28 October 2013

Lessons from Doctor Who DVDs

Crossposted from NeuroDojo, where I’m doing a series of essays in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who.

I didn’t start watching Doctor Who at the beginning. I was part of the early wave of Doctor Who fandom in North America. Like a fair number of people, I’d started watching Doctor Who in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the fourth Doctor series were syndicated to public television in the United States.

I learned many of the old Doctor Who stories were lost. Many original tapes had been wiped, because the BBC considered television ephemeral. Most of the old black and white stories from the 1960s existed because someone had pointed a 16 mm camera at a TV screen and filmed episodes for overseas sales.

I was excited when I learned that our nearby American public television station would be showing all the existing stories from the show’s beginning. But at first, I was disappointed. So many of these stories felt so bad to me.

It wasn’t until years later when I started seeing some of the DVDs that I realized my judgment had been compromised. I wasn’t just reacting to the show; I was reacting to the low quality of the images. What I saw on public television were unrestored 16 mm prints, with scratches on the frames and hiss on the audio.

Seeing the restored versions on DVD were a revelation. This comparison of an original and restored frame (from “Seeds of Death,” a second Doctor story) shows how huge the difference could be. Here’s the sort of image I saw broadcast:

And here’s the DVD:

The difference is stunning. Episodes that looked cheap and tired suddenly looked professional and even ambitious.

I realized that I was responding to the scratches on the film far more than I’d even thought. I hadn’t been judging the old stories on their own merit, but I’d been heavily influenced by the presentation of them.

I had a similar reaction when I started to watch DVDs of old Godzilla movies. Like Doctor Who, I’d seen the movies on low quality prints that had scratches and crummy reproduction. I love them, but they seemed cheap. Seeing them remastered on DVD from original negatives, and with subtitles instead of dubbing, completely changed my thinking about the movies. They looked glorious. What I thought was a bad production was actually bad reproduction.

It makes me wonder how many things I rate lower than they deserve because of incidental flaws in how they are presented.

External links

Doctor Who Restoration Team

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