Over the years, teams of fans and restoration experts have been working wonders with classic Doctor Who adventures, leaving us with stories that look better than they did when they were first broadcast. What’s the secret to their success?
Restoring classic Doctor Who adventures is no easy task. It’s not simply a case of digitising analogue material, or giving the film reels a bit of a clean. The reality is a lot more complicated, and well beyond the technical know-how of the witty little knitters here at Lovarzi (scarves are our main thing.) But we’ll do our best to explain.
First, there are the black and white Doctor Who adventures. As many of you know, the original videotapes of Doctor Who‘s early years have all been destroyed completely, having been wiped for reuse by the BBC or burned because they were considered to be of no further value.
The copies we have, therefore, are film duplicates which were made for overseas sales. And whilst these, too, should have been destroyed, they escaped the furnace for various reasons; sometimes, curious fans saved them before they could be burned and kept them in private collections.
And the quality and preservation of these film prints varies depending on the story. Some Doctor Who adventures were relatively well-preserved; the 2013 discovery of ‘The Enemy of the World,’ for example, benefitted from the fact that its six film cans had remained untouched in an African archive for over 40 years.
However, other Doctor Who adventures such as the first episode of ‘The Crusade’ (recovered in 1999) suffered considerable damage, partly from being over-played in badly-maintained projectors over the years.
The ultimate restoration goal for all of these Doctor Who adventures, though, is to return the films to a state that resembles (or even exceeds) their original quality. This sounds impossible, in principle, given that film typically runs at 24 frames per second whilst videotape (the episodes’ original format) runs at 30. As such, the look and feel of these Doctor Who adventures will be inherently different, as the motion in the film copies will be less fluid.
And yet, remarkably, the Doctor Who Restoration Team managed to perfect a system called VidFire which was able to ‘restore’ the missing frames to the films. It may sound like a science fiction concept worthy of the Doctor themselves, but it’s really just a case of technical and mathematical know-how. (Didn’t someone once say that any advanced form of science is indistinguishable from magic…?)
Basically, the VidFire process is able to create new frames based on the information in the surrounding frames, and then re-insert them into the Doctor Who adventures. The result is the restoration of the more fluid motion of the video tape originals, allowing these Doctor Who stories to look much as they did when they were first broadcast. (Although given the clarity and the sharpness that the Restoration Team has been able to achieve, one could argue that these Doctor Who adventures look better than ever before.)
This isn’t the only restoration hurdle, though. There are some Doctor Who adventures which were shot in colour, but have only survived as black and white film prints. And whilst it is one thing to restore missing frames, how is someone supposed to restore the episodes’ original tones, short of hand-painting the story frame by frame?
But there are other techniques which are somewhat more complicated. One of these is to combine a black and white film print with any surviving colour reference material, such as off-air recordings made by fans at the time of the original transmission. The problem, though, is that off-air recordings tend to be of much lower quality, even if they do contain the original colour.
Then there is the other, more unusual problem of the shape of the picture. Film copies of some Doctor Who adventures have a discernible curve, as the copy was created by pointing a film camera at a curved TV monitor, leaving an effect which wasn’t present in the original tape. So even when the sharper film copies are merged with colour recordings to create cleaner composites, the two pictures don’t always match up, meaning that some digital manipulation is needed to bring the two recordings into synch – and then some manual intervention to make the finished colours look more natural.
By far the strangest restoration technique, though, is that of chroma dot recovery. In the 90s – when some classic Doctor Who adventures were repeated on BBC Two – eagle-eyed fans noticed that there appeared to be some colour information leaking through the black and white broadcasts. Upon investigation, they discovered that the colour data was still present in the black and white films, etched onto the material as a series of ‘chroma dots.’ And they created a piece of software which could decode this information and extract the episodes’ original colour from the prints.
It’s a surprisingly effective technique, as crazy as it might sound, and has been used with such adventures as ‘The Ambassadors of Death,’ ‘The Mind of Evil,’ ‘Planet of the Daleks’ episode three, and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs‘ episode one (or just ‘Invasion’ if we’re being picky.)
Of course, it’s not 100% perfect; ‘Invasion’ was dubbed a “best endeavours” attempt when it was released on DVD owing to its somewhat patchy nature. Often, considerable manual intervention is needed to tweak the colour tones, and this can be a long and costly endeavour. But there is always a possibility that the story will be returned to its full glory one day.
Overall, this is just a snapshot of the restoration techniques used on classic Doctor Who adventures. But there is much more to consider, such as audio restoration (and whole books could be written on that subject!)
For a more detailed breakdown of the restoration process, check out the Doctor Who Restoration Team’s website.