Doctor Blu or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Clarity

September 1, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 6 Comments

There’s a fascinating article now up on the Guardian website in which Shane Danielson voices his complaints about Blu-ray, a medium designed for today’s state-of-the-art digital cinema that, he points out, can make the classics of yesteryear look like amateur hour with their alien invaders held up by wires and actors caked in theatrical make-up.  His argument, essentially, is that something intended to be immersive can frequently become its polar opposite. Sometimes, the sheer depth and texture can be incredibly distracting, taking youout of the story itself. Conversely, if the transfer isn’t quite right, the flaws and imperfections are all too visible.

He makes some valid points, but all I’m thinking is… he’s obviously not a Doctor Who fan.

Doctor Who The Web Planet Menoptera

I grew up in the 1980s, a decade when the VHS became an essential add-on to the telly but where commercially releasing old television series was in its infancy. The only way most British Doctor Who fans could acquire older stories was to rely on friends in America or Australia, where the show was perpetually repeated, to tape them and post them across the world. 

Of course, those fans who smuggled the show back into Britain would then copy the tape for their own UK friends, and so on and so forth. It was quite possible to end up watching an 8th or 9th generation copy: fuzzy, degraded, impossible to watch or hear in places…but still the magic remained.  It was the story that mattered.  Some of us told ourselves that, actually, the detail of those shoestring sets and effects were better shrouded by the static of these ropey hand-me-down VHS tapes.

Eventually, of course, it all got released on home video, and those fears proved unfounded.  Even when we could see a crap monster costume or the Dalek bumping into the set, the strength of story carried us through.  And then along came DVD… 

The guys who put together the classic Doctor Who DVDs (the Restoration Team) are, it’s fair to say, about the best in the business. Equal-parts fanboys and technical geeks, they know and love every frame of the show and have supervised astonishing restorations of picture and sound quality.  And the result of their endeavours was that fandom asked the same questions now outlined by Danielson when looking at Blu-ray.  How good does the picture quality need to be? Should we hide the telltale evidence of elements that don’t hold up under the scrutiny of today’s technology?  Do we really need to pay all that money to upgrade our collections?

And, of course, the Restoration Team had exactly the same debate that Danielson raises in the Guardian article about the pros and cons of ‘airbrushing’ out the wires. As connosieurs and archivists, they’ve taken the sensible view that, in general, a ‘warts and all’ approach is best. Doctor Who was always a series that punched above its weight, trying just about everything to to create futuristic worlds and scary monsters on a shoestring budget…even if it meant smearing Vaseline on the lens to mimic the atmosphere of an alien world. 

So, by and large, the imperfections are on show.  In some cases, the Team has commissioned CGI effects (or, in rare cases, re-edited the original story to modern pacing) to offer alternatives to the original versions.  Not, George Lucas take note, replacements.  But appropriately, the only times when the RT has intervened to overwrite the original has been to replace elements that couldn’t be used, for example music cues that proved too expensive to license, or effects shots so degraded that they couldn’t be restored to the quality of the rest of the picture.

The most interesting area of their work is where they’ve actively improved upon the source material to approximate the look and feel of the original broadcast.  See, much of what survives from the show’s early days isn’t the original video recordings (which the BBC long since wiped) but film prints struck for export sales and recovered from around the globe…  The Restoration Team then uses a bespoke technology called Vidfire to recreate the old effect, effectively transforming the grain of film into the vivid clarity of VT.  The effect is as hyperreal as Danielson claims Blu-ray to be, and some fans hate the fact that every wire, every fluff is now pin-sharp.  But the benefits outweigh the bad; in archival terms, it’s close to alchemy.

Ironically, the Restoration Team’s effort in making something look like videotape goes against the (ahem) grain of Blu-ray thinking, where video is a curse to restorers because it can’t be digitised in the same way as film negatives.  But the RT’s work is to show off the original programme to its best advantage, and Doctor Who was mostly shot on VT.  Blu-ray will offer nothing better than what is currently available in standard definition; if anything, it would be counter-productive, forcing a depth of image that the source wouldn’t be able to withstand.  On a big HD telly, it would probably be one ugly, blocky mess. 

Technically, two ‘classic’ Who stories might be upgradable because they were shot exclusively on film. A BBC strike prevented 1970’s Spearhead From Space from being taped in-studio in the usual way, while the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie  was an American co-production with money to burn.  But everything else?  No point.  Even the new series has been shot mostly on standard-def video, only upgrading to HD during the 2010 specials, so it’d be a rigmarole to fake 1080p even for the bulk of the Christoper Eccleston / David Tennant era (although it has been done for one episode so that it could match the more recent stories on the box-set).

So, to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans to re-release the Who series in Blu…and the painstaking work put into the DVD releases continues apace.  It’s a commendable decision, really, putting technical savvy above mercenary commercial instinct…and surprisingly, it isn’t unique to old telly.  Apparently The Shield will never get a Blu-ray release either, because the grainy 16mm film stock (a deliberate aesthetic choice, selected for its rawness) would look rubbish blown up to HD. 

