Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Doctor Who: "The Snowmen" & "Series Seven, Part Two" Blu-ray reviews

Having written recent extensive recaps of over a thousand words apiece on each of the episodes contained within these Blu-rays (you can find them at Vulture by clicking here), I’m not going to rehash that dialogue once again. Indeed, in rewatching all nine of these episodes, I found my opinions haven’t changed much at all. The Christmas special, “The Snowmen,” is flawed, but ultimately saved by a group of enjoyable protagonists (Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Victorian Clara remains a major high point). The eight episodes contained within the “Series Seven, Part Two” set remain – for me anyway – a largely strong run of stories, several of which rank among the very best of the Moffat era. Clearly, fan opinion is divided on that assertion, and you probably already know whether or not you agree with me. Having said that, if you’re a fan and you didn’t care for what you viewed over the past couple months, perhaps it wouldn’t be an entirely bad idea to give them another go, with the heavy burden of expectation divorced from the viewing experience.

Originally, all nine of these episodes were announced for release in a single set. That quickly changed when, I guess, the bean counters realized that could make a few more bucks by releasing “The Snowmen” separately as they have some of the previous Christmas specials. Only problem is, “The Christmas Carol” disc offered up an entire Proms concert as an extra, and “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” included three, 45-minute talking head docs. In both cases, they were nice extras that went quite a way toward justifying entirely separate releases. Not so with “The Snowmen,” which offers up less than 10 minutes of bonus material. There’s a brief making-of entitled “Clara’s White Christmas,” and two prequels to the episode: “Vastra Investigates,” which premiered online; and “The Great Detective,” which debuted on Children in Need. Absent and very much missed is the online short “Demon’s Run: Two Days Later” which explains how the Sontaran Strax was brought back to life (or rather how he wasn’t actually killed in the first place).

Further, “The Snowmen” should have been included in the “Series Seven, Part Two” set because narratively it’s a big part of that story arc, whereas the previous Moffat holiday offerings were very much standalone tales. Bad, bad BBC Worldwide - I wag my finger at you! The “Series Seven, Part Two” set is equally lean on extras, offering up only two shorts: the arguably lame “The Bells of Saint John” prequel, which features the Doctor running into a young Clara on a playground; and a prequel that’s making its debut on this collection - “Clarence and The Whispermen,” which spells out a relationship between the psychopath and the creepy villains that was only hinted at in the season finale. Frankly, I’m not surprised it was ultimately decided to not play it on the interwebs. By Doctor Who standards it is quite unnerving and feels more like something to come from the mind of Clive Barker rather than Steven Moffat. Perhaps more importantly, though, it would’ve taken something away from the shock of the Whispermen in the episode proper to have already been introduced to them. Once again, though, a prequel is M.I.A. here, and that’s the “She Said, He Said” piece that debuted a few days before the finale. I imagine both it and the “Demons Run” bit will show up on the Complete Series Seven collection which will hit later this year.

As always, these discs are nice and sparkling crystal clear, with fantastic 5.1 audio tracks. There’s no better way to experience these episodes than on Blu-ray, which certainly trumps viewing them on BBC America with commercials. Though a DVR can alleviate that problem to a degree, one still ends up with tiny little breaks in places where they don’t belong. Doctor Who simply isn’t designed to be cut up in that manner. Obviously we’ve all been down this road many times before – you can either buy these now, or you can wait six months for the full Season Seven collection, which, as I understand it, will also include “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.” Personally, I’m extremely happy to have these for summer viewing, and would hate to be without high def versions of these episodes as I wait patiently for the 50th anniversary special.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Visitation Special Edition DVD review

After eight straight weeks of intense recapping/commentary of current Doctor Who for Vulture, it was something of a shock to get back to doing some viewing and writing on a classic series tale. After imbibing in the frenzied greatness of something like “Nightmare in Silver,” a sleepy little offering such as “The Visitation” requires some mental adjustment.

“The Visitation” has actually never been a huge favorite of mine, but then it’s also difficult to complain much about it, or take it to task for this, that, or the other. It’s an efficient, pleasant work that gets little wrong, but neither does it knock down any walls. Possibly most noteworthy for being future script editor Eric Saward’s first contribution to the series, the serial has virtually nothing in common with the sort of gritty, action-driven tales he’d eventually come to be better known for – stuff like “Earthshock” and “Resurrection of the Daleks.”

