Doctor Who entered the 1980s with a new spring in its step, the cobwebs of its late 70s decline into silliness blown away by freshman producer John Nathan-Turner’s ‘new broom’ approach. Tom Baker’s propensity for broad comedy (often encouraged by previous script editor Douglas Adams) was dialled right back, a glitzy new starfield title sequence was underscored by an electronic reworking of the classic radiophonic signature tune and the stories became, under the auspices of new script-editor Christopher H. Bidmead, a little stodgier and under pinned by solid scientific concepts such as entropy, block transfer computation and tachyonics. Imagine the fun to be had in the nation’s playgrounds!
Unfortunately, audiences turned away from Doctor Who’s rather po-faced new look in favour of glitzier US import Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Needless to say, Doctor Who’s eighteenth season has stood the test of time rather better and this gorgeously-presented and lavish new Blu-ray box set should serve to at least some way rehabilitate a season often unfairly maligned amongst the hardcore fan community.
Classic Doctor Who in high definition has always seemed like a contradiction in terms; this is, after all, standard definition television material recorded on videotape or on OB cameras or sometimes with an uneasy mix of film and video. True HD is therefore pretty much impossible. It’s a credit to all involved that this box set - more even than the previously-released seasons 12 and 19 - makes decades old BBC studio-based television look so close to high definition that it’s virtually impossible for the naked eye to tell the difference. The picture quality across all seven stories presented here is absolutely remarkable; crisp, clear, pinpoint sharp. It’s genuinely worth the upgrade investment for anyone who has harboured doubts about the wisdom of paying yet again for material already well-served on previous excellent DVD releases. Classic Doctor Who can never look better than this.
The actual episodes are, however, a mixed bag and although better than many might remember them they’re really far from great Doctor Who. Baker, his wings clipped, quickly handed in his notice and throughout the season he looks not only unwell (he was ill during the recording and lost a significant and noticeable amount of weight) but bored and distracted, hamstrung by an unflattering new maroon take on his costume and a string of new teenage companions he clearly wasn’t gelling with. The loss of Romana (Lalla Ward) at the end of still-baffling Warriors Gate seems like the last straw and there’s a sense throughout the following two stories that the actor can’t wait to hang up his scarf and get the Hell out. Stories like The Leisure Hive (a riot of glorious colour and hammy performances) and Baker’s low-key swansong Logopolis are a slog, dragged down by dreary writing and heavy-handed science, but there’s fun to be had in Full Circle and the blood-red vampire romp State of Decay. Keeper of Traken is full of pomp and pomposity but serves as an effective rebirth of a classic old Who bad guy and Meglos - only the second story of a bold new era for Doctor Who - is as tacky and pantomime as anything from the previous much-derided season. The villain’s a talking man-sized cactus, by the way.
As well as the beautifully upscaled image and sharp soundtrack, the boxset is supported by all the special features from the original DVD releases and some highly-watchable specially-commissioned material (and upgraded VFX here and there, especially in Logopolis). The best of the new stuff is A Weekend with Waterhouse, in which comedian/Who fan Toby Hadoke travels to Hastings to spend a couple of days with actor Matthew Waterhouse, whose portrayal of Adric, introduced in Full Circle has never especially endeared him to fans across the years. Here, a settled and happy fifty-something, Waterhouse comes across as a quiet, thoughtful individual content in himself and with his life but whose estimation of the importance of Adric and his place in the scheme of things will probably still be quite at odds with that of most viewers. But it’s a lovely, warm piece and, along with the new Behind the Sofa segments which see Tom Baker, amongst others, viewing the episodes and passing often barbed comments, is worth the price of purchase alone.
It seems that Blu-ray really is the way forward for classic Doctor Who if what’s been achieved in this Season 18 box set is any indication. The stories present a series in transition, struggling to find its way in a post-Star Wars world and if, in honesty, there are more duffers than delights on show here, it’s still a worthwhile purchase just to have the episodes looking and sounding this good and supported by a fantastic and absorbing selection of additional material.
DOCTOR WHO - THE COLLECTION: SEASON 18 / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: TOM BAKER, LALLA WARD, JOHN LEESON, MATTHEW WATERHOUSE, SARAH SUTTON, JANET FIELDING, ANTHONY AINLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW