Dr. Who: The Complete Specials (DVD)

Talkin’ about my re-re-regeneration.

With this DVD box set, the era of the tenth Doctor (David Tennant, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) comes to an end. Can you believe that not only has there been ten Doctors, but we’re about to be introduced to an eleventh? When I first started watching the show on those late-night PBS reruns way back when, there were only five doctors.

As most folks know by now, the producers of Doctor Who decided not to produce a full-length season of episodes for Tennant’s final season, but instead a handful of specials spread out throughout the year. The reasons for this vary depending on what you read and on who said what, but the gist of it seems to be that the cast and crew were wiped out (knackered?) after the previous few years. Creating a weekly series in which every episode is a different, often otherworldly setting had taken its toll. So, instead, we get these five episode spread out throughout Tennant’s final year. The bad news is these specials are shorter than a typical season of Doctor Who; the good news is they contain everything we love about Doctor Who.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, journeying throughout the whole of time and space. Although he normally is accompanied by a traveling companion, he has, thanks to recent events, decided to travel alone from now on. Everywhere he goes, it seems, he encounters signs and prophecies about his upcoming death.

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor
While enjoying Christmas in Victorian England, the Doctor of course stumbles right into trouble by running into a new form of Cyberman. He’s not the only one on the scene, though, as another garishly-dressed man shows up claiming to be “The Doctor.” Is he a future regeneration of our favorite Time Lord? Is an imposter? There’s not a lot of time to answer those questions, as the Cybermen are everywhere in the city, working together with a murderous woman (Dervla Kirwan), with a plan regarding a long-lost “Cyber King.”

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead
On Earth in the present day, the Doctor is aboard a London double-decker bus, investigating a tiny wormhole. Only, said wormhole is a lot larger than he expected, and the bus and its passengers travel through it, ending up stranded on a distant desert planet. Along for the ride is the mysterious Christina (Michelle Ryan, The Bionic Woman), who seems prepared for any emergency. A massive storm on the horizon means they’ve got to find a way home, and soon.

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars
It’s the future, aboard the first human occupation on Mars, where scientists are tapping into the planets ice supply to create gardens and drinkable water. Unfortunately, something very nasty is lurking inside the water. The Doctor shows up, hoping to use the Mars landscape as a chance for some solitude. Instead of saving the day as he usually does, however, he knows that history remembers what happened this day. Despite all his knowledge and skill, and despite all the live that are on the line, the Doctor has no choice but to sit back and watch events play out as he knows they will. Or does he?

Doctor Who: The End of Time, Parts One and Two
Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins, The Wombles), grandfather of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), one of the Doctor’s former companions, is having horrific visions, seeing a laughing face in the back of his mind. Elsewhere, a billionaire is about to introduce new technology, which he says can grant immortality to the human body. Far out in space, the Doctor has been summoned by the alien Ood, with further messages about his impending doom. All of these events converge with the unexpected return of the Master (John Simm), who is in an out-of-his-mind state, driven with a powerful hunger. As the stakes get higher and higher, another man (Timothy Dalton, Hot Fuzz) watches from a distance, claiming that this will be the end of time itself.

Why Doctor Who? What is it about this low-budget series, originally created for children, which has lasted for so long and enchanted generations of people all over the globe? For those who are on the outside looking in, it must appear too bizarre for words. There are rubber-suited monsters, clunky effects, space aliens with English accents, and a garishly dressed hero who doesn’t have a real name. It must seem like something too weird for anyone to watch. Keep watching, though, and chances are that the Doctor will make some wisecrack that will make you laugh, or there will be a far-out speculative concept that will catch your interest, or there will be a plot twist that will take the story and tone in a direction you didn’t expect. The next thing you know, you’re hooked. It’s as simple as that, really. Doctor Who is just plain fun. It’s feel-good TV, dressed up as outrageous sci-fi.

The big news, as stated above, is that this is Tennant’s farewell as the character. It’s nice to see that although he’s leaving the show, he doesn’t just collect a paycheck for the last few episodes while thinking of features and/or stage work to come. Instead, Tennant throws himself into the role, exploring the character even deeper than he has before. The scripts, doing their part, give him the opportunity in that the Doctor takes an interesting emotional journey through the specials. First, he has to define who he is in The Next Doctor, then he examines his relationship with others in Planet of the Dead. This is followed by his making a crucial decision regarding his responsibilities as a time traveler in The Waters of Mars. Finally, in The End of Time, he has to face the consequences of his actions, and whether he can avoid his fate.

All throughout Tennant’s run as the Doctor, an ongoing theme of the series has been the effect the Doctor has on others, notably his companions. They have had wondrous, amazing experiences by being with him, but they have also had difficult, often heartbreaking separations from the Doctor. A lot of times in this modern version of the series, we’ve seen how the companions do nothing but pine for the Doctor after their time with him. After these experiences, the Doctor begins these four specials traveling alone. In all but one, he arrives at his destination not in response to some kind of distress signal or other sci-fi plot device. Instead, as he tells the folks on Mars, he’s just looking for some fun. His “fun,” however, is more than that. He knows the end is near, and he’s avoiding it. He wants his life, as it is, to go on longer. Eventually, though, he will have to face his fate. Still, he takes the long way. At the end of one special, it’s set up that he’s about to arrive at an important rendezvous, but at the start of the next, there’s a humorous bit about all that he’s done to avoid this rendezvous.

