Doctor Who: series 4 boxset review
It's here: our exhaustive review of the full season boxset for Doctor Who series four. Deep breath...
One of the most surprising aspects of the most recent series of the world’s longest running ‘sci-fi’ show (take that, Guinness Book of Records!) is just how popular it is. And how increasingly popular it becomes. What’s even more surprising is that this series saw the most ‘non-contemporary Earth’ stories – and the ratings still ascended to the never-before-reached heights of ‘Number One Show On Telly’.
Of course, at some point (as RTD himself alluded to in his recent tome) interest will hit a peak and it could be that series four of Doctor Who was it, and it would be quite easy to see why. It is the most consistent of the new series so far (in fact, of the show’s 45 year history) and the production values have never been higher.
But when I say ‘production values’ I’m not just referring to the wonderful visuals we see every Saturday at 7pm (or thereabouts, *coughs*) but also the scripts and the cast. CG-wise we were treated to some fine sights and I cite Fires Of Pompeii, Planet Of The Ood and the finale as the epitome of what The Mill can do. The stories themselves could run the danger of becoming stale but the team in Cardiff are too canny for any lapse into the ordinary or banal and this year saw a departure into more the comedic (too broad for some but it had this humble viewer enthralled at is temerity) during The Unicorn & The Wasp but also into the deeply psychological (never more vivid than RTD’s finest hour, Midnight) and heartbreaking (the finale and Turn Left).
Finally, the cast – never have we had it so good. And, without wanting to delve into each episode and name check the best, I’ll just name one person who displayed such a fine grasp of character (and her possibilities) that even David “The Guv’nor” Tennant was left slightly in the shade by her energetic, thoughtful, hopeful and achingly sorrowful (not to mention damn funny to boot) performances – the effervescent Catherine Tate. It says much of her execution of the role that there is still a Donna-sized gap in my heart, months after Journey’s End finished. If I were to reduce series four down to one scene, it would the ‘Circle of Mirrors’ from the aforementioned ‘Doctor-Lite’ tale, the depressingly real (yet parallel; or perpendicular; or was it adjacent? I can’t remember which) Turn Left.
Donna says that when she exits “a better world will take its place” - well, sadly, this did not happen when the latest series finished. Instead the televisual landscape was made up of atrocities like Bonekickers (and listen out for a humorous remark on that particular show from RTD in one of the commentaries) and Spooks: Code 9. But that’s hardly the fault of Doctor Who! You can’t blame the show for setting such high standards that everything else simply pales in comparison.
But, there are some criticisms to be made and I would perhaps level them at: the slight hollowness of Voyage Of The Damned; the familiarity of the Sontaran two-parter (though it was bloody good stuff); the needless return of Jackie Tyler (would she really hold a gun?) and the underuse of Davros; the bombastic nature of the finale – bigger does not necessarily mean better; and the numerous times Davy T races through an explanation, usually important and pertinent to the story’s denouement, throughout the series.
But, returning to the infinite number of positives, I mention the word ‘consistency’. For me series four was never anything less than stunning - there were no ‘lows’ (not that you get them with Doctor Who anyway) such as Fear Her or last year’s Dalek two-parter, it was all ‘highs’ (apart from the ‘demise’ of Donna – why? Why?? WHY, RTD??? You cruel, cruel man!). The outgoing showrunner has laid down an impressive and varied gauntlet to his successor – what The Moff does in reply will be as fascinating as series four was astonishing.
Almost every story gets some additional footage (the Sontaran two-parter and Midnight being the exceptions) along with an introduction from Russell T Davies. He’s his usual upbeat self and explains the various reasons why these scenes were cut but remains bullish on some, wishing they’d stayed in.
One has to wonder why these were not re-instated on this DVD release as it would have been quite easy (and cheap) to do so. The best of these are a trio of cuts from Planet Of The Ood including the Doc asking Donna, “Are you travelling the universe to find a husband?” when she shows an interest in Halpen along with her riposte of “Nice rocket” when the Ood-to-be compliments her jacket.
The worst are the offcuts from The Unicorn & The Wasp which sees the framing device of the old Agatha Christie looking back on her life in the pre-title sequence and then we return to her at the end where the Doc and Donna visit her and let her know she’s the “best selling author ever”. Gah! Apart from the clunkiness of the idea, the performances would not have looked out of place in one of the TARDISODEs from 2006.
The most interesting subtractions in this collection come from Partners In Crime and Journey’s End. In a fitting tribute to the now deceased actor, Howard Attfield’s recorded scenes (replaced by Bernard Cribbins in the broadcast version) in the former story are presented here. There’s a genuinely touching moment when Geoff says “I’m on the mend” after Donna refers to the character’s illness. Those familiar with the filming of that story will know that the Doctor and Donna ‘alleyway scene’ (just after the Adipose leave) had to be re-filmed to due to the rowdy Welsh contingent in a nearby club. The original version is available here and makes as an intriguing comparison to the much more accomplished performances visible in the transmitted version. According to RTD’s recent book, that was the only time Davy T complained, and he was right to do so as the re-shoot hits the perfect note.
Likewise, I’m sure many of us know about the ‘TARDIS Chunk’ scene on the beach at the denouement of the series, it is presented here too. Fascinating but I’m glad it was cut – the Time Lord saying the line “The Doctor and Rose Tyler in the TARDIS, as it should be” just feels wrong – self referential and, more importantly, incorrect. Also ‘feeling wrong’ was RTD’s original ending to Journey’s End – an appearance of the Cybermen in the time machine coupled with the “What? What?? What???” refrain. Big thanks to Ben Cook from a certain publication for convincing the big fella otherwise. It’s almost like a spoof with the tin men literally rising up (as if they had been crouching) behind Davy T. It may not have helped that the footage is untreated but it’s clumsy as it is unwanted and, thankfully, we get the time and space to mourn Donna’s passing.
