Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet & The Moonbase DVD reviews


What, in the here and now, is potentially intriguing about the DVD releases of “The Tenth Planet” and “The Moobase” is that the amount of time between their R1 DVD release dates is nearly identical to the amount of time that lapsed in between their original airings on the BBC. “The Tenth Planet” aired throughout October of 1966 and was released on DVD in November of 2013; “The Moonbase” aired throughout February and March of ’67, and its DVD arrives on February 11th, 2014, exactly 47 years to the day of the airing of its first episode. It’s unlikely that this was someone’s plan (the R2 release dates are slightly different), but it is a sweet bit of serendipity regardless, especially for those who picked up and viewed “The Tenth Planet” last year, and intend to buy and watch “The Moonbase” now.

Why? Because the tales are nothing if not two sides of the same coin – the latter installment being something of a remake of the former – and viewed back-to-back they sort of exemplify some of the changes Doctor Who was going through at the time. It’s cool to be able to compare and contrast the two stories, and attempt to look at them with the same sort of eyes that viewers back in ’66 and ’67 had, given that most of us are experiencing the two stories, with their animated reconstructions, closer to their original visions than ever before. Now before going further let’s lay it out on the table: neither story is a true classic (though each has its virtues), and calling them flawed is probably being generous. For a truly successful Cybertale, it would be “third time’s a charm,” with “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” later on in ’67.

“The Tenth Planet” plot: The TARDIS materializes at the South Pole in the year 1986, where the crew - The Doctor (William Hartnell), Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Michael Craze) - happen upon a space tracking station called Snowcap, staffed by an international crew of characters, and led by the Ripper-esque General Cutler (every time he obsesses on his son, just think “precious bodily fluids”). Snowcap is monitoring the launch of an Earth spaceship (which is where the son is) when they discover a new planet that looks suspiciously like Earth. A craft from the planet arrives, bringing to our world, for the first time, the Cybermen (why did they head for the South Pole?), who intend to drain all of Earth’s power for their dying planet Mondas, and convert the populace into more Cybermen. In the midst of everything, the Doctor appears to be growing weaker and weaker…

“The Moonbase” plot: The TARDIS materializes on the Moon in the year 2070, where the crew – The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Polly, Ben, and new TARDIS crewmember Jamie (Frazer Hines) – happen upon a weather control station called the Moonbase, staffed by an international crew of characters, and led by the considerably less insane Hobson (compared to Cutler, anyway). The center of the Moonbase is the Gravitron, which controls Earth’s weather. Meanwhile, some Moonbase crewmembers are afflicted with a peculiar virus, and soon enough, victims of the illness go missing. The Cybermen are back, this time with the intention of using the Gravitron to destroy all life on Earth.

As you can probably see, the story constructs are similar, even if some of the details are slightly different. Further, the Snowcap/Moonbase interiors and South Pole/Moon exteriors also add to the mounting textural resemblances, and of course, the villains are the same in name, even if not in appearance, which is probably what makes the two stories most easy to compare. The “base under siege” plot, as it is often referred to, would become a standard of the Troughton era, so it’s also worth noting that these two tales are probably the earliest examples of the formula.   

“The Tenth Planet” is rife with problems. It lurches from one episode to the next, changing tone every step of the way. The international cast of characters is riddled with stereotypes and clich├ęs (though one must give the serial props for featuring a black astronaut played by Earl Cameron). William Hartnell is ill enough at this point that not only is his failing health written into the script, but he also disappears for the entirety of Episode Three. When I think of “The Tenth Planet,” the singular aspect that makes the story truly worthy (besides the fact that it features the first regeneration) is the Cybermen. 

These Cybermen are unlike any others that came after them, and one wonders what the villains might look like today if they hadn’t been redesigned for “The Moonbase” just a few months later. People often describe their vocal inflections as “sing song,” which I suppose is pretty apt, though I would argue that they really sort of defy description. Perhaps it is because I’m so much more familiar with every other incarnation of the Cybermen, that these are so unsettling. These cats are some of the weirdest Doctor Who villains in the history of the series. Episode Two here is very good. It gives ample screen time to both the Cybermen and the Doctor, and is probably Hartnell’s final great work on the series, as he has less to do in the fourth episode – which is also the only episode of this serial that’s missing.

“The Moonbase” improves upon some of the problems from the first serial. First and foremost, in the form of Patrick Troughton, it has an energetic, able-bodied and minded leading man, which of course makes a huge difference. There are lovely, inspired sequences set on the lunar surface, featuring both Cybermen and TARDIS crew (though the latter sequence, from Episode One, ends up animated). As this serial was devised prior to Jamie joining the crew, he is jammed into the narrative and injured in the first episode and doesn’t return to form until the final episode. Still, Jamie’s injury leads to one of the more wonderful flourishes of “The Moonbase,” and that’s his perception of a Cyberman as the “phantom piper,” coming to take Jamie off to the land of the dead. It’s neat to see the far less experienced McCrimmon at this stage of the game. “The Moonbase” is surely the better story of the two, but I would still argue that, at least from a historical standpoint, they’re stronger as a double feature than apart. Neil Gaiman might disagree, as it seemed clear that his “Nightmare in Silver” was heavily-influenced by the horror of watching “The Moonbase” as a child.

