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BritBox UK Review

BritBox has been live here in the UK for a few months now and with the recent addition of most of Classic Doctor Who I’ve taken a look at the service on various apps so let’s see how it fairs.

What is BritBox?

So what is BritBox I hear you ask? Good question. BritBox is an online digital streaming service set up by the BBC and ITV plc to provide, as the name suggests, a library of British box-sets from classic shows through to fairly modern releases.

It’s felt like a long time waiting for certain streaming services to arrive in the UK. We’re spoilt with some things, like the recent Star Wars movies opening a day early, the BBC channel here has no ads and most of the other streaming services have been here along with the US. However, we’re not always so lucky. BritBox is one of those services that has felt like ages before we could get our hands on it (much like the recently launched Disney+ service which doesn’t land here until the end of March).

Whinging aside, BritBox has been available in the US for a while and we finally have it. It launched on 7th November 2019 with a monthly subscription price of £5.99 (you can sign up with a 30-day free trial). I imagine the reason the UK did not get it at the same time is due to the usual kerfuffle of licencing blah blah. There was also one key show missing from the service at launch. Not Doctor Who I hear you cry! Yes, Doctor Who, although they swiftly rectified that.

All about Who

Ultimately, BritBox should, at the moment at least, just be called “WhoBox” (or any other suitable and clever Doctor Who/BritBox name you want to think up). The service has been marketed to Doctor Who fans more than any of the other shows available to stream. For example, when you log in or open up an app (more on those later), the top-level navigation has Doctor Who available right there. You don’t need to search for DW, it’s there, no other show on BritBox has that. Neat.

There’s also been plenty of marketing around DW on BritBox just after it launched in November of 2019. The ads I saw weren’t so much for the service itself but rather all the DW you can watch. Even ITV showed a few ads pushing DW on BritBox (for those of you not in the UK, the BBC and ITV are prime time TV rivals and rarely advertise shows from the other channel).

Diving into Doctor Who

The service has launched, we waited until Boxing Day when they added mostly all of Classic DW, our palms are warm with excitement, we open the app or log in to the site to check it all out but did they deliver on providing us with a worthy amount of content? A big yes is the answer, with a few extras thrown in for good measure.

Search for specific episodes
Search for specific episodes

Go into any other show on BritBox and you’ll see a standard layout of a nice large background image, the title, a few calls-to-action like “watch”, add to “My List” and then a list of series and episodes. With DW however, things are very different, for the better.

Clicking into DW from either the top nav link or from a section that’s on the homepage you’re presented with what’s basically its own area within the app. Unlike other shows, you get the large DW logo at the top then lots of ways to get into each Doctor/era of the show along with curated content that highlights various Doctors and special features. It’s important to note that (at the moment, more on that later) there is no modern DW, it’s all classic.

Some good old fashioned stats and numbers of what’s included:

  1. There are 627 items of content are available
  2. There are 129 complete stories, comprised of 558 episodes
  3. Four of the stories (22 episodes): The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase, The Ice Warriors and The Invasion are made up of a collection of originally aired content along with animation. Shada is presented as a 130 minute special
  4. Two purely animated stories The Power of the Daleks and The Macra Terror are here and in HD
  5. There are 5 “orphaned” stories: The Crusade, Galaxy 4, The Space Pirates and The Celestial Toymaker
  6. The 8th Doctor TV Movie is included
  7. The Underwater Menace, The Wheel in Space and The Web of Fear are included and completed with telesnaps
  8. An Unearthly Child The Pilot Episode is included along with the (amazing) An Adventure in Space and Time
  9. The Sarah Jane spin-off K-9 and Company is included
  10. The documentaries More than 30 Years in the TARDIS and Doctor Who: Doctors Revisited are also here

When you include the orphaned episodes that’s pretty much all of classic Who. There are exceptions where it concerns completely lost stories such as The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Evil of the Daleks and The Abominable Snowmen to name a few but to be honest I can’t blame BritBox for that as it’s one thing to include orphaned episodes or stories completed with animation but the reconstructed stories with just audio is something else. Maybe we’ll see them arrive one day.

Browsing through stories

If you know what Doctor you want to watch or a particular story it’s easy peasy to get to it. You can either click on the Doctor you want from the top section (it displays them using the nice illustrated style artwork that was done last year) and that will take you into that Doctor’s area which displays each story as a collective, you can’t select a specific episode. For example, if you wanted to watch part 3 of The Daemons you couldn’t access that from here (unless you started playing it from part 1 and skipped to the end straight away).

There’s a full-width section further down titled “Over 600 Doctor Who Classic episodes” with a button “browse by episode” which takes you into a more detailed view where you can browse through each series and select episodes directly.

Browse by Doctor's Storeys
Browse by Doctor’s Stories

One important thing to note and something I feel needs fixing is you can’t search for episodes in the main search bar. You can search for “Doctor Who” and it will return a few results like “Doctor Who Classic” and the documentaries etc but that’s it. What’s more strange is if you search for say, Peter Davison, it will return results for all the shows he stars in except DW, weird. So bear in mind if you want to get to a story or specific part you need to go into the sections within the DW area within the app.

