Doctor Who - Re:Animation

PrintE-mail Written by J.R. Southall Sunday, 14 August 2011

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A certain quarter of Doctor Who’s fan community – admittedly not the largest quarter, but a significant one nonetheless – was rocked recently by an announcement from 2|entertain (the company that puts the show out on DVD), via its @classicdw Twitter feed. “REIGN OF TERROR missing eps to be animated for DVD,” read the tweet on June the 2nd, and the followers of the forthcoming DVD speculation threads all across the internet sat back in their seats and goggled their eyes.

But why was it such a surprise announcement and what is the bigger significance behind it?

Back in November 2006, The Invasion (a final season Patrick Troughton story) had been released on DVD with the missing first and fourth episodes animated by Cosgrove Hall. At the time, this was a huge development; prior to this release, those 1960s Doctor Who stories which were upwards of 50% complete in the archives, but for which there were still a number of episodes missing (The Reign of Terror – four episodes extant out of six; The Tenth Planet – missing its fourth and final episode; The Ice Warriors – two missing from six; and The Invasion – six existing of the original eight) had been steadfastly ignored by 2|entertain and the Restoration Team (those lucky and widely respected fellows whose excellent work in bringing ancient and damaged videotape and film prints back to life is a significant factor in the quality of the classic Doctor Who DVD releases); the only release thus far to address the incomplete stories was Lost in Time, a 2004 set collecting together what’s known as the ‘orphaned episodes,’ those which exist for stories the greater part of which has been lost.

There are eleven stories completely missing from the BBC’s Doctor Who archives, including Patrick Troughton’s debut, The Power of the Daleks, the earliest Hartnell historical, Marco Polo, and other fairly highly regarded stories such as Fury From the Deep and The Massacre. Beyond that, there are another sixteen stories which are partially, or more often mostly, lost. Among this number is William Hartnell’s final story (the aforementioned The Tenth Planet; the regeneration exists but the 23 minutes building up to it don’t), along with fan favourites The Daleks’ Master Plan (only three of which’s twelve episode span survive), The Evil of the Daleks (six of seven episodes lost) and The Web of Fear, the first, thrilling episode of which is on Lost in Time, the rest of which is missing.

For the past decades, there have been three ways in which fans have been able to enjoy these stories, even with 108 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the television canon. Firstly, the Target books, those sterling works most frequently associated with the early adaptations of third Doctor stories, but which ultimately converted almost every episode of Doctor Who ever broadcast into prose. Among their number are some great novelisations of missing or partially-missing stories; Gerry Davis’ Doctor Who and the Cybermen (a version of the Troughton story The Moonbase, short of 50% of its four episodes) and David Whitaker’s early (it was originally published in the 1960s) The Crusaders (adapted from a similarly depleted story) spring easily to mind. Later on, after a period in which the Target books had become slightly lacklustre and had concentrated mostly on adapting recently-televised stories, a new editor (Peter Robinson) returned to the earliest days of the programme and commissioned better quality re-tellings – often from the original writers – bringing the rest of ‘dead’ Doctor Who back to life.

Then there are the audio releases. It is a significant and wonderful fact that Doctor Who has had such a considerable influence over successive generations of children, that right from almost the very beginning, certain amongst their number sought to preserve its episodes for repeated consumption. Their solution, in the days long before home video (and later DVD) became a household commonplace, was to hold a microphone next to the speakers on the television, and record the soundtrack of the story onto tape. It’s not perfect (how many of these kids must have sighed listening to mum clacking about in the kitchen in the background, whilst the Doctor faced off against the Daleks?) and it sounds silly to us now that anyone might have done such a thing, but thanks to these foresighted fans, we today have audio copies of every single episode that has otherwise been lost or destroyed. Listening to The Celestial Toymaker or The Space Pirates on a pair of headphones on the way to work might not compare with being able to watch it on a television screen, but it is an awful lot better than nothing. And the work of these overenthusiastic children has since become vastly more important for reasons about to be relayed.

