Last week, Doctor Who's most fearsome cybernetic enemies invaded the DVD shelves in greater strength than ever before. The "Dalek War" DVD box set and a new edition of "Remembrance Of The Daleks" both appeared. But are they worth it?
Those of us who survived the Dalek War don't like to talk about it. It's one of those things that you either know about, or you don't. You'll see us huddling under our blankets and twitching slightly whenever a rolly bin goes by or a Roomba starts vacuuming near us. Some of us are so traumatized, we can't even stand to hear about exfoliation because it sounds too much like exterminaton — and thus, we have terrible skin. And the worst thing? Nobody even knows the Dalek War even happened, because it's been erased from the history books.
Actually, there is no Doctor Who story called "Dalek War," of course. Instead, the "Dalek War" box set consists of two linked Jon Pertwee stories, "Frontier In Space" and "Planet Of The Daleks." The title of the box set might seem engineered to make fans think that they're getting the backstory of the "Time War," in which the Doctor destroyed the Daleks along with his own home planet.
And in fact, you could make a pretty strong case that these newly released DVDs do show some hints of how the Time War came about, along with the previously released "Genesis Of The Daleks." In "Planet Of The Daleks," the Time Lords send the Doctor to thwart the Daleks' biggest, and maddest, scheme of universal conquest. (Just like in "Genesis," they send the Doctor back in time to avert the Daleks' creation altogether.) And in "Remembrance," the Doctor uses ancient Time Lord technology to deal a very serious blow indeed to the Daleks. You can see how the Daleks might be a tad pissed about all this Time Lord muckery in their business, and launch a war against the unelected demigods of the universe.
So. Are these DVDs worth getting? It's a question worth asking, since the "Time War" DVD set consists of two Jon Pertwee six-parters, and it's almost a universal law that Pertwee six-parters are boring and over-padded. And "Remembrance Of The Daleks" already came out on DVD, several years ago — this new release is an expanded "special edition," with a newly restored video and sound, and new features.
But nevertheless, these new releases are pretty worthwhile.
The two Pertwee stories are definitely overpadded, especially "Frontier In Space." Here's the original back cover blurb for the novelization of "Frontier In Space," called Doctor Who And The Space War:
`Doctor' screamed Jo. `Look at that thing. It's coming straight at us!' A small black spaceship, about a mile away, was approaching rapidly.
It had no lights, no markings. But some instinct told Jo that the tiny craft meant danger.
The year is 2540, and two powers loom large in the Galaxy – Earth and Draconia. After years of peace, their spaceships are now being mysteriously attacked and cargoes rifled. Each suspects the other and full scale war seems unavoidable. The Doctor, accused of being a Draconian spy, is thrown into prison. And only when the MASTER appears on the scene do things really begin to move...
You know there's a problem when the book cover itself tells you that the story doesn't "begin to move" until the Master shows up. And unfortunately, that means nearly three episodes of the story not moving — during which the Doctor and Jo get captured and escape, over and over. (There's also a fair amount of getting captured and escaping after the Master shows up, too.)
But "Frontier In Space" is worth checking out for a few reasons, anyway. It's the last story featuring the original Master, played by Roger Delgado, due to his death in a car accident afterwards. It's one of the original series' few attempts at a huge space opera, along with 1969's "The Space Pirates." The Draconians are one of the greatest alien races Doctor Who ever featured. (They're like TNG-era Klingons, except reptillian. And sexist.) And the cool parts, in between the dreadful stretches of wheel-spinning, are great. And, of course, the Daleks turn up at some point, to set up the continuation in "Planet Of The Daleks."
And "Planet Of The Daleks" is basically pure delicious cheese. Creator Terry Nation returns to the Daleks after something like seven years away, and throws every silly idea he can think of into one story. The Daleks can turn invisible, except that they never do. The planet Spiridon is a hot jungle world with a core of "molten ice." There are deadly fungi and the Daleks have an unstoppable biological weapon. And on and on. Unlike the somewhat sluggish "Frontier In Space," "Planet" throws in a new ridiculous idea approximately every twenty minutes or so. Can we have an icecano? Why not? It's like all of those loopy 1970s Dalek Annuals are finally brought to life as a full-fledged Doctor Who story.
And there are the sequences where everybody in the cast dresses in purple fake fur, like ravers:
A DVD of "Planet Of The Daleks" is a must-have for fans, because the story's third episode was only available in black and white, until it was restored to color for this release. And the color restoration really does look fantastic, thanks to a complex restoration process. Not only is it great to see the whole story in color, but this episode was frequently edited out when the story was shown on PBS in the United States. (No, really. They would just jump from episode two to episode four with no explanation. Also, at least one PBS station used to show the black-and-white episode three, but then inexplicably skip episode six, which was available in color.)
