Friday, December 27, 2013

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor

You know that maxim that says the third movie in a trilogy will suck? It’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of movies that buck it, but likewise there are enough failures to justify the coining of the rule in the first place. I thought of that rule often while watching “The Time of the Doctor,” which, after the exhilarating one-two punch of “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor,” was a letdown of, I dare suggest, epic proportions. Ambitious to a fault, it never achieves the grandeur of the previous two “… of the Doctor” episodes, though it appears hell bent on outdoing both as hard as it possibly can. And you know what they say about trying hard — actually, I’m not sure, but it must be something awful. I’ll stop short of describing the episode as just that, because there was some nice stuff nestled in between all the loud, incomprehensible bits, which were countless.

Read the rest of this recap/commentary by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD review

Surely the one thing that every Doctor Who fan will want this Christmas, “The Day of the Doctor” on DVD or Blu-ray is the perfect stocking stuffer for fans of all things Time Lord, TARDIS, and Tennant. On the weekend of the 50th, I only had a night and a morning to collect and figure out my thoughts in order to craft a recap for Vulture, but I’ve had plenty of time to ponder it since. Further, I saw it theatrically in 3D (as transcendent and religious an experience as an atheist Whovian can have, I imagine), and numerous times on the DVR and now this disc. I can’t recall the last time I wanted to watch an episode of new Who so many times, which must surely speak to the quality of the anniversary episode.

What gets me about this anniversary story is how it’s so much better by leaps and bounds than its predecessors. It’s often said that new Who isn’t as good as old Who, but then even back when the classic series was still on, people were saying “it isn’t as a good as it used to be.” But “The Day of the Doctor” is such a vastly superior anniversary offering than either of its multi-Doc predecessors (I’m not bringing “The Two Doctors” into the equation since it was a slightly different animal), that it’s a clear instance of an area where the new series blows away the classic – how the complexities of today’s storytelling trumps the days of old. No, new Who isn’t always better than classic, but nor is it always inferior, and here we have a sterling example of new trumping old. “The Day of the Doctor” is proof of how much life is left in this beast called Doctor Who, and it appears to be vast quantities.

I can’t recall if I shared this with Morgue readers before, but it’s a lengthy quote from Steven Moffat that I got from a conference call I was on with him. This was from back before the second half of season seven had kicked off, and someone asked a question about the upcoming anniversary special. Moffat's reply?

“The show must never feel old. It must always feel brand new, and a 50th anniversary can play against that. The show must be seen to be going forward. It's all about the next 50 years, not about the last 50 years. If you start putting a full stop on it, if you start thinking it's all about nostalgia, then you're finished. It's about moving forward. So, you know, the Doctor is moving forward as he always does…he's not thinking about all his previous incarnations and his previous adventures, he's thinking about the future. And that, for me, is important.”

And it was so refreshing to see that philosophy he espoused so many months ago finally play out onscreen, almost to the letter. The show that is seemingly more ancient than any other, once again feels fresh, and the load the Doctor has carried since the start of the new series has been lifted. It will hopefully be fascinating to see how this all plays out in the coming years.

As far as the Blu-ray goes, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being disappointed with the DTS-HD 5.1 sound or the 1080p video, though I don’t have a 3D capable TV, so I wasn’t able to explore that avenue of the disc; there’s so much more to this story than its 3D draw anyway. It seems unlikely that “The Day of the Doctor” will end up on any sort of season box set anytime soon, so whereas I might normally suggest that you could always wait a few months for the eventual season box set release, that seems less of an option for this title. Who knows? It may not even end up on the eventual season eight box set (which likely wont even be released until 2015). So this is an easy recommendation: Your collection craves this set. 

Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Normally minisodes are fun but ultimately a little forgettable. With this disc, however, we get one that’s downright imperative viewing, and that’s “The Night of the Doctor,” which was released a week and a half prior to “Day.” Featuring the return of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, and showing his regeneration into John Hurt’s War Doctor, “Night” is the sort of thing Who dreams are made of, and it’s a brilliant prequel to “Day,” and its inclusion on this set, while not necessary, is surely the most welcome extra. I imagine some people will buy this disc especially for it, in fact. The other minisode, “The Last Day,” got sort of lost in much of the celebratory shuffle, but it’s set on Gallifrey in the midst of the Time War, and provides a bit of extra shading for the main feature. Indeed, watching both of these minis in order prior to the special proper is the way to do it.

Additionally, there’s the 45-minute “Doctor Who Explained” talking heads documentary produced by and shown on BBC America, and the 14-minute “Behind the Scenes” [of “The Day of the Doctor”] narrated by Colin Baker, which was shown theatrically, after the anniversary special (though the disc has neither of the pre-show featurette bits with Strax and Smith & Tennant). Lastly, there’s the “Day” trailer that was first screened at Comic-Con this summer, as well as that awesome collage teaser trailer that seemingly dragged us all the way through the Doctors many lives in just one minute, and ended with Smith pointing his screwdriver at the heavens.

Finally, this early edition contains a deck of twelve trading cards – one for each Doctor, including Hurt - that assemble together to make one large collage.

The only thing this set is missing – and its inclusion would’ve taken it right up over the top - is “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot,” written and directed by Peter Davison. Let's hope that makes its way onto home video in some form or fashion, as it was integral to the anniversary celebrations.

Note: All of the above extras are included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD inside the set.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited - Ninth to Eleventh DVD review

After two volumes of “The Doctors Revisited,” featuring classic stories with classic Doctors, we reach the third and presumably final volume of this series, which features the three modern Doctors who’ve so dominated the landscape of Doctor Who since the show was resuscitated back in 2005. This is also the toughest of the three to recommend, simply because most people either have these on DVD or Blu-ray, or have access to these stories already via Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime. Further, these episodes frequently play on BBC America. So it would be very easy to view this set as redundant to your collection, and yet it had to be released.

