The history of classic Doctor Who on DVD goes back to a time before I even had a DVD player. The first story released on the medium was 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” in November 1999. After that, there was a new serial available every two or three months as regular as clockwork. Picking up the latest release became part of the turn of the wheel of time, as reliably comforting as spring following winter.
Alas all good things eventually come to an end. The final regular release was “Terror of the Zygons” in September 2013, at which point all the existing stories had been faithfully issued. There was an epilogue when “The Underwater Menace” was released in October 2015 after the retrieval of previously lost material; another rediscovered serial (“The Enemy of the World”) previously issued in bare bones fashion as part of the regular DVD run earned itself a special edition in March 2018 (one can only hope that the same thing will eventually happen to “The Web of Fear”.)
But in general it seemed that the BBC had finally run out of ideas for how to ‘monetise’ the classic Doctor Who serials on an ongoing basis. Experiments in reconstructing lost (“The Power of the Daleks”) or never completed (“Shada“) stories followed in 2016 and 2017 respectively but the increased production costs apparently failed to be met by the hoped-for sales, and so they became one-offs rather than a sustainable model for more releases.
However, the latest attempt to revive the revenue stream came this month with Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 12, a Blu-ray collection of five stories from the 1974-75 series. It’s a fairly obvious attempt to get fans to ‘double dip’ and pay for material they’ve already purchased in another format, but that’s not to say that a lot of thought and effort and evident love hasn’t gone into the project.
The choice of which stories to trial the new approach with is a canny one: it’s the first season that starred Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, surely the most iconic incarnation of the Time Lord. The opening story “Robot” might be somewhat average, but it has a special place in the annals of the show as Baker’s maiden outing in the role. After that we have “The Ark in Space” and “Genesis of the Daleks” which frequently appear in fans’ top ten lists of all time favourite stories. Then there’s “The Sontaran Experiment” which is something of an oddity but with a lot of appeal nonetheless. Only “Revenge of the Cybermen” can be considered below-par, and even that has a particular claim to fame as the first Doctor Who story ever released on home media, on VHS back in October 1983.
All of the stories are already available on DVD of course. However an innovation for this release means that it is being presented as a proper boxset in the modern sense, consisting of a full series of the show rather than coming out as individual stories in haphazard order as happened with the DVD and VHS lines. This change is reflected in the title of the boxset – Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 12 – which itself will likely outrage old time fans with its use of the American-style ‘season’ rather than the British ‘series’. The fact that it’s ‘season 12’ is also striking since the classic series has never used that numbering system before; not only does it hint to a long-term release schedule, it also suggests that BBC Worldwide is cannily piggybacking on the most recent Capaldi boxset which was ‘Complete Series 10’ – leaving space for Jodie Whittaker’s Series (or Season?) 11 perhaps. For most people though it will probably just be either confusing or infuriating, and I rather think the American title Doctor Who – Tom Baker: Season 1 would have been a safer bet. But there you are, nobody even asked me.
The makers of this new release have gone to great lengths to ensure that all the original DVD special features have been ported across to the Blu-ray set, with improvements to the material where possible such as new stereo mixes and options to view scenes with updated FX. Obvious gaps in the DVD presentations (missing ‘making of’ featurettes for example) have been produced, together with an all-new in-depth interview with Tom Baker. There’s a “Gogglebox’ style feature in which stars from the show watch, react and comment upon scenes from 1975, and a documentary feature setting the season in the context of the news and other television fare that was on at the time (although the swooping and panning around a CGI corridor wallpapered with pages from the Radio Times could induce motion sickness if watched in one sitting.)
The limited edition release also goes to great lengths with its premium packaging, consisting of specially commissioned artwork. It comes in a proper hard box and is accompanied by a full colour booklet – not unlike the way the 21st century series boxsets were originally presented in 2006/7. That was before the BBC lost interest, the latest Capaldi season being shoved out in a standard plastic case without even so much as a leaflet telling viewers which episodes were on which disc. (Yes, I’m still grumbling about that.)
