Interview: DOCTOR WHO - The DVD Team

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Doctor Who DVD Feature

The people in charge of putting together the DVDs have become essentially the curators of vintage Doctor Who, responsible in large part for how we watch the classic series. Starburst Magazine spoke to Mark Ayres, Peter Crocker, Steve Roberts and Dan Hall, to ask them about the range

What was your first experience of Doctor Who, and what was it that made an impression upon you?

Steve Roberts: I was born in 1965 and grew up with Pertwee. I’m not sure when I first started watching, but the first story I can remember with any great clarity is Terror of the Autons. My most vivid memories are of daytime repeats of The Sea Devils, which I saw in the staff room of what would much later become my secondary school, and of The Green Death, which scared me so much I had to turn it off and go outside to play in the sun.

Dan Hall: I have a vague memory of having seen Pertwee’s, which I’m far too young for – I was born in 1973 – and I’ve since found out that was probably watching The Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat season. My mother saw An Unearthly Child go out and loved it, so she always spoke about it, and I’ve got a brother who’s five years older than me who watched it as well. So it was sort of always there, but it was wallpaper for me until, I’d say, probably about JNT taking over actually, because I remember coming home to watch that final season of Tom Baker, so it was sort of around that time. If I had to go for a story? It might actually be Carnival of Monsters in fact. And then I consumed the books like crazy, the Target books, because I was suddenly aware of this legacy which wasn’t accessible to me at the time. So I was reading and reading and reading and it was fantastic.

Mark Ayres: As a child of the 1960s, Doctor Who was part of the landscape. I was not a regular viewer immediately, but I remember Daleks, the Yeti in the Underground, Autons… it wasn’t until 1972 that I became totally hooked, and what made the biggest impression on me was the way the programme sounded – like nothing else on television.

Steve Roberts: I do remember very clearly that I was scared of Jon Pertwee’s smile in the titles and would turn away until I knew he had gone! So my earliest memories of the show are mostly of a mesmerising terror to which I would willingly return week after week…

Peter Crocker: I was born around the same time the programme started, so I have no clear memory of the first experience. However, there are lots of memories of the 1960s: William Hartnell colouring books, Sky Ray ice lollies, the Emperor Dalek, foam, Yeti, Cybermen, and dad’s slide projector casting a shadow through the ventilator grilles onto the ceiling that looked like the Troughton title sequence.

Dan Hall: I really like those Doctor Who stories that are like plays. I loved The Robots of Death for that, you know; the ‘siege’ stories I do feel work well, because they allow efficient use of the limited budget, for a start, and they allow you to spend your money on good actors and scripts. It’s why I’m really excited about The Moonbase, and I was watching the test discs of The Ice Warriors yesterday – and they’re just so good... I don’t know, I love those ‘siege’ stories! I kind of miss that a bit – and I know obviously some of the stories in the new series have got lower budgets than others – but I sometimes just wish they would have half the budget some of them, and they’d just say, “Right, what would you do with that?” I thought some of the cheap stories, especially in Russell’s tenure, were some of the strongest. They allow performances to shine, and they allow concepts to come out. And the TARDIS, what a fantastic concept, the fact that it was born purely out of commerce, as a narrative concept, it’s just brilliant. I love that. And so yes, I’m a real believer in cheap stories.

We love that you can be a fan of many genres and get them all from Doctor Who.

Dan Hall: It’s a style of programming that I think really embraces that difference between stories, and I do miss that actually a little bit. I very much appreciate the new audiences, the American-inspired contemporary audiences love story arcs and like a single cohesive feel. Personally, because I’m an old fart, I miss that idea of the series rebooting every four weeks, new people doing the music, new directors. Because to me, if I had all of time and space, the more different each story can feel, the more it accentuates that atmosphere.

How do you feel the programme influenced you into making later career decisions?

Mark Ayres: The way it sounded. I wanted to make those noises!

Dan Hall: I think television is a very powerful medium, both for entertainment and for education, so Doctor Who was one of several TV shows that I watched as a child that made me think, this is an industry that I really respect. It certainly wasn’t the only one; there were shows like Tenko which I thought were incredibly strong, and I’ve always really admired the storytelling abilities in soap operas, for example – the fact that those shows eat up storylines and yet still keep going. I’ve always really admired people who can storyline and write for those things. It was certainly one of a number of shows that inspired me, but I’d have to say it wasn’t necessarily the one that made me go, “Wow!”