The home viewing experiences of Doctor Who fans over the past few decades run the gamut from the virtually unwatchable to the practically unmissable (much like the series itself!) and it has instilled a sense of perspective.  Those ropey off-air VHS tapes focussed our minds on the series’ rich imagination and verbal wit…but who wouldn’t want to swap the static-filled picture and buzzy sound for the astonishing care and attention accorded the DVD releases.  At the same time, the memories of those halcyon days of underground tape-swapping mean that Who fans are realists.  The series is never going to look as gleaming as Avatar (some would say, thank goodness for that); what’s important is that the medium shows the series to its best advantage.

Which brings us neatly back to cinema on Blu-ray.  For a long time I had the same debate as Danielson as to whether I needed, or wanted, that level of visual precision…and then I thought about all the films I love where visual precision is essential to their overall effect.  (Cinema is a visual medium, after all!) Sure, it’s a difficult balance to strike – too good a transfer, it’s alienating; too poor, what’s the point? – and yet, done well, the results are staggering. Just as with Doctor Who and the Restoration Team, it depends on giving the job of transferring the film to high-definition to people who care (the BFI, Masters of Cinema, Studio Canal and others). My (re)discovery of the year has been Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods, a weird epic I’d been underwhelmed by when I saw it at the cinema a decade ago but whose sumptuous visual sweep floored me on Blu-ray in Masters of Cinema’s gorgeous transfer.

So, while it might be news to Danielson, Blu-ray isn’t an imposition. It’s a choice. Be picky. Only buy Blu if you think you’re going to enhance the experience.  If you’re happy with the DVD or videotape you’ve already got, fine…but conversely, don’t cut off your HDMI cable just to spite your widescreen telly. There are many, many reasons to upgrade.  It all depends on what you’re watching.

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  1. Jay BellSep 1, 2010 at 1:09 pmReply

    Great article! I only wish the Restoration Team were in charge of the New Series Blu-Ray releases. I've always felt they lack the love and detail the RT are famous for bestowing. I do hope Spearhead on BD happens, if only to see what the RT can do with high definition.

  2. RobertSep 1, 2010 at 6:49 pmReply

    Excellent article, you've written. Well worded and some good points. However, I'll be a picky Doctor Who fan and point out that the series was upgraded to HD in 2009, not 2010 =]

  3. ShallowSep 2, 2010 at 10:12 amReply

    I regret to say that the RT have overwritten the original material in a wider range of cases than that suggested by the author, most notoriously in the CGI spanner animation 'to help sell the shot' in part 4 of The Pirate Planet. They've got bolder with this kind of interference as time has gone on – remaking credit sequences, trying to paint out boom mike shadows and passing vehicles etc.

    Sadly, they've also made mistakes – errors of judgement like the colour grading on Black Orchid which makes everyone look as if they're wearing lipstick, and plain cockups like the missing door sound effect in Trial of a Timelord and the missing credits for two of the actors in Time Warrior.

  4. Simon KinnearSep 2, 2010 at 1:27 pmReply

    Shallow… my mistake on the Pirate Planet incident. That was specifically what I was alluding to when I mentioned: "effects shots so degraded that they couldn't be restored to the quality of the rest of the picture." Re-reading the article on the RT website, I realise that isn't quite the case.

    What actually happened was this:

    "Originally as the equipment exploded, the wrench vanished – the intended effect being that it was engulfed by the blast. Unfortunately, due to the imprecision of manual vision mixing, it is suspended in front of the blast for a few frames and then disappears. In the remade version, we took the liberty of allowing the wrench to be blasted back towards the camera at this point to help 'sell' the effect better."

    A different matter entirely…but only if you're a purist. It certainly doesn't change my original point. This isn't tinkering with story, meaning or texture: it's purely a point of clarification to make it obvious what has happened. I've seen both versions, obviously, and this really isn't the "Greedo shoots first" moment it's been painted as by fandom. Actually, had I not heard the furore at the time, I doubt I'd have noticed.

    As for the other things, the occasional mistake or misjudgement is bound to happen given the sheer quantity of material they're working through, on a limited budget and without the resources of a major studio. They have to balance the demands of archival posterity against more cutthroat commercial considerations, and 99% of what they do is a vast improvement on anything available before.

    I wonder how many of the RT's detractors have stopped buying the Who DVD range in protest…

  5. Mr. JonesSep 5, 2010 at 12:36 pmReply

    I stopped buying them not because of these changes as NONE of them are as jarring as, let's say, Han shooting first, but I stopped because:

    a) I'm skint
    b) I'll wait for full seasons instead of drip feeding.
    c) I've been put off the show for a while because of fan forums.

    Paco Jones.

  6. » Curzon On Demand: Bringing Funny Games Into The Comfort Of Your Own Home » KinnemaniacMay 2, 2012 at 10:15 amReply

    […] quality was DVD standard but , like I pointed out last year, I grew up watching ropey, 9th generation VHS copies of old Doctor Who stories so who am I to complain?You have to bear in mind I was watching a fifteen-year-old film made when […]

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