Doctor Who just ended a strange experiment, and now you can view all of the results together. The British serial ran a year of one-off "event" stories featuring the time-traveler on his own. So how does it all hold up?
Oh and check out the new official video, the "Best of Tennant," above.
The DVD box set, Doctor Who: The Specials, comes out today, and includes five extra-long episodes shown over a year and change. There's "The Next Doctor," "Planet Of The Dead," "The Waters Of Mars," and then the two-part finale, "The End Of Time." And this is a good time to mention there will be minor spoilers for these episodes.
These episodes take some pretty interesting liberties with the "usual" format of the show: They're all more like TV movies than episodes, they're mostly pretty ambitious, and most importantly, there's no companion along for the ride, so the Doctor has a series of ad-hoc companions instead, who are a lot more diverse than the usual bright young things.
Watching all of the specials together, you get the sense that producer/main writer Russell T. Davies felt like he'd done everything there was to do with the usual Doctor-companion relationship. (He'd already varied it somewhat, by using the older, bossier Donna as a companion in season four.) Plunging the Doctor into a series of oddball pairings feels like a bit of a desperation move, to showcase different sides to the Time Lord than you'd see in his interactions with an impressionable woman who's having her first adventures with him.
The good news is, it mostly works great. The Doctor's rapport with the "other" Doctor in "The Next Doctor" is a joy to watch, and really does illuminate the Doctor's much-discussed loneliness from a new angle, as the "other" Doctor realizes just how hard it must be to be 900 years old and have all your traveling companions fall by the wayside. The contrast between the two Doctors, only one of whom gets to have a family, lends a certain weight to the Doctor's pronouncement that he's only traveling on his own from now on.
Somewhat less successful is the Doctor's team-up in the second episode with Lady Christine, a self-centered jewel thief who is the closest we get to a "traditional" companion — except that she's smug and full of herself. And has a catsuit. So it's just as well that the box set lets you move quickly from "Planet Of The Dead" to "The Waters Of Mars," where the Doctor meets a woman who really is impressive: Adelaide Brooke, the captain of the Mars expedition, who keeps order with an iron grip and is prepared to take the tough choices, even when the Doctor tries to take those choices away from her.
And finally, the Doctor spends his final adventure with Wilf, the grandfather of his former companion Donna. Wilf's just as awe-struck with the Doctor as many of his younger companions, but they wind up having a different dynamic: They're a couple of "old soldiers" (as the mysterious Time Lady calls Wilf) facing their final battle together, and they have a great ongoing dialog about their impending mortality, in some of Russell T. Davies' most nicely crafted scenes ever.
It's clear that Davies sees the companion-Doctor relationship as the engine that keeps renewing Doctor Who's vitality, as we fall in love with the Doctor over and over again through a new pair of eyes. (Even Donna, the major exception to this pattern, falls into a kind of "friend love" with the Doctor, I'd argue.) And when you take that dynamic away — when you replace it with a series of brief infatuations with one-off companions — the Doctor naturally seems a lot sadder and more jaded. He's already had his great loves, and now all he's good for is one-night stands.
He very nearly goes off the rails and becomes another Master, in "Waters Of Mars," and by the time he reaches his final story, he's the most alien he's ever been.
It all leads up to the saddest regeneration scene ever:
It really is something to rewatch the somewhat melancholy final Tennant adventures, the experiences of a man who's "lived too long" and lost touch with a precious bit of humanity or humility or something, and then immediately afterwards watch the first trailer for Matt Smith's Doctor Who adventures, full of joy and whooping and adrenaline.
In any case, the specials are well worth getting on DVD — and even more worth getting on Blu-Ray. This was the first batch of Doctor Who (except for "The Next Doctor") to be filmed in HD, so the Blu-Ray versions of the Dubai desert scenes, Mars base explosions and Gallifreyan grandeur should be something to see.
The special features are pretty decent — there's one batch of deleted scenes, which Russell T. Davies insists on introducing one by one, so that you get a 30-second scene trim, together with a minute of Davies explaining why he thought it was brilliant and why he wishes it could have been included in the broadcast version. (In particular, there are some romance angles that were snipped from "Waters Of Mars," probably for the best.) There are no deleted scenes from Tennant's final episode, so either they used everything they shot or the stuff they didn't use was pretty marginal.
There's a batch of Doctor Who Confidentials, including a never-before-seen one for "The Next Doctor." There's also "Doctor Who At The Proms," the fancy orchestral event where the Doctor takes over and explains music to the alien Graske. (Although some people on Amazon are claiming this extra is left off the Blu-Ray set, despite being listed as included.)
There are those lovely BBC Christmas "idents," where David Tennant turns the TARDIS into a sleigh and flies it through the sky, among other things. There's a bit of a mini-documentary on the show visiting Comic-Con 2009, including footage of David Tennant and John Barrowman smooching. There are commentary tracks on a couple of episodes, including "The End Of Time part 2." And there's another batch of David Tennant's video diaries, including a bit where he says farewell to you, the viewer:
So if you're a Doctor Who fan, chances are you're already buying this box set, unless you already bought these stories on DVD individually. (You really should have waited — the box set is better, I think.) If you're not a fan, and are looking to become acquainted with Britain's greatest cult show apart from Monty Python, this probably isn't a good starting place — the "Series One" box set, including Christopher Eccleston's only year as the time traveler, is a much, much better jumping-on point. Also reasonably good for new viewers is "Series Two," David Tennant's first year, although I'd watch Eccleston first.
In any case, this past year or so has been a very weird experiment for a show that's had some very odd format changes in the past — and that fact is even more apparent when you watch it in one go. It's fitting that the man who reinvented Doctor Who for the 21st century got to reinvent the show one more time and show us yet another side of the Doctor. Allons-y!