If you're a fan of the new Doctor Who series but haven't ever quite gotten into the classic version, then you've got a unique opportunity to correct that oversight right now. Some of the best classic Doctor Who stories are being re-released in specially remastered "special editions" — including the story that fans voted in 2009 was the best Who adventure of all time, including the new series.
Yes, better than "Blink."
These new "special editions" of classic Doctor Who are good news for fans of the new series for a couple of reasons:
1) They're beautifully remastered with a ton of special features that help you learn just what was going on when these shows were made, so if you've got a nice big TV screen, they'll look pretty beautiful. We're probably never going to get a collection of classic Doctor Who on Blu-ray, like what Star Trek: The Next Generation is getting, so these remastered episodes are the next best thing.
2) Now that these special editions are out, fans will be selling off the earlier, non-special releases — which means if you don't care either way, you can pick up feature-poor versions of these stories for cheap at your local used DVD store.
And these stories do happen to be among the absolute best of the classic series — they were the first to be released on DVD, back when the DVD extras were less lavish and the restoration process was slightly less high-tech, and that's why they're getting a new go-round today. The stories already available in the U.S. in special editions are "Tomb of the Cybermen" (1967), "The Three Doctors" (1973), "Robots of Death" (1977), "Talons of Weng-Chiang" (1977), "Caves of Androzani" (1984) and "Remembrance of the Daleks" (1988). Plus the 1996 TV movie. And "Carnival of Monsters" (1973) is coming next month.
The stories yet to appear in the U.S., but already out in the U.K., are "Seeds of Death" (1969), "Spearhead From Space" (1970), "Resurrection of the Daleks" (1984) and "Vengeance on Varos" (1985). (Also, the "Key to Time" season from 1978 came out in special editions, years ago, and there's also a fancy anniversary edition of "The Five Doctors" from about five years ago.)
These special editions aren't exactly cheap — I'm lucky enough to get review copies for free, but they seem to be retailing for anywhere from $25 to $30 each, for one story. Even more expensive than the original releases of these stories, in other words. So I wouldn't recommend that most fans who already own "The Three Doctors" on DVD run out and buy the special editions, even if you're able to get a few bucks by selling off your old copy.
These new special editions are worthwhile for super die-hard fans, and quite possibly for people who don't have these stories on DVD yet. At the very least, if you've never seen "Tomb of the Cybermen" or "Robots of Death," you should try to rent these new special editions. These stories are classics for a reason, and they've never looked better than they do now. The people who restore old Doctor Who stories for DVD, the Restoration Team, are fanatics, and they've gotten immensely better at their jobs over the past 15 years or so.
Here's how their website describes the painstaking work they went to for one of these releases:
For the re-issue 'The Caves of Androzani', we tackled the job from scratch, going back to the transmission masters and putting them through our standard Transform PAL decode, grade and noise reduce workflow, with full audio restoration. Prints of the film sequences were held in private hands and once again a modern Spirit transfer used to replace the unstable, noisy and poor resolution examples in the transmission masters. Unfortunately, a dissolve from a film sequence back to studio was inadvertently missed in one episode, resulting in the film running a couple of seconds longer than it should and ending in a cut rather than the dissolve intended by the director.
Not all of these stories are classics on quite the same level, though — you can make a case that "The Three Doctors" is historic but not a particularly great story, and "Talons of Weng-Chiang" is a bit overrated even apart from its weird racial caricatures. And "Vengeance on Varos?" Has its moments, I guess. But still, collectively these stories present a look at what was great about old-school Doctor Who, including the sense of atmosphere and "BBC period drama" aesthetics. There's a nice amount of menace and creepiness in stories like "Tomb" and "Robots," in particular.
And both "Tomb" and "Robots" manage to ask vital, interesting questions about our relationship to technology and what it means to be human — both stories look, in very different ways, at the ways humans try to make use of mechanized humanoids for our own ends. (And yes, I know the Cybermen are cyborgs, not robots.) Both "Tomb" and "Robots of Death" feature a human villain who identifies with the Cybermen or the slave robots, and wants to become joined with them — and in typical Doctor Who morality-tale fashion, this never turns out well. Finally, these stories (along with some of the others listed above) show just how much Doctor Who owed to classic horror films, including Hammer horror.
So what about the extras? There are a lot of them, and some of them are highly disposable — but there are some nice things as well. In particular, there's a lot more "making of" material than on the earlier DVD releases, including half-hour featurettes about each story. These sometimes tend to get a bit bogged down in repetitive anecdotes, but there's also a nice amount of insight into just what the people making this show were up against, and how they struggled to deliver something decent with huge time and budgetary constraints. Plus "Robots of Death" has a brand new commentary track that reunites the Doctor (Tom Baker) with his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) — and it's always a pleasure to listen to those two riff off each other. You get to find out how William Hartnell's appearance in "The Three Doctors" was scaled back, and what sort of pranks were played on the set of "Tomb of the Cybermen."
And you can find out just how badly Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton failed to get along during "The Three Doctors."
And some of the other featurettes are fun as well.
Like "Was Doctor Who Rubbish," a featurette on the "Three Doctors" set, in which fans defend the classic show from accusations of wobbly sets, cheap monsters and bad acting.
And this bit, where Matthew Sweet explains how the paperback novelizations were the closest you could come to owning these stories on DVD back in the day, and reads a particularly evocative bit of Cyberman lore.
And the featurette where former 1970s "Doctor Who girls" Katy Manning, Louise Jameson and Caroline John reminisce about ridiculously short skirts and weird costumes, and what it was like to put the sex appeal into Doctor Who.
So like I said, these are probably only must-buy packages for the real die-hard fans — but if you don't already own these stories on DVD, they're probably worth picking up. Just to be able to see what the fuss is about, and to be able to put these historical artifacts in their proper context thanks to the loads and loads of supporting materials.
As for which story was voted the best Doctor Who story of all time, ahead of "Blink"? That would be "Caves of Androzani," Peter Davison's swansong and one of the most compelling pieces of drama that Doctor Who has ever put together. It's an intense, action-packed revenge tragedy full of double-crosses, mudbursts, and a doomed Doctor. But most of all, it's an incredibly lucky combination of Robert Holmes' absolute best script with a young director who's determined to get something special even if he has to tear it out with his bare hands — Graeme Harper, who went on to direct many episodes of the Eccleston and Tennant years.
If you've never seen "Caves of Androzani," you owe it to yourself to hunt down a copy — and it does look fantastic in the new special edition. Plus then you can watch the making-of featurette and learn just how close we came to having "Androzani" directed by the show's plodding workhorse, Ron Jones.