The Doctor Who DVD Range – An Appreciation

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The welcome news that The Underwater Menace (or what remains of it) will finally be getting a DVD release gave me pause to remember the decade and a half I spent as a dedicated collector of Classic (i.e. proper) Doctor Who DVDs.

The procedure didn’t vary much.  Firstly, the next title was announced.  This, especially in the early days, tended to generate heated debate online – usually consisting of why x rather than y was being released.  If you were a fan of Jon Pertwee for example, you’d probably end up feeling shortchanged as another raft of Tom Baker stories were set for release.  But given the amount of work required on a number of Third Doctor titles it’s maybe not surprising that certain stories didn’t turn up until fairly late in the day.

Other Doctors did suffer as well though, which was especially notable before the range went monthly.  For example there was a three year gap between The Visitation in 2004 and New Beginnings in 2007, apparently due to Peter Davison’s lack of availability (it was felt that his presence on the commentary track was essential).  Although by the time the range was coming to an end it probably would have been a blessed relief to have dropped him from some of the comms as his shtick (and also that of Janet Fielding) was wearing more than a little thin.

So once the suitability (or otherwise) of the story and special features had been debated, the next important question was where to pre-order?  Blackstar/Sendit were popular in the early 2000’s, although they became increasingly slower as the decade wore on.  The New Beginnings debacle (where many copies, including mine, were stuck at an airport for more than a week) was probably their lowest point.  Yes I know it’s ancient history now, but I’m a Doctor Who fan so these things are still going to rankle.

Various vanished e-tailers such as Play and HMV were also popular, although in more recent years the BBC Shop (and their blessed 10% code) always tended to have the best pre-order price.  And they almost always tended to deliver on the Saturday prior to the Monday release date.  This was another very important consideration as getting the DVD before the official release date was crucial – any delay was painful in the extreme.

The pre-order is safely in, possibly an article has gone up on the Restoration Team website, so the next topic of conversation would revolve around the cover (Clayton Hickman and latterly Lee Binding tended to handle most of them).  Clayton did tend to come in for a fair amount of stick, whilst Lee’s efforts met with more approval (some of his covers can be seen here) although The Face of Evil has a staggeringly bad representation of the cliff-carved image.

Eventually after all this effort the DVD would arrive, be watched and then put on the shelf and the whole process above could be repeated for the next DVD.  Ah, happy days!

Casting an eye over the several (long) shelves of Doctor Who DVDs with their plethora of special features, it’s worth remembering that at the start things were much more modest.  The first DVD, The Five Doctors SE, only had the isolated soundtrack (which wasn’t syncronised to the picture and didn’t run at the correct speed either).

The next DVD was The Robots of Death which featured a comm track with Chris Boucher and Philip Hinchcliffe.  One day I’m going to attempt to sit through all four episodes of this (although probably not in one go) but it’s going to take some effort, thanks to Boucher (who may be a lovely chap, but isn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute).

Up until mid 2002 the releases continued on an irregular basis and the special features settled down to include a commentary, production subs and whatever additional footage could be sourced from the archive.  This usually meant trailers, out-takes, studio footage, etc.  Tomb of the Cybermen in early 2002 did have a convention panel from a decade earlier – when the story had been rediscovered – but until The Aztecs (in mid 2002) there hadn’t been a specially-shot making of.

The Aztecs documentary might have been a bit basic (and Walter Randall’s belly remains an unforgettable image) but it proved that it could be done and over the next decade we’d see hundreds more documentaries/featurettes/interviews that, together with the commentaries, form an incredibly impressive audio/visual history of the programme.

A few of my favourite special features –

Origins (The Edge of Destruction).  A comprehensive documentary covering the creation of the series.

Looking for Peter (The Sensorites).  An unexpectedly moving tribute to Peter R. Newman and one of many excellent contributions to the range from Toby Hadoke.

The reconstruction of the original parts three and four of Planet of Giants.  It’s not perfect by any means, but this is a very decent approximation of what Planet of Giants would have looked like before it was cut from four episodes to three.  Had more time and money been available then it obviously could have looked a great deal better, but you still have to applaud the effort.

The Cosgrove Hall animated episodes of The Invasion.

The complete studio tape on The Claws of Axos SE and also Toby Hadoke’s Living with Levene on the same release.  Most studio tapes tend to feature long periods where nothing at all happens (Time-Flight for example) but The Claws of Axos is more interesting than most, especially since it’s only one of two studio tapes that exist from the Pertwee era.  And the John Levene documentary is a treat from beginning to end!

Roger Delgado: The Master (Frontier in Space).  Not only is the documentary full of archive clips from his numerous BBC appearances (most of which are frustratingly not available on DVD) there’s also many fulsome tributes paid from his friends and family.  The closing minutes, especially the comments from his widow Kismet and Barry Letts, are simply heart-breaking.

Cheques, Lies and Videotape (Revenge of the Cybermen).  If you weren’t involved in trading or watching pirate Doctor Who videos in the 1980’s and 1990’s this probably won’t be of interest, but if you were then it’ll strike more than a few chords.

A New Body at Last (Logopolis).

Lots of interest on The Five Doctors 25th Anniversary Edition, especially the studio footage.

Trials and Tribulations (The Ultimate Foe).  One of Doctor Who’s most fraught eras, production-wise, is covered in detail with everybody’s point of view given airtime.

Endgame (Survival).  And the Anthony Ainley footage from Destiny of the Doctors is fab as well, if only he’d played the Master on TV like that.

Whenever I rewatch a story I like to dip in and out of the commentary track.  As with the special features, there’s far too many to mention – but The Gunfighters, The War Games, The Monster of Peladon (possibly because of Nina Thomas’ sultry voice), Robots of Death SE, Horror of Fang Rock, Earthshock, The Twin Dilemma and Remembrance of the Daleks are all favourites.

It does seem a bit remiss that I’ve got this far without mentioning just how good the stories look, courtesy of the incredible work of the Restoration Team.  Yes, there was the odd controversy (remade credits, changing a shot in The Chase from day to night, “spanngergate”, etc) but these pale into insignificance compared to the overall improvements in both PQ and sound.  And to have every Jon Pertwee episode in colour was something that seemed an impossible dream back when the range started.

If The Underwater Menace really is the final Classic Doctor Who DVD then whilst I’ll confess to having a slight twinge of sadness, it’s tempered with a deep appreciation for everyone who worked so hard to ensure that each DVD was as good as it could possibly be.  And in an era when we’re told that physical media is dead or dying, it’s possible that we’ll never see another series treated with such care and attention.

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3 thoughts on “The Doctor Who DVD Range – An Appreciation

  1. Thanks for a very nice overview, which captures the vague melancholy I too have been feeing as this range comes to an end. Your list of favourite special features is quite similar to mine, to which I’d like to add the making of documentary for ‘Planet of Fire’, which caused me to reevaluate my originally negative view towards this show, and ‘Day of the Daleks: Special Edition’, being prolly the only time such extensive digital mischief has led to a genuinely improved viewing experience.

    I actually consider ‘Cheques, Lies & Videotape’ to be a vital document beyond the mere scope of Dr Who fandom, as it is a means of explaining to people born into a digital age what it was like living in an era without immediate access to everything.

    Speaking of those very early days, I happened to be holidaying in Fiji, of all places, when I first saw a newspaper advertisement for the (then) upcoming ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ VHS release. Man, I wish I’d kept a copy of that advert!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good call on the Day of the Daleks SE, which is much more akin to the way I’d pictured the story to be as a child (after reading Terrance Dicks’ novelisation numerous times).

    When I finally got to see the story, on VHS in 1986, it was initially a crushing disappointment. So many scenes which were vivid in the book were either missing or much less effective in the television original.

    But although the various SEs and CGI enhancements were generally good (apart from the rotten SEs of Enlightenment and Planet of Fire) I’ll almost always come back to the originals after I’ve watched the new version once.

    The CGI flying saucer, for example, in The Dalek Invasion of Earth is lovely – but I don’t feel any embarrassment in watching the paper plate version. Which is the way I’ve also come to feel about Day – it’s never going to be as good as the version created in my head by the novelisation, but I’ve come to appreciate it over the years, production flaws and all.

    I agree that Cheques, Lies and Videotape is a window into a vanished world, one where information simply wasn’t on tap. One of the first things I recorded when my parents bought a video-recorder in 1986 (apart from The Trial of a Timelord, obviously!) was the three-hour clipfest That’s Television Entertainment, part of the BBC’s TV-50 celebrations.

    There’s a three minute section devoted to Doctor Who, which I’m going to locate and upload to YouTube, that I watched again and again at the time. It was totally mesmerising – all those tiny clips of stories that I presumed I’d never get the chance to see. Back then, the notion of owning every existing episode of Doctor Who was a pipe-dream that seemed completely out of reach.

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