If I know Doctor Who fans, those who picked up the first two volumes will look down at them and feel something’s missing if they don’t buy the third. After all, there are three half-hour talking head documentaries on here, covering the eras of Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith, which are part of the tapestry of “The Doctors Revisited” series. And there are also the fridge magnets – we mustn’t forget the fridge magnets! Indeed, the other eight magnets are going to look mighty incomplete without the final four - the last of which is a collage of all eleven Doctors (see pics below).

The storylines featured in this set are: “Bad Wolf” / “The Parting of the Ways” which closed out Season One; “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” which closed out Season Four; and “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon” which kicked off Season Six – all presented here in movie length edits as well as in their original two-part versions.

Fridge Magnets, 9-11
Also, it’s worth mentioning, even though it seems obvious to me, that all of the aspect ratio and quality issues I had with portions of the previous two collections do not apply to this set. In fact, these might look even better than some of the older DVDs (in particular the Eccleston two-parter – though admittedly I didn’t do any comparisons.) And the feature length movie versions have seamlessly married the two episodes together, which I was sort of skeptical about them being able to pull off, so basically you get what feels very much like three Doctor Who movies.  

There’s not too much to complain about here, except that since this set is comprised of three discs rather than four, the retail price point really shouldn’t be the same as the previous collections, though it is. Surely $34.95 or even $29.95 would have been a better move? Especially given that with this set, people are likely being asked to double dip. Well, we’ll leave that to you and your wallet or purse to figure out.

Check out the previous “The Doctors Revisited DVD reviews by clicking here and here.

The entire collection of "The Doctors Revisited" fridge magnets on my hideous yellow filing cabinet

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Doctor Who Can Make the World a Better Place

Monday night I went to see the Doctor Who anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” in 3-D and on the big screen via Fathom Events, and it was glorious. Not only did they show the 75-minute special, but they kicked things off with a specially-made policy trailer intro featuring Strax (Dan Starkey) that had the auditorium in stitches. There’s a priceless bit with popcorn that has to be seen to be appreciated. That was followed by David Tennant and Matt Smith (in costume and character) against a stark white background, “turning on” the 3-D, which led to the special proper. Once that was over, there was a ten-minute making of special narrated by Colin Baker, so the entire program ended up probably going just over the 90-minute mark, and thus making it all feel like a true theatrical experience. As if watching the anniversary special on Saturday wasn’t enough, this kicked the whole thing up to a new level, and the folks who viewed this same presentation theatrically on Saturday truly experienced the Mona Lisa of Doctor Who anniversaries (and it was not a fake!).

Seeing the same program two days later was nearly as special, as was evidenced by the enthusiasm of the crowd. The B.O. take for this massive experiment is pretty impressive, and the BBC bean counters are surely over the moon. I do not know the specifics of how this entire event was handled, but when I purchased tickets the day they went on sale, as far as I could tell there was just a single showing, at 7:30 PM. Yet Monday night there were numerous showings – at 7:30 and at 10 PM, in both 2-D & 3-D! So it seems that somewhere along the way, more screenings had to be arranged, presumably to accommodate the demand for tickets. When we emerged from our screening at about 9ish, the entire theatre was packed with people waiting for the next screenings. It seems that the initial expectations were obliterated, and a proper Doctor Who theatrical movie, likely starring Peter Capaldi, needs to happen in the next couple years.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to publicly recant something I’ve said numerous times over the years (though probably never online - which makes this as much confession as retraction), and that’s that I do not like Doctor Who fans, an opinion I formed back during the lean years when the show was off the air, about an unhappy, grumpy group of folks who often sort of seemed to dislike even one another (there was probably a fair amount of self-loathing involved, on my part, too). That’s all changed now, and with each new convention I attend, and each new batch of Whovians I engage with, I realize that not only do I like Doctor Who fans, but I might just love them.

I love their passion. I love their ingenuity. I love their intelligence. And what I loved more than anything else Monday night at the movie theatre was the love they have for one another. I wore my Tom Baker scarf – one my aunt knitted for me back in, like, ’84 or someting - and people just fawned and squealed over it. Men longed to have one just like it, and women wanted to wrap it around themselves – and it was just a scarf! Still, folks admiring my wares is also not what I’m here to discuss.

It’s Doctor Who families that blow me away – parents that have in-Doctor-nated their children, and they were all there on Monday: so many enthusiastic families – children waving around their sonic screwdrivers, parents wearing fezzes. It was such a sight to behold…and it gets better. My initial reaction to seeing all these children in the auditorium was one of fear – how are these little ones going to ruin my one and only chance at this particular cinematic experience? How many crying fits and bored kids getting up and running around will I have to suffer through?

None of that ever happened. They were so into the program that beyond the laughter and squeals in the appropriate places, there were utterly, silently transfixed. Some of it was because the program was so awesome, but much of it, I believe, was also down to just plain good parenting. Maybe Harry Potter started all this, with its books and movies, and now Doctor Who is picking up where J.K. Rowling left off, by helping to make smarter, more imaginative children, by demonstrating that intelligence and kindness and patience are attributes to strive for, not to be ashamed of. As far as our TV entertainment goes, families don’t have much to watch and enjoy together anymore. TV networks and cable channels have splintered all the choices into specific groups and demographics. Very little on TV tries to please everyone, and the networks have given up on trying to create something the entire family can enjoy.

Families coming together to view Who isn’t news to anyone living in the U.K., but over here in the States, it’s a much more recent development. It probably started with the arrival of the Eleventh Doctor, and has been gathering steam ever since. At the L.A. convention Gallifrey One back in February (where I took all the pictures on display here), I recall seeing similar families, and similarly well behaved, polite children, and I realize that this wasn’t just some anomaly the other night, and that the show is engaged in doing something very special and important to the people who discover and watch it: Doctor Who makes people want to strive for something better. A hero makes others want to be heroic as well, and this is perhaps why the Doctor is the world’s greatest hero right now. We need the Doctor now more than ever. It’s like Rose Tyler said in “The Parting of the Ways,” “The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life.” So not only can Doctor Who make the world a better place, but it is making the world a better place, right here, right now.

