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.