25 September 2016

Rewriting History | Doctor Who: The [TV] Movie on Blu-ray

When it was first aired I raved about the Doctor Who TV Movie, before doing it to death with countless VHS viewings. Six years later, it became one of the first DVDs that I owned. With little to no restoration work needed and a whole host of special features ready-made, it was an obvious choice for an early release on the millennium’s new medium. Nine years later, the movie was impressively “remastered, repackaged and reappraised with exclusive new special features” which took a retrospective look at the movie and its significance for its headlining role in the lavish Revisitations 1 DVD box set. Fast-forward another six years, and here I am shelling out another £13.50 for the same film in yet another format – this time around, though, that format is criminally under-utilised.

Part I – What Might Have Been
Admittedly, the most crippling limitation of the TV Movie’s Blu-ray release is conceded by the text on its rear cover: “The feature on this disc has been upscaled from standard definition” - though I feel compelled to point out that the text in question is all of 5mm high. Had I had the time to have done a little online research before purchasing, no doubt I could have found this out, but with two children running circles around me now, even a one-click Amazon Prime purchase is too time-consuming for comfort. Whilst I have nothing against upscaled video, generally speaking, and indeed I prefer my upscaled Russell T Davies-era Doctor Who Blu-rays to their standard-definition DVD counterparts, I have a zero tolerance policy on material that has been lazily upscaled in 1080/50i when it could have been presented in true high-definition. As the TV Movie was shot on film, then it seems all but certain that the original film elements exist to allow for a true HD transfer, as CBS did so spectacularly with Star Trek: The Next Generation and FOX have more recently done with The X-Files (which, note, aired on the same US network as the TV Movie and during the same era).

And with no exclusive bonus material, the TV Movie Blu-ray has precious little to offer those who own an upscaling DVD player, The Day of the Doctor and Revisitations 1 beyond the convenience of having both of Paul McGann’s live action appearances as the Doctor collected together on the same disc (though with “The Night of the Doctor” serving as a much more effective lead-in to The Day of the Doctor than it does an era-ender for the eighth Doctor, even the value of this is questionable). It’s also galling that the bonus material on the Blu-ray has been presented in SD. The bulk of this was produced in 2010, and whilst previously it was only released in SD on DVD, I can’t believe that in 2010 the BBC / 2 | entertain were not shooting and producing their material in HD - even the series itself had gone HD a year prior to Revisitations 1.

Given the above, the front cover’s “2 DISCS” boast is just salt in the wound. Yes, there are two discs, but one of them is a 7.95GB DVD, the other is a Blu-ray disc with only 36.3GB of its 50GB capacity having been filled. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to conclude that, if they were intent on selling consumers short with SD extras, 2 | entertain could at least have made this a single-disc release. Not only would this have been more convenient for viewers (as a devotee of voice-activated Apple TV, I get annoyed having to put a single disc in and pressing ‘Play’ before watching something, let alone swap one), it would have been much more environmentally friendly and a damn sight more honest. Hell, a single BD-50 would even have had room left for a decent rendering of the 2003 Shada webcast to boot; perhaps even a Big Finish audio adventure or two too, รก la The Davros Collection.

Part II – What Is
Yet, believe it or not, this wholly unnecessary and potentially misleading Blu-ray release is worth a punt - but only for those classic Doctor Who fans who don’t already own both The Day of the Doctor Blu-ray and the Revisitations 1 DVD box set. For those nineteen people, and only those nineteen people, this Blu-ray release does offer a lot of content in a little box. As was the case with the one-off Spearhead from Space Blu-ray, the packaging is stylish and sits well with both Spearhead and the RTD-era Blu-rays. Alternatively, those keen to lose it amongst their classic Who DVDs can easily reverse it to display the familiar roundel-framed design. I even have to applaud the continued inclusion of a booklet that gives the same sort of contents information as the much-loved DVD booklets once did, as well an informative little write-up on the movie’s significance - particularly when such things are seldom seen these days. Trying to read the contents on one of my Warner Bros Arrow or Flash Blu-ray seasons involves almost completely dismantling them and pulling out the brainy specs.

Moreover, the 1080/50i  presentation is the finest the TV Movie has looked to date. For the most part, the image’s resolution is no sharper than when I play its Revisitations 1 incarnation on an upscaling player, but the text is noticeably clearer and some of the film’s darkest shots don’t suffer as much from artefacts. Most noticeably though, the colours appear much richer, making the film seem much more vibrant than it ever has.