The story takes places in 1666, and England is plagued by, well, the Great Plague. Into an already mad world comes a group of criminal fugitives of the Terileptil race (looking like a sort of cross between a fish, a reptile, and an insect), and their mission becomes one of the genocide of humanity, so that they may claim the planet for themselves. Soon enough, the Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), arrive to battle the Terileptil menace, but not without making an imprint on English history.

With that stance, you're entitled to your disgust, Janet.
That’s not necessarily a streamlined summary, as that’s really about all that happens in “The Visitation.” It’s an almost absurdly simplistic, paint by numbers Doctor Who story (which isn’t a bad thing), buoyed by some creative acting, nice location work - including a surplus of lush green English countryside - and characterization that’s slightly more complex than the norm of the day, a trend that would continue to develop throughout Davison's era.

What hit me particularly hard on this viewing was how much time was spent on Tegan in the first episode. This story follows “Kinda,” and the character is still recovering from her possession by the Mara, which leads to an intriguing scene between Fielding and Sutton that sort of shows why Fielding was such a boon to the Davison era. It’s followed by another scene – and an emotionally explosive one at that – in which she takes the Doctor to task for his repeated failure to get her back to Heathrow of the early ‘80s. The relationship between Doctor and companion is somewhat strained throughout the remainder of the tale as a result.

Michael Robbins as Richard Mace
Additionally, “The Visitation” features a delightfully over the top guest performance from actor Michael Robbins, playing thespian Richard Mace, who joins the TARDIS team for the duration of the story (as if the Doctor needs yet another companion!). Further, the main Terileptil, played by Michael Melia, was achieved using animatronics for various portions of its head – a first for the series. Granted, it’s all extremely basic, and not terribly convincing by today’s standards, but it’s always interesting to take note of these little technological advances within the series. Something else I learned from this DVD that I didn’t know before – Eric Saward claims that the Great Plague was, at the time, referred to by the London populace as “the visitation,” which gives the serial’s title a double meaning. “The Visitation” is also noteworthy for being the story in which the sonic screwdriver was destroyed, as producer John Nathan-Turner felt it led to lazy writing ( series, cough, cough). It would not resurface until the TV movie in 1996. 

Michael Melia as the Terileptil
DVD Extras: Everything from the previous DVD has been ported over to the first disc of this special edition, so feel free to pass your old version on to a deserving young Whovian. New to this double-disc set is an unusually lengthy making-of entitled “Grim Tales,” which runs for 45 minutes and features Mark Strickson taking Davison, Fielding, and Sutton (sadly, no Waterhouse, though he’s represented here on the commentary track) on a tour of the locations featured in the story, interspersed with the occasional talking head recorded elsewhere. At one point, Strickson presents the “Visitation” trio with a cake that should be seen to be appreciated. 

"Touch me there again, Adric. One more time. I dare you."
Following is a 32-minute piece entitled “The Television Centre of the Universe – Part One,” in which Davison, Fielding, and Strickson go on a tour of BBC Television Centre, which they apparently haven’t set foot in since their time on the show. Massive chunks of classic Who (of all eras) were recorded in this building, so far the hardcore fan it’s an informative piece that shines a light in corners normally unseen. Both of these pieces are quite likable, and if you’ve previously spent DVD time with Davison and his co-starring cohorts (and surely you must have or you wouldn't be reading this review), you can pretty much guess the sort of boisterous, borderline bawdy fun you’re in for. Interesting that the TV Centre piece is Part One (and it does end on something of a cliffhanger – or at least as much of a cliffhanger as a piece like this can have), as it would seem to indicate that Part Two will be on another Davision double-dip SE – except that there’s nothing officially on the release slate. Perhaps “Earthshock” is being readied for the SE treatment?

“Doctor Forever – The Apocalypse Element” is another entry in the ongoing series, this time highlighting the world of Doctor Who audio stories, with emphasis on the Big Finish range, as well as the works of BBC Audio/AudioGo. I was particularly taken by the start of this doc, as it highlights the LPs “Doctor Who Sound Effects,” “Genesis of the Daleks,” and “Doctor Who and the Pescatons” – all of which seduced many a Who fan on vinyl back in the day. There are also Radio Times listings in PDF form, as well as a BBC sales sheet for “The Visitation.” Finally, there’s a trailer for the upcoming SE of “Inferno.” 

