Editor’s Note: All three Doctor Who DVDs discussed below (The Sensorites, The Caves of Androzani, and The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe) have a release date of February 14th, 2012 from BBC Home Entertainment.
For years, I’ve been curious about the Doctor Who universe. What is it about this series – the most successful sci-fi series ever to appear on television – that has warranted such a rabid and loyal following? With the DVD releases for 1964’s Doctor Who: The Sensorites and 1984’s Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani Special Edition, it was the perfect opportunity to jump into Doctor Who bandwagon.
Early on, I realized Doctor Who is really the British geek’s Star Trek. It’s a show of rich history and the campy nature, the cheesy dialogue and acting often coupled with poor production values (due to meager budgets) is just part of the charm. The series, with the varied interpretations of its protagonist, is so infectious it’s easy to understand why it holds such a hallowed place in the hearts of its most fervent viewers. For many older fans, Doctor Who is as much part of their childhoods as those wonderful Star Trek episodes were for mine. And it doesn’t matter how tacky or awful some of the monsters fights are, the series’ imagination and ambition filled a needed void.
It’s a show of rich history and the campy nature, the cheesy dialogue and acting often coupled with poor production values (due to meager budgets) is just part of the charm.
I’m going to trust Doctor Who super-fan and comedian Toby Hadoke (who appears on the DVD commentary as well as a special behind-the-scenes feature) when he says The Sensorites is a storyline little talked about and under-appreciated amongst today’s Whovians. But I must admit The Sensorites ended up being my favorite of the two storylines, a sentiment that is no doubt causing seizures amongst my Whovian readers as fan-favorite The Caves of Androzani was voted favorite Doctor Who story of all time and The Sensorites is little regarded. The story first aired in June of 1964, smack dab in the middle of the William Hartnell era. Hartnell was the first actor to play the Doctor and his is certainly a more elder, crotchety version when compared to Peter Davison’s.
So many of the reasons The Sensorites is not beloved amongst many Whovians are the very same reasons the show immediately endeared itself to me. The productions values were poor but this was often par for the course in many Doctor Who incarnations. The actors often flubbed lines (barely an episode goes by without an actor stuttering or flubbing their lines, including repeat offender Hartnell). And there is a special feature on the disc that is devoted to an episode of The Sensorites where viewers can actually hear the show’s production assistant calling out and readying camera shots!
Most offensive to Whovians, however, might be the Sensorites themselves. They aren’t exactly villains and for an advanced alien race, they aren’t incredibly intelligent. They are actually quite feeble and simple-minded and they require some patience. But I kind of loved them; their cheesy costumes, their baby pajama outfits and their Amish facial hair. There is a charming quality to the Sensorite story precisely because they are not villains. Writer (and war veteran) Peter R. Newman’s approach to the story is more high-minded than you might expect and the ensuing conflict is the result of two (or three) alien races who mean well but need to learn to trust one another. And while it may not make for the most electrifying television, there couldn’t have been an introduction to the series more appealing to me. Maybe it reminded me of those old Trek episodes I used to love so much as a kid.
To cover his mutilated face, Jek wears a stylish, stitched black and white mask that would make Pedro Almodovar purr.
As for The Caves of Androzani, I can understand why it is so adored by Who fans. The story is action-packed and mainly revolves around the Doctor trying to save the life of his trusted companion, Peri. While The Sensorites takes a while to establish a villain, Caves is overflowing with them, the most interesting of them being Christopher Gable as Sharaz Jek, a baddie of the opera’s Phantom mold; dressed head-to-toe in leather there is a Shakespearian quality to this tragic nemesis. To cover his mutilated face, Jek wears a stylish, stitched black and white mask that would make Pedro Almodovar purr. Sharez Jek is one of a number of colorful characters – all mostly villains. It is written by legendary Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes and was the first official directing gig by fan favorite Graeme Harper. The plot is fairly complicated, involving androids, corrupt government officials, mercenaries and a queen bat’s milk (don’t ask) but it never feels bogged down.
The production values are better than The Sensorites but the story is ten times as ambitious so it’s amusing (and yes, charming) to see the cast and crew make do with so little when so much is required. It is a tribute to the show that The Caves of Androzani is such a success despite these shortcomings. Caves is, of course, notable in that it is the last serial of the Peter Davison era and features the first appearance of Colin Baker as the Doctor.
Doctor Who: The Sensorites Special Features: The DVD features are rock-solid. All episodes feature a strong director’s commentary moderated by Toby Hadoke and features director Frank Cox, designer Raymond Cusick, make-up artist Sonia Markham and a selection of actors that includes William Russell (the heroic Ian), Carole Ann Ford (the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan) and Joe Greig (who plays one or two Sensorites). Just try keeping up with the Info Text which doubles as a second visual commentary making note of deleted scenes, goofs and gaffes, and enough trivia to make any Whovian’s head explode. My favorite feature was a mini documentary called Looking for Peter following Hadoke’s search to learn more about Sensorite writer Peter R. Newman. Secret Voices of the Sense-Sphere is a humorous, short look at a major production gaffe and Vision On is a brief conversation with vision mixer Clive Doig who sheds light on the early production years of Doctor Who, a show not only under-budgeted but also chockfull of young, inexperienced but undoubtedly creative individuals. Finally, the DVD comes attached with a photo gallery and two PDFs of show billings and original design drawings. All in all, there is enough material here to satisfy any Doctor Who fan.
Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani Special Edition Features: While I preferred The Sensorites adventure, its clear which DVD is the better package. This Special Edition is a two-disc set that is pretty much a must-own for any Whovian. Like the Sensorites package, the DVD features an engaging and informative Info Text and commentary, the latter of which includes Doctor Who stars Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant as well as director Graeme Harper. The actors and director have a great time here and have no qualms at all making fun of the show’s limitations not to mention their own performances. It’s clear they wouldn’t have traded their time on Doctor Who for anything else in the world.
An 8-minute behind the scenes feature called The Regeneration focuses on the final scene of the serial as Davison’s Doctor regenerates into Colin Baker’s but the commentary track that accompanies it is more entertaining as the feature is basically a series of outtakes and alternative camera angles. A 5-minute behind the scenes piece called Creating Sharaz Jek features actor Christopher Gable talking over various Jek takes about the role, discussing the building of the character and the limitations of the costume. There are a few extended scenes on hand that may not be insignificant, but aren’t missed in the overall story arc. Meanwhile, a “News” feature takes a look at some of the reports and interviews following Davison’s announcement that he was bowing out of the role.
The star of this DVD set is Chain Reaction, a 35-minute celebration of the “greatest Doctor Who story of all time” which features a hefty share of interviews by the cast, crew and producers looking back at one of the show’s real high points (I was surprised to learn some of the names being thrown around for the roles of the villains, a list that included Tim Curry, Mick Jagger and Ian Holm). The second disc also includes Directing Who: Then & Now, a lively 12-minute conversation with Graeme Harper who compares directing the show in the 80s with directing the show in the aughts (hint: he’s had a much easier time in the 21st century). Fans might enjoy the 8-minute interview with Peter Davison and Colin Baker on a Russell Harty program (I was mostly weirded out by the young Whovians in attendance). Like the Sensorites DVD, a photo gallery and a PDF of show billings are included as well.
Overall, I’d say fans of Doctor Who have enough to keep them busy here for at least a weekend or two. As for myself, stepping into my own TARDIS, bouncing around different generations of the character, I’ve come to appreciate this sci-fi series for the fun, campy confection it is. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the unintentionally funny moments but that’s really just part of the experience in looking back at any of the shows today. All in all I’ve rather enjoyed dipping my toes into the Doctor Who lore and have my Netflix cue at the ready to delve in even further.
Folks like me who missed the initial broadcast have gotta admire the quick turnaround here: this is the 2011 Christmas Special, which BBC America just aired on December 25, ready to go for the ever-growing fan base by mid-February. I do recall some grumbling, however, from certain quarters of the Whovian community way back at the end of last year to the effect that this particular Christmas Special was a tad disappointing. For the record, I disagree—well, at least it wasn’t disappointing to me. Far from it. But also for the record, I should acknowledge that the series itself has set the bar pretty high for these annual events, so much so that expectations-management often becomes the name of the game. After all, one need only recall the Christmas Special from the previous season as a point of comparison, that masterful, magical Michael Gambon-starring riff on Dickens—for me one of the finest holiday-themed works of pop culture I’ve ever experienced—and you’re already starting out behind the eight ball in terms of any future entries in the series.
…you’re not going to get an all-time classic every time out, but The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe manages to be a topnotch piece of entertainment and certainly a worthy successor to many of the Christmas Specials of years past.
So, granted, you’re not going to get an all-time classic every time out, but The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe manages to be a topnotch piece of entertainment and certainly a worthy successor to many of the Christmas Specials of years past. Yes, the very title hints at a Narnia homage, but what’s brilliant here is the way that the enchanted, snow-blanketed world turns out to be much more complex (and threatening) than would first be evident from its fairy-tale appearance. And, um, sure, the narrative gradually morphs into an eco-saving tale of interplanetary colonization and exploitation à la Avatar. But holding such familiar thematic elements together is a brisk pace, just enough surprises to keep you guessing, solid suspense, and the interesting (if obligatory) subtext of attraction between the Doctor and the war window referenced in the title. (Needless to say, it’s an attraction that’s never made manifest per the deliciously repressed overall flavor of the franchise.) Oh, and I guess I should follow up on that “war” reference to mention that another Who-hallmark, namely WWII and the everyday bravery and tragedy that accompanied it, is also quite pronounced. With all this in mind, some long-time fans may reasonably decide that what we have here is Doctor Who deciding to do a kind of pastiche of itself. Yet to me the way that all these elements work seamlessly together greatly elevates the material beyond the kitchen-sink approach my cataloging of them might suggest.
As for the extras, while they do threaten to overwhelm the disc, there’s no denying that also provide more bang for the buck—which is welcome because at said bucks coming to US$14.98 and CAN$18.74 for the DVD, the consumer expects more than a single, hour-long episode no matter how whimsical and inspiring it may be. Here we get three 43-minute segments highlighting, respectively, “Best of the Doctor,” “Best of the Companions,” and “Best of the Monsters,” that tend to favor heavily the eleventh Doctor’s run to date. At times, then, these can feel like little more than extended marketing pieces, not the rich, behind-the-scenes sort of featurettes one typically finds on these BBC releases. To be fair, these clip-driven segments are brightened by the appearance of some amusing comedians who say some amusing things. Overall, though, they position the audience somewhat precariously between the self-indulgent fan who demands too much of a good thing and the newbie who needs everything explained from square one. As such, they stand an equally good chance of shamelessly satisfying and hopelessly alienating the target audience.