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.

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