For as long as I’ve been buying DVDs, the schedule of upcoming titles had always included a new release of a classic Doctor Who serial from the BBC. The first in the range was “The Five Doctors” back in 1999 (which is before I even had my first DVD player), and they have kept on coming with the inevitability of a change in seasons right through until the start of 2014. At which point they stopped, with “The Moonbase” and the newly-recovered “The Web of Fear” being the last remaining stories in the archives from 1963-1996 to be released onto home media. Quite simply, there are no more (save for one recently rediscovered orphaned episode of “The Undersea Menace”.)
It was the end of an era, and I don’t mind admitting that ever since then I’ve been missing the presence of any classic Doctor Who titles from the ‘new titles’ shelf in my local store. Over the years I’ve bought pretty much every one of them, over 100 in total: some of them immediate must-buy stories, others that have waited until they were on sale, but in the end there’s not a single one I didn’t pick up eventually – even the ‘double dip’ special edition releases. There are a few Doctor Who stories that are actually quite terrible and that I would have been tempted to skip, except for the way the producers behind the DVD range always managed to pack each and every one of their discs with such impressive special features that even these releases became more than worthwhile.
The problem is that with so many special features scattered over so many discs, it’s hard to remember what and where they all are unless you go trawling through each of the leaflets included with the DVDs. It’s fine if you’re just looking for a specific story or an extra such as a cast commentary firmly related to a certain serial, but harder with some of the more abstract features (“What is VidFire?”) or with some of the features that are stripped across multiple titles (such as the history of UNIT, the way Doctor Who has been covered in the press or how the character has been represented in comic book adaptations) or for pinning down all of the special features to which a someone has contributed to over the 15 years.
What’s really needed is a thorough single point of cross-referencing, and that’s exactly what Paul Smith has produced with his new book The Classic Doctor Who DVD Compendium. It contains details of each and every classic DVD release laid out in title alphabetical order but also with additional cross-indexing appendices for common subjects or topics. It’s clearly a labour of love for Smith for whom no detail is too small to escape his attention – he points up flaws in certain DVD releases that I wasn’t even aware of despite owning the DVD itself, which multi-title boxsets have featured a given story, and even lists the topics covered in the various ‘making of’ featurettes in the series.
Some of this can get a little repetitive if the book is read in a conventional sense as the details of the discs often overlap in some areas (how much it cost, from where and how the episodes were mastered, common features like production subtitles) but it means that every entry is complete in and of itself which is far more important. As well as making a handy point of reference for all the special features it also contains previously hard-to-find information about who wrote and created the extras and also what Easter eggs are available on each disc and how to find them – which is especially useful for the perennially lazy such as myself who are disinclined to go hunting for them. It all kicks off with an entertaining essay giving the history of the DVD range and details of the restoration team behind so much of the sparking improvement work that’s been done to rejuvenate the episodes for release. (I recently saw “Planet of Evil” aired on the Horror Channel and then checked out the DVD version and the improvement in audio and picture quality was simply astonishing. It’s easy to take for granted and forget, but it really is quite something and has helped push forward the frontiers of technology in film restoration.)
I expect that by now you’ll have a pretty good idea if The Classic Doctor Who DVD Compendium is the sort of geek-tastic kind of thing for you or not. If it is, rest assured that this is a wonderfully executed project from Smith, and that it’s the kind of reference book that I didn’t know I needed until approximately two minutes after I started using it – at which point it became indispensable.
As a niche product, the paperback version is only available through Amazon.co.uk’s ‘print to order’ service rather than through regular bookstores (which is entirely understandable, but a bit of a shame.) However, the electronic version is available in most ebook formats from the usual sources including Kindle and iBook although I admit I was initially somewhat reluctant: while fine for novels from start to finish, I’ve always found e-readers rather clumsy for the sort of book that you skip around in, following a strand from one point to another, jumping back and forward and generally looking things up in a non-linear fashion.
However the ebook of The Classic Doctor Who DVD Compendium is not impaired in the slightest, thanks to Smith having put a lot of thought into the copious hyperlinks to make it possible to skip through as your fancy takes you just like the paper version. Every link goes to where you expect (and need it to) rather than frustratingly depositing you unhelpfully in the vague vicinity which is the case with so many books from big publishers who don’t really care about this sort of thing and just see it as a minor adjunct to their main business of printed books. As a result I’d say the ebook version (with all its search functions as well) might even be the better one to go for – not to mention quick to download and slightly cheaper. However, it is nice to have the option of the printed copy too.
If you have all (or nearly all) of the classic Doctor Who DVD releases then this should simply be considered an outright essential purchase. If you don’t have all the DVDs but are in the process of picking them up a title at a time then this is actually a wonderful guide to have with you to help guide your purchasing, thanks to its ‘Worth watching’ analyses for each release which manage to find good points in even the worst of the serials (“Timelash”, I’m looking at you!) which is charmingly upbeat compared with the usual fan-led picky criticism you see around.
Most of all, on every page you’ll find some mention of a story or a fabulous extra that you’d forgotten all about and now can’t wait to see again or for the first time. That makes it a terrific way of reviving your love and interest in your DVD collection, and is an invaluable addition to anyone remotely interested in Doctor Who home media and indeed Who in general.
Available on paperback from Amazon.co.uk print on demand services, and on various e-book formats from August 1 2014.
Want a second opinion? Read an equally enthusiastic review from Starburst Magazine by JR Southall.