Old Wine in New Skins

Thoughts on re-presentations of vintage Doctor Who

In the run-up to Doctor Who’s sixtieth anniversary last month, two announcements in particular took this fan somewhat by surprise. Firstly, accompanying the release of the bulk of 20th century episodes onto the UK’s publicly-funded streaming service BBC iPlayer, came a brand new spin-off series exclusive to that platform: Tales of The Tardis.

Secondly, the BBC confirmed the rumour that early black and white episodes of the series might be colourised for broadcast. Rumours initially suggested An Unearthly Child, the first story, would get this treatment, but certain rights issues prevented it from making it onto iPlayer at all. Unbowed, Auntie Beeb commissioned a colourised, edited, and enhanced edition (a “cosmic makeover” according to the press release) of the second Doctor Who – and first Dalek – story, the seven-part serial usually known as The Daleks.

To mark the anniversary I’ll share my thoughts on these matters, dipping into the now public archive of vintage Doctor Who, and explore some of the issues around presenting them in new ways. Another surprise was the inclusion in the iPlayer release of animated versions of missing Doctor Who episodes, and I’ll begin by discussing one of these.

The Evil of the Daleks

Many 1960s Doctor Who episodes were junked by the BBC and may not exist, although junked episodes occasionally turn up around the world; odds and ends survive from otherwise missing stories. A classic example is Episode Two of the 1967 serial The Evil of the Daleks, discovered in 1987. I acquired a copy of this on the underground fan network in the late 80s, and have long admired it for its extraordinary acting by Patrick Troughton and Marius Goring, and for Derek Martinus’ direction. It’s the only surviving Dalek episode of the 1960s not written by their creator Terry Nation, giving us a rare glimpse of the Daleks as written by David Whittaker.

Despite this, I was never tempted to buy the animated version of the story commercially released on disc in 2021. Indeed, no animated version of missing stories, other than the first example, the DVD release of the mostly-complete 1969 story The Invasion, have tempted me. I’m glad they exist and admire their ambition but they just weren’t for me. Arguably, the cheap 2-D animation style acts as a metaphor for the low-budget of the originals, but for me doesn’t evoke their inventiveness. The animations felt too simplistic to capture the style of the original designers and directors, and that’s what I’m interested in seeing.

With the release of some of these animations onto iPlayer, my partner and I decided to watch the animated Evil. She felt I had been too quick to judge the animations: she enjoyed the style, reminding her of the animation shows Mary, Mungo and Midge and Captain Pugwash that were a mainstay of children’s programming for our generation. However, as the seven-part serial wore on, the interest and novelty began to wane. My partner, unimpressed, regarded the presentation as ‘not very exciting’. I had to agree.

I think the animation could go one of two ways to be more successful. It could attempt a faithful recreation of the spirit of Martinus’ original production, emphasising its strengths while compensating for its deficiencies. Or, it could go for broke with a higher budget [1]which I concede as impossible for these niche releases and attempt an ambitious and inventive retelling of the story, expanding its scope, as if the same script could be shot as a modern high-quality production.

But what we have achieves neither of these two options. Compare the gothic chaos of Maxtible’s laboratory as Martinus shoots and lights it with the bright and tidy cartoon lab, failing to reproduce the spirit of Martinus’ mise-en-scene, despite a nod to the original establishing shot with a rare 3-D animation sequence.

Nevertheless, now these reconstructions are free at the point of use, no doubt I will be dipping into them. The animated Fury From The Deep strikes me as achieving a certain atmosphere and sense of drama, despite its similar limitations. But I’d rather wait for near-future technology to advance to achieve, using the off-screen stills that exist, reconstructions that can be both more authentic and more ambitious.

A not-we friend of mine [2]‘not-we’ is how Doctor Who fans refer to those outside our culture, the term deriving from the 1983 story Kinda. His name’s John Brockelsby, occasional commenter on this site is highly critical of the BBC-Disney deal over Doctor Who, considering it a sell-out of British culture to US multinational interests. While I have countered his scornful contempt with a nuanced argument, we have agreed the deal reflects a BBC which, for various reasons, has been unable to grow iPlayer commercially into a global streaming service with the reach to compete with the US giants Disney, Amazon, and Netflix. If only it could, the Disney deal would be unnecessary. In the debates over BBC funding during the dying days of the Johnson administration, supporters and defenders of the BBC suggested that such a move, if it could be achieved, would help secure the BBC’s future and maintain the existing domestic arrangements.

