BBC America’s July 16 release of Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited 1-4 is dollar for dollar the best DVD set released to date. It features Tomb of Cybermen, Spearhead from Space, and Pyramids of Mars — all of which arguably rank among the top 10 Doctor Who stories ever broadcast. It also contains The Aztecs, a decent enough William Hartnell story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of the other stories in the collection. All in all, you get 16 episodes, 456 minutes of action and it is available at just $39.98
The stories in question recently aired on BBC America as part of the network’s celebration of the show’s upcoming 50th anniversary. The show’s current producer, Steven Moffat provided a commentary which is included in this set. Each story is shown in both its original format and the widescreen feature-length version that aired on BBC America. Personally, I prefer the classic versions because the widescreen leaves the ordinarily slender Deborah Watling looking a bit like a Monogolian wrestler. Likewise, Moffat’s insights don’t add a great deal to the collection unless you’re seeing some or all of the material for the very first time. However, unnecessary extras aside, I’d happily pay $40 just to get the 16 episodes in the original format.
The first story in the set is The Aztecs. It was originally broadcast as part of the first season of the show. The first Doctor is accompanied by his Granddaughter Susan and by Ian and Barbara — high school teachers whose curiosity led them to the TARDIS. As the name implies, The Aztecs is a historical rather than a sci-fi story. It is not exactly Apcolaypto but its historical content is surprisingly accurate for a low budget 1960s “kids show.” The story does throw up some interesting ethical problems for the Doctor and co. Is it appropriate to idly stand by while the powers-that-be engage in human sacrifice? Does a time traveler have a moral responsibility to abstain from activities that could create “the butterfly effect.” The Doctor and history teacher Barbara go head-to-head as they debate these crucial issues. In that respect, The Aztecs is important because it helps set the tone for the rest of the Who saga.
While The Aztecs, clings to history, Patrick Troughton’s Tomb of Cybermen is unashamedly far-fetched. Set on the distant world of Telos, it involves an archaeological investigation of the final resting place of the supposedly extinct Cybermen. It quickly becomes apparent that the tomb is less of a cemetery and more like a giant freezer. An insane scientist decides to revive the Cybermen in the mistaken belief that they will serve his every need. Poor misguided fool. Things don’t quite go to plan. Many people would argue that Tomb of Cybermen is the best story from the black-and-white era of the show. Despite some dodgy side effects, it is a quality piece of TV. Poldark’s Morris Barry directed it and he managed to create a story that is utterly compelling. Over the course of four episodes we explore human relationships, emotions such as vengeance and greed, and we also get scared witless.
Spearhead from Space was the first Jon Pertwee story but it was also the first story to be filmed in color. Initially, Pertwee’s Doctor was confined to Earth and in this story he is officially enlisted as UNIT’s scientific adviser. The Brigadier and Benton had previously appeared in the Troughton era but they were cast regulars during the Pertwee years. Spearhead from Space is written by Doctor Who’s greatest writer — Robert Holmes and this is one of his best works. Who can forget the iconic moment when the mannequins burst through the storefront windows and began their assault on London?
The last story in this boxset is Pyramids of Mars. A Tom Baker classic featuring the late-great Elisabeth Sladen as the indomitable Sarah Jane. The story was written by Lewis Griefer but heavily edited by Robert Holmes before being attributed to the fictitious Stephen Harris. The villain of the piece is the malevolent Osirian Sutekh who has ties to both ancient Egypt and Mars. At times, it is absolutely terrifying and not just because Grange Hill’s Bronson is in it. The producer of the time — Phillip Hinchcliffe — took the show down a dark route that eventually led to an intervention of the censors and the introduction of the kind of slapstick humor that dominated Tom Baker’s later years. Despite the best effort of men like Steven Moffat, I don’t think Doctor Who has ever risen to this level since.