Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series (review)

Calling All True Fans!

(For my episode-by-episode commentary on Series 4, start here, with “Voyage of the Damned.” This is a spoiler-free look at the DVD package.)

I spent hours this afternoon going through the new Doctor Who Series 4 DVD set, and I barely even scratched the surface. And still: I think I might have to go lie down for a while. I’ve gotten a bit overexcited, a bit overwhelmed. There’s so much stuff in it, so much beyond just the episodes, that my fangirl gland is overheating.
First of all, you have to be aware of the fact that if you’re watching Doctor Who in the U.S. on the Sci Fi Channel, you’re not getting the complete episodes (as I’ve complained previously). The actual, original, proper episodes, as they first air in the U.K, are longer. Not by a lot, just a few minutes, but the few minutes that get cut from those episodes are exactly the kind of moments that true fans want to see: little bits that deepen character and relationships. If you’ve only seen the Sci Fi Channel’s version of, say, of this season’s “Turn Left” (here on Disc 5), then you missed some lovely little bits of the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) shopping at the alien marketplace that — I guarantee, if you’re as big a Doctor Who dork as I am — you are going to love. And they’re here: it’s the actual, original, proper British versions of the episodes you’ll find here.

If you’re completely new to Doctor Who… whew. Go back and start with Series 1. No, really. Yes, there are some episodes here that stand out as briliant, brilliant science fiction, Doctor Who or not — watch for “Midnight,” on Disc 4, which is like United 93 meets the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” to win a Hugo next year for Best Dramatic Presention, Short Form. (The Hugos, for the uninitiated, are voted by the most serious SF fans on the planet, those who attend the annual World Con, so you can trust them to know how to single out the very best sci fi.) You can appreciate “Midnight” even if you’ve never seen any other Doctor Who — it’s also a fantastic showcase for Tennant, handily demonstrating that he might be the most beloved actor to play the role because he’s one of the most expressive and most affecting actors working on TV anywhere in the world today. But you’ll love it even more if you know the four-year-long backstory that leads to it. (Not to mention the 40-year-long backstory that precedes that, with the old, classic Doctor Who show.)

But these Doctor Who box sets are must-haves for all the many extras. If you can’t get enough Doctor Who, the copious deleted scenes are a good place to start, and as a bonus-bonus, this time out we have series creator Russell T. Davies explaining why the deleted scenes were deleted. (Most notable, perhaps, are those bits deleted from Disc 2’s “Partners in Crime,” which featured actor Howard Attfield playing Donna’s father. I’ll leave it to you to discover why they were deleted.) There is also one scene that has already become legendary — it involves a new TARDIS for a new Doctor at the end of this series — as well as a junked cliffhanger ending.

“David’s Video Diaries,” one on Disc 1 and another on Disc 5, are lovely peeks into what it’s like behind the scenes — producer Julie Gardner has the best giggle! John Barrowman is such a geek! David Tennant’s double is as adorable as he is! And true-true fans of long standing will not want to miss “Time Crash,” the short that introduces this series, which did not air on American TV, in which Tennant’s Doctor has an encounter with his own past: the Doctor as played by actor Peter Davison.

And I haven’t even mentioned all the good-natured and highly entertaining commentary tracks — on every episode — by the likes of Tennant and Davies and Gardner and a lot of other smart, enthusiastic people involved in producing this show. And I haven’t mentioned the entire disc’s worth of “Doctor Who Confidentials,” making-of featurettes that air in Britain immediately after every episode there but never air in the U.S. at all.

If you’re any kind of Doctor Who fan, you need this set. Trust me.

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