During the 1960s, it was commonplace for television directors – not having recourse to showcasing their work via cassette or disc – to secure the services of a telesnap artist in order to maintain a visually interesting portfolio. A telesnap artist, if you’re unaware, is a photographer who takes pictures of a television screen. The resulting shots (about 80 per half an hour of programme) are then shown by jobbing directors to prospective employers, in the course of seeking employment. The significance for fans of 1960s Doctor Who was immense: all of a sudden, when the existence of such galleries of telesnaps was discovered, there was a visual record of the missing episodes as well as an audio one. Eventually the two were put together and what’s known as the Recons were born.

The most widely distributed Recons are the version of The Tenth Planet Episode 4, as released by the BBC on VHS, and the half-hour romp through Marco Polo’s seven episodes that adorns the DVD of William Hartnell’s earliest stories. These are generally fairly simple exercises, that merely screen the telesnaps as a gallery while the audio recording of the episode in question plays on the soundtrack. The marrying of the images to the action is key, and while it’s not, and never can be, remotely like watching the actual transmission episode, it does enable the viewer to understand how the stories would have looked and what they might have felt like. Recent developments by Recon specialists like Loose Cannon have resulted in computer animated reconstructions, whereby three-dimensional backgrounds have been extrapolated from production photographs, and the figures from the telesnaps can be animated (to a degree) inside them.

Thanks to the excitement generated by the Recons and the possibilities afforded by cheaper and more advanced home computing, it is even possible these days for fans to put together (mostly quite short) animations, in a similar manner to Cosgrove Hall’s efforts for The Invasion (a story for which no telesnaps exist), and the hope following The Invasion’s 2006 release was that further animated adventures would emerge.

Sadly, this optimism proved to be – in the short term at least – unfounded, and gradually withered and all but died. The reason was finance. The basis for The Invasion’s existence as a ‘complete’ story in the first place had been accidental, you see.

Back in 2003, there seemed little prospect of Doctor Who’s imminent return to television, and yet knowing that the brand had returned to a position of respect and popularity in the public consciousness, BBC-Interactive were about to relaunch the show with a web-based identity, in the form of Richard E. Grant’s (alternative, as it turned out) ninth Doctor in the story The Scream of the Shalka. Three previous web-based stories had been made, as one-offs, but Shalka was being planned as the first of an actual continuing series. Before Paul Cornell’s story was even released to the public, however, the announcement was made regarding Russell T Davies and the television resurrection, and Grant’s take on the Doctor was doomed – but not before funding for a second story had already been allocated. There existed a situation, therefore, by which funding for an animated Doctor Who existed, and yet there was nothing to animate. Until somebody struck upon the idea of animating those two missing instalments of The Invasion, thus completing a story for which only 25% had been missing, and exhibiting the results on the internet, through BBC-Interactive. In the end, BBCi declined to make The Invasion available, but all was not lost and the episodes were – effectively – given to 2|entertain to release on DVD.

Cue immediate excitement from fans and cries of,“What’s next?”

Of course, there was nothing next. The two episodes of The Invasion had cost, we gather, in the region of £30k each to produce. Insofar as any of us can be aware, the entire budget for a Doctor Who DVD release – including restoration across as many as six episodes or more, plus the commission and production of Value Added Material, or extras – is probably less than the figure required to animate a single episode, perhaps considerably so, and therefore fan hopes of an animated DVD of The Power of the Daleks (always the first story wheeled out for consideration when developments occur, and a story for which no episode – of the six that were made – still exists) were rather far-fetched. The question that remained, after time passed and the hope of a follow-up release more or less vanished, was: Could animating Doctor Who episodes ever be made cheap enough to be commercially viable?

We are approaching the end of the classic series DVD releases now (all extant stories should be available to buy by about the middle 0f 2013), and with time running out, and no further activity on the animation front (at least as far as any of us were aware; a couple of vague announcements in the now-distant past from Dan Hall, head of the RT, about things being in the talking stage, almost forgotten), those of us with a particular interest in the missing episodes had seemingly arrived at the conclusion that The Ice Warriors and particularly, as the least fashionable of the three stories in question, The Reign of Terror, would be released in a similar fashion to the manner of their VHS releases: a short reconstruction bridging the gaps between the extant beginnings and ends of the stories. Hopes remained for The Tenth Planet, however; as Hartnell’s final story (and missing only a single, but extremely significant, episode) and the debut of popular monster the Cybermen, surely they’d push the boat out for a mere 25 minutes’ worth of animation?

