Hardcore fans are going to hate this box set. It’s a repackaging of stories they already have, bar one episode, and the regeneration stories aren’t always the best Doctor Whos either. So let’s accept this coffee-table DVD volume isn’t intended for them, it’s for the general public wanting something to remember all of the Doctors gone by in the 50th anniversary year. So "you’ve already got all the stories" goes away as an objection.
The second issue – that these aren’t all brilliant stories – is more serious. William Hartnell, the original Doctor, appears on fine form in The Tenth Planet, which introduces the Cybermen and works nicely enough; he was very ill by that time, though, so you get a bit of a cut-down Doctor, absent for an entire episode and then the whole episode is missing at the end. The soundtrack still exists so we get a nicely animated version (this is the one fans haven’t got) – nicely done enough but why not a whole story? The regeneration sequence at least is intact, just, although they’ve mostly substituted animation for that too. It’s historically accurate to say that Hartnell’s illness gave him a bit of a muted finish and that’s what we see here.
Patrick Troughton had other issues when they made The War Games. Other stories had fallen through so they had to stretch an already-thin story to 10 episodes. It’s thin and not a great end to an excellent Doctor but things pick up by episode 10; this is a seriously bleak finish to the second Doctor and it’s very effective as he plummets, apparently headless, towards...?
Jon Pertwee’s exit was in Planet of the Spiders, a fondly-remembered story with some nice Buddhist parallels. Pertwee goes out like a hero, facing the truth about himself and using an awful lot of vehicles in the process. A nice villain and some ropey rubber spiders (apparently they weren’t allowed to make them too realistic because of people’s phobias). The regeneration, when it happens, is simple but by today’s standards rather dull. It’s not the best Pertwee story but it’s up there.
For Tom Baker, we get Logopolis; an odd one in that it’s completely atypical of this particular Doctor. We remember Baker as bubbly and fun loving; the funereal air of this last story and the writer’s attempt to base it in some sort of science is either jarring or excellent depending on your point of view. Something more typical might have made for a better celebration. The same can’t be said for Peter Davison, whose Caves of Androzani is far and away the best story he ever made. He’s more of a bystander than a central player and the story is stronger for it. He finally gives his life to save his new companion and it’s a fitting (and for its time) spectacular end.
OK, here’s the thing: they sacked his successor, Colin Baker, who refused to come and do a regeneration story. So he’s represented here by Sylvester McCoy in a wig and Baker costume, regenerating after bumping his head on the console. The story, The Mark of the Rani, therefore has the regeneration at the beginning and a Doctor who really hasn’t found his feet. The story is simplistic, the support cast other than Kate O’Mara are lame. This isn’t a great story and it’s no great surprise the series was rested permanently within a couple of years.
It made a brief reappearance in 1996 with McCoy getting shot and regenerating into Paul McGann for a single story that failed to spawn a series; it’s not terrible but it’s not great and a lot of the story doesn’t make sense (why does the Master turn into a snake then insist on following the Doctor to Earth?) – McGann isn’t the problem but this isn’t a great entry into the series.
It returned in 2005 in the form we currently know it; Christopher Eccleston apparently realised he was in the wrong place immediately and left after a single season; this is a shame as he was superb and never better than in his last two-parter. We only knew the ninth Doctor briefly but it’s a jolt when he regenerates at the end of one of the best Dalek stories ever, which gets introduced through a series of game shows. This is a reinvigorated series, still playful and full of energy, with the emotional content high and credible.
David Tennant, meanwhile, faces Timothy Dalton as an evil Time Lord and John Simm as an even eviller Master, regenerating once more to save a friend but having a wince-inducing, self-indulgent farewell to all of his companions making the last 20 minutes rather cloying. Was that the Doctor saying goodbye or Russell T Davis showing off all he’d put together? It’s difficult to tell. He change into Matt Smith, and now we know this box set is going to be out of date by 2014 because Smitty’s off as well.
The stories have their moments and some – the modern stories and Caves in particular – are examples of the programme at its peak. The absence of regeneration stories for some of the Doctors makes the whole feel a bit less than the sum of its parts. As a walk through how they used to make TV over the decades it’s fascinating. Picture quality is uniformly excellent, they’ve done a particularly good job on the black and white episodes.
So, recommended if you can find it cheaply, but what a shame they didn’t just do a best-of collection so (for example) Colin Baker could have a proper programme in there.
EXTRAS ★★★ A very nice coffee table book. And precisely nothing else.