EARLY DOCTOR WHO ON DVD - AN INTRODUCTION

Note: this article was written before Doctor Who's triumphal return in 2005!

It would be hard to find anyone in the UK who's over twenty that doesn't already have preconceptions about the long-running BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who. Many will have fond memories of growing up with the series, and the older generations may well remember watching it with their own children. Lack of mainstream exposure over the last decade or so has perhaps dulled the public perception of the programme, but the series still has a loyal and devoted following: certainly enough to make it worthwhile for the BBC to continue to release or license a monthly magazine, an ongoing series of novels, two lines of audio adventures on CD, and a dribble of bottom-of-the-barrel VHS titles (to mop up the last few remaining titles that haven't been officially released on the format). However, by far the most interesting and important new Doctor Who product being offered by the BBC is their growing collection of DVD releases. 

Non-fans may be surprised to learn that the BBC hasn't maintained a pristine archive of every interesting programme they've ever made. In fact very little has survived from the Corporation's first couple of decades. Before the introduction of home video, programmes had limited commercial value. Many were only kept for short periods. The cost of videotape was so prohibitive that it had to be recycled. The BBC sold many of their most popular television shows around the world, but even there they only had a few years' shelf life. At home, very few programmes were being repeated in the UK, partly because of restrictions imposed by the various unions (notably the actor's union, Equity), and partly because repeats simply weren't popular with viewers. Interest in black and white material dropped off considerably in the early seventies, following the introduction of colour television. This was arguably the most significant factor that led to very little early material being retained. With constant pressure of space, and diminishing returns, the BBC maintained a strict policy of only keeping material that was considered "important", or of real commercial value, and so they systematically and routinely destroyed thousands of programmes. Huge swathes of hugely popular series, like Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green are lost forever. Even perennial favourites like Dad's Army and Till Death Us Do Part haven't completely escaped unscathed.

Before 1968 Doctor Who was made on 405-line PAL format video (with the occasional insert shot on film and transferred to tape, like most BBC drama at the time). From 1968 to 1969 the series was upgraded to our current 625-line format (although still in black and white). In 1969 the series switched to colour. No episodes from the sixties survive in their original format, however. Instead they exist as film recordings, which were made by pointing a film camera at a studio-quality monitor, and filming what was on the screen (this technique meant that any problems with incompatible broadcast standards between different countries could be avoided, since film is a universal medium). Sadly this technique caused significant deterioration of the picture quality: instead of having fifty separate images a second (the standard for video), the film recordings only captured twenty-five a second (the standard for film made for broadcast), halving what's known as a recording's temporal resolution. There were other drawbacks to this process: to prevent any clash between the line structure of the original recording and the line structure used by the licenseer, the image was deliberately blurred slightly, reducing its definition. Most surviving Doctor Who film recordings are in 16mm format (either as negatives, or as prints made from them), with a mere handful surviving on the superior 35mm format. 

Many fans of the programme who grew up in the sixties, seventies and eighties have chosen careers in the television industry. Some of them are now belatedly able to work on the Doctor Who DVD releases in a professional capacity, their enthusiasm for the show driving them above and beyond the call of duty to create discs that are truly a labour of love. The series even has it's own dedicated Restoration Team, an unofficial cadre of technical boffins dedicated to wringing the best out of source materials that are often of poor quality, either because of the technical limitations of the time, or because of simple neglect.

To ensure the best possible picture quality for the home video release of the black and white Doctor Who episodes, new telecine transfers are made from the best surviving film prints or negatives, which are also cleaned as part of the process. A modern transfer can differ enormously from one made even a few years ago, offering superior resolution, contrast and image stability. The next stage is to remove, frame by frame, as many flecks of dust and dirt - some of which would have been printed in when the original film sequences were transferred to tape at the time - as humanly possible, and to repair picture faults like tape dropouts and off-locks (the loss of synchronisation between the video and film recorder, which usually manifest themselves as picture jumps).

In the last few years several innovative techniques have been invented specifically for re-mastering Doctor Who, (although naturally many of these processes will benefit anyone releasing - or broadcasting - archive television material). Perhaps the most significant new technical development of the last decade is a process called VidFIRE, which, simply put, reinstates the missing 'frames' that were lost during the transfer from tape to film recording. This more or less recreates the original look and feel of a video recording, (ironic, since most videotaped drama made these days seems to aspire to look like film). The process has been successfully used on several Doctor Who releases (including The Aztecs and The Seeds of Death on DVD, and Planet of Giants and The Sensorites on VHS). It has also been used to restore a couple of recently-recovered episodes of Dad's Army, (The Battle for Godfrey's Cottage and Operation Kilt, which were shown by the BBC on December 28th, 2001).

In April 2005 a refined version of VidFIRE made its debut, on the BBC's award-winning Quatermass Collection DVD set. The first Doctor Who DVD to benefit from the refined VidFIRE was the October 2005 release, The Web Planet.

The cumulative effect of these processes is wholly remarkable. Watching the black and white episodes on DVD is like seeing them again for the first time. Most dedicated fans of the show will have seen most - if not all - of the existing Doctor Who episodes, even those that haven't been officially released on video. Over the years they'll also have been exposed to them from their broadcasts on UK Gold, and from the odd BBC screening (most recently way back in 1992). None of these versions look anything like Doctor Who as it would have appeared when it first aired. Watching the VidFIRE restored episodes adds a new vitality and immediacy to these tired old recordings. The difference the VidFIRE process has made is quite astonishing. It's almost as if a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew, using 21st century equipment, was filming the series alongside a team using creaky old BBC equipment, and that their sharp, sparkling recordings have been newly rediscovered. Hopefully the VidFIRE process will be widely adopted by other video and TV companies, who will be able to use it to revitalise their extensive libraries of telerecorded material for more demanding modern audiences.

VidFIRE is a process that should, as a rule, be applied to all archive material that was originally shot on video, but only survives as a film recording. It's the bare minimum that should be done to bring such material up to acceptable standards for DVD release. It's not a terribly expensive process, and adds enormously to the value of the end product to its potential customers.

 

Last revised January 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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