This holiday season, figure out a way to turn a kid onto Doctor Who. Share and connect. You’ll be doing the world a favor.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

From the very first moments of “The Day of the Doctor,” it was pretty obvious we were in for something special. They dared to go old school, with Hartnell-era style credits, coupled with a classic London bobby walking past a sign pointing toward the Totters Lane junkyard, which was then revealed to be on a wall outside Coal Hill Secondary School – all nods to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” But things got modern quickly, upon discovering that we were not in the past, but the present, and Clara (Jenna Coleman) is now teaching at the school, gracing the very same hallways and classrooms as her predecessors Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright did 50 years ago (there’s actually a shout out to Ian on the Coal Hill sign if you look closely).

What happened to the Doctor and Clara being caught in his timestream at the close of “The Name of the Doctor”? Seems some time has passed, and some escapades have been glossed over. It’s business as usual, and Clara is off on a motorbike (the same one from “The Bells of Saint John,” right?) and into the TARDIS for more adventures. Soon enough she and the Doctor (Matt Smith) are on one, when they realize the TARDIS is caught in the grip of a crane attached to a helicopter, and they’re being dragged to UNIT HQ by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), which was a far more thrilling sequence than expected. Or are they? Kate’s acting on orders from the Queen – Queen Elizabeth I, that is.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited - Fifth to Eighth DVD review

And so BBC America’s celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who continues with “The Doctors Revisited” series, not only on the network, but also on DVD, where its presentation is considerably more celebratory, rather than an irritant. As you may recall, in my recent review of the first volume of this DVD series, I ranted and raved about the decision to stretch the 4:3 image to fit 16x9 flatscreen TVs, but ultimately forgave it since the DVD presents, alongside the distorted version, the original square(ish) imagery, in its original episodic format.

The presentation has not changed for the second volume, though it’s worth mentioning that the prints used for the stretched feature presentations are in much better shape than some of those used on the previous set (no doubt due largely to the newer age of the serials). One thing that I didn’t make room for in the previous review is the method used to stretch the serials, which is something I’m not sure I’ve seen before. If you look closely at the images, you’ll see that about the center third of the original image – the area where the eye is typically focused – is not actually stretched at all, and that the real stretching is only of either side of the image. This is a pretty fascinating technique, and is probably why these presentations don’t look particularly offensive to many an eye (most people are not as fussy as I am). Of course, this presents a problem if you use the aspect ratio buttons on the TV remote to try to alter the image back to its 4:3 image – it simply doesn’t work, and results in a different kind of stretching altogether.

So once again we come back to the original episodic broadcast versions to get us through the night. Given that the aim of these sets is to introduce viewers of the new incarnation of the series to the classic, this volume strikes me as being friendlier toward modern audiences than the last one. While I find it difficult to believe that “Pyramids of Mars” would turn anyone off the classics, who but the most hardcore among us will find a great deal of entertainment value in “The Aztecs?” The serials (and movie) presented here are somewhat closer in pacing and characterization to what audiences of today are used to seeing. 

Peter Davison: A Doctor of action?
This set kicks off with friggin’ “Earthshock,” – a hugely entertaining serial brimming with action, suspense and emotion, featuring redesigned Cybermen, making their return to the series after a mind-boggling seven year absence and…something else. On the off chance that somebody unfamiliar with this serial is reading this, I don’t want to get into the “something else,” as it’s rather special, and should be viewed spoiler-free by virgin eyes...which the accompanying 25-minute Fifth Doctor retrospective on here doesn’t take into account - it completely lays out the end of this story! So my advice when watching this set is to just go ahead and dive into the serial, and then come back and watch the Fifth Doctor piece afterward. Two other things worthy of mention: The single disc edition of “Earthshock” is currently out of print on DVD, and now going for $50 $100 on Amazon, and the version presented on this set is the original, not the one with updated effects work, which was available to view on the now OOP single disc DVD.

Of the other three stories presented here, “Remembrance of the Daleks” is another major highlight, and, like “Earthshock,” is almost sure to entertain new series fans. Funny that it took getting to Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s era for “Revisited” to showcase a Dalek tale, but what a tale it is! Any fan who was around at the time will tell you how enthralled we all were with this story, as it seemed to signal a bold new era for a series that for several years seemed to many to be in a fair amount of trouble. The versions presented on this set still omit the Beatles tunes, as did the previous DVD incarnations – sorry folks. My review of the double disc special edition of “Remembrance” is over at Bullz-Eye.

The 1996 TV movie stars Paul McGann in his sole TV outing as the Doctor (as well as McCoy in his final TV appearance, prior to regenerating into the new leading man), and Eric Roberts as the Master. The movie is tricky, and I’ve still no idea what newbies think of it. It lacks many of the fantastical elements we associate with Doctor Who – there’s no question this is largely a product of ‘90s American television. Shot in Vancouver for Fox, its texture and look is comparable to The X-Files. While many will not care for Roberts on principle, few will dislike McGann, who’s utterly charming as the George Lazenby of the TV Doctors. Likewise, the TARDIS interior is really rather gobsmacking, all decked out in Jules Verne décor; clearly the bulk of the film’s design budget went into creating it. My extremely long-winded review of the special edition DVD of the TV movie can also be found over at Bullz-Eye.

And finally there’s “Vengeance on Varos,” which I wrote about here at the Morgue not too long ago when its special edition was released. It’s the true wild card of this set, and it’s anyone’s guess what a newbie might think of this entry from Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s era, but folks with a taste for wicked satire and black humor will surely find something to appreciate within this tale of a society gone mad. Indeed, I personally think “Varos” is stronger now than it was back in ’85, but then I expend far more energy and thought being angry and disappointed with my government than I did when I was I was a teenager.

