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Doctor Who: The Complete Specials (review)

Advanced Theoretical Doctor Who


(if you’re a true believer)

(if you’ve never seen ‘Doctor Who’ before)

(For my episode-by-episode commentary on the specials, start here, with “The Next Doctor.” This is a spoiler-free look at the DVD package.)

Here is my recommendation for those wishing to jump into the phenomenon that is Doctor Who but who have never seen a lick of the “classic” series — the one that ran from 1963 through 1989 — nor a moment of the rebooted series, which debuted in 2005 and has since taken the world — or the U.K., at least, and slices of American sci-fi cultdom — by storm.

Don’t start with “The Complete Specials,” just out on Region 1 DVD [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] from BBC Video. (It’s been out since last month on Region 2 DVD [Amazon U.K.].)

It sounds special, doesn’t it? “The Complete Specials.” What could be bad about that? Well, there isn’t anything bad, per se. But it might be like coming into Star Trek, never having taken a single journey on the Starship Enterprise, with The Search for Spock: you’d end up wondering, “Wha’? Spock is dead? But he’s not dead? And Kirk has a kid? But… wha’?”
See, cuz David Tennant is the best Doctor ever. Ever. I’ll punch you in the nose if you say otherwise. It’s just how things are, okay? (Pul-eeze, don’t ask about how there can be different Doctors, like Tom Baker and Peter Davison and Christopher Eccleston. You’re hopeless if you have to ask that. This box set is Advanced Theoretical Doctor Who. You need Doctor Who 101.) But now he’s leaving the show, and a new actor (Matt Smith; and no, you don’t know who he is if you’re no in the U.K.) is taking over the role. We’ve known it forever — as if the great gods of science fiction were torturing us with the terrible knowledge of something we could not change. So all these “complete specials” were created by showrunner (and lifelong Doctor Who dork) Russell T. Davies while fully aware that he had to wrap things up for Tennant’s Doctor. (Davies is leaving as producer and head writer at the same time, in fact, so he probably felt like he had to go out with a bang, too.)

So, for various reasons having to do with budget and Tennant’s availability, instead of doing a regular full season of 13 45-minute episodes, Davies gave us five slightly longer (a little over an hour each) “specials,” which aired in the U.K. sporadically throughout 2009 and mostly in one big bunch in December on BBC America. The stories tell the tale of a Doctor — the 900-year-old Gallifreyan Time Lord — finally going utterly bonkers after losing the Time War (that happened offscreen, just before this rebooted series began in 2005), losing his planet and his people (Gallifrey was destroyed), and finally realizing that he’s well and truly alone and can use his godlike powers however he wants. Bwahahahaha.

Now, this is where the problem for newbies comes in: The Doctor has always been a force for good, for fighting for what’s right — he’s one of the most moral heroes pop culture has seen. And Davies had been exploring, through his four years of new Doctor Who prior to this one, how sometimes the Doctor deluded himself about what was right and what was wrong: the Doctor’s intentions, as Davies saw the character, were always good, but his actions weren’t always the smartest things he could have done.

Here, though, in the “specials,” the Doctor’s intentions aren’t always good — not even if you squint and accept some shades of gray. He’s lost everything that kept him anchored — like his human companions; here he’s traveling alone. If you’ve never met the Doctor before, it would be like, I imagine, being introduced to someone who’s sick without ever having known him when he was well. Perhaps it’s telling that the first story here, “The Next Doctor,” is about a human man (played by the wonderful David Morrissey) who is under the delusion that he’s the Doctor. Because by the time we get to the final story, the two-part “The End of Time,” it almost feels as if it’s the Doctor who’s under the delusion that he’s someone he’s not.

And then Tennant is gone, disappeared, regenerated into Matt Smith. I don’t want newbies to see my Doctor like this. Better they should start somewhere else (like with the first season of the reboot, with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor).

Besides, newbies don’t want to see all the extras at such a tender point in their fandom. Like David Tennant’s video diaries of the production of the “specials.” Do you really want to here him say, “It’s been a mad old four years”? Do you really want to see the sad Cardiff flat he lived in which they were shooting? Do you really want to see the horrid, freezing, abandoned industrial locations? Do you really want to see him all sad and choking up while shooting his final scenes? You do not.