Death stalks the countryside in "The Visitation"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

“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. The Doctor is moving forward as he always does, and he wants to solve the mystery of Clara. 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.” – Steven Moffat

I don’t always agree with Moffat, and my initial reaction to this statement was, “This is just his rationalization for not including the classic Doctors in the 50th!” But I thought on it, and then thought some more, and realized that wasn’t what he was addressing. No producer of Doctor Who wants to see the show die on their watch. A big part of the Who producer’s job – even if it’s not implicitly stated in the contract – is to keep the show healthy, and keep it moving forward, so that there’s something for the next person to work with.

“The Name of the Doctor” is that kind of story. It’s less about summing up this season, and more about looking towards the future by showing us the Doctor’s eventual fate, revealed by pointing the spotlight on the place his remains will end up at the close of his mind-bogglingly long life. The death of the Doctor is of paramount importance at this stage of Doctor Who, and it’s central to this particular story in which numerous characters die and are brought back to life, which I didn’t care for, but we’ll get to that. Right now I want to discuss a specific fanxiety I’ve felt since the series started again in 2005, and how “The Name of the Doctor” has helped alleviate it to a degree.

Read the entire recap for Doctor Who's Season Seven finale by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver

Neil Gaiman has, over the course of his career, become a brand name unto himself – one that may even match Doctor Who in terms of fan devotion and popularity. Bringing these two “brands” together leads to well deserved shrieks of delight and an almost stomach-churning sense of anticipation, for if a slick fantasist like Gaiman cannot do Doctor Who justice, then who can?

“In terms of how Doctor Who and the mythos of Doctor Who has influenced my writing, I think it’s impossible for me to say because I have no idea, there’s no control out there. I can’t actually ever get to meet Neil Gaiman who, at the age of 3, wasn’t watching Doctor Who, at the age of 4 wasn’t imagining how things can be bigger on the inside, at the age of 5, wasn’t buying a copy or persuading his father to buy a copy of the Dalek World annual on Victoria Station. And taking it home and studying it and learning all about Daleks, and discovering that Daleks couldn’t see the color red, and then writing about the red Daleks and whether they were invisible to their friends, and discovering that measles was a Dalek disease. And not lots of people know, but I learned that because I read it in the Dalek World Anthology.” - Gaiman

Know upfront that I’m not a Gaiman disciple, but have partaken in some of his work over the years, have particular affinity toward his ’96 BBC miniseries Neverwhere, and appreciated, but wasn’t bowled over by his previous Who contribution, “The Doctor’s Wife” (the production didn’t quite live up to his script and its ideas, but then the same has been said of Neverwhere). Nothing of the sort plagues “Nightmare in Silver,” which I’m utterly, madly delighted about. This tale of broken people (and ex-people) coming back to life is the unquestionable highlight of the season so far, though both “Asylum of the Daleks” and “Cold War” still rate pretty high. Who’d have guessed the peaks of season seven would be the stories featuring all the classic villains? If nothing else, it demonstrates why Doctor Who deserves such a fervent, passionate celebration of its 50 years – because the conceptual promises of the series’ earliest seasons can still be taken to conclusions that are as exciting to viewers today as they were to the viewers of the '60s and '70s.

Read the rest of this recap - which includes many more excerpts from a Gaiman conference call I participated in earlier this week - by clicking here and visiting Vulture

Monday, May 06, 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror

It’s been a while since I’ve been this dually stoked and let down by an episode of Doctor Who. The last time may have been “Victory of the Daleks,” which suffered from a similar schizophrenia and was also written by Mark Gatiss, whom I slobbered all over just a few weeks ago thanks to his script for “Cold War.” “The Crimson Horror” is a marvelous, almost jaw-droppingly innovative episode … for about the first half of its running time. In its second half it falls victim to horribly clich├ęd villainy and stock evil sci-fi plans, that all feels like it’s been done before, probably because it has.

Before dwelling on the bad, let’s revel in the good, of which there’s a fair amount. At this point, any episode showcasing Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey) is an episode worth tuning into. There may be a point at which there’s nothing interesting left for the series to do with these characters, but that’s a long way off. Talk of a spinoff series set around this trio is a given, but it’s difficult to tell if it could actually work week in and out. Despite them figuring heavily into this tale, we’re not much closer to finding out after this viewing, as once the Doctor showed up, they were each marginalized to some degree or other. (Bit of a shame this wasn’t a true “Doctor-lite” episode such as “Blink” or “Love & Monsters” from RTD days of old.)

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