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.”