Some of Doctor Who's most thrilling stories come to DVD

A few of Doctor Who's coolest stories have shown up on DVD recently. Last week, we got the classic stories "The Seeds of Doom" and "The Ark," and a few weeks earlier there was "A Christmas Carol," the latest special.

These three stories, collectively, show what Doctor Who is capable of being at its absolute best. Though they have some flaws, especially "The Ark," they're all thrilling, conceptually adventurous and stories that feel uniquely Doctor Who-ish, despite coming from three different eras. Minor spoilers ahead...

Top image: Krynoid Explosion by Harnois75 on DeviantArt

Seriously, this is the first time in ages that two genuinely decent classic Doctor Who stories have come out on DVD. Lately, it's been all the dregs, some stories that you could tell the DVD team were saving for last because they weren't terribly enthusiastic about "Delta and the Bannermen" or "The Time Monster." Both the newly released classic stories, "The Ark" and "Seeds of Doom," are among my favorites, for different reasons.

Some of Doctor Who's most thrilling stories come to DVD

Let's start with "The Ark," which has one of the cleverest uses of the show's format ever. The TARDIS lands on a spaceship carrying the last survivors of the human race to a new homeworld, plus their servants, a one-eyed race called the Monoids. Unfortunately, the TARDIS crew brings the common cold to these refugees — a disease to which they have no resistance because they haven't had the cold in forever. So it's up to the Doctor to figure out how to cure them before they all die out — and lynch him and his companions. And then at the end of episode two, the Doctor and friends get back in the TARDIS — only to reappear on the same spaceship, 700 years later. Now the ship is nearing its destination — but the statue that was supposed to show a triumphant human is completed, and instead shows a Monoid. The Monoids have taken over and enslaved the humans.

Image: The Ark by DV8R71 on DeviantArt.

The idea of taking a 700-year leap halfway through the story is a really daring one, and the cliffhanger which uses the alien-headed statue to convey that the human race's fortunes have changed during the interval is genuinely shocking and weird.

Just like with the other recent early story release, "The Space Museum," the DVD extras mostly consist of people making fun of this episode's aliens, the Monoids. And yeah, with the clarity of picture the DVD restoration team has achieved, it's all too easy to see how ridiculous the Monoids look. They have sort of faux-Dalek voices and flippers instead of feet and generally seem a bit naff. And it's true that once the Monoids are in charge, they say the laughable line, "Take them to the Security Kitchen." Anyway, the show's extras include a featurette, "One-Hit Wonders," basically dedicated to talking about how naff the Monoids are and why they never came back. Plus a lot of the show's main featurette is about how terrible they are as well.

The extras on "The Ark," incidentally, are sparse but better than a lot of the other recent Doctor Who DVD extras — instead of the usual bloated retrospective about the making of the story, there's quite a neat documentary about the teeny studio where the show filmed all of its episodes from around 1964 to 1967 or thereabouts. It seems like a tiny space, but it's actually way bigger than the studio the show was stuck with in its early years, or from 1967 onwards. You get some great insights into how the show turned a tiny space into a half-dozen sets and maneuvered five huge cameras around them. Really fascinating stuff. And along the way, "The Ark's" director Michael Imison talks about how he tried to use his one Doctor Who outing to rescue his career at the BBC — and failed. It sounds like Imison, who came up with the Monoids and their "ping-pong ball in the mouth" design himself, was way out of his depth. Oh, and there's a cute documentary about H.G. Wells' influence on the program.

Anyway, "The Ark" is a really clever use of the show's format, and a good showcase for William Hartnell's Doctor — even though he was in his final days in the role and flubbing his lines constantly, he still comes across as the absolute master of time and space somehow.

Some of Doctor Who's most thrilling stories come to DVD

And then there's "The Seeds of Doom," in which a killer plant from outer space takes people over and tries to destroy the human race. On the surface, this story should be a bit of a letdown — the plant monster is a bit silly, perhaps, and it's a UNIT story without the Brigadier or any of the other UNIT cast. The action is divided between two episodes in Antarctica and four episodes in England, just to stretch out the plot a bit. We learn on the information text subtitles that it was a last-minute replacement when "The Hand of Fear" failed to work out as a season-ending six-parter. And so on.

