The new team placed in charge of overseeing the production of the fifth highly-anticipated series of the BBC’s flagship science fiction show “Doctor Who”, found itself with a unique and rather contradictory challenge as it set about masterminding the transition from the hugely popular David Tennant years (which had seen the newly revitalised show go from success to success since Christopher Ecclestone first helped set the ball rolling in 2005), to the beginnings of a new era under the purview of the youngest ever actor yet to have assumed this iconic TV role. The fresh-faced Matt Smith’s appointment initially came as a shock, and was accompanied by no small measure of scepticism from the fans as it seemed to confirm the new show’s apparent obsession with youth -- the title role going to increasingly younger actors with each new appointment. But for this series, more than just the successful introduction of a new Doctor was at stake: with Series Head Russell T. Davies – the man who had overseen the successful re-emergence of the show when many had assumed it was TV history -- leaving to be replaced by writer Steven Moffat, this series was widely seen to constitute another re-booting; not least because Moffat was faced with the task not only of introducing a new Doctor but also a new companion -- a situation analogous to that which had faced Davies in 2005, except that now Moffat had to find some way of making the show seem totally new whilst not completely alienating or disappointing the large and loyal fan-base of viewers that the show had already built up over the preceding five years, let alone the vociferous long-term fan-base of Whovians.
In other words, he had to make the show seem fresh and new, but also completely familiar at the same time; a mad task that seems oddly appropriate for this eccentric and inimitably British science fiction institution about a strange man who travels through time and space in a futuristic time machine that looks like an old and battered 1960s police phone box.
The way he and the production team accomplished it had a lot to do with the new production design: the venerable old TARDIS got a thorough design overhaul; the console room was ‘pimped up’ again while the police box exterior of the ship also got a lick of paint – a different shade of dark blue with white paint around the windows that made it actually look new for the first time since the old Peter Cushing Amicus films of the sixties. A jazzed-up theme tune and a horrible new logo were changes we could have done without, but at least they emphasised the fact that this was a new beginning. Another factor was Matt Smith himself: He brought an instantaneously likable new energy and spirit to the role of the Doctor and a persona that was half bumbling mad professor, half youthful dandy-adventurer. His casting proved a stroke of genius and all previous criticism was pretty much completely silenced by the end of the first episode. Another genius piece of casting proved to be that of the new assistant Amy Pond, played by Scottish actress Karen Gillan. The character is written as passionate and feisty, but also quirky, unpredictable and funny and it is difficult to imagine anyone capturing the essence of Amy Pond so completely and convincingly as Gillan was able to.
Possibly the most important element in cementing the show’s clever mix of the familiar and the new came about in the way Moffat chose to approach his story-telling this series. It has been a common feature across the last five years of “Nu-Who” to have a running theme or motif that occurs across all the episodes and then comes to fruition in the final part of the series. This time out it is the image and idea of the ‘cracks in time’, one of which first appears on Amy’s wall as a child, and which follow her all across time and space as she travels with the Doctor. In the past, these kinds of running themes have seemed somewhat superficial and perfunctory, but Moffat’s overall plan turns out to go to the very heart of the complex relationship (perhaps the most complex relationship there has ever been between the Doctor and one of his companions) that rapidly develops between the two leads. The masterstroke of having the Doctor first meet Amy as a young girl on the night of his regeneration, and the momentous effect this has thereafter on the whole of her life and relationships, until she meets him again fifteen years later (or three minutes later from his own perspective) on the day before her wedding, becomes central to the ‘cracks in time’ scenario underpinning the series as a whole (the full extent of this plot strand has yet to be played out, even by the end of the series). The theme of fairy tale vs. reality -- which goes to the heart of Amy’s relationship with the Doctor -- is played out in various forms throughout the series, no matter how dissimilar the individual storylines or whether the duo are battling Daleks, Silurians, vampires in Venice or Weeping Angels. By the end, when most of Moffat’s masterplan has revealed itself, the burden placed on Amy’s ability to hold onto the memory of the Doctor, in the form of a fairy tale, on her wedding day, literally becomes the key to his very survival.
