|The Daleks stare incredulously at each other as the big blue|
dude keeps talking.
It's November 13, 1965. The Rolling Stones are still on top. They'll be replaced by The Seekers. The Beatles will take the Christmas number one, hold it for five weeks, then turn it over to The Spencer Davis Group, followed by, finally, on January 27, The Overlanders.
Those of you who like arithmetic may have noticed how we've covered twelve weeks there. That's not a mistake. This is The Daleks' Master Plan. In twelve parts, plus its prequel a month ago, it is by far the longest Doctor Who story ever, running nearly five and a half hours. And for not the first time, but thus far the most important time, we're going to have to pause here and look at what this story means to Doctor Who as a whole. It's the capstone experience for John Wiles' tenure as Doctor Who producer, which admittedly only began last story and ends two stories hence. It is, in other words, absolutely epic, and everybody knew it. It said so in our handy 1980s books on the series that listed all the episodes. Really. I quote Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, which says that this story is "quite simply the longest-ever Doctor Who story and also one of the best."
It's also 75% missing. So for a long time, that description was what we got. The Daleks' Master Plan was the big Hartnell epic that was really good and missing. And 75% gone is an improvement. Episode 2 was only found in 2004. Prior to its discovery, major characters from the story simply didn't exist. It wasn't novelized for years, because it was just too long. In other words, it was one of the great lost epics of Doctor Who. There are a couple of these scattered through Doctor Who history - stories that were allegedly among the greats of their era that are missing and can never be seen. In the 80s, Doctor Who got into the habit of remaking some of its old classics for new viewers. Mostly these were disasters. But the first instance of doing this was actually in 1973, when two six-parters were quietly welded together to form a twelve part epic that, after some misdirection in the first story, turned out to be a Dalek epic. That's how good this story's reputation was. It was so good that there was a desire to redo it eight years later.
Life's been hard since the 1983 guide, though. In 1992, the two surviving episodes at the time, episodes 5 and 10, finally made it out for home viewing on a documentary called Daleks - The Early Years, sparking a bit of a rethink. The problem is that what we knew about the story before seeing those episodes was that it was a massive epic of Daleks in which tons of people died. The novelization had come out super-late in 1989, so hardly anyone had read it. A few hardcore fans would have seen screenings of the missing episodes at conventions, but the fact of the matter is, this was the first time most people saw anything of this brilliant epic.
Pity about what they saw, then. Episode 5 involves some bizarre comedy involving Daleks, mice, and the possibility of mice inventing teleporters (Yes. Douglas Adams did watch this at the age of 13. Why do you ask?), and Episode 10 is a strange farce about Daleks, intergalactic emperors, the Monk, and a bunch of Egyptians. They're miles from the dark epic we were promised - so violent it never got sold abroad, Peter Haining told us! Where was our violence? Why were there mice?
And so the great re-evaluation began, and the story was ruled a brilliant idea that was way too long and brought down by the silliness. And so it was for a while, until in 2004 episode 2 came out and finally people actually saw one of the bits of the story that looked like what we'd been promised in our 1980s episode guides. 2004 was also when Loose Cannon got their reconstruction out, making the story even remotely available for people. And the new consensus is... well, there isn't really one yet. There's only been two top-down attempts to review Doctor Who done post-2004. Miles and Wood make a good case for the idea that the story works but is so far afield of what we think of as the Doctor Who format these days as to be impossible to judge. Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke seem to like it, but get a bit burnt out on it.
OK. So we've got all that down? Good. Now throw it all out. Absolutely nobody understands a damn thing about this story. Miles and Wood come closest when they say that it doesn't work like modern Doctor Who, and are right to suggest that viewing it as a weekly serial makes it make more sense, but they don't actually explain how it works. So I guess that's where I come in.
I've talked in passing about how Doctor Who aired in the 1960s and how modern conceptions of Doctor Who are unsuited to it. Never has that been more important than here. So let's review. Doctor Who was on 40+ weeks of the year. It aired on one of two channels. Television transmission in the 1960s was on the old 405-line system - that is, there were 405 lines of information used to constitute a television picture, as opposed to the later 625-line system, which is in turn distinct from modern digital television. I'll go ahead and just quote from Miles and Wood here to explain what this meant, because they do a bang-up job of explaining it.