However, like its DVD releases, the presentation continues to suffer from having been sped up from its native 24 frames per second to 25 frames per second. This is infuriating given that this flies in the face of Blu-ray conventions and isn’t even consistent with previous releases, which suffered from the opposite problem, slowing down UK-produced content to meet those very Blu-ray conventions. Now, every televised Doctor Who story between 1996 and 2008 plays either slightly too fast or slightly too slow on Blu-ray. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey? Speedy-weedy, slowy-wowwy!

Part III – What Was
A big positive for the release is of course the TV Movie itself, which I’ve always been a keen advocate of. For a one-off Tuesday Night film, it managed to successfully package the Doctor Who concept in a fast-paced and action-packed narrative that should really have blown away audiences Stateside, as well as at back home in Blighty - ‘should’ being the operative word. Rather than accentuate the alien Doctor’s inherent Britishness, which ironically accounts for a lot of the show’s appeal over the pond, the film had USA stamped all over it and through it. I’ve always thought of it as a comic book version of Doctor Who, complete with an origin story (the regeneration) and, of course, the ‘reverse’ / ‘dark mirror’ arch nemesis (the Master). Even the way its parallel scenes so often intercut was redolent of many graphic novels. As a Brit who’d never seen the Doctor step out of the TARDIS into gangland San Francisco before, this was incredibly refreshing for me – but not, sadly, for most Americans.

The look and feel of the film was also very striking, even cinematic. Images of the Doctor in the shroud on his knees whilst it stormed outside and the spectacular TARDIS interior were unforgettable, and I was probably one of the few people in the whole world who actually liked John Debney’s pompous title music and score.

Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor was hard to gauge on such a short performance, but still showed flashes of the promise that has been borne out in his many audio adventures since. He came across as being a very energetic Doctor; more an amalgamation of all of his previous selves than a distinctive new incarnation. Of course, one thing that did set his Doctor apart on screen was his humanity; a concept made explicit by the reveal of his apparent pedigree. The Doctor’s mixed race went a long way to explaining his obsession with his “favourite planet”, Earth, despite being immaterial to the plot, rendering him a “knock-off Spock” as Kim Newman so succinctly put it. Less contentious was the Doctor’s evident clairvoyance, which again smacked of a page one rewrite, but at least did so in a charming fashion.

Eric Roberts’ Master was certainly imposing, and very well played, but he was much darker than the Master that we knew and loved from the classic series. The Master that we saw here was an evil reflection of the Doctor – whilst still playful, he was a selfish, hateful creature who thought only inwardly. Part Arnold Schwarzenegger and part Anthony Ainley, Roberts’ Master dominated almost every scene that he was in. To say that he was cast as a result of his repute and nationality as opposed to his suitability for the part, Roberts certainly did a sterling job of capturing both sides of the Doctor’s tortured rival.

For their part, Grace and Chang-Lee were two interesting nearly-companions. Daphne Ashbrook’s Dr Holloway might have stolen the limelight with that much-dissected kiss – a kiss that nowadays would scarcely be worthy of note – but Chang-Lang was even more remarkable, in my view. There were shades of both Ace and Turlough in the characterisation, only with more of an edge – it wasn’t until right at the death that the former gang member showed his true colours.

All told, whilst this movie may not have been everybody’s perfect idea of Doctor Who, for an eighty-minute slice it was pretty damn good. Abounding as it is with both dark and colourful characters and thrilling set pieces, even today it still stands up as being a brilliant little film - albeit an upscaled and high-pitched 4:3 one.

Part IV – What is… Again
A ‘Revisitation’ was welcome. Revisiting a Revisitation is less so. The only thing that this release offers beyond the freshly-upscaled TV Movie is “The Night of the Doctor” iPlayer minisode that preceded the series’ fiftieth anniversary special. It’s been released before, of course, and on the one Doctor Who Blu-ray that you’re most likely to have even if you only own one, but it’s still hard to knock The Day of the Doctor’s pocket-sized counterpoint.