Some of Doctor Who's most thrilling stories come to DVD

But "The Seeds of Doom" is magnificent. It's the final time Douglas Camfield directed a Doctor Who story, and he's determined to make it as much of an action movie as he can. Tom Baker is at the absolute peak of his intensity as the Doctor, turning lines like "Inimical? They're lethal!" into savage indictments of human stupidity. The Krynoids are reasonably creepy, with their fast-growing vegetable-human hybrid bodies and their control over local vegetation. And the show has two great human villains: the psychotic millionaire Harrison Chase, and the thuggish Scorby. Somehow, the show manages to keep the suspense and intensity up for a full six episodes, until the Krynoid is the size of Harrison Chase's mansion and the Doctor is out of ideas.

This is the very last of the classic UNIT stories, and the end of the Doctor being the eccentric genius called in to solve mysteries for Britain's authorities. And somehow, with the Brigadier gone, the tension between the Doctor's bohemian outsider-ness and the "stiff upper lip" of the British establishment becomes more accentuated, until you get the sense that the Doctor is a sort of necessary evil that the British government calls upon despite some revulsion.

Some of Doctor Who's most thrilling stories come to DVD

"Seeds of Doom" has a lot more extras than "The Ark," and they're a bit less exciting. The featurette about the making of the story is 37 minutes long, and drags pretty horribly. Graeme Harper, who was an assistant on this story but later directed some of the show's best episodes, walks us through the job of Production Assistant in a 14-minute featurette. There's a rather bland documentary about how some of the story's locations look now, and a featurette about the unusual musical score by classical composer Geoffrey Burgon. Image: The Krynoids by DV8R71 on DeviantArt.

Honestly, none of the featurettes on the disk are as illuminating as just watching it with the commentary track and the informational subtitles — the information text goes into way more interesting detail about the problems "Seeds of Doom" experienced than the featurette does. And the commentary track includes Tom Baker — for the first time in ages — plus a host of other informative characters, including producer Philip Hinchcliffe, writer Robert Banks-Stewart and the son of the director. This is one story where the commentary track is really worth listening to, as Baker and his rotating cast of accomplices get inside making the story.

The one great featurette on the "Seeds of Doom" DVD is a 20-minute look at the Fourth Doctor's comic-strip outings, which delves into just how weak Doctor Who comics had gotten by the late 1970s, when Marvel Comics rolled out their new magazine with strips featuring art by Dave "Watchmen" Gibbons. Worth watching just for the interview with Gibbons where he talks about getting the size of the Doctor's robot dog, K9, wrong.

And last but not least, the DVD for the Christmas special, "A Christmas Carol," came out in February and it's as great a second time around as it was before. We reviewed it pretty extensively back in December, but suffice to say that it holds up quite well, and Michael Gambon is just as captivating a second time around as the wicked miser Kazran Sardick. Giving Matt Smith a real antagonist to bounce off brings out the best in his Doctor. He tries to save Kazran's soul but it turns out to be more complicated than he'd expected.

If I have one quibble about "A Christmas Carol" the second time around, it's that it's even more obvious that the Doctor is becoming too powerful lately. Kazran barely even poses a challenge to the Doctor — if he wanted to wipe Kazran out of existence, he could do it with the snap of his fingers. It's only because the Doctor takes on a greater challenge, that of redeeming Kazran, that he's got any problems in this story at all. Time was, the Doctor was stymied by a crazy millionaire and his trigger-happy hired thugs, but nowadays the Doctor seems to be too godlike even to worry about mere mortals and their weapons. It's sort of unfortunate, since a less-powerful Doctor is often more compelling.

The extras on the "Christmas Carol" DVD consist of the Doctor Who Confidential special that was shown after the episode in England — with some nice looks at the making of the story, including the first table read of the script and the way in which the "flying shark" effect was achieved. And then Doctor Who at the Proms, the concert that happened last year featuring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, plus an orchestra playing Doctor Who music.

It's a pretty nice package, although no doubt the Christmas episode will be on the eventual Series Six DVD set, so if you can hold out until the end of the year, you can get it that way.

All in all, these are three DVDs that show just how clever and powerful a show Doctor Who can be — and how many cool places you can take the idea of a man with a box that can travel through time and space, who has a special fondness for humanity.