For an overview of each individual episode of series five, check the site archive for my reviews of Volumes 1-4. The rest of this box set review will look at the new extras you can expect to find included across the six discs as a whole. Series 5 is available on Blu-ray and a six-disc DVD set with transfers which are excellent but essentially the same as can be found on those previous four individual volumes, except that they’ve now each been given a wonderful new 5.1 Surround Sound audio mix (though the 2.0 Stereo option is still available also) for an extra immersive experience.
SIX ‘IN-VISION’ COMMENTARY TRACKS
Naturally, these are spread among the first five discs and feature the commentary contributors in a little box in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. These each starts out being riveting for the first five minutes; but once you’ve checked out five different recording locations and what the commentary team are wearing, there’s not a whole lot to look at except two or three people sitting gazing intently at their monitor while trying to remember to keep talking no matter what. It’s a shame Matt Smith doesn’t participate in any one of them, either. Karen Gillan, meanwhile is in two and has a habit of playing with her hair while she’s talking.
The Eleventh Hour
The first episode of the series features a commentary by executive producers Steven Moffat, Beth Willis and Piers Wenger. This largely concerns itself with the casting of the two new leads and Steven Moffat’s thoughts on trying to crack the writing of this first episode. He claims the need to introduce both a new Doctor and a new companion made this the hardest script he’d ever written. The discussion of the casting for the new Doctor reveals that Matt Smith was the third person the casting team saw on the first day of casting sessions, and that everyone was pretty much convinced they’d found the right man straight away – to the extent that Moffat says he began writing with Smith in mind from then on! While watching Smith’s opening scene, they even agree that while even they expected it to take a few weeks for Smith to be accepted in the role by the public, he actually nails it in the first few scenes of the episode. Steven Moffat has a habit of pointing out mistakes in both of his commentary tracks, but this first episode contains a whooper in the opening scene: the Doctor meets his soon-to-be companion Amy as a child in 1996, with the opening shot showing the TARDIS spiralling over the Millennium Dome as it crashes … but construction wasn’t completed on the Dome until 1999! Ooops!
Victory of the Daleks
Episode writer Mark Gatiss, Dalek Voice Artist Nicholas Briggs and Dalek Operator Barnaby Edwards take part in this commentary for the third episode in which Gatiss attempted a cross between “When Eagles Dare” and the two Technicolor Dalek films by Amicus from the sixties. It’s an entertaining listen as Gatiss and Briggs are total Doctor Who fan boys, but very eloquent and knowledgeable ones. Gatiss introduced the new coloured Daleks as a tribute to the Peter Cushing films, but he’s honest enough to admit that the strange hump which the finished Dalek design ended up with makes them look rather ugly. It’s a shame because, although lots of fans hated the whole idea, I quite liked the original intention to acknowledge those fun, jazzily scored Amicus movies.
Time of the Angels
Karen Gillan joins writer and producer Steven Moffat for this romp through the first part of the Weeping Angels’ return, the episode that also features Karen and Matt’s very first scenes. The fact that this is the only commentary in the set that only features two contributors suggest that Smith may well have been booked for this originally, but for whatever reason, he didn’t make it. Moffat points out each time Matt Smith’s hair changes length throughout the episode and Karen Gillan is giggly but her usual enthusiastic self as she remembers the whole experience of shooting the story. There’s mention of the infamous Graham Norton incident at the end, when a cartoon version of the presenter appeared over the screen to advertise the next show, and ruined the cliff-hanger to the episode. Rest assured, he doesn’t appear here! Gillan and Moffat also talk about her whole experience of being part of the show and about their shared habit of zoning out in interviews and then trying to answer questions you weren’t really listening to in the first place.
Vampires in Venice
Director Johnny Campbell, Writer Toby Whithouse and actor Alex Price take part in a track that is slightly more low-key than the previous commentaries, mainly concerned with the various redrafts the story went through in order to accommodate the budgetary requirements and about the experience of finding locations to stand in for Venice. Price embarrasses himself at one point by not knowing who William Hartnell is during the scene when he appears on the Doctor’s library card.
The second episode of this two-part Silurian story features director Ashley Way, second assistant director James DeHaviland and actor Alun Raglan in a jokey exchange that also features a discussion on the differing shooting styles of “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”, and info on the crew’s various attempts to save money by redressing the same bits of set. Interestingly, we learn that the new TARDIS set was built from the old ‘Hub’ base from “Torchwood”.