Morose goodbyes, oddities in continuity, an abundance of humor—diehard fans know where this type of talk is headed. Tennant is not the only big name departing at the end of these specials. The other is writer-producer Russell T. Davies. Friends, Romans, Whovians, give me your regenerated ears; I come to praise Davies, not to bury him. This guy has been disliked by a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Some say he has turned the show into “emo Who” with its emotional elements. Others have criticized his sense of humor, and still others have accused him of forcing his personal agendas into the show. Whether these criticisms have relevancy is a debate for another time, but I say that Davies should be thanked for what he’s accomplished—bringing us new Doctor Who. It would have been so easy for them to remake or, ugh, “re-imagine” the series. Instead, Davies and his team did the smart thing and modernized it for today’s audiences without disrespecting the show’s history or its longtime fans.

This is best demonstrated in The Next Doctor. In one of the few quiet moments in the special, the Doctor discusses his history with the Next Doctor, and we get quick glimpses of all the previous Doctors. (Yes, the one-time-only eighth Doctor is included.) It’s a sign of respect for the character’s history, just as a new version of him is introduced, sort of. Mostly, though, The Next Doctor is a fast-paced romp, with the characters flinging from one crisis to the next. Sure, it’s a stretch for the Cybermen to be stomping around Victorian London on Christmas, but it’s also goofy fun to see them chasing after stuffy old guys in their black coats and top hats in the snow. Also, Kirwan makes a delightful villain, pure evil and yet kind of likable at the same time.

The lighthearted tone continued in Planet of the Dead, which has the most humor of any of these specials. The Doctor and his new not-really-a-companion Christina have a ton of great banter, the bus is filled with quirky characters, and our old pals from UNIT show up with more comedic relief. Behind the scenes, this was one of the most ambitious Doctor Who tales ever created. The production flew to Dubai to film the desert scenes in a genuine desert, bringing an authentic London double-decker bus with them. This was no small task, and the talk in the extras of how this was accomplished is almost as exciting as the episode itself.

The tone gets serious in The Waters of Mars. In one sense, this is the usual “monster of the week” type of episode, in which water-based zombies hunt the Doctor and a group of survivors in a remote setting. The monsters are appropriately gross, with water constantly splooshing out of them. What makes this episode memorable, though, is the emotional journey the Doctor takes. His dilemma is whether to alter history and save lives, or to preserve history and let them die. This question is tied into the Doctor’s position as the last of his kind, and what that means, not to mention the ticking clock that is his life. His “dark epiphany” pushes the character into an edgy place that he’s never been, at least not during Tennant’s run, and it’s fascinating to see Tennant really go for it.

While it’s not as jam-packed as previous Doctor Who season finales of the modern era—it’s hard to top the Earth being stolen—The End of Time is stuffed to the TARDIS with universe-ending crises. At one hand, it’s the story of the Doctor and the Master and their ongoing rivalry. The Master’s big plan, and the effect that he has on the human race, is kind of over-the-top silly, and I’m still wondering about the logistics of it. His earlier moments are excellent, though, especially his wandering around in madness on the fringes of society. His back-and-forth dialogue with the Doctor is kind of abstract, but still fascinating to watch. From there, we get a sort of father-son dynamic set up between Wilf and the Doctor, including a gut-wrenching moment in which the Doctor breaks down, almost to the point of tears, while talking to Wilf in a café. It’s a surprising outburst, but powerful because it’s so surprising. Then there’s Timothy Dalton’s mysterious character, and what he means to the Doctor. Dalton brings a lot of heavy seriousness to the role, which is just what’s needed.

Of course, the big deal about The End of Time is the tenth Doctor’s final moments. For fans, the Doctor’s regenerations are the stuff of legend, so there’s a lot to live up to for this one. I won’t spoil the specifics, but I felt it was very well done, brilliantly acted and filmed, and true to the character. More importantly, it left me hungry to see what will come next.

The picture on this five-disc set is great, with bright vivid colors that pop right off the screen. Previous season sets have had problems with the background music occasionally overshadowing the actors’ dialogue. That happens here as well, noticeably the most in The Next Doctor, but not as often. The best of the extras are the “Doctor Who Confidential” documentaries, one for each episode. Just as each episode has its own feel, based on the changes in setting and era, each “Confidential” has its own feel, based on the challenges unique to each production. Commentaries for both parts of The End of Time are lighthearted, with an emphasis on behind-the-scenes anecdotes and admiration for the various cast and crew. From there, we get “Doctor Who at the Proms” concert footage, deleted scenes with commentary, video diaries, Comic Con footage, and promo materials.

Let’s say you’ve never seen Doctor Who before. What will you think about these specials? Good question. I think newbies will be able to get the gist of it, but they’ll also miss out on a lot of little references, and the emotional weight of it all might be lost on them, not having traveled with the Doctor on all that has led up to this.

What else can be said? David Tennant’s Doctor Who has made TV history, because it’s part of a huge sci-fi legacy, but also because it’s just a great performance, and these specials are Tennant at some of his best. So let’s go to the pub and rise pint in toast to the tenth Doctor, while we wonder what’s in store for the eleventh.

The Verdict

Who? Not guilty, that’s who.

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