As with the previous collection, there are no extras, beyond a set of four fridge magnets, featuring each Doctor from this set.

Fridge Magnets

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series Blu-ray review

Though all the episodes contained within this set have been available on several different platforms for a while now, for a lot of patient fans, this is the collection they’ve been waiting for – the one with all the goodies, which everyone knows will eventually hit the market. But just how good are the goodies? Hang tight. We’ll get there.

First, some stray paragraphs/thoughts about Season Seven. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for Season Six, or conversely, how much I enjoyed the bulk of Season Seven (I have issues with certain episodes, sure, but that’s the case with any season of this series). The biggest reason I disliked much of Season Six is because its overarching storyline felt too convoluted. Season Seven was very much the opposite of this – a collection of largely standalone episodes, with some connections and arcs that ultimately have little effect on the drama of the individual installments. Doctor Who, it’s my belief, simply works better this way. Not every series should strive for the complexity of Battlestar Galactica or Lost, and Doctor Who just seems to dramatically work better the cleaner and more efficiently it’s presented.

Having said that, one thing Steven Moffat has done with the structures of each of his seasons so far is experiment – which is something Russell T Davies didn’t really do. In fact, for those of you who were around at the time, I recall that we all felt a bit weary of the nearly identical structure of his seasons by the time the Fourth (with Catherine Tate) rolled around (i.e. opening sci-fi romp followed by trip to history followed by action-packed two-parter and later on another two-parter that’s darker and deeper, a Doctor-lite episode, and then of course the big “everything and the kitchen sink” finale that pays off the seasonal mystery (Bad Wolf/Torchwood/Harold Saxon/Rose’s return). Moffat, to his credit, keeps us guessing – not just with his individual episodes, but in the way he’s plotted each season as a whole so far. It stands to reason that with Season Eight, he will do it yet another way.

Season Seven - from “Asylum of the Daleks” all the way through to “The Name of the Doctor” - is quite the ride, particularly in regards to how the character of Clara was introduced to us…and then reintroduced, and then reintroduced again. I like that the Christmas special “The Snowmen” functions as a necessary dramatic component of the storyline, and doesn’t feel like a complete one-off as so many of them often do. I enjoy how part of the season is one thing, and the other part of the season is something else entirely. And then there’s a finale that’s been built up to since the Season Six finale that seems to take the show to a whole new place, as it sets up the 50th, which we now know will be titled “The Day of the Doctor.” Indeed, for a series whose history is rooted in the art of the cliffhanger, new Doctor Who has never really ended a season on one. A freshly regenerated Doctor is not a cliffhanger, nor is stuff like Donna suddenly appearing, or the Titantic crashing into the TARDIS - both of which are too silly to be taken seriously. Here we’ve been given one of the great cliffhangers in sci-fi TV history – the reveal at the close of “The Name of the Doctor” is right up there with Picard being turned into Locutus.     

Over at Vulture where I’ve been writing Who recaps, a commenter recently complained that an episode I’d given high marks to was merely “a monster of the week,” and therefore I was being too generous. Doctor Who was built on Monster of the Week. That’s what the show is, and has largely always been. This is another reason I take issue with Season Six – it somehow seemed to “train” some viewers into thinking that a labyrinthine, character-driven storyline is somehow what this show should strive to be. Season Six was an experiment – not a failed one by any means, but not an entirely successful one either. Having been a fan for over half my life, Season Seven as a whole is much closer to my sensibilities, but then that’s sort of the rub with this show – what works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa. It could be an episode we vehemently disagree on, or an ongoing story thread, or it could be a character, or even a piece of dialogue. It seems that all the many elements that come together to make this program mean something different to everyone that views it. This is one of the strongest testaments I can think of for Doctor Who: It’s the show that actually does have something for everyone. Didn’t like an episode? Just sit tight, because there’s one coming up that you’re gonna adore.

So I suppose this was my rather disjointed attempt at explaining why this season works for me, when clearly it didn’t always appear to work for the entire audience. Moving on to the goods…

Blu-ray Extras: For the first time on Blu-ray, a season of the series is being presented in 1080p, rather than 1080i. (Likewise, the massive Blu-ray box set of the entire new series that’s being released in November will also be in 1080p.) While this is potentially good news, if I’m being honest, I have to say I cannot tell the difference from the previous 1080i discs: the show looked spectacular in high-def before, and it looks (and sounds) spectacular now. Doctor Who remains one of the most visually dazzling shows on TV, and there’s simply no better way to experience it than via these Blu-ray sets.

Most exciting are the three new minisodes here: “INFORARIUM” is a clever, Moffat-y bit featuring the Doctor removing info about himself from the timeline of the universe; “Clara and the TARDIS” is a “discussion” between the pair – sure to rumple the feathers of a fan or two; and lastly there’s “Rain Gods,” which is a fun bit with the Doctor and River on a brief adventure to an alien world.

Two short featurettes were certainly new to me. “The Last Days of the Ponds” is an emotional behind the scenes look at Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s last days working on the show. I dare suggest it is actually more moving than “The Angels Take Manhattan,” but by no means take that as gospel. “Creating Clara,” with Jenna Coleman, is sort of self explanatory. There are also 14 short making-of docs (one for each episode [sans “Wardrobe”], including “Clara’s White Christmas,” which previously featured on “The Snowmen” disc) that together total about 55 minutes.