Whether all this really justifies a ‘double dip’ purchase will be very much a personal choice. For me, the thing that tipped me over the edge was the inclusion of an omnibus edition of “Genesis of the Daleks” which hasn’t been seen since it was broadcast as a Christmas treat in 1975. I was interested to see how it had been cut down, whether the speeding up of the story proved to be a positive or a negative (broadly speaking I’d say the former: for one thing, no giant clams) and how it would feel to see such a familiar classic in a modified format.
Overall it seems like the release has indeed been quite a success: online retailers started selling out of the boxset even before the official twice-delayed release date. Three weeks after its release and it is now impossible to buy copies anywhere, online or on the high street. If it didn’t overachieve its sales objectives then BBC Worldwide only have themselves to blame for not distributing more copies in the first place.
However, I admit I’m less convinced whether this will prove to be a new dawn for classic Doctor Who. Mainly my doubts revolve around the medium itself: by all accounts, the days of physical media are very much on the wane, with people these days seemingly opting for on-demand streaming services. Personally I prefer something I can hold in my hands and display proudly on my shelf, but I know that mindset is becoming passé and just for us old fogeys. Instead, the BBC’s recent experiment broadcasting Who on the gaming platform Twitch seems more likely to be the way of things in the future, and it did indeed prove surprisingly successful and popular.
The choice of Blu-ray raises another problem with this revenue stream reboot. The format was created to allow High Definition home media releases at a much higher quality than DVD; but the problem here is that the central material on Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 12 is standard definition, and not even exactly the highest SD quality. Only location material was shot on film (and 16mm at that) and could conceivably be remastered in higher definition, but there is nothing that can be done about the studio sequences which were shot on video and therefore exist only at 625-line resolution.
The team behind the new boxset have made the decision not to remaster the film elements – it would probably cost too much to do that especially since it would involve essentially reconstructing the episode to piece it back together. It would also just make the difference between the location and studio sequences even more jarring. Instead they just push the existing DVD masters through an upscaling process with generally indifferent results. If you’ve viewed the DVDs on your Blu-ray player in the past then they’ve probably already been through an on-the-fly upscaling process and so you’ll see very little difference, although at least it smooths out some of the more obvious compression artefacts from the DVD encoding.
Every classic story has the same flaw when it comes to HD, with the exception of “Spearhead from Space”. Through a quirk of production at the time, that 1970 story was shot entirely on film and was therefore perfect for a full high definition remaster which came out in July 2013, and rather fine it is too. But for all the other serials, it means that fans really aren’t going to get much in the way of a quality bump from the move to Blu-ray. You have to ask whether it’s worth paying out for another copy of what you already have plus a few upgraded extras.
As I said above, your decision on this matter will be down to you and an entirely personal one. I certainly don’t begrudge paying out for Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 12 but I remain largely unconvinced whether I will buy any more releases in this line, assuming that they are actually forthcoming; it will depend on the stories in the specific release and what the new material consists of, and I’ll need some persuading. On the other hand, if you haven’t already got the original stories on DVD yet: are you insane? And – what are you you waiting for?
Robot: ★ ★ ★
The Ark in Space: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Sontaran Experiment: ★ ★ ★
Genesis of the Daleks: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Revenge of the Cybermen: ★ ★ 1/2
Collection: ★ ★ ★ ★
Note: There are some production faults on two of the discs in the Blu-ray set. One episode of “The Sontaran Experience” has a malformed audio track which makes it very difficult to hear. There are also several flaws on “Revenge of the Cybermen” ranging from the mildly irksome typo of an actor’s name in the credits to certain FX sequences being omitted. The BBC is running a disc replacement service if you email their DVD Support Team.
Doctor Who – The Collection – Season 12 was released in the UK on July 9, but very quickly sold out and is no longer available from standard retailers. A new release, possibly without the limited edition packaging, may eventually be forthcoming but is yet to be announced or confirmed.