The Blu-Ray Reviews

I will be updating this page with more details on the individual disks in future. For now, I just wanted to get some basic thoughts down about the new series of Home Video releases on Blu-Ray.

Count on the BBC to take considerably more than a quarter of a century to get it right. 

Since the days when VHS tape launched the beginning of the Home Video market, the Beeb have been using Doctor Who as a cash cow, limiting Home Video releases to pricey single-story discs that were often made from unrestored materials. Until now, the only two exceptions have been the season-long connected stories, season 16’s “The Key to Time,” and season 23’s “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Certain other releases of earlier shows (such as the DVD Doctor Who: The Beginning) offered at most two or three stories out of a season. Meanwhile, especially after the advent of DVD, other studios were issuing Complete Season and Complete Series releases of classic TV with wild abandon. But unless you taped Doctor Who off of the air using your home VHS player, as I did, it has been almost prohibitively expensive (and with many seasons actually impossible) to put together a complete collection of all 26 series comprising the original run of Doctor Who.

That’s still true today, but at long last we may be seeing the beginning of a real solution. Starting in 2018 with the Blu-Ray release of Tom Baker Season One (Series 12 in order), we have at long last begun to see the kind of Home Video releases that Doctor Who has deserved all along: complete seasons, unedited, digitally restored and including a wide range of bonus features. At the rate they are going it may take the Beeb another decade, or more, to deliver the complete original series (or as much of it as still exists) … but at least we can say that finally they have begun.

Given the limitations of analog media, it’s interesting to note how dramatically the video and audio of Doctor Who have improved with each new release. Going back to the early eighties, when broadcast signals were fuzzy at best (especially compared to the technology we have today), through VHS releases that seemed crystal-clear at the time, to DVD which revealed more detail than had ever been possible before, Doctor Who has benefitted more than many shows from the technologies of each new release. Certainly the DVDs offered an astonishing level of improvement in both video and audio over VHS; and these Blu-Ray releases, with their audio and video digitally restored, remastered and updated to a modern standard, offer even more dramatic enhancements that are visible even to tired old eyes like this reviewer’s own. The restorations on these Blu-Ray releases are nothing short of remarkable. As others have pointed out, the original series of Doctor Who will never be true high-definition, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that these restorations don’t come as close to HD as possible. 

Doctor Who has simply never looked (or sounded) this good. You can see details of the sets, costumes, and even the actor’s faces that were invisible until now. Some stories even feature optional updated effects, and with these turned on, a lot of what was formerly embarrassing about the show simply vanishes. 

The extras are nice, and perhaps in later installments I will examine them more closely; but the real selling point of these Blu-Rays is to get all of the stories of a single season, and all looking and sounding better than ever, in one convenient package that takes up less shelf space than a single DVD. Is it worth the double-dip if you already have some of these stories on DVD? Yes, and definitely yes — it’s almost a no-brainer.

But what if you have all of these stories on DVD? That’s a tougher call. If shelf space is at a premium for you, and if you simply want the best-looking versions of these stories, then yes. But if you don’t care about the extras and are content with the quality of your DVD releases — all of which, after all, look good and offer substantial improvements over broadcast quality — you may want to think twice. Later this year will come the first real test, when the Beeb issues Season 23, “The Trial of a Time Lord,” on Blu-Ray. It will have to look significantly better, and offer significantly more in the way of extras, in order to make the replacement of your existing DVD set worthwhile. 


I have to echo the sentiments of others here who have wondered why the series is being released in apparently random order. This set was a little bit of a tough sell for me, as I’d only recently watched this season (for the first time in years) and wasn’t sure that I wished to repeat it so soon. Those doubts were ill-founded, and so far I am quite enjoying the set. It’s a bit like seeing the show with New Eyes.

Disk 1: “The Leisure Hive.”

Lovett Bickford’s more cinematic style of direction benefits greatly from the newly restored materials, as this story has never looked or sounded so good. It’s quite clear today that John-Nathan Turner intended to make a statement with his first series, and especially with this first story. So dramatic is the change of style and substance from the previous season, that it was hard, back in the day, to assess this story on its own merits — which are conderable. “The Leisure Hive” has grown and matured with time, and in this new edition it compares favorably to some new series stories. Baker and Ward are excellent throughout, and the supporting cast give creditable (and credible) performances even when the dialogue fails them, as it sometimes does. From its unusual opening sequence to its flashy end, this is quite the strongest WHO outing since “The City of Death,” and the digital restoration is nothing short of remarkable.

