November 18, 2007

The DIY Doctor Who DVD Guide

Once geek-du-jour, now it is considered one of the greatest franchises in current popular culture. It has left the back streets of PBS late night to the relatively mainstream Sci-Fi Channel. It's also the mainstay of British popular culture, weaving its way into the cultural fabric in a similar way that Star Trek has integrated itself into American pop culture.

I'm talking, of course, about Doctor Who, which is one of the few "franchises" (and I hate that word) which is surviving - and flourishing - well in the early 21st century. But for many, it's difficult to know where to start - after all, the show is equal parts H.G. Welles' The Time Machine as well as basic adventure story, meaning that it has a very flexible format. This means any type of story can be told - from space opera to alien invasion, from historical drama to fantasy. (By later introducing the concept of regeneration, the lead role could be recast, often resulting in different personalities driving the story lines). In fact, the only American counterpart I can think of is the 1960's soap opera Dark Shadows...but that's not the focus of this post.

In an attempt to help smooth the transition, this is a quick-and-dirty-but-not-comprehensive guide to Doctor Who DVDs to watch. (earlier, I linked to an infographic that discusses Who in depth, and is worth a quick look) It's not meant to be the final word - certainly, key episodes will be accidentally omitted - but it's a great starting point. (The best entry point for those who are completely new would be, ironically, the 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston. It can be seen on many local PBS stations - including Channel 11 in Chicago - and introduces all of the key concepts of the Doctor Who "mythology" in an easy-to-digest manner). (Plus, fellow blogger Siskoid has assembled this handy guide to the series, and Atomic Anxiety provides a great alternative list for Who). In addition, why not check out the online Bar Tab of Rassilon show that I co-host - please feel free to join us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BarTabofRassilon.

But in terms of "classic" Who, here are some key discs/sets to consider - at the very least, consider using Netflix to "try before you buy" (and if you order from this page, I get a small percentage to offset domain and other blog-related costs):

William Hartnell, the First Doctor - the Doctor as crotchety, misanthropic old man. The series was initially meant to be for children only, so many of these stories reflect that.
  • In The Beginning - a three disc boxed set that contains Hartnell's first three stories, including the first Dalek story
  • The Aztecs - a prescient tale about cultural acceptance and interfering in history
  • Dalek Invasion of Earth - a "sequel" to the first Dalek story and a gritty tale of invasion
  • The Time Meddler - the first attempt to meld historical and science fiction....and a harbinger of things to come
  • The War Machines - although not perfect, it's a good "contemporary" story that signposts the later UNIT era; more details can be found in this review
Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor - the Doctor as "cosmic hobo", and often under appreciated by Who fans (including myself). Like Hartnell, many of his stories are "missing" from the BBC Vaults, (see "The Missing Years" documentary in the Lost In Time collection. However, most Troughton stories on DVD are worth watching, including
Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor - the Doctor as James Bond. Initially starting in exile on Earth, the series began moving towards a "golden age". However, many stories are equally cheesy, so discretion is advised.
  • Spearhead from Space - the best post-regeneration/alien invasion story (and available in Blu-Ray July 2013
  • The Silurians - an excellent morality tale, and also included in the Beneath the Surface boxed set
  • Inferno- a great mix of technothriller, parallel universes (a first for DW), and green ape men.
  • Terror of the Autons - the introduction of the Master, the first full-on UNIT story, and a personal favorite
  • Day of the Daleks - Now in "special edition" form, it's included only because it was my first ever Who story. A sentimental favorite.
  • The Three Doctors - the first multi-Doctor story
  • Carnival of Monsters - Robert Holmes' first "great" script
  • The Green Death - an eco-friendly tale that, remarkably, improves with age (having rewatched it after this initial post, I have to say...my opinion of this episode has improved) 
  • Invasion of the Dinosaurs - Don't let the title or special effects fool you - this is one of the sharpest, most socially-minded stories of the classic era. 
Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor - the Doctor as moody, bohemian eccentric, and much like William Shatner and Star Trek, the actor most identified with the role. His first three years are considered classic; his final four not so much.