There are four commentary tracks spread throughout the set. “The Snowmen” features production designer Michael Pickwoad and art director Paul Spriggs. “Cold War” features writer Mark Gatiss, VFX supervisor Murray Barber, and VFX producer Jenna Powell. “Hide” somewhat surprisingly features Matt Smith gabbing with director Jamie Payne, who’ll also be directing this year’s Christmas special – the final tale of the Eleventh. And “The Crimson Horror” features the lovely trio of Neve McIntosh (Vastra), Dan Starkey (Strax), and Catrin Stewart (Jenny). All in all, not a total letdown on the commentary front, but not as exciting a lineup as I can imagine in my mind (none of the key episodes - “Asylum,” “Angels,” “Name” - of the season have commentaries, which is a bit of a shame).

Further, all the appropriate minisodes and prequels from previous Blu-rays and DVDs are presented here, as well as “She Said, He Said” and “Demon’s Run: Two Days Later,” which are both making their home video debuts (both were available on the internet.) Full-length specials from BBC America making their home video debuts are “Doctor Who in the U.S.” and “The Companions,” while “The Science of Doctor Who” and “Doctor Who at Comic Con,” both previously available on the “Series Seven, Part One” disc, are repeated here. Also present are two interviews with Smith and one from Coleman, all from the show The Nerdist.

If you purchased the previous vanilla releases and choose to upgrade, feel free to trade in or pass on those old discs – except for “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe,” which you may want to hang onto, as the three BBC America specials presented on that disc are not duplicated here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series DVD Giveaway

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to all who entered.

The winner was N. Hoover of Grapevine, TX.

The folks at BBC Home Entertainment have kindly provided The Rued Morgue with a DVD copy of Doctor Who - The Complete Seventh Series to give away to one lucky reader.

The set includes every episode from the 2011 Christmas special “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” up to the season seven finale, “The Name of the Doctor” – 15 episodes in total, plus a host of bonus features including:

- Behind the scenes featurettes for every episode of Series 7 plus “The Snowmen”; other featurettes include “Creating Clara” and “Last Days of the Ponds”
- Interviews with Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman from BBC AMERICA’s The Nerdist
- All-new minisodes “INFORARIUM,” “Clara and the TARDIS,” and “Rain Gods”; other minisodes include: “The Making of the Gunslinger” and “Pond Life”
- BBC America Doctor Who Specials: “The Science of Doctor Who,” “Doctor Who in the US,” “The Companions,” and “Doctor Who at Comic Con”
- Prequels to episodes: “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” “The Snowmen” (x3), “The Bells of Saint John and “The Name of the Doctor” (x2)
-  Audio commentary on “The Snowmen,” “Cold War,” “Hide,” and “The Crimson Horror” 

To have a chance at winning, send an email to lynchnut at with “DW S7 Giveaway” in the header, and in the body, simply type the name of your favorite episode contained within the Series Seven box set.

Contest only open to U.S. residents. One entry per person, please. Winner will be chosen at random and notified via the e-mail address from which the entry was sent, at which point you can provide me with your mailing address.

Contest ends on October 7th, 2013.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors DVD review

Much like the titular villains of the piece, “The Ice Warriors” serial (or rather what remains of it) has finally been thawed out and unleashed on the public – along with some “suspended” animation to help fill in the missing parts. The first and only other time “The Ice Warriors” was released commercially was back in 1999. That was on VHS, and included two versions of the missing episodes 2 and 3: A linking narrative montage made up of telesnaps and bits of dialogue that ran for about 15 minutes, and a CD featuring the complete audio for both of the episodes. No need for either anymore since, as with “The Invasion” and “The Reign of Terror” before it, the DVD release of “The Ice Warriors” offers up the most complete visualization of the serial since - any repeats aside - its initial broadcast back in the winter of 1967.

In the distant future, Earth battles a second Ice Age brought on by man’s foolishness. Due to a shift away from organic foods and the presumably out of control population having moved onto the planet’s farmlands, plant life has become all but extinct, resulting in a loss of carbon dioxide, which led to the glacier threat. Control stations are set up across the planet to combat the moving glaciers with ionizer devices; the story takes place in and around the Brittanicus Base (naturally). Meanwhile, in the midst of trying to save the world, the scientists discover what looks to be a Viking warrior encased in a block of ice. They take it back to the base to thaw out, only to reveal a cunning warlord from Mars, who soon enough releases more of his frozen comrades. The Martians want to conquer and enslave the planet, while the scientists want the Martian tech to aid in the cessation of the Ice Age. Into all of this the TARDIS materializes –on its side! – and the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) climb out of it, and into a wintry, frozen world of one danger after another.

As I’ve said numerous times in various ways, a Patrick Troughton-era classic Doctor Who DVD release is always something to be excited about, and “The Ice Warriors” is no different in that regard, especially as it features the debut of one of the more recognizable villains from the classic series. The introduction of the Ice Warriors to modern audiences in the sublime “Cold War” earlier this year makes this DVD all the sweeter.

The story itself – spread across six episodes – has quite the sense of adventure about it, and the production does a nice job of presenting a seemingly immense scale to the whole thing, aided in no small part by some filming at Ealing Film Studios (and the occasional bit of cleverly placed stock footage), in which fairly impressive icy exterior environments were created. Costuming is also another big plus, depending on your tolerance for 60s-era psychedelic fashions. It seems unlikely that the people of the future will dress like this, but to view it within the context of this old British sci-fi serial, it’s simply and wonderfully groovy. And the score! Oh, the lovely, haunting score from the mighty Dudley Simpson, including a wailing banshee of a voice that opens the first episode, adds appropriate aural texture from start to finish. The cautionary stance the tale takes is sort of perfect, and although it’s likely technically bonkers from a scientific standpoint, enough thought was put into it that it at least feels like a potential reality - no doubt, in my mind anyway, supported by the climate change arguments we debate today.