I will admit that seeing singing “I Would Walk 500 Miles” with the Proclaimers in a BBC Radio studio is pretty funny. As is the video from San Diego Comic Con last summer, for Tennant in a sequin-y Stormtrooper T-shirt, and for when Tennant smooched John Barrowman. You don’t know who John Barrowman is? Then you really shouldn’t bother with this set.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • jennie

    [quote]See, cuz David Tennant is the best Doctor ever. Ever. I’ll punch you in the nose if you say otherwise. It’s just how things are, okay? (Pul-eeze, don’t ask about how there can be different Doctors, like Tom Baker and Peter Davison and Christopher Eccleston.[/quote]

    Pul-eeze,don’t punch me in the nose if I disagree about who’s the best Doctor! I adore David Tennant, but Tm Baker was my first Doctor back in the ’70s and I’m afraid he remains my favorite. Call it nostalgia, sure.

    I will admit that the rebooted series was a lot slicker and made the production value of the original series look like a primary school student production.

    I had thought that Matt Smith might do a good job (I liked him in ‘Party Animals’ well enough) but his brief appearance at the end of the specials do not look very promising to me… Here’s hoping once he gets a full script from the next writing team he’ll be up to par.

    Now wouldn’t Morrissey have been absolutely wonderful? He was great in “The Next Doctor” and is great in everything I see him in.

  • Joanne

    MaryAnn, if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend having a look at RTD’s The Writer’s Tale – the new paperback edition, subtitled “The Final Chapter”, rather than last year’s hardback – which is a series of emails between RTD and Doctor Who Magazine journalist Benjamin Cook, picking up as he’s beginning to write “Voyage of the Damned” and series 3 is about to air. It’s fascinating stuff, seeing how the stories developed, and also how some of RTD’s initial ideas never changed at all. There are bits of scripts that weren’t filmed, like the original ending of “Journey’s End”, with Cybermen appearing in the TARDIS, and all sorts of interesting little snippets.

    Regarding the DVD box set, my one regret about it is that they haven’t included commentaries for the first three specials. I think that’s a shame.

  • GB

    I was disappointed about the commentaries also. There were podcast commentaries that were available and I have them on my Ipod, but it would be nice if they put them on the first 3 specials so they sync up correctly with the video.

  • Lisa

    re: The Writer’s Tale – there is also a surprisingly amazing photo of Tennant with his shirt off – 4 pack!

    That is all.

  • Anne-Kari

    Wow, talk about coincidence – a friend of mine has FINALLY relented and said she’s be willing to try Doctor Who (I’ve been trying for years to convince her to watch it), and she mentioned that she was thinking of starting with the Specials.

    And was all “nooooooo!”, for the exact reasons you specified here.

    And I did tell her she should really start with the Eccleston series.

  • JEREMY

    Maryann,you can have a cow,or you can have a whole HERD if you want to,but I’m going to say it anyway,if only for the sheer pleasure of pissing you off. THE GREATEST DOCTOR WHO ACTORS OF ALL TIME ARE TOM BAKER,PETER DAVISON,& CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON!!! What made them great were the moral aspects they brought to the role,the scripts,and the supporting characters(Harry Sullivan,Sarah Jane Smith,Leela,Tegan,Rose Tyler,etc.)that audiences could readily identify with.Many of those classic stories still hold up today. Those stories,in fact are the VERY REASON why you and others can still enjoy the Doctor now.

  • Lisa

    but are they as sexy as Tennant (shirt on or off)?

    I rest my case.

  • http://www.dubhsidhestudios.com bronxbee

    @JEREMY: you know, there’s no need to shout! what are you, 12, that you want to “piss” maryann off about her favorite Doctor? it’s obvious you haven’t read much of her DW blogging or you’d know that Peter Davison has long been one of her favorite Doctors and that she loves The Doctor in all his guises… grow up.