Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror DVD review - Updated!

Go buy a copy of “The Reign of Terror.” It could very well have a direct effect on certain future titles in the classic Doctor Who DVD range**. Steve Manfred has issued a call to arms of sorts on his typically reliable Doctor Who DVD page (for anyone who collects these discs, his page is the first you should have bookmarked). He says that “The Reign of Terror” must sell well in order to affect the future presentations of five upcoming Hartnell and Troughton DVDs: “The Crusade,” “The Tenth Planet” (the final story of the First Doctor, featuring the first regeneration; also the first Cybermen story), “The Underwater Menace,” “The Moonbase,” and “The Ice Warriors.”

The latter, which is missing two episodes, was recently announced for release later this year, but what form those missing episodes might take appears to be up in the air. They could be presented in a compacted form, made up of still reconstructions that appeared on the VHS years ago. Or, those episodes could be animated, and after you see this disc (or “The Invasion,” which achieved completion via the same process), you’ll see that, for the time being, animation is probably the best presentation for missing episodes. Ideally, every single missing episode should eventually be animated (well, ideally every single missing episode would be found, but I’m trying to operate on a plane of reality here). For now though, the aforementioned stories are the obvious candidates on which to concentrate efforts, since each is missing only one or two episodes. So “The Reign of Terror” must sell well, and the only way that’s gonna happen is if fans go out and buy it. Hard cash, vote with dollars. This is important. (Read Manfred’s words by clicking here.)

For me personally, “The Reign of Terror” is a tricky tale to critique at this juncture, for it is a six-part serial that, prior to this DVD, I had never seen! Now you must understand, this is practically an anomaly as I have seen nearly all of this stuff, repeatedly. As only four of the six “Reign” episodes exist, it was in limbo for the general public up until 2003, when it was released in a massive VHS box set with something like nine other titles. I never bought that set, because the DVDs had already been coming out for a couple years, and I didn’t want to go backwards technology-wise. Fast forward ten years and BBC/Big Finish folks with money and vision have animated Episodes Four and Five, and here I am, viewing an entire Season One Doctor Who story for the first time.

I can’t be objective about “The Reign of Terror” at this time, as it’s too unique a viewing experience. If you’re familiar with historical stories from the Hartnell years, such as “The Aztecs” (also from the first season), you can sort of guess what you’re in for, only this time the adventure takes place during the French Revolution (which as an American I know precious little about). William Hartnell is very good here, as is Jacqueline Hill; William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, not so much – or rather they just aren’t given as much to do. The supporting cast is pretty fine as well, and there’s a nice revelation concerning one of them late in the story. The design and costumes are aptly elaborate, and there's some excellent location footage of the Doctor (you'll find out more about this on the DVD).

The black and white video quality is a tad rougher than usual for the first couple episodes. Episodes Three and Six, however, look pretty close to the usual VidFIRE standard. That leaves Four and Five to be animated. Animating old Doctor Who episodes is admittedly a bizarre thing to do. If it weren’t the only practical solution to the problem, nobody would ever think to do it for material like this, which amounts to a filmed stage play. It’s sort of the opposite of one of the chief functions of animation, which is to present visuals that cannot be achieved any other way. This isn’t “exciting” animation much of the time (the audio doesn't even allow it to be), though the artists here do take minor liberties, especially in regards to certain closeup shots that surely were not in the original serial. But by and large it gets done the job of presenting this material in such a way that it more or less flows with the extant episodes, which is presumably what most people want from this process.

Bottom Line: You must invest a few dollars into this disc. I am the Master and you will obey me. You will buy “The Reign of Terror”…You will buy “The Reign of Terror”… You will buy “The Reign of Terror”…

DVD Extras: All six episodes – regardless of the participants – are moderated by Toby Hadoke. We love Toby. The existing episodes feature Carole Anne Ford, along with guest stars Neville Smith, Jeffry Wickham, Caroline Hunt, Patrick Marley, and production assistant Timothy Combe. Animated Episode Four features actor Ronald Pickup (The Best Exotic Marigold HotelWho was his first TV gig) and Episode Five offers a fascinating discussion with missing episode hunters Philip Morris and Paul Vanezis. “Don’t Lose Your Head” is a 25-minute making of with Russell, Ford, and Combe. There are also a couple throwaway bits of animation, but no talk of the process itself (for shame!). There’s also a gorgeous photo gallery loaded with nice color behind the scenes shots, Radio Times listings in PDF form, production notes subtitles option on the four existing eps, and a trailer for the special edition of “The Ark in Space” which will be available next month.

**Updated! March 5th - Having spent nearly three hours in the company of the classic Doctor Who DVD range commissioning editor Dan Hall at Gallifrey One a few weeks ago, this post begged for an addendum. According to Dan, the specific sales of “Reign” will not and have not had any direct effect on the potential release of future animated DVDs. This was of course backed up by the announcement of “The Tenth Planet” with an animated Episode Four less than a week after “Reign” was released. And since then, there’s also been confirmation of the upcoming “The Ice Warriors” with animated Episodes Two and Three. Both of these productions were well under way at the time of “Reign’s” release. So, Rued apologies to anyone who went out and picked up that disc at my rather frantic urging, but I imagine the worst that’s happened is that you now own a Doctor Who DVD that you previously did not.

Dan Hall at Gallifrey One 2013
On a different note, a few words about Dan Hall…this man loves classic Doctor Who as much or even more than the most fervent of us. A big reason these DVDs kick so much ass? Dan. After having been led to believe over the years that he was some sort of number-crunching suit, it was refreshing to discover that nothing could be further from the truth. As I said, he spent three hours with about a half a dozen Doctor Who DVD freaks talking over one another, patiently listening to an endless barrage of praise and complaints, never once getting ruffled. The man was a pure joy to hang with, and he’s got plenty of surprises for us in the coming year…and maybe even after.

Also check out my previous article on "The Invasion" - the only other classic Who story to get the animated treatment thus far.