Steve Roberts: Certainly Doctor Who and Space: 1999 were big influences on me as a child, and helped formulate an interest in science and science fiction, until Star Wars came along and moved everything up a gear. My school friends had mostly the same tastes and I followed very much a science-based education at school, progressing by way of an electronic engineering degree to a job as an engineer for the BBC at Television Centre. Within the BBC I manoeuvred myself into the area of engineering for film and television restoration, which put me in exactly the right place to be able to be involved in successfully bidding to take on the work of restoring Doctor Who for video and later DVD release.

Peter Crocker: For me, it probably opened up the possibility of working in television as a career option, but otherwise probably very little.

Dan Hall: In a way, what I meant about Doctor Who, was that I think the concepts in the show – the concept of time travel, the concept of the TARDIS – these things if you think about them actually have nothing to do with television, they don’t rely on television as a medium, and that’s a compliment to those concepts; those concepts actually exist in whatever format they’re in, really, in books or whatever, they’re such simple, powerful concepts that they kind of exist outside of that, so I think if I was to say something inspired me to work in television specifically, it was just a general thing, watching Tiananmen Square going out on air and realising how amazing the medium was. As for Doctor Who I think that just inspired me into realising that good ideas are simple. And Doctor Who has been at fault at getting that wrong; sometimes when we watch stories we think, ‘Well that wasn’t a very good one,’ when they get too complicated, get too wrapped up in history and stuff. But when Doctor Who works brilliantly is when it has the faith in the simplicity of its own strong ideas. And I think in a way that’s the legacy that was shown to me – if you ever come up with an idea of any sort, be it a business idea or a script idea or anything, if it’s not simple, it’s not working. Simple as that.

Generally speaking, what are the day-to-day tasks you are involved with in making your contribution to the DVDs?

Steve Roberts: Initially, I was very much hands-on, commissioning DVD extras and even doing restoration work myself. This was mostly because the BBC Worldwide people didn’t really understand the show and were more than happy to leave it in the hands of those who did. Eventually, Dan Hall took over as commissioning editor with 2|entertain and for the first time we had somebody who knew the show and wanted to stamp their own mark on the releases. So these days I’ve pretty much taken a back seat, with my responsibilities being more on the delivery side – overseeing restoration where required, packaging the DVD extras, policing technical compliance and ensuring that everything is delivered on time and with all the paperwork that the DVD producers need in order to do their job. I do occasionally get a chance to edit the odd little featurette here or there as well, just to satisfy my artistic side.

Dan Hall: My job title is Commissioning Editor for the classic Doctor Who range, and what that basically means is I’m responsible to BBC Worldwide, so I run a media consultancy company [Pup Ltd] and Worldwide are one of my clients. They come to me and say, “Dan, can you come up with a year’s worth of classic Doctor Who releases?” And then I go away and say, “Right guys, I think this is what we should release in this year, this is why I think we should release it in this year, and this is what I think we should box up and this is my reasoning.” I have to present cases to marketing people and then, when they’ve agreed the schedule that I’ve put together I commission the Restoration Team to restore it, and we’ll work with producers and other team members to put together all the rest of the content. I’ll help develop that and I’ll executive produce it. Executive producing effectively means that the buck stops with me, I’m responsible for the quality of it, I’m responsible for the material adhering to BBC editorial policy, I’m responsible for trying to make sure it appeals to hardcore fans and more casual fans.

When I came into the Doctor Who world eight years ago on the DVDs, I did find a lot of cliques, a lot of sort of groups all seeking information from each other, all competing with one another, all saying, you know, “I’m close personal friends with this actor and this one, and I’m better than you.” And I found that incredibly distasteful and it’s something I’ve fought against. For me the range and the programme and everything I commission is about facing outwards; it’s not about saying, “How much do I know? How much information can I keep to myself?” It’s about saying, “This programme should be about saying to you, ‘What is out in the real world for me to embrace and to learn about and then to enjoy?’” And if I can share that knowledge with real people out there then that is wonderful. And I’ve always tried – because I think that we’ve all paid for Doctor Who, nobody ‘owns’ it; just because you happen to know who the three floor managers were in a Troughton story doesn’t mean you have any more right to enjoy it than an eight-year-old coming into the show for the first time. I totally dispel that belief and don’t think that’s a good way of being at all. The beauty of Doctor Who, and the beauty of the character, is that it doesn’t have that attitude at all, it should be about inclusivity, not about exclusivity.