Its mode of address was both to convey the viewer to somewhere extraordinary, and to visit people in the intimacy of their living rooms. "Intimacy is a key word here, because 405-line broadcasting was a dialogue with the viewers.
In a later volume, which I don't have handy at the time of writing, so now I'm paraphrasing from memory, they clarify that the issue was that the 405-line broadcast screen required a very different mode of watching than we're used to now. The screens did poorly in light, and so had to be watched in dimmed rooms. The pictures were fuzzy, requiring the viewer to engage in an act of explicit interaction with the screen and to actively interpret the images as representing things. The overall format of the experience - commercial-free and linked together with continuity announcers so that a given show was something that was part of an unceasing experience of The Day's Transmission - encouraged this. The show was scary because it was part of a defined space in the televisual day and week marked out for being scary. This also explains the oddly presentational style we've seen - both at its high points (and I will defend The Web Planet
as a high point of the series tooth and nail against the mobs of people who just don't have a clue what it is they're actually watching) and its low points (namely the Mary Celeste sequence of The Chase
On top of that, episodes had individual titles, and cliffhangers often extended from one into the next. We really see this here, with this story picking up immediately from the panic at the end of The Myth Makers. This is in marked contrast to the modern approach, where these stories are reskinned as discrete entities and packaged as individual movies. So instead of being able to watch Season 1 of Doctor Who on Netflix, you can get DVDs of "The Beginning" (the first 13 epsodes), The Keys of Marinus, or The Aztecs, each treated as discrete stories that are marketed more like films than television. This is not how the show was actually written or experienced. Yes, individual stories had separate writers and directors, and you could see where one left off and the next began, but what you didn't get was the idea that the episode entitled "Volcano" was "The Daleks' Master Plan, Part 8 of 12." Nobody even knew the phrase "The Daleks' Master Plan" in 1966. It was just another episode of Doctor Who, aired on Saturday evening that the family sat down for and made an experience out of. Yes, it was clearly part of a larger Dalek story that had been going on for a while now, and didn't seem terribly near to finishing up, but first and foremost it was the thing that happened around 6pm on Saturdays and had been basically every week for two years now. And part of a serial, which went on over real time. The Daleks' Master Plan isn't five and a half hours long. It's four months long, counting Mission to the Unknown. And as I've been saying, really it's longer than that, paying off plot threads that started way back in The Time Meddler.
This is a mode of interpretation we just don't have anymore. There's no vocabulary for it. It's impossible to reconstruct with some DVD rips and a digitization of a VHS tape from Loose Cannon being streamed over a wireless network to an AppleTV hooked up to a 30" HD LCD television via an HDMI cable. Even though the word "television" appears in the description of both, we're not really talking about the same medium here. Watching it today you get one of two choices - actively try to reconstruct the experience of the original medium, or deludedly pretend this is television as you understand it. If you pick option B, you get a conclusion along the lines of "this is neat, but a bit of a mess." If you pick option A, you suddenly realize why everyone in 1983 remembered this story so fondly from when they were growing up.
So let's try to translate this into modern terms. First of all, let's rubbish the idea that this is a twelve-part story. It's not. It's really about four separate stories, two of which is nested inside others, one of which is a direct sequel to another, and all of which are contributing to the larger serial that is Doctor Who.
The first story is five episodes long. The first of these was Mission to the Unknown, and the second of them is The Nightmare Begins, more commonly thought of as episode 1 of The Daleks' Master Plan. In the middle of that was the second story, The Myth-Makers. So what we had was a story that opened with a reminder that the Doctor doesn't always show up, then took a brief digression to show that even if he does it might not be so great. Then returns and has him show up.
In other words, there's a huge amount of this story that has already been established the moment we see the TARDIS actually show up. The TARDIS shows up in a state of panic. As viewers, we immediately recognize that we're landing back in the Dalek story from a month ago. And we arrive in chaos. Katarina is in the TARDIS clearly out of place and confused. Steven is critically injured. Daleks are conspiring to take over the universe. And at this point, after the last five weeks, there is no real reason why we should expect the Doctor to be able to save the day. Even he seems out of his depth, unaware of the direness of the situation. He quite likes Katarina, and once he makes it out of the TARDIS seems almost to forget about Steven in favor of a nice romp around the deadly jungles.