Nevertheless, iPlayer remains a precious British achievement, a pioneer of public-service media streaming, with incredible potential due to the BBC’s remarkable archive of material that survived the twentieth century. Greg Dyke, director-general of the BBC between 2000 and 2004, made increasing public access to the BBC archive a policy objective, and if he had survived as D-G more archive material would probably made it to iPlayer. Doctor Who‘s ‘new’ showrunner Russell T Davies trailed the announcement that the bulk of twentieth-century Who was coming to iPlayer by appearing to campaign for it in the press, arguing we should see the BBC archive as our heritage. Nothing to argue with there: this momentous release deserves praise, and will hopefully open the gates to more BBC archive material emerging into the public sphere, just as Dyke argued for over twenty years ago.

Who is Tales of the TARDIS for?

Tales of the Tardis represents a curious, if contrived proposition. The idea is to recruit former Doctors and companions to record new scenes aboard a so-called ‘Memory TARDIS’, a hodgepodge of previous Tardis designs, a mysterious fireside venue where the Doctors and companions find themselves transported and reunited. There they introduce an old story from their time, represented to the audience more or less complete and original, but edited as an omnibus edition.

In the 1970s, several popular Doctor Who serials from the previous year or so would get a summer or bank holiday omnibus repeat. Fans of my generation will also recall the sometimes severely cut-down and edited-together omnibus releases of Doctor Who on VHS. In some ways I see Tales of the Tardis as the spiritual successor to these enterprises. But it exists in a wholly different context, in which the originals are available alongside them. So why not go further? Why not present cut-down, pacier versions of these tales, with colourisation and new effects from the DVD releases? If we are seeing a memory of these adventures, it seems appropriate to present them in this way, especially if the aim is to encourage a new generation of viewers to discover these classic tales in fresh and interesting re-tellings.

Tales of the Tardis, to me, would mainly appeal to long-term fans who know the originals, and will enjoy old friends reuniting to reminisce, and sometimes to heal. Witness YouTube reactor Sesskasays’ reaction to Tales of the Tardis here and here.

But for me, watching Tales of the Tardis: Earthshock, even with the as-new picture quality, I found myself doing the odd chore or even skipping over some familiar moments of these vintage Doctor Who stories because I was keen to experience the new stuff at the end.

The next story to receive this treatment, Vengeance on Varos is a story I’ve in the past called “idiosyncratic, very political and satirical”. However, it suffers from Doctor Who’s mid-1980s misogynistic turn. YouTube reactors Gallifrey Gals, who do valuable work with their perspective on vintage Doctor Who, reacted especially strongly against this, noticing its incongruity with previous eras of the show. Tales of the Tardis delighted me as a fan, and I was pleased to see The Curse of Fenric diverge from the TV version and use the special edition, but even then I must admit I found myself skipping over the all-too familiar vintage content, keen to just consume the new material.

So I think there’s an issue about who Tales of the Tardis is aimed at. An old-school fan like me can take or leave them, despite my pleasure at seeing old friends make new scenes. I’d find them more interesting if the old material were edited down into pacier versions, and I think that would also be more appealing to viewers new to this material. With the originals available intact, I see no issue around presenting these vintage tales in cut down versions. Again, like the animations, I wonder if Tales of the Tardis suffers from treading a mediocre path, too conservative with the originals to appeal to new viewers.

The Daleks in Colour

In contrast, this newly colourised and re-scored version of the 1963/4 story The Daleks is probably too radical to really succeed. It is a truth almost universally acknowledged, and certainly a view I’ve held since I first saw it, that at seven episodes long - nearly three hours – this story could certainly use a trim. Nevertheless I was interested to see how the editor would manage such a drastically truncated version of a story that depends so much for its effect on a slow build of atmosphere, tension, and jeopardy, punctuated by some moments of high televisual drama, especially its sometimes brilliantly vertiginous cliffhangers. My first thought was that this, at 75 minutes, will inevitably be too short, and I’m afraid after multiple viewings that’s still my view. Not that we should blame editor Ben Cook for this – as he confirmed online, the 75 minute duration “was the target, for a TV airing”[3]https://twitter.com/benjamin_cook/status/1728140909697454576 – in other words that’s what the BBC commissioner wanted, presumably without considering whether it was the right length for the material, as well as budgetary contraints [4]“any longer and the colourisation team might’ve killed us.” -ibid..