But with the announcement of the 2nd of June, all bets are off. If The Reign of Terror’s two missing episodes can now be completed by animation for DVD release, then surely that means The Ice Warriors and The Tenth Planet are a given? Even The Crusade and The Moonbase, two stories which had already previously appeared on the Lost in Time set, but for each of which only two further episodes of the original four need be animated in order for the stories to be released ‘complete’, must now be at least worthy of consideration. In fact, if the process by which The Reign of Terror is being completed can be made cheap and efficient enough, then it might even be possible that before too long, stories which are mostly or even entirely missing from the archives can be animated and released to a public that has been waiting the better part of five decades to see again? Speculation has been running rife these past few weeks.

So what is the process that is being used, who are the team of animators behind it, is there a chance that its use might become much more widespread, and why was The Reign of Terror chosen for its debut appearance?

The last of these questions is the easiest to answer. As the least anticipated of the mostly-complete stories, expectations are lowest for a successful outcome; what this means, in effect, is that it matters slightly less in the case of Reign, if the kinks that need ironing out in order to make the animation process an ongoing concern are done so less thoroughly. Which is not to say that there will be any lack of professionalism on the behalf of the team working on the story; simply that as they hone their process, so it will improve, and thus hopefully that as good as the results might be on this first story, the second story (and the third, and the fourth) will be even better – and if we are to enjoy the debuts of the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors as complete as they can be made, then surely it is to the good that those initial problems such a process will inevitably throw up can be overcome as efficiently as possible beforehand.

The company that has been tasked with the work is known as Theta-Mation, working alongside Big Finish. Big Finish already produce (and have done for many years) Doctor Who audio plays, and indeed were heavily involved in the production of Real Time and the Paul McGann Shada, two of those pre-Scream of the Shalka BBCi webcast stories. Theta-Mation have been working with Big Finish on the production of non-Doctor Who-related animated stories, and it seems their ranks have been augmented by several highly-regarded amateur internet animators, whose unofficial Doctor Who creations have adorned such places as YouTube.

What this means is essentially that the people working on The Reign of Terror are doing so for love rather than for money (although undoubtedly for both!), that rather than having a central ‘factory’-type set up, the work is being completed in a disseminated fashion online (and is thus saving on office rentals and similar such overheads), and that with an emotional stake in the end product, the animators will be working to the very best of their already-proven abilities (and beyond), in order to ensure that what we ultimately get would be what they too would have wanted from such a project. All of which is extremely promising.

The actual process itself also sounds interesting, if the few nuggets of information we’ve gleaned about it are true. From what is being said about The Reign of Terror online, then it is to be animated via a process more akin to virtual puppetry than the usual drawings-on-plates that such animators as Cosgrove Hall employ (however much that particular style of animation might have been enhanced by the use of computers). Effectively, what seems to be happening is this: the sets for a particular episode are built inside a computer (presumably with significant recourse to production photographs), and the characters are then introduced and ‘piloted’ around inside the virtual models, interacting with one another in much the same way as the actors originally did back in the 1960s. Such an approach would probably have been unthinkable as little as ten years ago, when the kind of puppeteering we’re talking about would have proven prohibitively expensive, but now that the overheads appear to have receded to the point whereby use of such a method is the most efficient and cost-effective available, the advantages of the approach are legion.