Then comes the real genius of these first four episodes. Something that, again, people miss. Another one of the reasons this is a big epic of a story is that it's Nicholas Courtney's first appearance in Doctor Who as Bret Vyon. This is touted as one of the big parts of the story. Reading about it, you'd think he was in practically the whole thing. He's touted more than Mavic Chen, the Guardian of the Solar System who spends all twelve episodes plotting with the Daleks and generally being a ridiculous and awesome villain. He's actually only in four episodes. But man, what an impact he has.
Early on, he encounters the Doctor, and tries to demand the key to the TARDIS. The Doctor engages in his usual chinwagging and charisma to try to talk his way out of it. And in response, Brtt Vyon does something we have never seen anyone do to the Doctor before. He simply says "Give me the key, or I'll kill you." And this quickly re-establishes the theme of the last five episodes. The Doctor is not the toughest thing in the universe. (Bret Vyon goes on to an even better scene in the second episode, in which he takes over a spaceship by walking onto the bridge, pulling a gun, and saying, and I quote, "I'm taking over this spaceship." The point is clear. He is every bit the ontological force the Doctor is, epic and heroic because he says he is.)
These four episodes are a tense runaround with enormous stakes. The Daleks have a bunch of delegates from across the universe, all with strange alien mannerisms. They have Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System, selling out the whole solar system and suavely helping the Daleks. Their goal appears to be the conquest of everything. Ever. They have a super-weapon called the Time Destructor. And the only thing standing in their way is the Doctor, his injured friend, his worshipful handmaiden, and Bret Vyon, the British Nick Fury. (There is zero reason to think Steranko was directly influenced by Doctor Who, as he almost certainly didn't see it when he started making Nick Fury a straight mirror of Bret Vyon in 1968. This is amazing, as anyone who looks at the two would immediately conclude that one must be a straight rip-off of the other. This is, as we have already seen, not the first time that Doctor Who has managed the puzzling feat of obviously inspiring something without actually having any direct link to it. Honestly, it rapidly becomes easier to just assume that Doctor Who is some sort of mystical phenomenon that leeches into the zeitgeist than it is to try to make sense of this. See also the first shot back in An Unearthly Child
. What's particularly strange is how these moments of ridiculous prescience on Doctor Who's part - doing one of the most acclaimed runs in comics history three years earlier - get put right alongside hilarious anachronisms like the importance of magnetic tape in the far future.)
As you might imagine, this builds stressfully. The Doctor manages to escape Kembel with the Tarranium core of the Dalek superweapon (which, despite its name, bears more than a passing analogy to a nuclear bomb), but an escaped convict makes it on board with them.
And here we get the climax of this story. So let's talk for just a moment about Katarina. She's a character who has very little to do in this story. Three episodes into it, on her fourth appearance overall, she reiterates her near worshipful attitude towards the Doctor, and prays for divine intervention. The Doctor treats her with loving patronization. She is, by all appearances, our new female companion, replacing Vicki. And towards the end of the third episode, she reiterates how she knows that she's safe with the Doctor.
Mere seconds later, she's grabbed by the convict and lets out the most blood-curdling, horrifying, anguished scream we have ever heard a companion give in Doctor Who. And that's our third episode cliffhanger.
And then, less than five minutes into her fifth appearance on Doctor Who... she's dead. She sacrifices herself by blowing herself and her attacker out the airlock. That's the cliffhanger resolution. Remember that cliffhangers are primarily about audience interaction - part and parcel with the interactive dialogue of the 405-line era. The question isn't "what happens to the Doctor," it's "How are they going to get out of this one?" And in the first minutes of the next episode, we get the answer.
They don't. Katarina, the innocent, naive girl who was all but shoved onto the TARDIS by Vicki, dies. And this is hammered home. It's like nothing we have ever seen before. This just spits in the face of the audience. And look at what it comes after - four episodes of dark, brooding tension and real suggestion that maybe the Doctor isn't good enough. And here, again, he isn't. He loses a companion. And the show rubs it in - shrieking music plays over an fx shot of her dead body floating away in space.
As brutal as this is, to really understand what's going on here we need to go a little further and learn some production details. See, Katarina wasn't supposed to die here. Katarina wasn't actually supposed to exist here. She's by far the most minor companion ever - she never does anything, and appears in five episodes total, one of them only for the first five minutes. And she's a fill-in.
It was supposed to be Vicki.
Vicki - the Scouse future girl who represented the mods and the youth rebellion that was at the heart of cultural Britain. Was supposed to be flushed out an airlock in a shock cliffhanger resolution. Think of how that would have played out - especially after the second and episode of The Myth Makers, where Cassandra declares that Vicki is a spy and must be killed, and then we get "Next episode: Death of a Spy." Clearly meant to make us think Vicki might die, and to make us spend a week trying to find some other way to account for the title. And of course Vicki makes it out just fine. Because the cliffhanger always turns out OK. That was supposed to be set-up for just cutting her down at the start of this episode. It would have been the single cruelest, most cynical moment in Doctor Who history. The plucky joy of British youth, slaughtered. And all of that would have aired right as Vietnam War protests really kicked up in the US, and as the UK careened towards a possible war with Rhodesia. This isn't just reactionary. It's savage - a declaration of the fundamental failure of 60s counterculture made in late 1965, right as it was really starting to kick up to its heyday.
And then to cap it off, at the end of the episode, after some hype about Kingdom, the crack special agent coming in to clean this up, we learn that Kingdom is Sara Kingdom, decked out in a catsuit with a laser gun. She strides into the ship and guns down Bret Vyon - the seemingly unstoppable character who the Doctor has just been treating like a companion mere moments before. It's odd that Katarina and Bret - who have basically the same amount of screen time - are treated so differently by later fandom, with Katarina being the first companion to die (even though it wasn't until 2004 that we actually had an episode she appeared in to watch) and Bret being "that part Nicholas Courtney played before the Brigadier." Within the episode, they're clearly meant to be of equal importance, and this episode is meant to be an even more shocking punch in the gut than the end of The Myth Makers was.
That's the first and second Daleks' Master Plan stories done. Two to go. And these two are going to be nested again. So, to recap, it's December 11th, 1965. It'd be The Seekers at number one. And after the most brutally cruel episode of Doctor Who to date, we get...
Comedy about mice. Jean Marsh striding around imperiously in her catsuit of awesome. William Hartnell doing some truly impressive writhing around in pain, and by truly impressive I mean absolutely ridiculous. It must be "Counter-Plot," for a long time one of two Daleks' Master Plan episodes we actually had. And one that is just completely misread, because we took it in isolation and assumed it was all like this. Had episode four survived instead, one imagines the reception of this story would have been radically different for years - especially because, since we do have the clips of Katarina's death, we know how brutal that episode really is.
And here's where that serial thing really comes in. It's December 11th. Every Doctor Who story since October 9th - two months ago now - has come to the same conclusion. The Doctor doesn't always win. He's 0-3 in the last three outings. And here we're starting up another strand of the plot, and it goes comedic and light, with silly bits and mice, and Daleks exterminating the mice because they might be powerful alien overlords. Nobody watching this who has been following the serial thinks this is a daft comedy episode. The comedy is bleakly unfunny. By now, we've been better trained to expect the other shoe to drop than we have been to enjoy the Doctor Who stock tropes. And the panic and tension mounts faster and faster - the Doctor gets teleported back to Kembel, the Daleks hunt him down, and only because Steven - in an oddly unfamiliar role as the slow one, being from earlier in human history than Sara and obviously less knowledgeable than the Doctor - risks life and limb to make a fake Tarranium core that the Doctor can fake the Daleks out with.
The mice are not a stupid digression or a time-waster. They're a reset button. A clear marker that we've finished one story and started another, and are back to a status quo. But that's terrifying. We know this is going to go wrong. As soon as the action speeds up again, after three sucker punches, we're just waiting for the inevitable.
And then that story gets interrupted by another. So let's use that nice vertical line trick I worked up for The Myth Makers, and deal with the fourth story that is The Daleks' Master Plan.
It's December 25th, 1965. It's the Beatles at number one now, for those playing at home.
So, as I said, these next four episodes kind of come out of left field, interrupting the story in progress. Basically, this is a four episode redo of The Chase that opens with a Christmas episode in which the Daleks don't even appear. For some bizarre reason, this is what fans fixate on. In particular, the fact that the Christmas episode ends with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish the viewers a merry Christmas, but more broadly the fact that the episode is half set in a Liverpool police station and half on a Hollywood silent film set.