One thing I’d like to see improved is the consistency of the episode artwork as there is a mixture of images being used within each series. They’ve gone with a specific photo of each Doctor for a series but then some episodes have used what looks like the image from the dvds along with the same title text and logo. I’m not sure if this is a UX pattern to push people towards certain episodes (I can’t think of why they would do that) or if they didn’t have the time to do all the thumbnails with the episode artwork so they plonked a holding picture in for now? My preference would be to have the episode artwork for each thumbnail as you already know what Doctor and series you’re looking at.

Curated Collections

Along with each Doctor having their own section when you click into them, BritBox has put together some cool collections if you’re having a hard time deciding what story to watch. This is a great feature for me as I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve decided to watch classic Who, walked over to the bookcase and just stared at the dvds for about 10 minutes before closing my eyes, waving my finger, stopping and that’s the story I’m going to watch. Then changing my mind and doing it over again.

Curated Collections
Curated Collections

You get “New to Who” which is one popular storey plucked out of each era along with An Adventure in Space and Time and Tales from the TARDIS. You then get collections like “Villains: Cybermen” or “The Fourth Doctor: 10 of the Best.” Other good collections are the actor’s favourite episodes such as “Tom Baker’s favourite fourth Doctor stories”. What they do is take some of the decision-making process away if you’re in the mood to watch classic Who but aren’t too fussed on what or if you didn’t have a specific Doctor in mind.

They also break the content up with full-width banners suggesting a particular Doctor or story such as the TV Movie or the Tales from the Tardis documentary. As you can tell, they’ve gone much further with putting content together for DW than anything else on BritBox so bravo for that.

How does the app perform?

I’ve so far used BritBox in the browser (Google Chrome), on Apple TV and on my iPhone. Thankfully the development into the apps has been done rather well and performance is good across all three that I tested. My app of choice is Apple TV as it’s awesome watching classic Who on a large TV (plus I use Apple TV for a few other mainstay apps like Netflix, Twitch etc). It’s snappy and I can get around with no issue and the picture quality is top-notch, especially for things like AAISAT and Spearhead from Space which are presented in HD (it’s important to note that while watching any of the episodes, they are all listed as streaming in HD, this is just the output signal from the app/device and not the content itself).

Overall the picture quality for everything else is what you’d expect if you’ve ever seen any of the classic DW dvds. There’s no 4k here, obviously, so it’s either being streamed in its native resolution or in HD as mentioned above. Audio is on par with the dvds too. I’ve not done a side-by-side comparison but I didn’t notice anything wrong or any fancy remixes going on.

The future of Doctor Who on BritBox

This is an interesting question that I’m sure many have asked and I did almost immediately. Concerning Classic DW I imagine we will get more of the upcoming animated lost episodes such as Fury from the Deep and The Faceless Ones along with any other missing parts that may turn up.

Outside of Classic DW, the obvious one is will there be any post-2005 Who added in the future? So far BritBox has been labelled as “…first complete digital home of Doctor Who Classic…” with the emphasis on Classic. For me, I would love to see everything added to BritBox to make it the home of all DW. I mentioned earlier that BritBox is focused mainly on classic TV but they do have recent shows that were available straight away such as Downton Abbey and Gavin & Stacey.

I don’t know the answer to whether modern Who would be “allowed” onto the service but I imagine it’s got something to do with licencing and broadcast contracts in place. DW is still shown on the W channel here in the UK and let’s not forget that all of modern Who is available on the BBC’s iPlayer app for free so I can’t see it being added anytime soon.

There’s also the spin-off’s to consider. At the moment neither The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood or Class are available on iPlayer, nor are they being broadcast on any TV channels. These seem like perfect candidates to add to the service (SJA being a great follow on from K-9 and Company that is on BritBox) but those pesky licencing contracts are likely culprits.

Concerning the physical vs. digital media conversation, I (and lots of other Who fans) am a sucker for my physical releases. I love all of my boxsets and individual dvd releases but there would be something cool about firing up the app and having all of Who available within seconds. “Hmm, I’m in the mood for Remembrance of the Daleks and oooh, do you remember the 9th Doctor storey Dalek, cool let’s watch that after”. Being able to weave your way through classic and modern Doctors and follow a particular monster or reference is a great concept.

Of course, there’s nothing that’s stopping us from getting up off of our arses and putting a disc into a player but the accessibility of being able to browse through the entire library at once is an exciting idea, even if it does mean being a couch potato for longer (just get up after each part and stretch, make a cuppa 😉).

Browse by individual episodes
Browse by individual episodes

In summary

I’m loving BritBox right now. To be honest I didn’t think I was going to sign up, let alone get stuck into watching any classic DW again. My initial thoughts were that I already own them on dvd and blu ray so I have no need to watch them digitally but as I mentioned above, there is something cool about having the library so quickly and easily accessible. I also like the curated collections which guide me into an episode if I’m struggling to make my mind up on what to watch.

A few little UX niggles aside (the ability to search for individual episodes being my main gripe) the app is well made and I haven’t run into any problems. I select an episode, it’s playing within seconds and I’m enjoying classic DW, mission accomplished.

The larger question of if or when modern Who will come over to the service is one I’ll keep an eye on and potentially bug BritBox about now and then. It’s definitely something that will help either retain users and/or brings a lot more over to the service.

For now, though, BritBox has made a suitable place for classic DW and offers a decent service if you plan on doing an epic re-watch marathon or if you want to dip your toe into “old” Doctor Who.

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