Meanwhile, "Remembrance Of The Daleks" showcases everything that was great and everything that was terrible about the final years of Doctor Who. You have Sylvester McCoy gurning and clowning as if the fate of the universe depends on extreme silliness, and yet he gets to have a few moments of tremendous darkness — and the Doctor is a proactive mastermind instead of a passive victim for the first time in years. The Daleks wobble and look silly, but they also get a few fuck-yeah moments. The plot makes no sense whatsoever, but it's also extremely cool. (Seriously, the Doctor could do at the start of the story what he does at the end of it, with no loss of human life whatsoever. Why doesn't he?)
"Remembrance" is especially notable for a couple of reasons: Ace, the Doctor's then-new companion, comes into her own as a baseball-bat-wielding, explosives-tossing bad-ass, the first really memorable companion since Romana. And the show starts trying to work more complex themes into its storytelling once again, including some real darkness, in a way that foreshadows Russell T. Davies' more successful (in every sense) 2005 relaunch.
As usual with the Doctor Who DVDs, the extras are a bit hit and miss. The "Dalek War" box set comes with a bunch of featurettes, in which genuinely interesting factoids are interspersed with actors talking about how lovely the other actors were, and how lovely the director was. Simply lovely, darling. The "Frontier In Space" one is made awesome by the quick behind-the-scenes glimpses of the show's huge model effects being done, and visual effects expert Mat Irvine explaining how he created one spaceship in a hurry using a ping-pong ball and some odds and ends. There are "Stripped For Action" featurettes about the Third Doctor's comic strips and the Dalek comic strips, which are pretty fun if you've read those comics. "Frontier" also includes a lovely, if overlong, retrospective on Roger Delgado's career. And there are two inexplicable and bland "Perfect Scenario" playlets, in which someone in the future watches Doctor Who. Or something.
There is some great discussion of the bizarre costumes in "Frontier," including some truly epic collars:
One fascinating thing you discover from the "Dalek War" featurettes is the secret relationship between Doctor Who and Space:1999/Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson. In the featurette on Dalek comic strips, Anderson talks about how the Daleks struck him with envy, and he was determined to publish Dalek strips in his new magazine, Century 21. And then we discover that most of the spaceship models in "Frontier In Space" were cast-offs from old Gerry Anderson productions, refitted slightly for use in Doctor Who. In fact, Who wouldn't have chosen to tackle the difficult space-opera genre if it hadn't had access to a storeroom full of old Anderson models.
Meanwhile, if you already own the "Remembrance Of The Daleks" regular DVD, the extras are the main reason to buy the new release, along with the newly improved video quality. Are the extras worth it? Well, maybe. The "making of" featurette is pretty great, and much better than the similar featurettes on the "Dalek War" set. Writer Ben Aaronovitch and script editor Andrew Cartmel talk about the political subtext in the story, and marvel at the serial's relatively high budget. There's some nice making-of footage, including the hilarious bits where Simon Williams flinches every time his gun goes off. And dodgy though the effects look, you'll gain a new appreciation for how ingeniously devised many of them were.
There are the same deleted scenes and outtakes, but this time they're introduced by Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, and once again you can select different viewing angles for Ace's crucial battle with a Dalek. Less interesting is a 16-minute featurette where Aaronovitch and Cartmel list every other Doctor Who story namechecked in this one. The most annoying thing, though, is that the new "Remembrance" DVDs are a two-disc set, and the second disc consists of only one item: a half-hour documentary about the Daleks' creator, Davros, that draws extensively on some Big Finish audio dramas. The Davros documentary could easily have been left off the DVDs, and then the whole thing could have fit on one disc. Especially since the BBC is asking us to buy "Remembrance" a second time to get new features, charging for a two-disc set when the second disc is pretty disposable seems kind of mean.
So to sum up: "Dalek War" is a nice piece of classic Doctor Who, with twelve episodes of space adventure and Dalek mayhem. Despite being a bit slow in places, it's worth seeing for Jon Pertwee, the Master and the Daleks in their element. The new "Remembrance Of The Daleks" DVD is a must-have if you don't already have the 2001 edition. If you do have the original release, it really depends on how much you want a somewhat improved picture and sound quality, and some interesting retrospectives on the story's creation.