I will say that I have no clue whatsoever why anyone objects to this. I mean, jump ahead to Episode 11 of the story, and pretend that had followed straight from episode 6 instead of taking a detour. Then imagine sitting down on Christmas to watch it. Or on New Year's. I mean, the show was airing in December on a year that Christmas fell on a Saturday. There was surely no question of continuing the story straight through. It had to find an excuse to go do something fun instead. So we got two pure comedy episodes of the Doctor running around various set-pieces. A Liverpool police station (which is not an arbitrary choice
), a silent film set, and, in the New Year's episode, landing on a cricket green, at which point the commentators just try to figure out if this has ever happened before. (Yes, I already told you, Douglas Adams watched this when he was 13. Why do you keep asking?) Followed by the return of the Monk.
So why the next two, which feature Mavic Chen, suavely evil Guardian of the Solar System, the Monk, the Daleks, the Doctor, Steven, Sara Kingdom, and a bunch of Egyptians? Mostly because the Doctor is now off Kembel and has the Tarranium core. The Doctor can't steer his TARDIS, as we know, so we have to find some way of getting him back to Kembel and getting the Tarranium to the Daleks. And that's all episodes nine and ten are. The Monk is brought in to give the Doctor a way back to Kembel, and we do a quick Egyptian runaround to follow on the two comedic episodes so we can get back to the main plot. That's all these four episodes are - a necessary detour caused by Christmas.
Which means that if you want to bludgeon The Daleks' Master Plan into a normal structure, the thing to do is to just cut episodes 7-10 entirely. Drop them. Don't even watch them. Jump straight from episode 6 to episode 11, and pretend the Doctor had to give up the real Tarranium core instead of a fake one. You can just pick it up and go from there, and get a proper 8-part Dalek story in two clear four part chunks. The only thing that's majorly going on in these four is some Christmas fun, some plot hole filling, and the establishment of Sara Kingdom as the new companion.
I mean, there's a few neat things. We can do some nice commentary on the genre-bending abilities of Doctor Who and Hollywood, and how it picks up on the Morton Dill segments of The Chase. There's a line about the Doctor's human form just being a disguise that's chilling and mysterious and something someone should have picked up on since 1966. There's the best technobabble explanation in the history of the show, namely the Doctor just openly refusing to explain something to Steven and literally handwaving it away. And there's a bunch of stuff that heavily reiterates the fact that the Doctor is not, in 1966, a Time Lord and that it is next to impossible to read the whole Time War business into these episodes and have them make a damned bit of sense. That it's clear that this storyline would feel so much more normal if it were the Master instead of the Monk in it. And, tellingly, that these four episodes, once again, end with the Doctor losing, putting him at 0-4. We can note all of those. And have.
But really, this is here because the scheduling in 1965/66 demanded it. It's not part of a 12 episode epic to be watched in one shot. It's part of an ongoing, always-on serial that happened to be airing on Christmas. It made perfect sense in 1965/66 when it was aired, and it was only designed to air then, once. Any questions about how it "holds up" or of the pacing of it when taken as a 12-part epic just miss the point.
So we're back. And what's key is, were it not for Christmas, we really could have jumped straight here. Episode 6 could just as easily have ended with the Doctor having to cough up the real Tarranium core, and then cliffhangered straight into episode 11. It would have made total sense.
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Given that, episode 11 - The Abandoned Planet - watches brilliantly. It's one of the periodic Doctor free episodes, a nice parallel to where we started. Steven and Sara have the bulk of the work, trying to figure out where the Doctor is and what he's up to. Meanwhile, Mavic Chen gets the endpoint of hs plot, going from valued ally to the Daleks to utterly superfluous. As the episode plays on, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Daleks will, in fact, eventually kill him too. It's easy to mistake this episode as episode seven of not living up to the genius of episode 4, but that's not what's going on here.
No. This is bold and clever. The Doctor has, as I said, suffered four consecutive defeats now. And so he's removed from the picture, and the audience is invited to remember the fact that, flawed as we now see him to be, he's still far better than the alternatives. We want him to be found. And when the episode ends without that, with Steven and Sara being led into the Dalek base without the Doctor, it's scary. Sara ends up being our audience identification character, by and large, stressing over and over again that it's important to find the Doctor (while Steven seems, all told, fairly competent on his own).