Peter Sallis as Penley
But it’s the cast of guest characters and the actors who play them that help to make “The Ice Warriors.” Particularly engaging is the game of push me pull you that goes on between Base Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth) and the scientist Penley (Peter Sallis, who would someday voice the human half of Wallace & Gromit in addition to starring in the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine). Clent thinks like a machine and relies on the computer. Penley believes in the power of the human mind and its intuitive nature. (Guess which one Doctor Who favors?) Both actors turn in scene-stealing performances, and are the stars of the serial alongside Troughton, whose Doctor attempts to broker a meeting of their minds. Credit also has to be doled out to hulking actor Bernard Bresslaw (at the time best known for the Carry On films) as the Ice Warrior leader Varga. His work is impressive and it seems he played a big part in laying the groundwork for all the Ice Warriors that came after. 

“The Ice Warriors,” by Brian Hayles, is a surprisingly dense story with complex characterizations and situations - for the “base under siege by monsters” era of the series, anyway. I sat through it a second time after deciding I hadn’t quite cracked it the first. Indeed, after that first viewing, I also felt as though there wasn’t enough story for six episodes, but after the second, the entire affair seemed much tighter, yet merely sprawling in its narrative. I still feel as though there are nooks and crannies of the tale I’ve yet to discover.

If you’ve seen and were underwhelmed by its inferior sequel “The Seeds of Death” - which has been available on DVD since 2004, and even managed to snag a special edition double-dip last year - do not write off “The Ice Warriors.” (Of course, if you dig “Seeds,” then this is a must-see.) This is likely the shiniest classic series outing for the Ice Warriors, as post-“Seeds” they were relegated to being part of the ensemble casts of the “Peladon” stories of the Jon Pertwee era, and of course after that they were absent from the TV series altogether until the aforementioned “Cold War.”

DVD Extras: Yet another new style of animation is on display this time around. It’s much “cleaner” and less artsy than what was done with “Reign.” There’s no question that there’s some cutting of corners going on here and there, bits of which take time to adjust to, but I eventually grew to find it all fairly seamless.  Though this style works for one or two episodes, I don’t think I would want to view an entire missing serial this way.

Beyond the near miraculous ability to view an entire serial previously only available in part, the rest of the extras are all a very average “nuts and bolts of the classic series DVD range” affair. The commentary tracks are all hosted (because I’m bored with using “moderated”) by Toby Hadoke. Episodes one, four, five, and six feature Frazer Hines, Deborah Watling, Sonny Caldinez (Turoc, the Ice Warrior), designer Jeremy Davies, and grams operator Pat Heigham. The animated episodes also have commentaries, but they go for a slightly different approach this time around. Episode two features bits of audio interviews (and in a couple instances, actor recreations) of over a half a dozen other folks who worked on the serial, including Bresslaw, Barkworth, and Hayles. (Peter Sallis is nowhere to be found in the extras!) And finally, the animated episode three features a conversation between Hadoke and Michael Troughton, son of Patrick, who recently wrote a book on his father. At the close of the episode, Hadoke promises more of the conversation on “a future Patrick Troughton DVD release” – which presumably will be “The Moonbase” or “The Underwater Menace,” or maybe even both.

“Cold Fusion” is an adequate, 24-minute making of doc. Though “Beneath the Ice,” a look at the animation process for this serial, is no great revelation, I’ll give it kudos on principle, because in the past I complained that there aren’t enough behind the scenes featurettes on the production of various aspects of the DVDs themselves. At the top of this review I mentioned the montage of telesnaps and dialogue that was used to fill in for the missing episodes on the VHS incarnation – that is also presented here for posterity, along with an introduction by Frazer and Debbie (so if you’re still hanging on to that tape, you can finally part with it.) There’s also archive footage of a Blue Peter Design-A-Monster contest, as well as Part Two of “Doctor Who Stories – Frazer Hines” (the first part can be found on “The Krotons” DVD). An original trailer for “The Ice Warriors” has been given the animation treatment, and there’s a photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option (present only on the extant episodes), Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Scream of the Shalka.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD review

Note: There seems to be a fair amount of misinformation floating about the internet concerning this DVD release. As someone who has owned Tales of the City on VHS and in its previous DVD incarnation (and viewed both many, many times), I can confirm: This is the most complete version of the series I have seen on home video here in the U.S. If you’re already a fanatic like me, and don’t need the introduction to Armistead Maupin’s world, scroll down to the DVD Extras portion of this review for more info. If you’re new to Tales, read on…

Based on the book of the same name, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was originally a daily serial presented over a period of years in the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually the columns were collected and made in to a series of five books, which Maupin followed with what seemed the final book in 1989 (Sure of You), bringing the total to six and the saga to an end. Not so fast! Maupin restarted the franchise in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives, which was followed by Mary Ann in Autumn in 2010. The ninth Tales book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, is set for publication next year, and is said (by Maupin) to be the final book in the series.

But back to the tale that started it all – the one on which this miniseries is based. Set in San Francisco of 1976, it begins as the story of Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a young, naïve girl from Cleveland who visits San Fran one summer, and after spending a week there, she decides she doesn’t want to return to Ohio. And once you start immersing yourself in San Francisco through Maupin’s prism, you’ll be right there with her.

Soon enough Mary Ann finds a cozy little apartment on Russian Hill at the fictitious 28 Barbary Lane, which is run by cool spinster Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). Anna enjoys growing pot in her garden, and she’s more than happy to share with her tenants – or her “children”, as she refers to them. When Mary Ann asks Mrs. M if she has any objection to pets, she replies, “My dear, I have no objection to anything.”

Also living at #28 are: Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb), a hippie chick free spirit who works in advertising; Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), the local lothario with an unapparent heart of gold; Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), Mona’s gay roommate, who’s based heavily on Maupin himself; and vitamin salesman Norman Neal Williams (the late, but truly awesome Stanley DeSantis)…but the less said about Norman the better - you need to discover his complexities on your own.

