As Doctor Who entered the 1980’s, the series underwent some of the most significant changes since the series transitioned from black-and-white to color a decade before. Wielding a heavy broom, incoming producer John Nathan-Turner swept the series clean both in front of and behind the camera.
Fans turning in for the first episode of season 18 were no doubt shocked by the updated theme tune and title graphics. But the changes didn’t stop there, whether it’s the series new emphasis on scientifically plausible stories, a more serious tone, or the updated visual and sound palate. Nathan-Turner’s mandate was to usher the series firmly into the 80’s.
Whether or not Nathan-Turner’s changes were entirely a success or not is something that continues to divide Doctor Who fans to this day.
With the debut of season 18 on Blu-Ray, Doctor Who fans are given the chance to visit or revisit Tom Baker’s final season as the Doctor and determine if the changes were good, bad, or somewhere in the middle.
Script-editor Christopher H. Bidmead crafted a season that follows a loose arc. Each story centers on the Doctor finding a society or institution in a state of inevitable decay or stagnation. The Doctor’s role becomes less about overthrowing a totalitarian regime so much as providing a spark for necessary change for each world on which the TARDIS lands. Bidmead puts a bit more science into the science-fiction of the show with each story taken on a more somber tone. Taken as a whole, the arc is an impressive achievement for the classic series, even if some of the stories are better than others.
Released in the United States under the banner of “Tom Baker’s Seventh Season,” this eight disc Blu-Ray set features all seven stories from season 18 and the spin-off series pilot, for “K-9 and Company” on an eighth disc. Each disc archives the extras from each individual story’s DVD release. Each disc has one new feature, a “Behind the Sofa” featurette featuring various players associated Doctor Who sitting on a coach and giving their reaction, memories, and thoughts on the story. One couch features Baker, the voice of K-9 John Leeson, and costume designer June Hudson while the other finds former companions Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Wendy Padbury.
Rounding out the new extras are new commentaries on “The Leisure Hive” and “State of Decay” with Baker and Lalla Ward respectively. The final story of the season, “Logopolis” gets updated CGI effects (thankfully, they’re an optional extra and the original effects are still here!) and an hour-long documentary on the making of Baker’s final story as the Doctor.
Now to the question that most of you are probably wondering about — if you’ve already collected these stories on DVD, is it worth the double-dip?
There are a couple of factors that weight into this (at least for this fan). One is the value you place on the extra features. The new documentary on the making of “Logopolis” is quite good but it doesn’t necessarily featuring any huge revelations while the upgraded effects are fun, but as is the case with classic Doctor Who, it’s not really about the effects so much as the stories themselves. These new effects won’t make you love the story any more or less than you already do, but they’re fun.
As for the picture and sound quality, given how the series was filmed and edited, it’s not a huge leap forward like the all-film produced “Spearhead from Space” was. (In fact, I honestly thought this would be the only classic Doctor Who we’d ever get on Blu-Ray. Now that we’ve got three sets and rumors of more on the way, I guess I was wrong).
As an American fan, I’m a bit disconcerted to see that the U.S. release of this set is, once again, a pale imitation of the British version when it comes to packaging. Each story in the UK has its own artwork on the disc, while the U.S. version simply gets the cover art repeated on each disc. The U.K. version also includes a booklet with more information and a listing of special features while the U.S. gets a single page insert with small print on it detailing what’s on each disc.
The U.S. discs come in a standard box for multi-disc releases, making it more compact for your shelves but also raising the possibility of scratching or damaging the discs when trying to remove them. It’s not quite as bad as Universal’s packaging for the 25th Anniversary Back to the Future sets, but it’s still frustrating when you’re spending close to $70 for a set that you could easily break or scratch attempting to simply watch it.
And now to channel my inner Comic Book Guy, I question why these box sets can be released in the U.K. as the actual season number in the run of classic Doctor Who, but here they’re presented as the “first” or “seventh” season featuring Tom Baker. At some point, we’re going to have a lot of “first” seasons for each individual Doctors out there (in fact, I’ve got two sitting on my shelf with the release of Peter Davison’s first season on Blu-Ray).
If you’re a fan whose come later to collecting classic Doctor Who, this set is a perfect way to build your collection. Several of these stories have gone out of print and the price tag for the whole season may be less than you can find individual stories on auction websites. Trust me, it’s the best way to not overpay for “Meglos,” which again features a talking cactus bent on universal conquest.
If it sounds like I’m not a fan of this season, let me say nothing is further from the truth. I’m a big fan of season 18 and what Bidmead is able to achieve as script-editor. But I will warn you I’m in the minority among classic series fans on this take. If you’re looking to see why Tom Baker is so beloved in the role and haven’t picked up the season 12 box set yet, that one will give you a better idea of what makes this era so memorable and well regarded.