And so we come to the finale. Mavic Chen, our charismatic villain, has fallen completely, seeming almost delusional in his demand that the Daleks respect him, and clearly doomed. It's not even clear whether he wants power, at this point, or whether he's just desperate for the Daleks to approve of him. And eight minutes into the finale, the Doctor finally returns.
This should be good. This should be where he wins, and it's all OK. The Doctor seems determined. He has a plan. But Hartnell is good. He really is - a genuinely good actor when he is well enough to do it. And in this episode he is. He has a plan, but he seems frantic, perhaps even scared. He tells Sara and Steven to get back to the TARDIS, and he runs off with the activated Time Destructor.
But Sara believes the Doctor needs her. She goes back for him.
After four consecutive defeats - Mission to the Unknown, The Myth Makers, and twice now in this story, perhaps we expect victory. That is, after all, what the Doctor's disappearance from Episode 11 seems to set up - that the Doctor will return to the story and save the day. Surely we've seen the worst in Episode 4, if nothing else. Surely.
The Time Destructor is horrifying like nothing we have seen before. We expected a straightforward superweapon - a bomb. But no. Instead we get a glowing, shrieking ball. Seemingly harmless, even silly at first. But then it turns awful and horrible. It is shredding the Doctor and Sara, savagely. Sara ages before our eyes, well aware of what is happening to her. She knows she's dying. And when this starts to happen...
This isn't suspense. This is tragedy. After four defeats, the Doctor has so little iconic, mythic heroism to him. He's so... vulnerable. And as he staggers back to the TARDIS with a dying Sara Kingdom at his side, we know how this is going to play out. All Sara's youthful, sexy power - her cat suit and laser pistol - is gone now. A shell to hold a fragile old woman, disintegrating before our eyes. It's brutally long, taking place over minutes. The horrific shrieking shot of Katarina drifting off into space at least came after the death. Here the sense of anticipation - the thing that was the entire justification of things like The Dalek Invasion of Earth's first episode, where we wait endlessly for the Daleks to arrive - is turned against us. We know how this will play out. We're forced to watch anyway.
It works. And it works because of the structure - the weird serialized nature of it. It works because we have had the structure of Doctor Who taken apart in front of us over and over again for nearly three months straight. It works because the show has been setting us up for this for months now, showing us worse and worse defeats, showing us how powerless the Doctor can be. This payoff can only happen in the serialized structure of a show that is constantly on. This payoff is absolutely a product of what Doctor Who in 1965 and 1966 is.
And the Doctor collapses. Steven charges out of the TARDIS, trying to save him, and manages to flip the Time Destructor into reverse, making it run time backwards instead. It's too late for Sara, but just enough for the old and collapsed Doctor to be dragged to safety. And we see the Daleks return... the Daleks, who by now are the Daleks as we know them, the ultimate foe of the Doctor, perfectly matched, each side well aware of the other and full of nothing but hatred. It's time for the final showdown, after all of this.
But we're denied that. Instead, we get the Daleks screaming as they are regressed. This is the first meaty death of the Daleks - the first time they have seemed like flesh, not robots. The Dalek casings collapse, revealing the shriveled mutants within. It's physical. It's grotesque.
And in the end, Steven is left to mourn the stupidity of it all. Katarina, Bret, and Sara, all dead. Kembel destroyed.
The Doctor has failed. Inevitably. This was the consequence of everything that went before. That all the youth and hope he represented would be dashed on the rocks.
A flip through the news gives context. Rhodesia, the brutal coup in Nigeria, another former British colony, the Vietnam War. There is horror and death in the world.
Before we thought those things were opposed by the Doctor. Balanced. That he could save us.
Now, on Kembel, where the lush jungle has been reduced to a barren desert full of bodies, we know the truth.
The Doctor loses sometimes.
There's an episode next week, of course. Impossible as it seems. Something actually follows from this. The story continues. Surely, after all of this, after five defeats, after this horrible, gruesome death of Sara Kingdom, things must turn around.
Surely tomorrow must be better?Do you own the (existent) bits of The Daleks Master Plan on DVD yet? If not, consider buying them from Amazon via this link. If you do, I'll get some money.