The idiom "swan song" derives from a proverbial belief that swans live mute lives, only bursting into beautiful song moments before dying. It's tempting to apply the term to the final hours of David Tennant's tenure as the Doctor on Doctor Who—as well as Russell T Davies, the departing executive producer—but if there's one thing Tennant and Davies haven't been over their respective four and six years working on the show, it's mute. In developing his revamp of the long-running science-fiction adventure series (1963-1989), Davies dialed up the speed on The Doctor's trademark smart mouth, and in inheriting the role of the Doctor from one-season-wonder Chris Eccleston, Tennant proved a perfect match for Davies' cheeky style.
Non-initiates may well assume that each new actor spells a complete reboot for the series, but turnover is built into the premise of the show: the Doctor is of an alien race called the Time Lords, who have the ability to completely regenerate their bodies upon "death" (unlike the proverbial cat, Time Lords have thirteen lives). Tennant is the tenth official Doctor, having been preceded by William Hartnell (1963-1966), Patrick Troughton (1966-1969), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davison (1981-1984), Colin Baker (1984-1986), Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989), Paul McGann (in the one-off 1996 telefilm), and Eccleston (2005). The series' original incarnation was designed as a children's entertainment, with the Doctor's time-traveling adventures incorporating a semi-educational component in trips to ancient civilizations. But soon the series became better known for its scary creatures (most of them rubber-masked) that would send children hiding behind the couch; the most famous of these were the pepper-pot-shaped Daleks and the cyborg Cybermen.
The Davies' era paid homage to the original series' monster madness and gradual embrace of humor, amplifying them to the modern tastes of a culture defined by American movie blockbusters. More humor, more romance, more action, CGI and scarier monsters giddily exceeded the infamously chintzy production values of the original run. Davies, and especially Tennant, made Doctor Who more catchy than campy with their mutual joie de vivre. He still travels in a time machine that outwardly appears to be a London police box (circa 1963), but the 906-year-old Time Lord doesn't look a day over 35, and acts more like a teenager (the show is still kid-friendly). Davies' stories have a keen sense of the tragic to go with their keen sense of humor; to balance the jokey fun, Davies and Tennant take seriously the consequences of the Doctor's power—on others and on his own psyche. To see out the Tennant era in style, the actor and his boss agreed to a series of specials to culminate in the Tenth Doctor's regeneration. Those recently aired specials are now collected in the home-video set Doctor Who: The Complete Specials.
"The Next Doctor" This Christmas special takes place in 1851 London, where femme fatale Miss Mercy Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan) colludes with the Cybermen to raise hell. The Doctor is most surprised to discover there's already a "Doctor" on the case. David Morrissey plays a man who inexplicably seems to be the Doctor, complete with "faithful companion" (Velile Tshabalala's Rosita), sonic screwdriver, and TARDIS (the time machine with an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space). It's a typically wild Davies-penned romp, distinguished by the Dickensian milieu, the introduction of a new breed of Cyber-beast called a Cybershade, and plenty of fast-paced action. The episode particularly excels, though, in the drama (and humor) surrounding the presence of two Doctors. Morrissey—oft-rumored in recent years to be in the running for the role of the Doctor—is great casting; he's game for all the role requires.
"Planet of the Dead" For my full review, click here.
"The Waters of Mars" find The Doctor stumbling into history, albeit history still in our future. At Mars' Bowie Base One in 2059, the first human colony conducts research. But just as the Doctor arrives, they run afoul of a water-based infestation that mortally threatens the skeleton crew and, potentially, Earth. Davies and co-writer Phil Ford have a fascinating and poignant premise here, as the Doctor wrestles with his understanding that he shouldn't intervene in the tragedy unfolding around him—but how can he not? What good is a useless hero? An even more disturbing question arises: might it be more heroic to stand by and let people die? Lindsay Duncan (Rome) turns in a strong performance as the colony's leader, Captain Adelaide Brooke, who quickly takes to her mysterious visitor and his obvious knowledge of the new enemy she faces (dubbed "the flood"). Anyone will appreciate the episodes' wit (Brooke: "State your name rank and intention." The Doctor: "The Doctor. Doctor. Fun.") and dramatic weight, and fans will dig the tie-in to classic episode "The Ice Warriors."
"The End of Time, Part One" and "The End of Time, Part Two" constitute an epic adventure in keeping with Davies' epochal season finales. Earth is once more faced with a dire threat, as the Doctor's Time Lord nemesis the Master (John Simm of State of Play) aims to wipe out humanity to make more room for himself (literally, in a bizarre plot that must be seen to be believed). But even as they are locked in desperate combat, the Doctor and the Master discover that they are both in the sights of a yet greater enemy with the power to lay waste to time itself. Doctor Who stories don't get any bigger than this one, which deals not only with a huge threat to our own planet, but also major developments within the series' sci-fi mythology. Tennant and Simm are on top of their respective games, and they get tremendous assists from a supporting cast that includes Timothy Dalton, Catherine Tate (as the Doctor's former companion Donna Noble), and a trio of familiar old-age pensioners: June Whitfield, Barry Howard and Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott (among Cribbins' many credits is the 1966 Doctor Who feature film Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD). You'd best believe Davies has some eye-wetting surprises in store for the final moments of Tennant's Doctor, before he regenerates into Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith.