Ostensibly the most incredible thing about this minisode was that it finally provided the eighth Doctor’s ardent following with the regeneration scene that they’d waited more than fifteen years to see. To put this in perspective, you have to consider the sheer enormity of the eighth Doctor’s multimedia empire – his long-lived incarnation shouldered more of the responsibility for keeping the franchise alive during its wilderness years than any other. He enjoyed one of the most successful comic strip runs of any Doctor within the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, while concurrently propping up a groundbreaking, seventy-book strong series of paperbacks. He has now appeared in the equivalent of at a dozen seasons’ worth of television stories in full-cast audio dramas, alongside actresses as renowned as Sheridan Smith and Ruth Bradley, and as loved as India Fisher. For the self-styled “George Lazenby” of Time Lords, the extra-curricular stuff is what really matters – this release’s two telly outings are just the bookends.

And it wasn’t just any regeneration that “The Night of the Doctor” showed us. Far removed from the innocuous bang on the head that we long thought had done for Old Sixy, or the ravages of old age that killed off the Doctor’s first incarnation, this was a little death that had been speculated about with great fervour ever since Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor alluded to his role in the Last Great Time War, and as such it would have had the impact of la petite mort even without the Sisters of the Flame’s iniquitous, fan-pleasing intervention or the veritable pipe bomb of the eighth Doctor not regenerating into the ninth. As it happened, though, Steven Moffat’s mesmerising master stroke cut right to the heart of a contradiction that had blazed throughout the revived series, irritating everyone from the fans in the forums to those such as Davros sat on the other side of the fictional divide. Whether it was in the name of peace or sanity or both, in the most destructive conflict in the history of creation, the pacifist Doctor committed double near-genocide – and he did so himself. Whatever labels subsequent incarnations would give to Eight’s successor, it was the eighth Doctor who made a conscious choice to eschew the trappings of his carefully-chosen title and be reborn as a warrior capable of ending the Time War. The duress might have been extreme, but nonetheless the “man who never would”, most definitively did.

And McGann was so bloody good in this short; so bloody intense. Having become so accustomed to hearing that RP-veiled velvet Scouse in isolation, it really took me aback to actually see him bounding out of the TARDIS, his daft wig and dress-up cowboy costume long-since lost in the trenches of Earth’s Great War. His presence was immediately persuasive, and as the story progressed it became powerful, eventually frightening. “The Night of the Doctor”, far more so than this Blu-ray’s title track, really showcased how brutally short-changed he and we were when it comes to television, while at the same time embracing and celebrating the aural icon that he’s become, as he ran through the most notable of his Big Finish companions in a last-gasp salute.


But 6:50 is all we get in true HD, and so as we turn to the bonus material proper, we turn inevitably to SD extras from 2001 and 2010. The unarguable highlight of the release is Ed Handling’s hour-long Seven Year Hitch documentary, which candidly charts Philip Segal’s quest to resurrect Doctor Who; the making of the movie; and its reception. This incredibly thorough piece scrutinises everything from Segal’s pre-cancellation courting of the Beeb to Coast-to-Coast’s Spock gambit and Segal’s desperate deployment of the Steven Spielberg card, even examining Segal’s role in the abandoning of Adrian Rigelsford’s mooted 30th anniversary special, The Dark Dimension, which would have been a Five Doctors-style carnival of companions and monsters led by a fourth Doctor who’d never regenerated - effectively the antithesis of what Segal proposed to do, looking back instead of forwards.

As well as politics, The Seven Year Hitch also looks at the writing of the TV Movie, which is as frightening as it is interesting. Some early drafts saw the Doctor travelling the universe with Cardinal Borusa, searching for the Doctor’s lost father, Ulysses! Fortunately Spielberg dismissed that particular script out of hand, and English writer Matthew Jacobs was brought in to write his “Doctor Who am I?” interpretation, which ultimately became the story of rebirth that we would eventually see on screen. Even then though, matters were not straightforward, as each interested party insisted on having their say, and Segal’s idea to have incumbent Doctor Sylvester McCoy reprise his role at the start of the movie was met with resistance from all quarters, almost leading to the stunt casting of a celebrity ‘old Doctor’ at one point. The casting of the principal Doctor was no less contentious, with actors as eclectic as Liam Cunningham; Michael Crawford; and even Michael Palin all in the frame before producer Jo Wright forced Segal to watch Withnail and I. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Wilderness Years is something of disappointment though. Though it does what it says on the tin and looks at how Doctor Who was kept alive during the hiatus, at just under twenty-five minutes everything is skirted over too quickly. Much of the running time is wasted talking about Doctor Who Magazine and its comic strip, which is explored in much greater depth in the Stripped for Action featurette, and the productions of Reeltime; BBV; and even the 30 Years in the TARDIS documentary are given more screen time than the Virgin New Adventures; BBC Books; and Big Finish. For me, it’s the latter trinity that the wilderness years were all about.

