Friday, July 19, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited - One to Four DVD review

No doubt, “The Doctors Revisited” series (or at least the first two sets, comprising the first eight Doctors) will be the most controversial Who-related DVD releases of the year. Anyone incensed by the monthly BBC America broadcasts of these same programs will likely have issues with these discs as well. However, let’s take a deep breath and consider who these sets are aimed at: (lifting a phrase from “Kinda”) The Not We. These are not for the hardcore Doctor Who collector. They’re for the casual fan, or the person who’s largely only familiar with the new series, and therefore we should probably cut these presentations some slack, as the people at which they are aimed may not have the same expectations that we do. So bear with me while I rant and rave, but eventually I will twist back around and turn this review into a recommendation (peppered with numerous reservations).

Having said all of that, taking a 4x3 TV image from the past and stretching it to fit a 16x9 screen of today – which is how the feature presentations on this set are screened - is one of the most baffling TV on DVD decisions that I’ve ever seen made, and I’ve watched and reviewed loads of TV on DVD over the years. I thought I’d seen every permutation of fuck up known to man and fan, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this, especially from a DVD range that is normally the absolute cream of the crop. I find the decision so offensive that with the broadcasts on BBC America, after the initial half-hour discussions of the Doctor in question are over, I end up turning the programs off and directing my attentions elsewhere – which is a shame, because I’ve been patiently waiting for quite a few years for BBC America to start showing some classic Who, so that there could be a massive shared experience among fans all over the country.

Pyramids of Mars
Never did it occur to me that the eventual presentation of this material would be so subpar that I couldn’t even bear to view it. Commercial breaks I can hang with. Omnibus over episodic format? I can deal with that, too. I could probably even make allowances for a few minor edits here and there for time reasons. I will not, however, tolerate a distorted and poor TV image. In this day and age proper aspect ratio is key to any TV or movie viewing, and “The Doctors Revisted” series has been incorrectly presented since it started back in January.

The Tomb of the Cybermen
Of course, for a huge chunk of the BBC America viewing audience, “The Doctors Revisited” series has been a mass shared experience. Most people are not bothered by the stretching of image. If they were, BBC America would’ve been so inundated with complaints they’d likely have changed it. Warping square images into a 16x9 frame is so common at this point – most widescreen TVs automatically do it to standard definition signals – there can be no doubt that millions and millions of people don’t even notice that it’s incorrect. Or if they do, they simply don’t care - otherwise they’d fiddle with the aspect ratio buttons on their remotes (though even doing that typically presents its own set of problems, at least for these broadcasts).

Spearhead from Space
Indeed, many viewers likely prefer it. Years ago I worked at a laserdisc store. This was some time before DVD, of course, so watching movies in widescreen (or “letterbox” as we called it back then) was still something only cinephiles engaged in and appreciated. Many people who came into the store had big screen TVs – square ones – and I was often reminded by customers that they didn’t buy those big TVs to see black bars at the top and bottom. No, they wanted the entire screen filled, and if that meant sacrificing sections of the movie itself, then so be it. And I am willing to bet that attitude exists today as well with 16x9 flatscreens; the average consumer would probably rather not see black bars on the sides of their TV set. It likely looks more offensive to their eye than a stretched 4x3 image, filling the entire TV screen. Bit of a shame, but then people also preferred VHS over Betamax.

The Aztecs
So in a way it makes a sort of warped sense that these stories are shown this way on BBC America and on this collection, as well. And in fact I’d argue “Leave it to the Doctor Who DVD range to so batshit crazily experiment in this manner.” Of course, none of this really excuses the unrestored versions used for the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee stories, especially given all the work the Restoration Team has done over the past 20 years. It sort of goes to show how disconnected the many departments of the BBC often are, when prints this archaic are used for both broadcast and DVD release. If there’s a real fuck up to complain about with this set, it’s this. 

Menu Screengrab from Disc 2
So, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend this set to anyone based on everything written above. 

However (there's always a however...), somebody somewhere made the incredibly wise decision to include - alongside the horrific versions - the restored original four-part versions of each of the four serials here, presented in 4x3, as god intended. Fair enough. You (and by you I mean the powers that be) can showcase your wares and shoddily as you wish, as long as the good stuff is presented right alongside it. Basically the viewer can watch the special on the Doctor of their choosing, then go check out Steven Moffat’s introduction on the main feature of the story in question, and then finally click away from that and settle into watching the serialized version. This DVD collection works just fine if you know how to go about using it, and as such it’s a lovely collection for people just getting into classic Who

Fridge Magnets
And these four stories – “The Aztecs,” “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” “Spearhead from Space,” and “Pyramids of Mars” - are wonderful primer, although I probably would’ve chosen a different story to represent the Pertwee era. While “Spearhead” is a great deal of fun and a cracking yarn, it doesn’t really showcase Pertwee’s Doctor as we’d eventually come to know him. With it being his first story, he, and perhaps the production team as well, hadn’t quite found the character yet. Minor quibble, but then this review is already so full of quibbles, what’s wrong with throwing down yet another?

The only real extra aside from the programming talked about in this review is a set of four fridge magnets (see left), featuring each of the first four Doctors surrounded by a selection of their enemies. The first volume of “The Doctors Revisited” is certainly a complicated DVD release, but not one that should be dismissed outright, as with the proper knowledge it will accomplish precisely what it sets out to do, and in that sense, the DVD trumps the BBC America broadcasts of the same material.

Read the review for “The Doctors Revisited - Fifth to Eighth” by clicking here.