For a start (and this is by no means as obvious as it will sound), characters only have to be built the once and then are available for all the episodes in which they appear. This isn’t quite as true with more traditional animation: Cosgrove Hall would need to have re-drawn each of these characters whenever a new facial expression or angle of shot was required. With a 3D model of William Hartnell or Frazer Hines, the puppet need only be manoeuvred into a succession of positions to achieve the same result. Moreover, the creation of a series of ‘stock’ secondary characters, which can be redressed and have different ‘faces’ applied, removes the need to start from scratch with the guest cast of every story to be attempted. Once The Reign of Terror is complete, it remains only to create new models for Patrick Troughton and his various companions (plus the later Hartnell companions, of course), and the missing episodes could potentially be animated in earnest with little more than the virtual version of what constitutes the costume department’s responsibility.

The same can perhaps also be said, to a greater or lesser degree, for the sets. Once the process of manoeuvring the ‘puppet’ characters around a virtual set has been honed, the method can then be used to move a succession of different characters around almost any environment encountered by the actors during the weekly rep days of 1960s Doctor Who. Obviously I’m oversimplifying for effect, but once the process of puppeteering these virtual characters around computer-generated sets has begun, the technique becomes much simpler and quicker to repeat thereafter.

Once The Reign of Terror has been completed, then – and once all the hurdles that will doubtless present themselves along the way have been surmounted – the process of continuing with animations of The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors (and who knows, maybe The Crusade and The Moonbase, can begin apace. I might be putting the cart before the horse here (and even if Reign proves something of a failure, or runs so far over budget the other stories aren’t even attempted, just to have the one story will be more than many expected or even hoped for), but it isn’t beyond probability that 2|entertain wouldn’t want to continue and finish the nearly-there canon, if not the entire back catalogue of missing stories.

Indeed, although we actually know very little of what is happening, how quickly work is advancing, and how likely further animations might be – and whether or not the Reign animation will be successful enough even to distribute – it’s equally unlikely that ‘classicdw’ would have seen fit to broadcast the fact that work has commenced if they weren’t sufficiently confident of its success. The very fact that they’ve chosen Reign as their first story indicates the wherewithal exists to animate at the very least The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors, if not several (and hopefully many) more.

It’s not a perfect substitute for the original episodes though, by any means. A large part of televised Doctor Who – particularly, I might suggest, during the second Doctor’s tenure – was in the physical performance of the actors. Animations and Recons will never be able to recreate William Hartnell’s fingers-to-face close-up work, or Hartnell and Hines’ mugging to camera. But neither should they attempt as much, for trying to recreate such idiosyncratic actorial responses artificially would be doomed to failure. There are people who will argue that the animations are further away from the original work than the Recons have been, and that money ought to be being ploughed into creating more sophisticated Recons rather than wasted on ‘cartoons’. In fact, at one point, Loose Cannon’s Recons were due to have been made officially available via I-Tunes (and an abridged telling of Galaxy Four was to have been included on The Time Meddler DVD), but at the ‘eleventh hour’ all of these things were cancelled. This should have been a clue as to the eventual Reign of Terror announcement, had we been looking for it.

But the Recons have pretensions towards authenticity, taking as they do the bona fide available elements and creating something as close as possible to the original experience in its absence. Without the actual actors’ performances, though, the Recons can become even more distancing than a cartoon representation of the episodes. You know that old favourite maxim about androids beloved of science fiction storytellers, that it’s the approximation of humanity without its authenticity that is so disturbing? The same can be true of Loose Cannon’s product: it’s as close as can be achieved to the original experience, and yet without the participation of real human beings instead of merely photographic representations of them, there’s something a little chilling and alienating about the result. The animations create a very definite boundary of unreality between the story and its telling, that makes the experience of watching them – watching from a shared and ‘agreed’ distance between the viewer and the viewed – that much more palatable and easy to enjoy.

There are other concerns that certain fans share about potential animations, too, mostly regarding how closely they should stick to the original transmissions. Should the sets be identical to what was originally created, should they be in black and white and 4:3 (as the original broadcasts of course were), and should they follow the camera scripts as closely as possible to recreate the actual shots and order of their appearance as originally transmitted? Or would it be wiser to accept that the effect of watching an animation will never match the experience of having watched the episodes on broadcast, and introduce colour and widescreen and a little artistic license into the process?