Given those constraints, the editing succeeds. And yet…there are moments of editing that seem to me unnecessary, such as a flashback to illustrate a character recalling an event that takes place a mere 10 minutes of screentime previously. I’m frankly puzzled by this apparent pandering to the modern notion that people’s attention spans are lower in the internet age, especially since Cook online demonstrates a nuanced view of that commonplace idea. Some of the new inter-cutting of scenes and locations strikes me as too jarring, and as far as I can tell superfluous as workarounds.

The soundtrack, Mark Ayres augmenting Tristram Carey’s original score, immediately arrests the ear with a beautiful take on the Delia Derbyshire theme tune, which succeeds in making it fuller and more palatable to modern ears, without in any way compromising the spirit and tone of the original. When RTD and co were putting together the 2005 series, they considered using the 1967 mix of the theme straight up, but concluded that despite its reputation as the classically perfect version of the original, it sounded too empty and old. As Julie Gardner commented, the version they approved worked because it sounded like the theme of old (sampling as it does the original) but with a energetic orchestra giving it a new power and energy underneath. What Mark Ayres achieves here almost seems to me to draw inspiration from that approach, but in a way more in keeping with the original sound. Impressive and some of Ayres best work.

After a colourised title sequence, the production then makes the odd decision of switching to black and white. In the original opening shots of the petrified forest, the camera was partly over exposed to produce a part-negative effect, to indicate the alien environment. It’s one of those extraordinary moments of electronic distortion of a television picture early Doctor Who experimented with and pioneered. The original effect lasts a few seconds, before fading to a normal exposure. Choosing this moment to fade the colour back in struck me as gimmicky, and took attention away from the experimentation of the original. I would have preferred the colour simply to have been present throughout. But the production commits what I feel should be seen as a cardinal sin in any visualisation of a writer’s work: wilfully ignoring the script.

screenshot of the colourised forest backdrop

The text states clearly in the dialogue in the petrified forest, Doctor Who‘s first alien landscape, that “everything is sort of white and ashen”. As the review in the Torygraph noted, not as far as this production is concerned, where the forest is brightly coloured in greens and browns and orange.

This comes up a few moments later when Susan finds a perfectly preserved flower which she notes “has even kept some of its colour”, implying colour is a rarity in this environment. Yet the flower is fully colourful, and not the faded fossil the script implies. I liked the choice to go for saturated pop-art colours in itself, but not when the script clearly points in the opposite direction. This misses a trick, failing to emphasise the ‘ashen’ forest of the dead planet, and the implied catastrophe, by contrast with the newly arrived colours of our heroes and the Tardis.

The edit does show ingenuity, re-tooling some plot elements with the brilliantly simple but clever technique of recording new Dalek dialogue. This technique is also used to seriously improve the climax of the story. The defeat of the Daleks in the original comes across as an anti-climatic easy victory. Here, the use of new Dalek dialogue and a quick FX shot of the city greatly clarifies how the Daleks are defeated, and makes it seem more like a narrowly-won victory after a hard-fought and desperate campaign. I also liked the addition of beams to the Dalek guns paired with the original full-screen negative effect.

So inevitably as something of an experiment, I see this as a mixed-bag. There’s much to admire in it, but also much to frankly deride. In a year’s time, another colourised and edited adventure will be shown, rumoured to be the 1969 story The War Games, which I think presents a more straightforward challenge, and less opportunity to fail. Despite the highly qualified success of this experiment, I look forward to it.

All of this Doctor Who content is available for free in the UK. Have fun exploring!

References and Footnotes

References and Footnotes
1 which I concede as impossible for these niche releases
2 ‘not-we’ is how Doctor Who fans refer to those outside our culture, the term deriving from the 1983 story Kinda. His name’s John Brockelsby, occasional commenter on this site
3 https://twitter.com/benjamin_cook/status/1728140909697454576
4 “any longer and the colourisation team might’ve killed us.” -ibid.

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