Extras include two making-of documentaries (one of which has been released before), some fun Blue Peter clips, and a lovely interview with costume designer June Hudson. Hudson joins Tom Baker and John Leeson on the couch for one-half of the Behind The Sofa featurette, which amounts to a visual commentary track. The other half has Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton sitting down with, of all people, Wendy Padbury. While they offer little in the way of new details, these featurettes are actually quite fun for their casual tone and for the honest reactions we sometimes get to see; it feels quite a bit as if the stars are joining you in your own home for the viewing. Tom Baker appears genuinely miffed at one point, when Leeson refers to this as being his last season on DOCTOR WHO (“What?! I’m still playing him!”); meanwhile, for reasons unknown, Janet Fielding behaves in a quite remarkably catty manner towards Wendy Padbury; we were glad when Padbury struck back with barbs of her own.
Disk 2: “Meglos.”

This entire season, which came as shock (and not a happy one) all those years ago has improved considerably with age -- and none of its parts so much as "Meglos." Its audacious script probably did not get the production that it deserved, but it's easier to appreciate what John Nathan-Turner brought to the show all these years later, now that the impact of what he cost the show (mainly, Tom Baker) has been blunted by time. Baker is outstanding in this one, giving a strong double performance and playing the villain with a subtlety that other actors would do well to study. Among the extras (which are somewhat lean on this disk), the interview with the writers is most beneficial to enjoying the episode. Once again, the restoration team have done a terrific job with this story. I'm not sure that young people who have lived with High-Def media for all or most of their lives can quite appreciate how improved this release is over what what the story looked like when it originally aired. Even the fuzzy VHS releases of the eighties and nineties looked good by comparison with standard broadcast TV -- and this release is immeasurably clearer, cleaner and more detailed than either the VHS or DVD versions.
Disk 3: “Full Circle”

Undoubtedly, “Full Circle” is the low point of the season, and even though the season as a whole has continued to rise in my estimation, this story stays stubbornly at the bottom of the barrel.  Written by a seventeen-year-old with a bunch of whiny seventeen-year-olds as the main characters, with a seventeen-year-old’s mistrust of all things grown up, “Full Circle” can be summed up by the old ‘60s hippie motto “never trust anyone over thirty.” History is a lie and the whole of society is just a construct to trap young people into a sterile existence. There’s a valid story in there somewhere, but this isn’t it. John-Nathan Turner had decided to cater to young audiences… and it didn’t stop there.

Now… Mathew Waterhouse seems like a nice guy, and a bright guy, and the long new extra feature on this disk, “A Weekend With Waterhouse” is one of the best extras in the set. HD was made for travelogues and we get to explore Waterhouse’s current living place in some depth. For an Anglophile, this feature marks a delightful step into a small coastal town across the pond.  But we’re meeting Waterhouse here because Adric was introduced in this story, and Adric was what Ross Perot once called “a huge sucking sound” on the entire show. I hated Adric back in the day (I’m not the only one: as revealed in another of the disk’s extras, Lalla Ward wanted to throw him off a cliff!) and can only barely tolerate him now. He was one of Nathan-Turner’s worst contributions to the show, a Bad Idea that was made worse in the execution. And because so much time is spent introducing a misguided supporting character, Tom Baker is almost criminally under-utilized here. He seems to know what is happening. (It was Nathan-Turner’s SECOND worst idea, that of insuring that no one on the TARDIS ever changed their clothes — one imagines the TARDIS reeking like a school locker-room — that resulted in Adric spending the entirety of his brief time on the TARDIS wandering around in his pajamas!) 

“Full Circle” gets the so-called “E-Space Trilogy” off to a rocky start, because of its position within the season, and because it’s really just a regular Doctor Who story with a bit of scientific gibberish spread over the top, gibberish that does nothing to adequately explain the concepts of the CVE or E-Space that shaped the whole season. In fact these concepts were never addressed in any comprehensible way; but more on that later.

The restoration and Blu-Ray transfer continue to perform miracles, and we are now able to see details of the ship and costumes that we’ve never seen before. In a technical sense, this does improve “Full Circle;” but rubbish is no less rubbish when it’s been dusted off and polished.  All the standard extras are here: as one might expect with a dud story, the BEHIND THE SOFA entry is the least fun and interesting so far, although the Making of documentary is one of the better ones. Best of the lot, though, as already noted, is the visit with Waterhouse. He does his best as an Adric apologist, as one might expect, and it’s fun to learn that he’s an avid fan of DARK SHADOWS — a show which, after all, has a lot in common with Doctor Who!