Conversely, The Doctor’s Strange Love is a surprisingly enjoyable eleven-minute feature that sees writers Joe Lidster and Simon Guerrier and comedienne Josie Long critique the TV Movie in a refreshingly good-natured manner, hence the Kubrick homage subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the TV Movie. Lidster draws some intriguing parallels with “Rose” and the revived series generally, whilst Guerrier makes some interesting structural comments that left me thinking how much better the film would have been had he been the script editor. Oddly though, it’s the layman who makes the most piercing observations. As fans of the series, Lidster and Guerrier’s views are largely as one would expect, whereas Long is continually pulling things out of leftfield. Her wry comments about Chang-Lee’s Stockholm Syndrome are especially amusing, for instance.

Adrift alone is the second instalment of the Who Peter documentary, “A New Regeneration”, which looks at the support given to the series by Blue Peter during the hiatus and following the series’ return. There is a lot of ground covered here, both before and after the resurrection, though it’s not something that I was terribly interested in.

Furthermore, as Revisitations 1 was the eighth Doctor’s final DVD release, by necessity it had to include his era’s instalments of both Stripped for Action and Tomorrow’s Times, both of which are carried over to the Blu-ray. The former is the apotheosis of the comic strip commentary series; it’s quite clear from watching it that the DVD producers had been desperate to talk about these seminal strips ever since they came up with the idea for Stripped for Action, and rightly so. Whilst I’ve never delved into the eighth Doctor’s graphic adventures, armed as they are with gay companions; Masters; Cybermen; and even nearly-regenerations, the general consensus seems to be that they represent a golden age for the DWM strip. The Radio Times adventures aren’t neglected either - fans of Stacy and Ssard will be pleased to see Transformers legend Lee Sullivan appearing to discuss his work. Tomorrow’s Times is altogether more painful, mind - Nicholas Courtney may make for a great anchorman, but as for the news he’s reading... oh boy.

The main feature is complemented by two commentary tracks. The most recent features Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann and is moderated by the voice of the Daleks and Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs. Whilst this doesn’t contain any shockers the like of that found within Geoffrey Sax’s lone commentary - for instance that he did the Dalek voices last-minute, and no-one in the production team “…knew what they sounded like,” hence their voices sounding so strange - it is far more entertaining than the director’s 2001 effort, possessing the feel of an informal podcast rather than a technical overview of the production. Sax’s original commentary is still preserved on the Blu-ray, however, together with all the other special features from 2001. The isolated score is still present and correct as are the two alternate takes, the BBC1 trailers and all the multifarious publicity material that showed up over here on either the BBC or the Sci-Fi Channel back in 1996. The original interviews, TARDIS tours and ‘electronic press kits’ are then married up with VFX tests from both June 1994 and March 1996, allowing viewers a telling glimpse of what might have been had Amblin’s infamous Spider Daleks seen the screen, as well as VFX build-ups from the actual movie.

Part V – What Will Be
When I looked at the Spearhead from Space Blu-ray, I noted that, were 2 | entertain minded to do so, entire seasons of the classic series could be released as they stand on Blu-ray in slim, two or three-disc sets with all the individual stories’ respective bonus material preserved thereto. Little did I realise that they’d end up going with a bastardised, money-spinning take on the idea, essentially just re-releasing the Revisitations 1 version of the TV Movie together with “The Night of the Doctor” as a poor man’s “Complete Eighth Doctor” with only a miniature disclaimer to dispel the common consumer misapprehension that Blu-ray = HD.

Thankfully the future lies in downloads, as the Beeb have finally realised, with its fledgling BBC Store proudly preparing to unveil its long-awaited reconstruction of The Power of the Daleks… and in full-colour, 16:9, HD too. I’ve a feeling there’ll be a less venomous Who review on the way very soon...

Doctor Who: The Movie is available on – upscaled! – Blu-ray from various online retailers, with today’s cheapest being Amazon, who are charging £13.50 with free delivery on orders over £20.00.