Mark Strickson) did in “Planet of Fire,” which immediately follows this tale.

One big reason “Resurrection of the Daleks” was given a double dip is because when it was originally broadcast on the BBC, it was shown as two, 45-minute episodes, even though it wasn’t produced to be shown as such. Disc One of this set for the first time on home video presents it as it aired in ‘84. The 2002 DVD release (as well as the VHS release before it) presented it as four, 23-minute episodes, which is duplicated here on Disc Two. So now you can “have it your way,” although ultimately it doesn’t make a huge difference which way you watch it, to my mind. Aside from the “Who’s Who” text feature, all the extras from the 2002 disc have been ported over, in addition to all the new features.

A new commentary track can be found on Disc One, featuring Terry Molloy, writer and script editor Eric Saward, visual effects designer Peter Wragg, and moderated by Nicholas Pegg. It’s a dry affair, but very informative nonetheless. The star attraction here should be the nearly hour-long documentary entitled “Come in Number Five,” a retrospective of the Davison era, hosted by Davison’s son-in-law, David Tennant (though Tennant hadn’t yet married Georgia when this was recorded); “should” be because I was pretty let down by this doc that I’d been looking forward to seeing since it came out in the U.K. over a year ago. One of the most refreshing aspects of the classic Who DVDs is that the participants in the bonus features are very often brutally candid about their times on the show and the quality of the stories. Like I said, this is refreshing when so many DVD bonus features of TV shows and movies exclusively showcase talent from both in front of and behind the camera insisting that everyone and everything is brilliant. That gets old.

Unfortunately, the reverse of that attitude can also be the enemy of the classic Who DVD range, as is the case here. I wanted a pleasant, nostalgic look back at Davison’s three years on the show – an era which I, and most hardcore fans, consider to be of generally high quality. Instead, this doc amounts to little more than a one-hour bitchfest about how many things went wrong, and how John Nathan-Turner fucked things up right and left – an attitude I can do without, thank you very much, especially since he’s no longer with us to defend himself. I think there must be a ten minute exchange devoted to what a bad idea it was to create a companion that was supposed to kill the Doctor, and how the idea ruined Season 20, when most fans will agree that it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, and it didn’t actually ruin Season 20. (For further commentary on this issue, check out the DVD review of The Black Guardian Trilogy.”) None of this is Tennant’s fault, mind you. I’m sure his linking bits - which tonally are more along the lines of what I expected from this - were recorded after all of these interviews were done. If I’d seen this doc without ever having seen the Davison era, I probably wouldn’t be interested in ever checking out his Doctor, such is the excessive negativity here.

On the flip side of this is a lovely 30-minute piece called “Casting Far and Wide,” featuring Toby Hadoke interviewing five guest actors from “Resurrection” about their careers, with varying reactions and answers. It doesn’t always have a whole lot to do with Doctor Who, but it’s a nice, warm piece nonetheless. While I’m at it, let me just say that Toby Hadoke is the best thing to happen to the classic DVD range in the past year. His contributions and levels of interest and knowledge are ideally suited to exploring this series. Kudos to you, sir, if you are out there reading. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Fifth Doctor” is another entry in the ongoing exploration of the press reaction to the show. There’s also a short bit called “Walrus” with a woman and a Dalek, Radio Times listings in PDF form, as previously mentioned, “The Last Dalek” featurette, and the coming soon trailer for “Death to the Daleks.”

Finally we come to “Carnival of Monsters,” which is arguably the best of these stories, even if it’s something of an odd duck. Written by Robert Holmes with a generous amount of charm, and directed by Barry Letts with an equal amount of flair, “Carnival” is a story that’s grown on me over the years, particularly through this new edition. Part social commentary and part adventure, this was the Third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) first adventure after having had his ability to pilot the TARDIS restored by the Time Lords at the close of “The Three Doctors.” It appears the TARDIS has landed on a cargo ship in the 1920’s, though the Doctor is certain that can’t be the case. Meanwhile, on a distant, alien planet with class system issues, a couple of carnies have arrived with their money-making gimmick known as the Miniscope, through which spectators can view all manner of alien life.

“Carnival of Monsters” isn’t as obviously exceptional as so many other Robert Holmes scripts, but it’s still a very entertaining one. Its most memorable monsters, the Drashigs, are a great example of a one-off Doctor Who creature, and the story is just so unlike anything else from this era of the show. It seems that the aim of “Carnival” was to do something different with the series than what it had been doing for the previous three seasons. It’s ambitious, maybe sometimes even to a fault, and it seems like the sort of script you’d read about in some Who reference book as having been “ultimately passed on” because it “didn’t quite fit the show.” But it wasn’t, and it did.

Lis Sladen thinking about her old co-star and friend Ian Marter
Seems all the bonus features from the 2003 DVD have been ported over in some form or fashion. The extended and deleted footage has been replaced by an additional longer edit of Episode Two, which also features that oddball, alternate arrangement of the theme tune which was a separate extra on the old disc. New to this SE is a commentary track featuring actors Peter Halliday, Cheryl Hall and Jenny McCracken, as well as special sounds creator Brian Hodgson. While “Destroy All Monsters!” is a lovely new making of, the standout extra may be “On Target with Ian Marter,” which explores the late actor’s contributions to the Target book range, as well as the man himself. Nicholas Courtney, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen (amongst a couple others) all chime in with their feelings about Ian Marter, but it’s Sladen’s emotions and choice of words that really move. When she talks of him passing at such a young age, she nearly breaks down into tears. This is made all the more poignant by her own passing at too young of an age last year. It’s anyone’s guess what was going through her mind during that interview, but the results are haunting and heartbreaking. 

Ian Marter pre-Harry Sullivan
There’s also a featurette entitled “The A-Z of Gadgets and Gizmos” that’s title is pretty self-explanatory, and another called “Mary Celeste,” in which experts discuss various historical disappearances of ships and the like. Finally, there are Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Nightmare of Eden,” which was released last month.