Review: Doctor Who – The Monster Collection / Cert: PG / Director: Various / Screenplay: Various / Starring: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Roger Delgado, John Simm / Release Date: September 30th
In the early years of its 21st century resurrection, Doctor Who rarely put a foot wrong. Under showrunner Russell T. Davies the series combined intelligent, emotional scripts with state-of-the-art special effects and production values gifted to some of the country’s most respected actors to produce a show which reinvented the idea of Saturday night family drama. The award-winning, ratings-busting show has become a phenomenon all over again. But oddly enough, what it's not always done – especially under Davies’ replacement Steven Moffat – is treat the Doctor’s most iconic adversaries with the respect they really deserve. The odd dodgy storyline aside, the Daleks and the Cybermen are powerful enough creations to withstand even the shonkiest ill-advised costume redesign but others haven’t been quite so lucky. Moffat’s take on the ferociously-warlike Sontarans and noble subterranean Silurians has robbed both of their dignity, reducing them to tiresome one-note quip machines. Even Davies’ version of The Master, a powerhouse performance from John Simm, can’t hope to match the suavely sinister 1970s incarnation of the Doctor’s very own Moriarty figure, as played by the late Roger Delgado.
The Monster Collection, a set of single and two-disc DVD releases celebrating the Doctor’s most persistent enemies, pairs up a ‘classic series’ serial (generally an introductory story) with episodes from the revived series. The idea might be to demonstrate how Doctor Who has moved on from its early days as well as how enduring his deadliest adversaries have become by introducing a possibly reluctant ‘new series’ audience to the dark and mysterious world of ‘old’ Doctor Who. Unfortunately the set only serves to highlight the fact that the bad old guys haven’t had the best of times since 2005 because, almost without exception and from purely a story point of view, the ‘old series’ stories here beat the newbies hands down. The pacing is faster, the special effects are whizzier, the acting (probably) better but the new series episodes here just don’t present modern Doctor Who in the best light and, in many ways, lay bare the flaws of the current series’ format when presented side-by-side with stone cold classics from a long-gone TV age.
The Dalek collection sets the scene with its combination, across two discs, of the show’s second-ever serial, Terry Nation’s The Daleks ,with the 2012 Steven Moffat romp Asylum of the Daleks. It’s no contest. Regardless of its place in Who (and TV) history, Nation’s seven-episode William Hartnell serial is an old-fashioned adventure story, goodies versus baddies on an interplanetary scale. This is, after all, the story which turned Doctor Who from a Saturday night curio into a fully-fledged ratings monster; the introduction of the Daleks made the show a national talking point. The pace may drag a bit across its seven episodes but The Daleks is still a smart and intelligent serial. Now compare and contrast with Asylum of the Daleks, in which the Daleks themselves are largely deep in the background of a story more concerned with witty dialogue, dreary character relationship beats (courtesy of the not much-missed Amy and Rory) and a plot which has the temerity to rewrite Doctor Who history by erasing fifty years of enmity between the Doctor and the Daleks who, it now appears, have never heard of him. Despite a few good ideas and the usual impressive FX work, Asylum of the Daleks really can’t hold a candle to a serial made nearly half a century ago on a total budget of around £15,000.
Sadly it’s the same story across the entire Monsters Collection range. Patrick Troughton on top form in the creepy and claustrophic Tomb of the Cybermen from 1967 or David Tennant (good as he is) in the 2006 two-part misfire Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel? What do you think? The Sontarans make their debut in 1974 Jon Pertwee serial The Time Warrior (equally notable as the first appearance by Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith), which is paired here with 2008’s Sontaran Stratagem/Poison Sky two-parter. This is more of a close call as the Tennant/Catherine Tate combination is irresistible and it’s good to see the Sontarans en masse at last, but Pertwee probably gets it on points as the first Sontaran costume/mask design has never been bettered. More Pertwee in 1970’s immaculate, stately Doctor Who and the Silurians; watch and weep as the same creatures are clumsily reinvented as mask-wearing humanoids in the woeful 2010 two-parter The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, starring Matt Smith. The Davros collection sees the Daleks’ creator introduced in 1975 Tom Baker six-parter Genesis of the Daleks and returning in the hugely entertaining 2008 series finale The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. The latter is a massive apocalyptic epic, Davies-era Who at its most popular/populist, but Genesis of the Daleks is, quite simply, the better story, often regarded as the best in the show’s long history. Finally we have the Master collection where we meet Delgado’s twisted Time Lord for the first time in the recoloured 1971 Pertwee serial Terror of the Autons and the two-part End of Time story from 2009/10. But this is really David Tennant’s story, the popular actor’s extended swansong, and whilst Simm’s Master is now utterly unhinged and mesmerising to watch, the story is random and threadbare, symptomatic of Russell T. Davies finally running out of creative energy.
The Monster Collection is a nifty and clever way of commemorating fifty years of Doctor Who’s best baddies (and these cheaply-priced discs are likely to be handy stocking fillers as well as a relatively risk free way of investigating creaky ‘old’ Who) but it does the new series few favours even as it reminds us just how good the original Doctor Who series could be when it was firing on all cylinders. Hardened fans will find little of interest here (unless they’re after budget-priced editions of favourite episodes) but there’s a good chance the old series could pick up a few new admirers as the Monsters Collection serves to help launch the show’s anniversary celebrations in November.