The Serials (5/5)
I grew up as a PBS junkie. When I was a kid, and teenager I quickly discovered the bounty of wonderful and weird programing Public Broadcasting had to offer, much of which had been imported from the U.K.. I quickly became a fan of many U.K. programs everything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, to Are You Being Served? and Blackadder. But what really took a hold of my youthful imagination were the re-runs I would occasionally stumble upon of Red Dwarf and Doctor Who.
The local PBS affiliate would only seemingly screen episodes with the Doctor with the long scarf and coat (Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker), but I loved how weird and mysterious the show felt, and tried to catch episodes anytime they were on (Unfortunately, not very often). I started doing research in those pre-internet days, first by talking to friends about it. One of them I remember responding "Isn't that the show where fans try and find lost episodes by contacting psychics?" Yeah, the internet has changed things quite a bit. I learned there was 7 Doctors, and they had a variety of personalities, and about regeneration, and the TARDIS, companions, etc. But I could never see any episodes outside of Tom Baker's until I started collecting the DVD's in 2007.
Even then I didn't quite know where to start. Doctor Who is a very special program in how it's been treated on DVD, as most people reading this will know classic Doctor Who told stories in a serialized format. A number of episodes (usually 2-7) would run together to tell a complete story. It is these serials, rather than complete seasons that are released on DVD. This allows the people who restore Doctor Who episodes (aka the Doctor Who Restoration Team) to show special care and attention to the restoration of each Doctor Who episode instead of rushing to meet a complete series deadline. Also, since 106 episodes of the 1960's run of Doctor Who are still missing it would be quite difficult to issue "Complete" series sets.
When Doctor Who came back on the air in 2005, it became a ratings bonanza. It has continued to gather fans for the last 9 years, and 3 Doctors, and is now a worldwide science fiction sensation. During the classic run, it was pretty much only popular in the U.K., and more a cult item in the U.S.. Doctor Who is now one of the biggest shows on TV anywhere in the world, and it has created annoyances for people such as myself who grew up with the classic series, who now have to hear a non-stop barrage of statements declaring how David Tennant is the best Doctor EVER from people who have never watched a single episode of the classic run.
The writers of the current run of Doctor Who have done their best to make it known that the current show is within the continuity of the old, and have done quite a bit to acknowledge the past, but still I find many new viewers are unlikely to give the older show a fair shake. The BBC in the run up to Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary have seen a way to help correct this with Doctors Revisited a series of specials once a month highlighting a classic Doctor each month all the way through November (although only the first 8 months will be “Classic” Doctors). These specials, and the classic serials that correspond with them have now been released to DVD for fans, both new and old to enjoy.
This initial package (a second will be released in October), contains a serial each from the first four Doctors. It contains The Aztecs with William Hartnell, Tomb of the Cybermen with Patrick Troughton, Spearhead from Space with Jon Pertwee, and Pyramid of Mars with Tom Baker. All 4 episodes can be considered some of these Doctors finest hours, and the set offers a nice variety of episodes. There is a Hartnell historical, a fine black and white Troughton episode with a familiar villain (the Cybermen), We get one of, if not the finest regeneration episodes with Spearhead from Space, and one of Tom Baker's finest early episodes with Pyramid of Mars. The latter 2 episodes also have the benefit of being written by the man who is arguably the greatest writer of classic Doctor Who, Robert Holmes.
While the story selection offers plenty to Who fans of any stripe, the set in and of itself (and I will go into detail in the later sections) should probably be only of interest to new fans. If you are a current fan of the classic series, there are much better quality editions of these titles already out. If you are new, and looking for a way to jump in this is certainly a way to do it, but be warned you may find yourself wanting the proper editions later down the line.
Normally in this section I review the Audio and Video Content of the release and nothing else. Because of the very nature of this release, I'm going to go into a bit more detail here because it seems to require it. The episodes themselves have 2 different viewing options, a feature presentation, and individual episodes. The feature presentation is what has recently screened on BBC America, and opens with an introduction by current Doctor Who Showrunner Steven Moffat.
You would think that this being the "feature presentation" of the release, this would be the best way to watch the episodes, it is not. In all actuality this is the worst presentation of a Doctor Who episode since the last time I've seen an episode screened on PBS (actually within 2 years KBTC out of Tacoma, WA still screens classic Doctor Who on Saturday nights if you are in the area). The issues with the feature presentation are numerous, but let me start with the biggest issue plaguing the presentation, the aspect ratio.
The feature presentation release of all 4 serials is a 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. This has been done to fit modern widescreen television screens, but unfortunately, it looks terrible. Classic Doctor Who was shot in a full screen 1:33:1 aspect ratio many years before studios started shooting their TV shows in widescreen, and forcing the full screen image to widescreen creates a terrible stretched out image. Further, all 4 serials are taken from unrestored video masters, and not the most recently restored DVD masters which do not look terribly detailed, are faded at times, and look nothing like these episodes at their best. The third and final issue is the fact these episodes are presented not in the serialized format that classic Doctor Who was known for, but in edited omnibus editions. These cut off the flashbacks at the beginning of the episodes, the credits at the end, and play them in the style of a movie. Omnibus editions were fairly common when PBS aired the show in the 80's and 90's, but it is not the recommended way to watch Classic Doctor Who.
The interesting thing with this set is if you select the episodes individually, you will get each episode uncut, in their original aspect ratio of 1:33:1. The episodes here are presented to the quality of their most recent DVD counterparts (including the recent upgrades of Tomb of the Cybermen and Spearhead from Space), and look quite good in comparison to the feature presentation.
As these are not full on Doctor Who Special Editions, the only extras are an introduction by Steven Moffat on each episode, and a roughly 30 minute featurette called Doctors Revisted for each one as well. These are done in a cookie cutter style, but give a nice general overview of each Doctor's time on the series.
Even though Doctor Who is currently a smash sensation around the world, a lot of fans are less inclined to give the classic run of the series a try. For those people who are new fans, and have been curious about the classic run, I would certainly give this set a try. It contains a nice mix of episodes from the classic run, and a nice overview featurette with each. I would recommend the individual episodes over the feature presentation on A/V quality alone, take into account that the feature is also an edited down omnibus edition, and I have to push for any viewer to check those out instead of the feature. This really is a bit of a complicated release, Doctor Who Completist may want it for the extra features, and maybe even for having some of the omnibus editions in their collections, aside from that I cannot recommend it to classic fans when much better editions already exist. Doctors Revisited, I guess, can only be RECOMMENDED to new series fans as a gateway to earlier Doctor Who.