The denizens of 28 Barbary Lane are sort of the “have nots” – no money, uncertain futures, problematic relationships and the like. Across town live the “have dollars,” symbolized by the Halcyon family: patriarch Edgar (Donald Moffat), a wealthy businessman, his lush of a wife Frannie (Nina Foch), their society daughter DeDe (Barbara Garrick), and her lecherous husband Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson). While the Halcyons definitely have money, their futures are as uncertain and their relationships as problematic as the kids on Russian Hill.

Also onboard in supporting roles are Billy Campbell, Michael Jeter, Paul Dooley, Ian McKellen, Paul Bartel, Parker Posey, Mary Kay Place, Country Joe McDonald, Rod Steiger, McLean Stevenson, and Karen Black as herself. But I mean, really - McLean Stevenson…woah! In his only scene he harrumphs, “Why is it always The Marriage of goddamn Figaro?” upon being forced to go to the opera. “South Pacific – now there’s a musical!”

Does it sound busy? The graceful tapestry weave of these people’s lives is only one remarkable aspect of the series. Nothing ever seems forced or shoehorned – only natural and right. The maze in which they all travel among one another is a seemingly effortless “six degrees” type of construction – a distinct hallmark of Maupin’s prose.

Maupin has often said a primary influence when writing is Hitchcock, and from the opening visual, Vertigo itself is a guest star – it even begins with the famous swirling musical cue from Hermann’s score. Its structure appears deceptively soap operatic and big chunks of the story are wrapped up in mysteries and secrets. I’m certainly not going to blow any of its many surprises by talking about them here. Suffice it to say, few of the characters are who you think they are by series’ end.

Given the time period and locale, the story naturally features diverse assortments of drug use, sexuality and frank nudity. When it originally aired as part of American Playhouse on PBS (it was a co-production with Britain’s Channel 4), you can imagine the uproar from the conservative public. Protests, picketing and threats ensued – many PBS stations, bowing to pressure, refused to air it, while others played an edited version. (I’m unsure how many aired it uncut.) Despite the controversy, it achieved massive ratings and the plan was to follow with an adaptation of Maupin’s second book, which picks up about 4 months after the first tale ends. PBS caved and four years passed before Showtime stepped up to the plate and agreed to help finance More Tales of the City.

Given how much TV has changed since 1994, Tales seems positively mild by today’s standards, but the ground that was broken by the series should always be recognized. Twin Peaks changed TV for the viewer; Tales of the City, I would posit, changed TV for producers. One wonders if cablers like HBO and Showtime got deeper into the TV series game in part due to the troubles that befell Tales, and the recognition that there was an audience for adult TV fare – stuff that shouldn’t be burdened by network restrictions. Tales was in fact the first major TV project from Alan Poul – you may recognize that name from shows such as Six Feet Under and The Newsroom.

Poul also spearheaded the follow-ups, More Tales (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001). Both of those series are very good, but from production standpoints, neither quite scales the magical heights of the original. There’s an attention paid to period detail in the first Tales which the sequels somewhat lack. It feels like it was shot in 1976. I’ve actually had to tell people that it wasn’t, despite the obviousness of stuff like Laura Linney being too young to have starred in something lensed in the ‘70s. The time gap between the first two series also led to numerous cast changes in the sequels – although Linney and Dukakis (and a handful of others) stuck with it over the years.

Each intricate relationship in Tales portrays a very different slice of life, but my personal favorite is the clandestine affair that develops between Edgar Halcyon and Mrs. Madrigal. Rarely is such passion between “seasoned” actors/characters shown onscreen, and Moffat and Dukakis do not love one another in ways you might expect - there’s a great whimsy and kindness displayed by the meeting of these two lost souls. It’s likely some of the best acting both actors have done in their entire careers. One scene in particular that stands out is when free-spirited Anna takes stuffy Edgar to the beach and they spy a group of hippies flying a kite. Edgar remarks that it’s something he hasn’t done in years; Anna tells him to hang on. She sprints over to the kids and returns with the kite telling Edgar “We’ve only got ten minutes!” Edgar asks how she struck a deal with them. Cut to the hippies passing around one of Anna’s joints. While it isn’t the most complex scene in the series, it may be one of the most real.

DVD Extras: There are commentary tracks featuring Maupin, Linney, Dukakis, Garrick, and director Alistair Reid on episodes one, three, and six. There’s also 36 minutes worth of rehearsal and behind the scenes location footage. All of this material has been ported over from the previous, now out of print Acorn DVD edition from some years back. Likewise, the 8-page booklet that was present in that set has been reproduced here with some minor alterations.

The cause for celebration here is that, as stated at the top of this piece, this DVD is the most uncut version of Tales ever seen on home video here the States, and to the best of my knowledge, this is as complete and uncut as Tales can possibly be.

There were instances of dubbing on all previous home video versions, and all in episode two: The horribly dubbed-over profanity from Parker Posey’s Connie Bradshaw, when she's in bed with Brian - her two “fucks” - are now intact. Likewise Michael and his buddy’s casual use of the word “dick” was always replaced with “stick” (though not nearly as obviously as Posey’s fucks). Here, the dicks are back - yes the dicks are back. Scream it from the rooftop – the dicks and the fucks are back for the 20th Anniversary!

Now this wasn’t the case on VHS, but on the previous DVD, during Michael and Jon’s roller skating scene (also in episode two), Donna Summer's “Love to Love You Baby” was replaced, but it is now back for the new DVD. Though the back of the set has a disclaimer saying “Due to music rights, this program has been modified for home video presentation,” to my ears all the tunes are in their right places as they should be, and I was unable to find any replacements, anywhere on this set. So really when we talk about a “cut” version of Tales, what we’re really talking about is these little oddities that have plagued episode two over the years – all of which have been rectified for this DVD release.

Also, I believe making their debut on this set are lengthy previously on episode recaps at the top of episodes two through six. I'm sure I've never seen these before, but I could be wrong on that one. (Bear in mind, I never saw any of the PBS broadcasts; I first encountered the show about four months later when the tapes were released.)

