The classic long-running BBC science fiction series has seen a long and varied history in Home Media. The VHS range started in 1983 with a story from this very set Revenge of the Cybermen, whilst the DVDs first saw a release in 1999 with The Five Doctors. Now in 2018 we are seeing the first major foray into the classic series being released to suit modern televisions and HD compatibility. Season 12, otherwise known as Fourth Doctor Tom Baker’s first season has seen a loaded Blu Ray release with all five of its stories and a wealth of bonus features included.
This project to put Classic Who on Blu Ray was the result of efforts made by a restoration team that includes Steve Roberts and Mark Ayres. Roberts detailed on Gallifrey Base, a DW based forum that “The idea of putting them onto Blu-ray as upscales to HD is a sound one. DVD compression is very lossy and blocky, so upscaling to HD and harnessing more modern codecs at high bitrates means that the episodes can be presented as near to studio quality as possible for a domestic format, plus the audio will be uncompressed rather than AC3. New and some of the older DVD extras made in HD will appear in better quality too. For other seasons where film inserts exist, these can be included in true HD.” It is also confirmed that the serials were upscaled in hardware using a motion-compensated Teranex broadcast scaler. The idea of simply putting the SD material onto Blu Ray was explored but ultimately dismissed as ultimately the licensing costs would be the same but consumers would have been offered a lesser product in the process.
Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor ran for five serials from 28th December 1974 to 10th May 1975. It introduced a new companion, saw four out of five of its stories be linked, had no interior Tardis shots and featured the return of classic villains such as The Sontaran’s, The Cybermen and the origin story for Doctor Who’s most iconic villains, The Daleks. Here I’ll go through each serial and give my honest thoughts on each of them.
First seasons can be tricky, though in Doctor Who’s case each actor (and now actress) playing the role has seen a relatively good start to their roles, though some less so than others-particularly from the Sixth Doctor onwards. The first serial for a new Doctor plays several important roles, the vital one being to reintroduce the character to the audience, and ensure they like him. Robot has the advantage of featuring the cushioning of the UNIT regulars (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart– Nicholas Courtney and RSM Benton– John Levine) as well as popular companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and newcomer Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) to help carry through the transition between Third Doctor Jon Pertwee and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker.
As serials go Robot is a fun little romp that acts as the only Earth-based UNIT story (which had dominated Pertwees’ tenure as the gadget-wielding Timelord) of the season. It tells the story of the National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research, AKA “Think Tank” and their plans to use a robot in the place of humans to perform tasks in dangerous places. Unfortunately for them the Robot has been programmed incorrectly, and the original creator Professor J.P. Kettlewell isn’t all he seems. The serial is mainly recognised for its climax in which the Robot grows to an enormous size and captures Sarah Jane Smith King Kong style. The effects here don’t hold up especially well, but then again, they likely didn’t back in 1975. The script doesn’t take itself too seriously, and lends itself to the more fun side of Who that gradually took a backseat to more gothic and dark stories until the late 70’s.
Some of the highlights for me include Harry’s medical examination of the doctor and the climax involving the Doctor driving Bessie and dissolving the giant scaled threat. The special effects here tread that fine classic Who line between inventive for the time and terribly dated, but the sequence involving the audience seeing the perspective of the Robot is a nice touch. This isn’t the strongest story in the set but is a fun one to start with, even if it was the weakest regeneration story of the series thus far. 3.5/5
The Ark in Space
What could be described as an archetype for 1979’s sci-fi classic Alien, this classic Who serial, penned by acclaimed recurring writer Robert Holmes, sees The Doctor and company on the space station Nerva wherein the crew had been put into stasis. As several of the crew are revived, the Tardis crew soon find themselves in the familiar predicament of taking the fall for antagonistic shenanigans-in this case the murder of a crewmate. It is soon discovered that the alien race known as the Wirrn have laid siege to the control systems and have infected a crew member. The concept behind the Wirrn is rather horrific- they’re an insectoid race that reproduce by laying eggs inside other species who eventually transform into fully developed adults.
Then producer Phillip Hinchcliffe wanted to branch out the audience for Who from mostly children to mostly adults, which led to the horror factor being ramped up, culminating in the gothic tone that would dominate Baker’s most revered seasons. The design for the adult Wirrn is decent, and they wisely choose to seldom feature them in their entirety whilst the usage of bubblewrap for larvae Wirrn and the infected crewmate was quite new for the time, even if it looks a bit silly now. Overall Ark is a rather straightforward plot but has a nice atmosphere and treats its ideas seriously and features a great set for the actors to interact with. 4/5
The Sontaran Experiment
A rather brutal and downtrodden story, this two-parter explores a Sontaran named Styre who has been tasked with carrying out brutal experiments on humans on a future Earth. An interesting Production note is how this story and the one preceding it were originally meant to be one six-part serial, but instead were split, with Ark being shot entirely in studio whilst Experiment was shot entirely on-location.