Disk 4: “State of Decay”

This gothic vampire SF yarn hearkens back to the Hinchcliffe days and compares well with the best of those entries, making it a highlight of this season, a season which as it turns out has aged quite well to the point where I'm seriously re-evaluating its worth. With so much change and experimentation going on during this season, it's invaluable to have a story falling right plunk on the middle that is solidly traditional, and one that puts Tom Baker squarely front-and-center where he belongs. I won't speculate on his personal emotions at this, what must have been a trying and challenging period -- for he delivers a top-notch performance in a story that demands significantly more drama than clowning. In a very real sense, this story is the anchor and backbone of the season, and with the exception of some climactic dodgy effects, it serves that function stylishly and well.

Once again, the restoration is lovely; and there are a few unexpected bonus items among the extra features devoted to vampires in literature, film, and on the Beeb. "Behind the Sofa" offers nothing of particular note, other than that Wendy Padbury feels increasingly out of place as the season progresses. A very good and informative "Making OF" documentary rounds out the special features. 

With four disks left to go, this is shaping into a very substantial and historical set.

Disk 5: “Warriors Gate”
I don't hate it for its ambition; I hate it because it fails. Lofty ideas and ideals are nice, but at the end of the day, you have a responsibility to your viewers: an obligation to Not Waste Their Time. After three viewings I can see that Warrier's Gate has a lot going for it, but as The Doctor asks in The Pirate Planet, "What's it for?"

Conceptually overblown, over-acted and under-written, Warrior's Gate is a mess. We know it's a mess because the writer and director, in the making-of documentary on this disk, practically fall all over themselves trying to justify their mistakes. In the end, it's the definition of everything I initially hated about John Nathan-Turner's era on the show: over-produced, too much attention paid to how things LOOK, and not enough attention paid to how things are WRITTEN. And although I have softened considerably to Nathan-Turner's tenure on the series, I still to this day believe that the man wouldn't know a good script if it bit him on the ass. When his script editors were on their game, we got good stuff; but when they weren't (and I cannot believe that even Christopher Bidmead believes that he was fully on his game with this story) the show reeled at the edge of a cliff.

Tom Baker works his ass off trying to sell this thing, but he's given next to nothing to do. Lala Ward on the other hand is the star of the story; and she's repaid by being given the worst "leaving scene" ever. Kenneth Cope, a top comedic actor in his own right, is also utterly wasted here. As for Paul Joyce's direction... we sense his ambition and we want him to succeed, but at the end of the day Warrior's Gate is just simply a Train Wreck: and an exhausting exercise it style over substance. Yes -- the Blu-Ray restoration and transfer have made the show more attractive than ever... but that's wasted effort as well -- because I never want to look at this god-damned thing ever again.

•••• NEWS ITEMS ••••

The Blu-Ray release of Job Pertwee's penultimate series as the Doctor is finally at hand. Amazon really dropped the ball on this one, and I ended up buying it from my local retailer, which I'll do more often from now on! My comments on the set and "The Three Doctors" should start appearing here next week,

Mill Creek Entertainment has released the full first seasons of Ultra Q and Ultraman on Blu-Ray. I have both sets in the house and am watching these series for the first time. Ultraman in particular seems to be Japan's answer to the Gerry Anderson shows, while Ultra Q plays like a laudable fusion of The X Files (a quarter of a century before Chris Carter ever dreamed the later show up!) with Giant Rubber-Suit Monster movies. It's great fun, and the better of the two series. Episode 2 of Ultraman (as far as I've gotten at this writing) suffers from some really heavy-handed, really dumb comedy . . . and I'm hoping against hope that this isn't going to be the norm. I'll let you know. 

The newly restored and re-minted complete run of MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS has been released worldwide, in a spectacular "Norwegian Blu"-Ray edition. Pop the lid of its exploding outer box and you'll find 7 blue-rays packaged in jolly Gilliam-esque folders, complete with a dense 170-page book included for each season of the show. The original video and audio has been dramatically restored and upgraded to HD, which has the effect of putting the viewer right there into the studio, Extras are spread out across the second disk of each season, and include original studio outtakes -- some as funny as the shows themselves. This set is a treasure and I hope to comment in depth on it here soon.

-- Thorn.

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