Common critical consensus has it that Doctor Who in the late 1980’s was stuck in a rut – tired, garish and ramshackle, a shadow of its former self. Whilst the minuscule viewing figures at the time arguably reflected this perceived notion, the final years of the show in actuality represented a creative renaissance for the programme. Under the stewardship of Script Editor Andrew Cartmel, the show had begun to regain the mystery, ambition and fun of earlier seasons, these aspects further complemented by a fresh, modern approach to the characters and stories. Doctor Who was finally getting its mojo back and Season 26 would prove there was life in the old show yet – ironically just as it was unceremoniously killed off by the BBC.
Thirty years on though, Season 26 is ripe for re-evaluation, enjoying a brand-spanking new Blu-Ray boxset as part of the ongoing Doctor Who: The Collection releases from BBC Studios. Like with previous boxsets of this ilk, the finished product is absolutely gorgeous – seven discs housed in a beautiful limited edition box adorned with striking new artwork from Lee Binding and a fact-packed booklet compiled by writer Pete McTighe concealed within.
Kicking off proceedings on the discs themselves is Battlefield by Rivers of London author Ben Aaronovitch, an ambitious epic that attempts to combine Arthurian myths and magic with hard science fiction. Reuniting the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) with the legendary Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) in a story that sees them battling inter-dimensional knights and sorcerers, it’s a surprisingly breezy, entertaining start to the season, despite a few production hiccups here and there.
Ghost Light by Marc Platt is next up, a delightfully bizarre haunted house tale that details the Doctor and Ace’s encounter with a villainous Victorian Gentleman who has evolved from an alien cataloger. Atmospheric and brimming with ideas, Ghost Light entertains as all good Doctor Who does, even if it occasionally wanders into incomprehensible waters. The central performance from Sophie Aldred as companion Ace ties things together nicely though, and the script is as witty as it is oft-times disturbing.
Perhaps the story that best demonstrates the show’s return to form here though is The Curse of Fenric, a true quintessential classic in every sense. Ian Briggs‘ script deposits the Doctor and Ace on a secret naval base at the height of World War II, where a fascistic commander and an obsessive scientist are attempting to decode ancient Viking runes in an attempt to harness the ancient power of a powerful god-like being. Encircled by deadly vampires, invading Russians and monsters from a decimated future, the story packs plenty in, including some superb character development for Ace and hints of a darker backstory for the Doctor.
It may sound like a lot to pack in to four episodes, yet not once does the narrative ever feel overstuffed – the result is instead a coherent, dramatic high-stakes horror drama, offset by a foreboding tone and terrifying imagery. Sylvester McCoy gives an intense performance as the conniving, manipulative Seventh Doctor, whilst Aldred is put through the emotional ringer as Ace, lending the serial all the hallmarks of an epic season finale!
Rounding out the season though is the actual season finale, Survival, an accomplished modern-day thriller by Rona Munro that unknowingly set the tone for 21st Century Doctor Who. With its character driven narrative, everyday council estate setting and the return of a former foe thrown in for good measure, the story could easily fit right at home in any post-2005 Who series. Plus, it has killer Cheetah People riding around on Horses – in our book, that’s British Television at its absolute best!
As with all Doctor Who: The Collection sets so far, the picture and sound quality is divine, the restoration a marked improvement over the preceding DVD releases (especially for the murky picture quality of Ghost Light). The episodes contained herewith have never looked better. Yes, the lack of film material contained here is next-to-nothing, meaning this is hardly full HD, but it matters not when the end result is still so good to look at.
Extra features are plentiful, with the definitive highlight being the feature-length documentary Showman: The Life Of John Nathan Turner (82 mins), a biopic of Doctor Who‘s longest running producer (and arguably its most divisive). Chris Chapman‘s film is equal parts informative and moving, offering a far more personal look at the man himself then has usually afforded in other Who related documentaries.
Elsewhere on the set is an in-depth making-of documentary for The Curse of Fenric from writer Pete McTighe, which reunites a number of the cast and crew to discuss the making of the classic adventure, whilst a similarly insightful feature sees broadcaster Matthew Sweet chatting to companion Sophie Aldred about her life and her time on the show. The writing team for Season 26 reunite to discuss their experience working on Doctor Who in a fascinating featurette, whilst McCoy and Aldred are joined by a number of former companions to watch and reminisce about Season 26 in the highly entertaining Behind the Sofa segments, which fans will find scattered across the discs.
That barely even scratches the surface though – as usual, the BBC team have done a great job in porting over all the commentaries, documentaries, deleted scenes and extras from the existing DVD releases, not to mention extended episodes and movie edits of both Battlefield and Fenric. Plus, there’s even more new material on offer beyond the extras listed above, including an extended Ghost Light workprint, convention footage, featurettes, PDF material and never-before-seen studio footage. Dedicated fans will need to clear their schedules for a whole weekend if they hope to get through it all in one sitting.
Once again, BBC Studios have gone above and beyond in putting together the quintessential Season 26 package. Fans who’ve owned the episodes on VHS and DVD before now will no doubt enjoy the hours of exhaustive extra features that have been created specially for this release, whilst those discovering the stories for the first time will be astounded by the excellent picture and sound quality (not to mention the quality of the stories themselves).
The BBC were fools to cancel Doctor Who after this fantastic season. Thankfully, they’ve given it the love it truly deserves at last.