All in all the deleted scenes make a neat record of filming – some you would want inserted, some not.
Especially for this collection, we are presented with all new audio commentaries (though, infuriatingly, Time Crash does not get one). These range from the deadly dull to the outrageously hilarious and, if you’ve been reading Den Of Geek for the past couple of days you’ll be aware of this already, highly informative.
I’ll start with negatives and there’s much to be said. Why would anyone, really, want to listen to commentaries when none of the main players are present? Listening to Felicity “Nice Sermon Vicar” Kendal and Fenella Woolgar chat is all very well but it does not satiate my hunger for Who Facts. In this vein, Voyage of the Damned (the one and only interesting fact on display here was that Murray Gold couldn’t sit through the whole of the Paul McGann TV Movie), The Sontaran Stratagem (though full marks to Julie Gardner for trying to get the commentators interesting) and Planet of the Ood (featuring Roger “Even I Had To Look Up Which Character He Played” Griffiths, who clearly does not know what the word ‘subliminal’ means) could have benefited from someone in the control room saying, “Guys, if you don’t start talking about David Tennant’s plank in a minute, we’re booking Georgia Moffett.”
One also has to wonder why, for a commentary on an expensive box set (I can suffer dull ones when they’re downloadable free of charge), they book people who haven’t even seen the episode before discussing it? Absolutely pointless as, demonstrated here, these people simply end up watching it!
Thankfully, we are gifted some cracking commentaries that more than make up for those amateur efforts. Highlights include: hearing RTD point out a huge mistake in the window cart scene during Partners In Crime to director James Strong (he is somewhat crestfallen); Catherine Tate, evoking one of her comedy creations, saying, “This, was in Italy” after Tracie Simpson revealed she had to eat goat and lard (as well as a discussion of Cathy T’s cleavage - yum); RTD replying “even I got that” when David talks about how sexy Freema looked in ‘gloop’ (the Scotsman also reveals his love for Kirsty Wark and later we find out he ‘has a thing’ for Glynis Barber – dirty boy!); Tennant’s thoughts on what the Midnight monster trading card would look like; and much, much more.
When the main players are together, there’s a real sense of love for each other and the time they shared but also, crucially, the show. And I’m sure everybody will be playing the new game that’s introduced by Georgia Moffett and Catherine Tate during their immensely amusing commentary for The Doctor’s Daughter.
My only other gripe is that all these commentaries were recorded at the time, it may have served the purposes of this release to have retrospective commentaries as the popularity of each episode could be discussed in tandem with their filming experiences. This is all too evident in the commentary for the finale where the special effects have not even been added and the gang keep referring to it – a tad tedious.
Though, rather jovially, Russell “Television” Davies does refer to the faux regeneration as, and I’m quoting here, “the greatest cop out in history”. I’ll let you spit out your coffee, in a derisory fashion, at the remark by yourself.
THE JOURNEY (SO FAR)
If someone had told you that there was to be a documentary on the DVD set that was going to look at the series so far than you would be entitled to think, “Wow, we’ll now get an interesting retrospective an perhaps some new remarks and maybe something about Christopher Eccleston.” Well, we do get told that he’s “one of the world’s finest actor’s” (Really? Is he??), but that’s about as far as the ‘insight’ goes. This half hour barely touches the surface and Julie Gardner commits the unutterable sin of using the phrase ‘Season One’. Shame on you Jules! There’s no real discussion here and I can imagine most real fans will watch this once (if they make it to the end) and ponder on what could have been.
It’s all rather self-congratulating and there’s no dissection of the series, its production or its success (or failures). It’s a snug introduction (or should that be ‘retro’duction?) to the show for those that have been living on Poosh for the past four years, but ultimately The Journey (So Far) is a wasted trip.
DAVID TENNANT’S VIDEO DIARY
Sadly, there’s not as much camera action with the Scotsman this time around - David cites “no new stories to tell” - but what we do get is a highly entertaining half hour or so with him and his chums. Part one sees Tennant and Executive Producer, Julie Gardner, on their way to Blackpool to ‘turn on’ the Illuminations (well, Julie isn’t – she’s there to hold his sonic). Guffaws ensue at their reaction to receiving a police escort into the seaside resort. The second part sees the old gang return during the filming of the finale with John Barrowman, Noel Clarke, Camille Coduri, Billie Piper, Elisabeth Sladen (in a very coy, almost sultry interview) and Catherine Tate to name but a few. It’s incredibly enjoyable (the ‘scene’ with DT, BP and CT in car reveals how close these guys can get – physically as well as metaphorically), just a shame there wasn’t more.
DOCTOR WHO CONFIDENTIAL
The cut-down versions are not only cut down, they’ve been massacred with some under the ten minute mark. Whilst the broadcast 45 minute versions are too long (and needlessly repetitive), they’ve done a 180 and short changed the audience. As a result, the episodes fail to deliver but at least they’ve kept the ‘big’ interviews in. Not something you’ll be returning to much for reference (or entertainment).
Of course, this is an essential purchase if you are a fan but you might find yourself slightly disappointed for the money you’ve forked out. Having said that, it does work out at about eight quid a disc which, all considered, ain’t bad.
However, I strongly feel the makers of this set have to consider improving these releases (completists will be irked that there is no accompanying DWC or commentary for Time Crash): the addition of lengthier interviews with the main players, as it were, conducted after the series has aired would be much appreciated – it’s too close to the production to get any considered thoughts; the Confidentials could be bit longer; maybe I’m too much of a geekoid but I would love to see more of the read-throughs; and the commentaries need a closer eye (or even ear) in the production booth.
Oh yeah, and where was Music of the Spheres? Bah, I guess we’ll have to wait for Christmas…