As previously mentioned, both stories remain incomplete in the BBC archives, so animation has once again come to the rescue, with “The Tenth Planet” Episode Four, and “The Moonbase” Episodes One and Three being given the treatment. After the less than stellar animation style used for “The Ice Warriors,” I was happy to see that the methods used for each of these stories were much closer to the artiness of “The Reign of Terror.”

UPDATED (02/26/2014): It’s been revealed, since I wrote this review, that the R1 version of “The Moonbase” has a pretty serious mastering error, and as a result the episodes run about a minute longer than they should. The problem has also resulted in the eradication of the VidFire process. I wish I could say I’d taken note of this when I was viewing the disc, but I did not. I did, as I recall, at one point wonder why the episodes were so long, but it was days before I was headed out to Gallifrey One, and I wanted to get this review up before I left, so I didn’t give it much thought.

This is, of course, terrible news, and there’s been no talk of a recall or replacement discs…however, the good news is that I watched the entire story and didn’t even notice. 50% of “The Moonbase” is animated, so the VidFire is irrelevant on those episodes anyway. So if you already own the old Lost in Time DVD set, which contains the VidFired episodes 2 & 4, perhaps with that, alongside the two animated episodes here, you, the fan, can sort of try to make it all work.

So take all of that for whatever it’s worth. I know that for the hardcore collector, this is not a pleasing development, and certainly something that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense as we near the end of the classic series DVD range. Further, this tidbit about missing credits on the disc was revealed today. Sure seems like “The Moonbase” DVD could do with a do-over for all parties involved. If I find out anything more, I'll update this space again.


DVD Extras: The double-disc set of “The Tenth Planet” doesn’t skimp on the extras, so even if the story is a bit of a letdown, there’s plenty of other stuff here to keep the hardcore fan entertained. A revolving commentary track for the first three episodes is moderated by Toby Hadoke and features actors Anneke Wills, Christopher Matthews (Radar Technician), Gregg Palmer (Cybermen), Earl Cameron (Williams), Alan White (Schultz), and production designer Peter Kindred. “Frozen Out” is a half-hour making of – fascinating warts and all, including some talk of Hartnell’s alleged racism. In addition to the animated Episode Four, there’s also the reconstructed version from the VHS tape. Far and away the most exciting and memorable extra here in also the shortest – and that’s the three-minute interview with Hartnell, conducted after he’d left Who, in the dressing room of a theatre, while he applies makeup in the mirror. He’s irritable, yes, but what is surprising about it, I think, is how alert Hartnell is. The signs of his failing health are nowhere to be seen, and it’s easy to simply savor every single second of it, since it’s the only on-camera interview with Hartnell I guess we’ll ever see.

But wait! There’s more. Another installment of “Doctor Who Stories,” this time with Anneke Wills, is always a welcome addition. “The Golden Age” seeks to examine the “myth” of the golden age of Doctor Who. “Boys! Boys! Boys!” is an answer to the previous multi-part featurette “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” which featured on a trio of previous DVDs. This one features Peter Purves, Frazer Hines, and Mark Strickson.  “Companion Piece” lives up to its title by examining the role of the companion. There’s a 9-minute clip from Blue Peter, which was celebrating the Tenth anniversary of Who at the time of its broadcast. It is in this clip that the only surviving footage of Episode Four exists – the regeneration scene. Finally there’s a photo gallery, Radio Times listings in PDF form, the production notes subtitle option, and a coming soon trailer for “The Moonbase.”

Speaking of, “The Moonbase,” on only a single disc, is much lighter in the extras department. There’s audio commentary for the extant episodes (2 & 4) again moderated by Hadoke, and again with Anneke Wills, as well as Frazer Hines, actor Edward Phillips, and special sounds creator Brian Hodgson. The animated episodes (1 & 3) feature interviews with writer Kit Pedler’s daughters, as well as archive interviews with producer Innes Lloyd, assistant floor manager Lovett Bickford, and a trio of Cyber-actors. “Lunar Landing” is a serviceable making of doc, and the disc is rounded out with the usual photo gallery, Radio Times listings, production note subtitle option, and a coming soon trailer for “The Underwater Menace,” which may not be coming all that soon after all (but I would hope before the end of the year). 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dallas: The Complete Second Season DVD review

The second season of Dallas is also available to stream on Netflix.

It’s not often that one can discuss and even recommend an entire season of a television series because of a single episode, which sort of goes to show how special of a TV series Dallas (in any incarnation) really is. But episode 8 of this second helping of the rejiggered soap juggernaut, entitled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” is such a fascinating slice of TV, from both sides of the camera, that it makes this season must-see.

When Larry Hagman lost his battle with cancer at the age of 81, on Nov. 23rd, 2012, Dallas was smack in the middle of shooting its second season – a season that had already been planned and plotted out through to the end, much of it involving J.R. Indeed, J.R.’s machinations were as essential to the show now as they were back in its ‘80s heyday, and likewise, Hagman was just as committed to the series as ever, and was working on it as recently as four days prior to his passing.

