Saturday, July 12, 2014

Classic Who DVD - Recognizing a Body of Work

Now that the Classic Doctor Who DVD line has just about come to an end, I think it is a good time to recognize the achievements of the range and the team that put it together.

DVDs were a huge boon to TV series collectors and fans.  For the first time, series after series began to be released on DVD.  The smaller size of DVDs made it much easier to store on a shelf than large VHS tapes. Stores could stock many more titles on DVD than on VHS, and successful television shows can take up comparatively enormous amounts of shelf space.  DVDs were better quality, easier to navigate and more robust over multiple viewings.  Rewinding tapes was a thing of the past, a chore which no one regretted. Moreover, since many TV series had not been previously released, or were very expensive when first released, there was less of a feeling of rebuying all over again.

Doctor Who, like Star Trek, was an early pioneer in releasing stories on home video.  The concept of releasing a season or a series of a TV did not yet exist when the range was begun.  Additionally, several episodes were returned to the BBC up until 1992, so the idea of a "Complete Season 7, 8, 9 10 or 11" was not yet feasible.  There was a serious mistake made at the start of the VHS line, releasing stories in the "omnibus" or movie format.  In this format, the cliffhangers and the credits in-between episodes would be edited together to form one movie-length story.  With the 1989 release of The Daleks, this butchery ceased but the BBC never fully replaced the omnibus editions with episodic editions, especially in America.

It took the BBC twenty years (1983-2003) to release all the available episodes of Doctor Who on VHS format.  When the Classic Series ended in 1989, only fourteen stories had been released, most of them "movietized".  The situation had become much improved during the next ten years.  Roughly around 1992, a team of specialists at the BBC were able to re-colorize some Third Doctor stories by combining the color information from inferior NTSC color videotapes with 16mm black and white telecine recordings of the stories.  What became known as the Doctor Who Restoration Team started with this success.  While its presence was visibly or invisibly noticeable on several VHS releases, it wasn't until the DVD range that the RT really became famous within fandom.

In its attempts to restore the classic stores as much as possible, the RT really helped establish several breakthrough technologies.  The first of course is VidFIRE, the process of restoring the fluid video look to telecines.  This has been applied on virtually every First and Second Doctor DVD, often with spectacular results.  Second must be Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC), to reverse the process where the RT only had NTSC videotapes that had been transferred from PAL in the 1970s.  Conversions in the 1970s were crude and probably were little more advanced than repeating every fifth frame and dropping 100 lines.  The RT fixed the juddery and jagged recordings originally made using RSC.  Third is NTSC Telecine Colorization.  If the NTSC tape quality was not sufficient for broadcast, as in a recording made off-the-air, then the color information from the NTSC video would be combined with the higher quality telecine and VidFIRE to make the best possible representation for the video.  Fourth is Chroma Dot Recovery, where color information could be decoded by dots recorded by the telecine, even though it was recording a black and white TV screen.  This allowed for the pain-staking process of colorizing several B&W telecine episodes where no color video survived.  Fifth is using high quality scans of the original negatives of the 16mm and 35mm inserts when available.  This method was used to clean up the titles of the Second through Sixth Doctors, and in stories where the original filmed inserts were available, these dramatically improved the picture quality over the actual inserts recorded on the video.  Sixth is the recreation of the title and end credits, eliminating fuzzy and crooked text with properly sharp and solid text that the viewer would have originally seen on broadcast.

No videotaped series has anything near the restoration work that a long-running show like Doctor Who has seen.  Videotape restoration would appear to me to have been a very neglected field of study.  Part of the reason is due to the fact that videotape was widely seen as inferior to film and relegated to budget shows with artistic merit to match.  Another reason is that restoration is costly and time consuming; in the DVD age, production companies want to get as much material as the public will buy as quickly as possible.  Videotapes and telerecordings/kinescopes are often not in the greatest shape to begin with, so the material that a restorer would have to work with is not particularly inspiring.

The DVD medium is as close to an ideal format as has yet been devised to watch a TV show like Doctor Who.  While not suitable for losslessly compressed video, the format's 720 pixel horizontal resolution notably exceeds the ~400 horizontal pixel resolution of analog tapes on which it was recorded. The format has the capability to make the episodes look as good as they are likely to ever get.  The RT has improved their transfers over the years, as demonstrated with the Special Editions replacing early DVD releases.  When counting for the Special Editions, it took the BBC only 11 years (it would have been 10 without episode discoveries) to release all Classic Doctor Who serials to DVD (2003-2014).  As the range has more-or-less reached its end, the resulting corpus is very consistent.  There are remarkably few errors to speak of despite the vast amount of work required to get these episodes in the shape that they were presented on the DVDs.  There are no embarrassing gaps with only omnibus-releases; off-air-recordings of repeated stories in the serial format may be better than the official VHS releases.

The improvements of the DVDs over VHS are obvious to anyone, even if they have to be shown an A-B comparison.  However, there are more than just the stories to consider.  Every story has subtitles and most have audio commentaries, sometimes more than one.  The sheer amount of extras reminds one of the phrase "an embarrassment of riches."  Most DVDs include extras like scans of Radio Times listings for the story, making-of-commentaries, restoration documentaries, spoofs, parodies, deleted scenes, out-takes, alternate edits or CGI effects, optional "movie" versions, rare production photos and other behind-the-scenes materials, interviews, trailers and continuity announcements, the list goes on and on.  Region 2 releases always had a liner-note card that summarized the features and gave some story background.  Special features were rare on VHS releases.  Other series released on DVD generally do not possess the breadth of special features that the Doctor Who DVDs can boast.

Physically and aesthetically, the DVDs are very satisfying.  DVDs weigh less than VHS tapes and take up much less room.  Each story has its own DVD case and cover, even if it was only released in a box set.  Stories with two and three discs take up as much room as a story with a single disc (with one exception, Lost in Time).  Stories can be stacked in broadcast order without difficulty and can fit snuggly into three shelves at least 7" tall and 28.5" wide.  By contrast, due to the pairing of certain VHS (The Daleks 30th Anniversary) stories in the same box, you could not completely sort by story with using the retail boxes.  Also, the plastic DVD cases are less likely to show visible shelf wear than the black cardboard VHS boxes.  The cover design and the disc menus have been consistent since 2001.

While buying individual stories or thematic box sets is something of a pain, the BBC deserves great credit for releasing Classic Doctor Who with a great deal of respect for the show.  It could easily have taken a "just get it out there", cash-in mentality to the range.  It has devoted substantial resources to the show post-cancellation, and the returns were not guaranteed.  It (and by extension the U.K. citizens who pay for their television licence) spearheaded research into restoration techniques and the production of special features. Here I add my own small "voice" to the praise which the line so richly deserves.

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