Despite being short, this story manages to be memorable for its violent story and visceral tone. Even the admittedly shite looking human-capturing robot (not to be confused with the Robot from earlier in the season) doesn’t detract from the overall appeal. Be sure to look out for Baker hiding his left arm under his coat for much of the second story (Baker had broken his collarbone filming a stunt scene in the prior episode.) This is personally a Doctor Who story that I feel is underrated and overlooked, even if aspects of the plot don’t make that much sense, and hopefully can find some new appreciation in this Blu Ray set, especially with New Who fans that are used to 45-minute increments. 4/5
Genesis of the Daleks
What can I really say about this story that others haven’t stated already? Genesis is considered by many to be the best classic Doctor Who serial and was even voted as such back in 1998. It tells the origin story of the dastardly tank controlling blobs and how they came to be. The story is rife with Nazi imagery, and introduces the Dalek creator Davros, whose manic personality made him a mainstay in every Dalek story that followed. The concept of the Time Lords interfering with the Doctor’s journey and forcing him to travel back to Skaro and prevent the Daleks from being created is a fascinating idea, and culminates in the key scene-complete with the timeless quote “But do I have the right?”
In my humble opinion, this serial does get a bit overpraised in my view, and I do have some issues here and there. The story for me sags a bit in the middle, and the Daleks themselves are rather uninteresting-this story would see the Daleks almost permanently reduced to lackey status for the rest of the classic series. There’s also the issue of the technologically advanced warfare occurring between the Thal’s and Kaled’s, who are basically identical in species and whose cities are a short distance from each other. The Kaled Nazi connections are also rather on the nose here, right down to one of the characters being portrayed by future ‘Allo ‘Allo actor Guy Siner.
However, revisiting the story for this review does showcase just why Genesis has earned its legacy, and it will surely be a big selling point for the set. Some of the cliffhangers here are superb, and the redesign for the Daleks would remain until the end of the Classic series run. There’s also the great cast, including Michael Wisher (Davros) and Peter Miles (Nyder) who really pull off their despicable roles with class-Wisher especially who has great chemistry with Baker. His yelling of “You will tell me” as he forces the Doctor to tell him the history of the Daleks and how they would be defeated in the future is especially chilling.
Overall, I do quite like this story, even if I don’t revere it quite as much as others, and I’m glad to see it in HD, and it is still the best story this season. Interestingly the omnibus edition of the story is also included on this release, and I’ll detail it later when I cover the special features. 4/5
Revenge of the Cybermen
The final story of season 12, and a bit of a clunker at that. This serial sees the return of the Cybermen after a seven-year absence, and would be their only outing during the 1970’s. They maintain their look from the sublime Troughton era epic The Invasion which was always my personal favourite design, but just aren’t especially interesting-plus their voices are rather…American. The script and story ideas here are also lacking, and curiously brought the idea of gold being Cyberman kryptonite-a staple that has remained consistent throughout the franchise. This serial concludes the mini-arc that began with Ark as the Time Ring (the device given to the Doctor in Genesis) finally transports them back to the Nerva space station where its new crew is tasked with warning ships away from the nearby planet of Voga.
What follows is a meandering plot about the Cybermen wanting to destroy said planet to prevent their own destruction (or something along those lines) that feels a bit disjointed and isn’t as engaging as the other serials in this set. It isn’t terrible and does improve as the actions shifts to Voga itself, if only for a bit of variety in the setting (shot on-location at The Wookey Hole) and characters. The reusing of the Nerva set seems to have been a means of saving money but also ties the season together which is neat but makes less sense for it being in such good condition thousands of years after its last appearance.
This is a rather disappointing and weak conclusion to the season, though I do appreciate the efforts of Niel Bushnell who created updated CGI effects for the story to make it look less dated (a comparison video can be found here) but this is the second worst Cyberman story in Classic Who next to Season 25s Silver Nemesis. I’d still recommend checking it out as part of the set, as I know it has its fans. 2/5
Best Story: Genesis of the Daleks
Worst Story: Revenge of the Cybermen
Must see: Robot/The Sontaran Experiment
Check out the second part of this review, which features a rundown of the packaging, special features and audio/video details.
By HW Reynolds
Images provided by BBC/Doctor Who