The Big Bang
Director Toby Haines and actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darville take part in an amusing track full of micky taking banter and anecdote. It’s a shame Matt Smith wasn’t also present for this one.
THREE VIDEO DIARIES
These three ten minute behind-the-scenes video diaries are an obviously cheap way of generating extra DVD content by giving the actors video cameras and letting them muck about with them in their free time between scenes, but they actually prove to be rather evocative glimpses of the great atmosphere on the Doctor Who set, while at the same time making the whole process seem curiously like the workaday job it probably actually is. We get to see a buzzing Matt Smith waiting to film his very first scene, and a charmingly excitable Karen Gillan on her first day on set, taking us on a guided tour of the new TARDIS interior. Arthur Darville is also shown getting his mullet wig fitted for the episode “Amy’s Choice”. Elsewhere, Karen Gillan (who makes these fairly routine video pieces the enjoyable items they become with her bubbly personality) gives herself a pep talk before the filming of a stunt scene in which she has to be pulled down a hole in the ground during episode one of the Silurian adventure; and Matt Smith is shown teasing Gillan about her ‘plural’ chins as he guides us around set and introduces various members of the crew who happen to be about, including the Doctor Who Confidential team.
MEANWHILE IN THE TARDIS …
Two new scenes which bridge the gap between episodes and explains what happens just before the start of episode two and just after Amy’s attempted seduction of the Doctor at the end of episode five. The latter amusingly broaches the subject of the Doctor’s previous female companions and is a hilarious comic scene with both Gillan and Smith in fine form.
Included on disc five is a seven minute reel of mishaps, corpsing and comical mucking about by actors and extras between takes, along with James Corden trying to be funny and failing as usual!
THE MONSTER FILES
The same set of four ten-minute featurettes on the Daleks, the Weeping Angels, the Silurians and the Alliance as were featured on the four vanilla releases of these episodes. They’re fairly perfunctory trots through a series of sound bite interviews with cast and crew explaining what’s scary about these particular Doctor Who foes and waxing lyrical about the make-up designs – although when it comes to the new bulky Daleks, they’re fighting rather a losing battle, as fan pressure seems already to have nixed any possibility of this design staying for future series’.
DOCTOR WHO CONFIDENTIAL
Disc six is given over to edited, cut-down versions of all thirteen episodes of this essential Making Of show. Of course, as usual it is a shame that we don’t get all the episodes in their entirety, as they were originally broadcast on BBC 3, but it has to be pointed out that this lot still clocks in at just under three hours of extra material, dealing with everything from the casting of Smith and Gillan, the recording of the sound effects by the foley artist, the pre-series promotional tour in which Smith and Gillan get to visit the nation’s schools in their own tour bus like mini-rock stars, and all sorts of other background material on the various stories, the most interesting of which is Mark Gattis’ tour of the cabinet war rooms under Whitehall. There’s also an episode on the New York promotional tour to promote the re-vamped series in its debut on BBC America and Karen Gillan exploring the Universe and the solar system at Greenwich Observatory. Any other set that featured this much material would be considered fairly comprehensive, but having the episodes cut down to thirteen bite-sized chunks (with the same opening and closing titles included on each one) is bound to rankle with many fans.
All episodes are subtitled and feature spoken word audio menu options.
After the massive expectation and hype builtup by fans of Steven Moffat’s episodes during the first five years of the new show, he was always going to find things a lot more difficult once he was running things and making all the decisions -- but by and large this series was a strong one and bar a few weak stories the show still seems in safe hands and has the potential to remain as popular as ever, despite some fairly hostile carping by an ever-vocal minority of fans. We end the series with the unique situation of the Doctor now being accompanied by a married couple as his companions; the mystery surrounding the true identity of River Song continues, as does that of what causes the TARDIS to explode in the future. Moffat is promising a ‘game changing’ twist mid series six and a slightly new format (two mini seasons rather than one big one) promises to keep things fresh for a while yet. This set should be filling many a Who fan’s stocking this Christmas and most of them won’t be disappointed with the haul of goodies on offer.