Steve Roberts, of the Restoration Team (who subsequently added the caveat that he was speaking hypothetically, and “you know as much as I do about these animations ... I was just saying how I would do it if it were down to me”), waded into the discussions on Gallifrey Base at the end of June, voicing his opinion that, “Personally, I think all animations should be done primarily in 16:9 colour, with a view to being able to extract a 4:3 monochrome version from it. It wouldn’t add a significant cost overhead, but would mean that the colour version could be offered as an alternative on the DVD and also could be made available for TV sales in a market which wouldn’t touch 4:3 mono.” I think he has an exceptionally good point. If the animations are already set at a ‘distance’ from the experience of the originals, then what is the point of their slavish adherence to the original broadcasts when, to be frank, they would be a great deal more watchable freed up to create an identity of their own? One of the problems of Cosgrove Hall’s realisation of The Invasion was in how dull certain sequences became, when very little was happening (or was allowed to happen) onscreen. A lingering close-up of Patrick Troughton’s face might have been acceptable television back in 1968 (Troughton’s face was a wonderful asset and could be mesmerising even when doing – or seeming to do – very little); a lingering close-up of a more-or-less static drawing of Patrick Troughton loses all the magic of his performance but fails to replace it with any kind of a substitute.

Enhancing the animations by creating them in colour and in widescreen (and I’m not advocating this practice for all of the potential animations: stories of which the majority exists and animation is being used to ‘join the dots’ between episodes, as it were, really ought to be completed in a style as closely resembling the original as possible; the difference between live action and cartoon will be jarring enough without adding colour and widescreen into the mix) can only serve to make the experience of enjoying them a more fulfilling one. Not only that, but as Steve Roberts so rightly states, it opens up the potential for sales to television and the extra revenue that such sales would create. If making The Power of the Daleks in 16:9 colour means making The Evil of the Daleks also becomes possible, then by all means do it. And even if it doesn’t, but that versions of Power for both the purists (on Disc One) and us non-traditionalists (on Disc Two) are available (for very little extra cost), then do it anyway.

There’s an argument that making these stories in colour and then transferring them to black and white (ditto widescreen and 4:3) would result in an inferior end product, but this isn’t necessarily the case either. Taking the latter, there was a very strong television tradition during the early part of this century, in which many television programmes shot in 16:9 would take account of the fact that large portions of the audience would be watching in 4:3, and would frame the shots accordingly. Ancient Doctor Who in 16:9 would mean a greater picture at the sides of the frame, rather than a reduction of necessary content when reframing for 4:3. Similarly, the colour into black and white aspect of the operation needn’t mean a necessary muting of the definition such that areas of the picture would become an indistinguishable grey blur. Contrast would be taken into account when creating the pictures in the first place, and in any case, the effect that is to be reproduced is that (in the main) of videotape recordings, where the black to white contrast is markedly less distinct than on film.

For those people whose main worry is that these animations might attempt an entirely different ‘feel’ to that of the original recordings (such as the difference between, say, the Cosgrove Hall style of animation and Anime), there is always comfort in the knowledge that the Theta-Mation technique will effectively be a recreation of the original recordings, with a limited number of ‘camera set-ups’ following a limited number of ‘characters’ around limited scale ‘sets’. If anything, the very process being used will recreate the originals more effectively than if the animators were to deliberately set out to do so!

One question that I’ve been mulling over is this: if this new style of animation proves efficient and cost-effective enough that the mostly- and completely-missing stories become viable projects, should 2|entertain then sanction the animation of existing episodes (in stories where only a single episode, or possibly two, of the original story exists)? There are two possible reasons for doing so. On the one hand, potential foreign buyers (or even domestic ones; imagine a run of Patrick Troughton stories airing on weekday mornings on CBBC during the school holidays – I’ve long advocated such a potential home for Who animations as a means of raising the money for their creation in the first place) might be put off to discover that their purchase of an animated Doctor Who story included a single episode of live action, in black and white and 4:3. A lot of sales might be lost to such discoveries, whereas the relatively small extra cost of animating, say the fourth episode of The Celestial Toymaker might also bring in sales that would potentially cover the cost of animating the whole story in the first place.