  • Genesis of the Daleks - a classic about morality and ethics - and possibly the best Dalek story ever
  • Pyramids of Mars - A heady brew of Hammer-style horror and science fiction
  • The Deadly Assassin- Part political thriller, part science fiction adventure, a major game-changer in Who
  • Robots of Death - Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None with robots
  • Talons of Weng-Chiang - Robert Holmes' finest hour, and the closest we'll get to the Doctor meeting Sherlock Holmes. It's also my personal favorite Who story.
  • Image of the Fendahl - With its overtones of both Quatermass & the Pit and H.P. Lovecraft, this is one of the creepiest Who stories ever made.
  • City of Death - maybe the best Doctor Who - classic or modern - ever made (more specific comments can be found here) Plus, a cameo from John Cleese
  • Shada - although the story might not be the best, the 3-DVD set is worth owning for the great 1993 documentart More Than 30 Years In the TARDIS
  • Logopolis - a multi-layered swan song for Baker's Doctor; part of the New Beginnings boxed set
Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor - the Doctor as vulnerable, nice guy who made mistakes. Here's where the writing gets somewhat spottier, but there are some choice nuggets.
  • Castrovalva - A pretty good regeneration story and part of the New Beginnings set
  • The Visitation- It's a mix of science fiction and history (typical DW fare), but done with a little bit of a kick
  • Earthshock - an excellent reboot/revamp of an old enemy
  • Kinda/Snakedance - both of these stories, written by Christopher Bailey, have strong metaphorical themes and are a bit challenging to watch, but definitely worth the time.
  • The Five Doctors - Created for the show's 20th anniversary, this double disc set (with both the televised and 'special editions" are as close to continuity porn as Doctor Who ever got.
  • Caves of Androzani - the best regeneration story, bar none.
Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor - the Doctor as belligerent-yet-lovable blowhard. Due to BBC politics at the time, as well as spotty writing, Colin Baker had way too short a season, but fortunately, Big Finish has some audio productions that utilize the character well.
  • Vengeance on Varos - A sharply written satire, and the best-written Colin Baker story (and that is said with very mixed feelings)
  • Attack of the Cybermen- Although a little continuity-heavy, the first 45 minutes are really strong. A very underrated story.
  • Revelation of the Daleks - one of the few later Dalek stories that packs a total punch.
  • The Two Doctors - a swan song for both Robert Holmes (as screenwriter) and Patrick Troughton (who passed soon after the making of this story) 
  • Trial of a Time Lord - A little too politically (at least, in BBC terms) allegorical, but worth a revisit.
Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor - the Doctor as dark-hearted, manipulative clown. Just as the stories were beginning to get better, the show was canceled. Don't let that stop you. 
  • Remembrance of the Daleks - a great anniversary story, bringing back the mystery of the Doctor...and has just been released in a special edition
  • Battlefield - Nicholas Courtney's final outing as Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and will be highlighted in a future Comic Related column.
  • Survival - the "final" classic Doctor Who story, which helps the series go out with a bang (albeit a slightly melancholy bang)
Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor - the Doctor as Byronic hero. Although my initial opinion left much to be desired, I was surprised that the recent DVD has encouraged me to reconsider my position slightly, especially since the special edition DVD has really great special features. I also suggest checking out Big Finish, who has done superb audios featuring the 8th Doctor.

Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor - the Doctor as PTSD survivor. His only season is available on DVD, and is a great jumping-on point for new fans...and a nice, gentle reminder for older fans.

David Tennant - the Tenth Doctor - the Davy-Jones-on-espresso Doctor: All of Tennant's episodes, including the "gap year" specials, are available on DVD

Matt Smith - the Eleventh Doctor: All of Matt Smith's seasons and specials are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Peter Capaldi - the Twelfth Doctor: Series 8 is available on DVD and Blu Ray.

 Want to purchase any of these fine products? Simply visit the "Doctor Who DVDs" page of our online Amazon store, or use the search widget below to find your preferred item. You can also find various classic and new series stories available via streaming services like Hulu and Netflix.

Thanks for visiting, dear readers, and always remember - a "sonic screwdriver" is not Seven-Up and orange juice.