Yes, Dallas is a special series, and J.R. Ewing was more than “just” a TV character (as Hagman was so much more than just an actor). It could be said that J.R. Ewing is the greatest or most important TV character ever created, and few would argue. J.R.’s sudden absence could not simply be explained away with a few lines of dialogue, so showrunner Cynthia Cidre and her cohorts went in a direction that few shows would (or even could) if similar circumstances afflicted their production, and not just devoted an entire episode to celebrating J.R., but also structured an entire mystery that rippled throughout the remainder of the season: “Who Killed J.R.?”

But back to “J.R’s Masterpiece,” which lives up to its title and instantly leaps onto the list of seminal, cornerstone Dallas episodes. In the final moments of the episode prior to it (“The Furious and the Fast”), thanks to slick editing and a bit of CGI mixed with leftover footage of Hagman, J.R. meets his untimely demise. “Masterpiece” traces the Ewing clan traveling to Mexico where the deed occurred, in an effort to learn more of the mysterious goings-on, as well as indentify the body. Does Carlos Del Sol know more than he’s letting on? The body is taken back to Dallas, where a public wake and a private funeral – which together make up the meatiest portions of the episode – are held.

The wake is a lively affair, with numerous faces from days of Dallas past making appearances alongside real life Dallas (the city, not the show) icons, like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban, playing themselves. Then the fun is put into funeral with the unceremonious arrival of Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), which leads to a classic, if not slightly abbreviated, Dallas brawl. By contrast, the funeral held at Southfork, is a somber affair, in which family members take turns telling stories and remembrances of J.R. After the funeral comes the twist, which I won’t go into here, because it’s what gives the rest of the season so much of its heft.

What is ultimately so moving about “J.R.’s Masterpiece” is its clever and careful melding of fiction and reality (the altered opening credits sequence alone will move you to silence). It was shot in January of 2013, less than two months after Hagman’s passing. The emotions on display from much of the cast are very real, contemplative, and raw. Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy in particular give some of the very best work of their Dallas careers here. I’m not sure if there’s ever been an episode of TV quite like this, and of those shows that have celebrated an actor’s passing through the demise of the fictitious character they played (the recent episode of Glee that dealt with Cory Monteith’s passing through Finn’s death leaps instantly to mind), few have done it with such class and grace as what Cidre (who wrote the episode) and executive producer Michael S. Robin (who directed it) have achieved here.

Further, “J.R.’s Masterpiece” isn’t just a hermetically sealed one-off. No, what happens in this episode goes on to inform and shape the remainder of the season – Cidre and her team came together to reformat the ongoing plot in order to honor J.R.’s larger than life legacy. While the mystery of “Who killed J.R.?” was certainly not the cultural touchstone its infamous forefather, “Who shot J.R.?,” was, there’s no question that it’s an engaging storyline with a befitting series of endings that culminate in the season finale, “Legacies.” No doubt, Hagman would be tickled pink to know what went down with the remainder of this season of Dallas in his absence.

Of course, there are 14 other episodes on this set (6 or 7 of which feature Hagman prominently, doing the final work of his career). This season, with the success of the first season behind it, fires on all cylinders, despite the behind the scenes turmoil, and the loss of its patriarchal figure. It moves at an almost breakneck pace, offering up one episodic cliffhanger after the next, miring its large cast of characters in the stickiest of situations. What blows me away the most about it, is that even with Hagman sadly gone, I can think of no solid reason to shut this series down, any more so than the original series should’ve shut down over the passing of Jim Davis. This version of Dallas could conceivably go for many more years, such is the sprawling, devious cast of new characters Cidre has brought to life, as well as the nerve-rattling situations she so often places them in. Fine, fine TV, and the rowdiest, most riveting nighttime soap on TV today, just as the original Dallas was in its day.

DVD Extras: “J.R’s Masterpiece” gets an optional extended cut, which runs about 7 minutes longer than the TV cut. To watch it, you must go into the special features menu to activate it. Also present is a commentary track for the extended cut with Cidre and Robin, in which they detail the effects of Hagman’s death on the cast and crew, creating the episode, and how they had to rearrange the entire season - unquestionably illuminating, and much more interesting than your standard, run of the mill TV episode commentary.  

There are at least a half dozen installments of an ongoing series called “Dallas: Fashion Files” which feature costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin discussing her many decisions throughout the season (typically alongside Jordana Brewster). “Dallas at PaleyFest 2013” is a 30-minute panel discussion with the core cast, sans Hagman, as he was already gone. Three more featurettes: “The Battle for Ewing Energies: Blood is Thicker Than Oil” is a sort of season overview; “Memories of Larry Hagman: A Cast and Crew Tribute” is self-explanatory; and “One Last Conversation with Larry Hagman” appears to date back to the first season. Lastly, there are roughly 33 minutes worth of deleted scenes scattered across the four discs.

Special thanks to Harry Thomas of MySA’s DVD Extra blog for passing his copy of this DVD set my way.