The other reason is a purely aesthetic one: if The Web of Fear exists only as a single episode and a soundtrack for the other five, then surely the experience of watching an animated reconstruction of the story would be a more consistent (and thus pleasing) experience, if it were to be of an entirely animated version of the story – with the extant episode thereby becoming effectively an ‘extra’ on the DVD release. Obviously, fans could choose to watch the live action version of Episode 1 and ignore the animated version if they so wished, but for the majority of people, I’m sure having the choice would hardly be a privation.

Before I wrap up, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention Ian Levine. As many of you will know, Ian is a Doctor Who fan of long-standing and often oddly-worded opinion. He has as many enemies as friends within the Doctor Who fan community, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that he was a very early champion of saving episodes that were no longer required from destruction (were it not for Ian, The Daleks would be among the list of the missing), and the fact that he had a semi-official advisory capacity on the show during the JNT/Eric Saward regime, which led to the production of such stories as Attack of the Cybermen, which he is widely believed to have partially co-written. He is also a man of greater means than many, being a record producer by trade and having been instrumental in the creation of Take That, and one of Ian’s great pleasures in life is in ploughing some of that money into the restoration of missing Doctor Who.

Ian’s latest projects have been recording and then animating the missing material from the cancelled Tom Baker production Shada (there is a gallery of images from the new version on Ian’s Facebook profile) and an entirely self-financed animation of the single episode prelude to The Daleks’ Master Plan, Mission to the Unknown. Whether either of these projects (which have been taken on entirely outside of the auspices of the BBC) ever see the light of day is questionable; Ian’s mode of operation is to complete the projects wholly independently, and then present the results to 2|entertain almost as a coup de grace, leaving the decision over whether or not to purchase and then distribute them entirely down to the company itself (a little emotional blackmail surely comes into play here; having whet fans’ appetites with mentions of, and screen caps from, the projects, it then leaves 2|entertain looking like the spoilsports if they fail to take up Ian’s offer).

Whether or not we do ever see them, though, they are at least an indication that animation is indeed the way forward; Ian has been a longstanding champion of the Recons, but if even he is now bowing to the inevitable, then it looks like the only way we’re ever going to be able to enjoy those 108 missing Doctor Who episodes (officially, at least), is through the medium of animation. Dan Hall’s reason for cancelling the Galaxy Four reconstruction’s appearance on The Time Meddler was that the animation of the two missing episodes of The Invasion had raised the bar for what fans expected in terms of quality on the DVD releases, and that Recons simply no longer cut the mustard.

I can’t wait, myself. I think ‘cartoon’ versions of the missing stories are by far the more attractive prospect (although I’ve nothing against the Recons per se); the artificiality of the reconstruction is not – to me – so much a stumbling block, as it is instead a way of making accessible episodes that are, to many, otherwise only available on audio (and I for one find listening to stories that were intended for visual consumption an unsatisfying occupation; particularly in the case of stories that are six or seven, or even twelve, episodes long). As a visual aid, an animated representation of what’s happening helps us to follow the plot without becoming distracted by questions of the accuracy of the depiction. For many, a cartoon Fury From the Deep or The Macra Terror will be the equivalent of an entirely new story. And if we are to experience them for the first time as DVD releases, then it’s almost like we’re back in the 1960s all over again, a generation of Doctor Who fans enjoying these stories for the first time, at the same time as one another – just like we did when they were first broadcast.

So fingers crossed that The Reign of Terror is less a false dawn than the beginning of something wonderful. And good luck to Theta-Mation and 2|entertain: our hopes are with you!

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0 #2 J. R. Southall 2011-08-14 15:33
I'm not sure that link copied properly...
0 #1 J. R. Southall 2011-08-14 15:32
The following article has since turned up online:
which kind of cnages the playing field somewhat; although it's hard to tell where the boundaries between fact and wishful thinking are blurring.
Certainly it's still an exciting prospect and speculation will continue to be rife!

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