Fans breathed a sigh of relief last year when The Underwater Menace was finally released on DVD, meaning they could complete their collections of every surviving Doctor Who episode. The BBC didn’t exactly go to town on the special features and the release only made it to the stores at all after a considerable number of appeals from buyers that this seemingly final classic range disc should be able to take its place on their shelves.
The Underwater Menace fits in neatly to the rows of DVDs many fans have accumulated courtesy of the cover template used on the range since 2000 when, after a trial run with a solitary release of The Five Doctors the previous year, the now familiar TARDIS roundel standard design which takes up roughly the top half of the case made its debut. In truth it’s not the most inspiring template but those in charge of the classic range stuck with it, perhaps feeling that, having started out on what was always going to be a lengthy run to get every story out on the new format, it wouldn’t be right to change it when the marathon series of releases was in its early stages.
Commissioning editor Dan Hall, who took over in 2006, has spoken up for the design, telling Doctor Who Magazine:
“I actually never had a problem with it. My assumption was that the design was supposed to be ‘outside’ of style. I think some savvy person felt that, because this was going to be a range that goes on for a long time, it’s got to have a single, cohesive look. I think they came up with a very slick design that was neither fashionable nor unfashionable. I would imagine that was the original concept and when I took over I had absolutely no desire to change it.”
The template may not have been what those who produced the cover art would have chosen, but mainstay designers of the range Clayton Hickman and Lee Binding played the hand they were dealt effectively, developing what became the Doctor Who DVD house style of photo montage images presented so as to fill the limited amount of room they had to work with. It surely helped that they knew the show and its audience so well – there was no risk of a Cyberman from the wrong era appearing on a DVD, as had happened with the first VHS release Revenge of the Cybermen back in 1983.
There were some opportunities to depart from the cover template and one imagines the artists rubbing their hands with glee when they came to design covers for the box sets of classic-era stories that started to appear around the same time that new series episodes were also collected into this format. The likes of The Beginning (comprising An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction), New Beginnings (The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrolvalva) and The Black Guardian Trilogy (Mawdryn Undead, Terminus and Enlightenment) saw a kind of bespoke box set template, with a central circular space for the cover montage fitting below the logo and above the set title.
‘O-ring’ cover sleeves added to existing single-story releases of Spearhead from Space, The Hand of Fear, Earthshock, Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks also provided a chance to break free from the standard look. They felt like something of a compromise solution to the problem of being saddled with the roundels template (if you preferred a uniform look on your shelves you could just discard the outer sleeve) and it’s a shame that they didn’t make more appearances.
The classic DVD range was nearing its end when Binding pushed the envelope with his striking design for Terror of the Zygons, the cover of which sees the fiery orange of the Zygon’s head bleed all the way up to sleeve. It’s hard not to feel a pang of regret that this kind of thing wasn’t tried earlier, though as the artist himself has commented it was because he had built up such a track record on the range that he was allowed the freedom to depart from the norm in this way.
Lee Binding was given what he may have felt was a last hurrah on the classic DVD’s with the recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear to much rejoicing in 2013. With these landmark releases tying in with the programme’s 50th anniversary a celebration was called for and Binding produced suitably joyous, colour coordinated, cover-spanning images to meet the occasion. In a move that demonstrated the instinct not to upset those who didn’t like to see things change, the spines of the cases remained consistent with the rest of the range and if you really couldn’t tolerate such a shift from the normal style you could always reverse the cover to show the image adjusted to incorporate those familiar roundels.
It would probably be unrealistic to hope or expect that there’ll be any widespread re-releases of the DVD range accompanied by new cover art. Target books may have enjoyed several incarnations with numerous instances of new covers being commissioned to give the titles another lease of life but it’s unlikely that the DVDs will get the same treatment. As demonstrated by the long wait for The Underwater Menace, the BBC clearly have their minds elsewhere when it comes to commercial exploitation of their programmes and it looks like the virtual world of streaming and downloads will be where their energies are devoted for the forseeable future.
But it would be wrong to think that creativity when it comes to Doctor Who on DVD has died with the end of the range. As ever, it’s the fans who have stepped into the gap left behind – just Google ‘Doctor Who DVD covers’ for an array of fan-created images to match stories from all eras of the show.
What do you think of Doctor Who’s DVD covers? Happy to have a consistent design? Or was an opportunity missed to give us something more eye-catching? Let us know below!