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials is a more-than-welcome addition to the Blu-ray libraries of science-fiction nuts. Though the tech specs aren't as thrilling as some other titles, these episodes look mighty fine in hi-def, especially to those accustomed to seeing the Doctor fight alien menaces in low-def for lo these many years. All five specials are presented in 1080i high definition, with "The Next Doctor" upgraded from standard to high definition (this special was produced before the series changed over to HD production). The results are pleasing on all fronts: "The Next Doctor" looks surprisingly good, and—not surprisingly—"Planet of the Dead," "The Waters of Mars," and "The End of Time, Part One" and "Part Two" look even better. With each special getting its own platter, there's more than enough disc space devoted to the image: picture quality is sharp and colorful, with a nicely deep black level, and I was never distracted by any digital blemishes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes likewise won't put American movie blockbusters to shame, but they still offer substantial juice in putting over the action-packed effects and galloping musical scores.
Bonus features are extensive, with the show pieces being the Doctor Who Confidential shows narrated by Anthony Head. Each special gets (as indeed does every episode of the series) one of these amazingly detailed behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of the story. These specials, produced in standard-def, are up-converted to 1080i HD.
"The Next Doctor Confidential" (55:33, HD) features interviews with head writer Russell T Davies, David Tennant, executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Susie Liggat, David Morrissey, director Andy Goddard, lasso trainer Guido Louis, Cyber Shade Ruari Mears, special effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves, Paul Kasey, Dervla Kirwan, stunt co-ordinator Tom Lucy, 1st assistant director Richard Harris, Tom Langford, and Velile Tshabalala. In addition to production secrets, the show includes a brief history of the Cybermen illustrated with through-the-years clips, a survey of sketch-show spoofs of Doctor Who, and an explanation from Davies of why the vertical is more exciting than the horizontal
Also on the first disc is the terrific "Doctor Who at the Proms" (59:10, SD), which preserves for posterity the first-ever Doctor Who Prom. Filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in July 2008, the concert of Murray Gold's music for the series is hosted by Freema Agyeman (a.k.a. Martha Jones). The BBC Philharmonic and London Philharmonic Choir (conducted by Ben Foster) do the performing honors, and there are guest stars, from famous monsters to Catherine Tate (a.k.a. Donna Noble). Best of all, the concert incorporated the brand-new Doctor Who adventure "Music of the Spheres," written by Russell T Davies, and starring David Tennant and "a mischievous Graske."
"Planet of the Dead Confidential" (57:02, HD) tells the complete story of the episode's production, with a bit of commentary about the show's artistic intentions but a main focus on the production challenges of shooting in Dubai. The producers must troubleshoot an especially daunting setback: what to do when your double-decker bus is crushed in transit? Interviewees include Davies, Tennant, Michelle Ryan, Lee Evans, Adam James, Kasey, director James Strong, Gardner, production designer Edward Thomas, producer Tracie Simpson, chief supervising art director Stephen Nicholas, set decorator Julian Luxton, production manager Debbi Slater, location manager Gareth Skelding, Hargreaves, make-up designer Barbara Southcott, make-up supervisor Pam Mullins, sound recordist Julian Howarth, and prosthetics designer Neill Gorton.
"The Waters of Mars Confidential" (57:57, HD) interviews Davies, Gardner, Tennant, Duncan, producer Nikki Wilson, co-writer Phil Ford, director Graeme Harper, Gorton, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Peter O'Brien, Thomas, special effects supervisor Paul Kelly, Aleksandar Mikic, Michael Goldsmith, Cosima Shaw, choreographer Ailsa Berk, Alan Ruscoe, Hargreaves, and stunt co-ordinator Abbi Collins.
"The End of Time, Part One Confidential" (57:03, HD) sits down Davies, Tennant, Simm, Gardner, producer Peter Bennett, director Euros Lyn, Jacqueline King, Bernard Cribbins, June Whitfield, Sinead Keenan, Lachele Carl, Tracy Ifeachor, and Thomas, while "The End of Time, Part Two Confidential" (56:53, HD) includes chats with Tennant, Davies, Lyn, Keenan, Cribbins, Bennett, Thomas, Ifeachor, Timothy Dalton, Simm, and Gardner.
"The End of Time, Part One" also comes with audio commentary with David Tennant, Catherine Tate and director Euros Lyn, while "Part Two" features an audio commentary with Tennant, John Simm and Lyn.
In keeping with previous season sets on DVD, we get a video diary by the series' star. "David Tennant Video Diary - The Final Days" (40:41, SD) is a thorough and poignant accounting of Tennant's feelings and thoughts, from the first table read of the specials to his last day of shooting.
"Doctor Who BBC Christmas Idents" (:52, SD) are a very welcome glimpse at the series' promotion on its home shores, and in "Doctor Who at Comic-Con" (21:06, HD), we get a front-row seat as Tennant, Davies, John Barrowman, Gardner, and Lyn take San Diego by storm.
Lastly, we get a montage of "Deleted Scenes with Introduction from Russell T Davies" (17:16, HD), covering the specials in the set.
Fans will not be disappointed in this five-disc set, and we can only hope more classic Who will be upconverted to the format even as new episodes continue to roll out on Blu-ray.
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