The previous Acorn DVD was a three-disc set, whereas this is only two, and the packaging for this set is not as nice or as elaborate as the previous DVD. Some will cry foul that Tales was not given the luxury treatment for its 20th – that the packaging isn’t better, or that new special features weren’t produced. Keep in mind that the home video market is a much different place today than it was ten or even five years ago. Across the board, lavish DVD sets are no longer being produced with the same frequency as they were in days gone by. That the out-of-print Tales got a new DVD release in a dwindling marketplace is good news; that that DVD is the complete, uncut version - just in time to celebrate 20 years - is the best news of all.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Doctor Who: The Green Death Special Edition DVD review

Though “The Green Death” wasn’t the end of the Jon Pertwee/Barry Letts era of Doctor Who, it was most definitely an end. An entire story was crafted around the wing spreading, falling in love, and exit of Katy Manning’s Jo Grant, and it hung its heart so slavishly on its sleeve that even though it wasn’t the first time the show had done something of this ilk (Susan in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”), it sure felt like it. While “The Green Death” may not be the pinnacle of the Pertwee era, surely it’s in his Top Five stories, and as such is more than deserving of some double-dip, special edition love, of which theres plenty to be found on this two-disc set.

With Jo Grant leading the charge, the Doctor and UNIT head to the Welsh coal mining village of Llanfairfach, where a miner has died in an accident – his dead body glowing bright green. The nearby Global Chemicals plead ignorance while promising a rich, oil-driven future for planet Earth. But dashing Professor Clifford Jones (Stewart Bevan, Manning’s real life beau at the time) and his band of hippie genius followers have plenty to say on all matters global, chemical and fungal. Meanwhile, something else is stirring below the planet’s surface – something more horrific than anyone is even aware, and behind the scenes at Global Chemicals, there’s the mysterious, possibly maniacal BOSS…

Affectionately known by many as “the one with the maggots,” “The Green Death” is so much more than that – though the fact that it’s known as such does speak to how creepily brought to life the nasty critters are. Aside from being a smashing, character-driven love story, “The Green Death” is also an ecological wake up call and a taking to task of the corporate mentality – aspects of it that, while occasionally dated from an execution standpoint, remain as timely as ever in this Monsanto/Koch Brothers-driven climate of fear and paranoia. More so than any other of the series, the Barry Letts era often ruminated on important issues and issued corporate indictments while telling its thrilling action adventure stories, and I’m not sure that any of them conveyed such messages as eloquently as “The Green Death.” Much cinematic sci-fi of the early seventies (Soylent Green, Silent Running) went down similar roads, so it’s entirely fitting that Doctor Who was doing the same.

Does it have minuses? Sure. There are numerous instances of terrible CSO work – stuff that to my eyes could easily have been avoided, but then I’m no expert on the ins and outs of this serial’s production schedule. The flying critters that the maggots morph into in episode six are not terribly convincing. The actor (Tony Adams) playing the rather prominent role of Elgin fell sick somewhere after recording episode four, leaving the production in a lurch. They were forced to create a new character for episode five to take his place, giving Elgin an unfinished story arc, and emphasis placed on a different character we’ve nothing invested in.

Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan
But none of those things even come close to taking away from the heartfelt story of a young girl who once upon a time met a brilliant scientist that whisked her away to distant worlds – a young girl who eventually grew up and fell for another brilliant scientist that offered to take her on a whole new set of adventures, including marriage - all while her mentor slips away quietly into the night. Yes, Jo Grant grew up, and so did Doctor Who and us, right along with her. “The Green Death” is truly a “very special episode” of Doctor Who, and now it exists in a very special edition. Read on… 

DVD Extras: Everything from the previous edition – such as the commentary track with Manning, Letts and Terrance Dicks, and the faux-doc “Global Conspiracy!” starring the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Gatiss – have been ported over. A new, proper making-of entitled (of course) “The One With the Maggots” is a loving look back, featuring all manner of cast and crew. A short bit entitled “Wales Today” consists of some silent location footage from “The Green Death,” as well as a news report about Pertwee returning to the location in Wales 20 years later. “What Katy Did Next is a brief news report on her leaving the show, as well as a clip from an arts and crafts program she hosted after leaving Who called SerendipityAnother installment of “Doctor Forever!” focuses entirely on the attempts of Russell T. Davies and then BBC Controller of Drama Jane Tranter to bring Doctor Who back from the dead, as seen through their eyes. A fascinating story this one is. You’ll be amazed the revival got off the ground at all, given the sheer amount of negativity that surrounded them.

Death of the Doctor
Speaking of Davies – all hail RTD! Not only are both episodes of the Season Four Sarah Jane Adventures story “Death of the Doctor,” guest starring Matt Smith & Katy Manning and written by RTD, on here, but RTD and Manning recorded commentary tracks for both – as well as for “The Green Death” episode six! So, yes, for nearly 90 minutes you get to listen to the pair of them gab, and the love and emotion and the stories and the utterly riotous laughter they share are all just so bloody infectious; it’s well worth the upgrade for these three tracks alone. And, yes, there’s plenty of talk about Elisabeth Sladen. Might want to keep a box of tissues handy…“Death of the Doctor” is an outstanding post-script to the story of Jo Grant, and its inclusion here is not only appreciated, but perhaps also warranted.

Richard Franklin and Jon Pertwee - you gotta see this!
Further, there are more new commentary tracks on episodes three, four and five of “The Green Death” featuring Richard Franklin (Mike Yates), actress Mitzi McKenzie (who plays Nancy), and visual effects designer Colin Mapson, all moderated by Toby Hadoke, who clearly at this point has one of the coolest jobs on the planet. There are also Radio Times listings in PDF form, a slighty longer photo gallery, and a coming soon trailer for next month’s release of “The Ice Warriors.”