Peter Crocker: I’m responsible for all aspects of picture restoration, except for initial transfer (from film or archive master tape) and grading (which is a specialised area in itself and done expertly by Jonathan Wood at BBC Studios and Post Production). This involves removing – where possible – all artefacts of the recording process and damage due to ageing or wear and tear, as well as some artefacts from limitations of the technology at the time the programmes were made. This will involve using current state-of-the-art restoration tools, as well as some custom and bespoke tools unavailable elsewhere. The aim is to make the pictures look as good as possible on modern displays.  During the 1960s, people would be watching on a TV with a maximum screen size of 20” diagonal, and even in 1989 when the classic series ended most people would be watching on a 26” screen – and none bigger than 32”. Now, many people will be watching on 42” or 50” screens or bigger, and flat panels are very unforgiving of bad or unrestored archive TV pictures.

Dan Hall: My dad always said to me it’s very important as a manager that you take the blame for stuff and you pass the credit on, and I believe in that very much. I’m always very careful – and I genuinely try to do this – not to ever say, “Oh that was my idea.” The only thing I do put my hand up and say, “This is my stamp, this is me and everything that we do across this is from this point,” is what I said about inclusivity and not exclusivity. That was a very, very clear line, and the first couple of years working on the DVDs were tough in a way, changing that culture, and releasing products that said to the fan groups, you know to thousands of buyers, “Look, it isn’t nice shutting people out, it isn’t nice collating data and having an exclusive ‘boys’ club’,” and I’ve said, “I want to stop having only white middle-aged men on this, and I don’t care how we do it, but I want to get more women on the screen, I want to get more racial diversity on the screen,” and this is all stuff which is about respecting our audience. It’s that kind of stuff I get really passionate about. Thankfully the people I work with are really passionate about the programme, which leaves me to be passionate about the more top-line stuff, that sort of sits almost above the programme and says, “No, we need to treat this whole range with an overarching ethos.” And it’s that really, it’s about inclusivity, and I’m really proud of that actually, because it can get overly cliquey, and I am very proud to fight against that.

But equally it’s because Worldwide and 2|entertain have supported it. None of what we do could be done without their money, basically, and their support. They go against all the rules, those guys, in terms of every DVD should be treated as its own separate business model. The financial side of it is, they completely trust me to basically pot all the money and then dividend it out among the titles to create a consistency of quality across everything. And of course you do that and you can then commission in bulk as well, which saves a huge amount of money and raises the standard of the product on-screen. They are so supportive, BBC Worldwide, they really are. They’ve been absolutely faultless in the eight years that I’ve been doing it, they’ve been so trusting and I hope that it’s paid off for them that they feel their market, their buyers get a product and also that they earn the profits that they feel they need to, because they have been so fantastic and trusting and supportive. So in that way I’m really lucky, with both sides of my job: I’ve got the customers who keep me on my toes, I’ve got producers who produce outstanding content, and I’ve got paymasters who support and believe in my ambitions and what I’m trying to do. So I’m incredibly lucky actually, because I’m not fighting any wars on any fronts, which is quite unusual.

Mark Ayres: I do the audio restoration and remastering, of course, and I mix the commentary tracks. As archivist for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop I also look after all the music and sound effects, and act as audio consultant generally on the range. This might include helping out VAM producers with audio issues and so on. And as part of the “core” team of Steve Roberts, Peter Crocker and me, I am involved with general advice and editorial oversight including what we call “peer review” for Dan Hall.

Peter Crocker: Once episodes are finished, I produce the final master DigiBeta tape with restored audio from Mark on tracks 1 & 2, with commentaries on tracks 3 & 4, to go for DVD authoring. I also provide suitable clips or episodes to VAM producers as required, and timecoded copies for production text writers – the boring side of the job.  Finally, I provide advice on options for VAM and I’m also part of the technical peer review panel.

Dan Hall: Yesterday was a good, fairly typical working day in that I got delivery of The Ice Warriors test discs, and one of the nicer parts of my job will be, I’ve got to sit and go through those discs and be one of three or four ‘eyes’ on them, to make sure everything’s there, to make sure everything’s working, to make sure the menus work, to make sure the animation looks good, and just to physically check the discs before somebody presses the button and they all go out to print. You’re also doing things like putting together business cases or watching a rough cut of a documentary and feeding back notes about it.

It’s a fantastic job because some days it can be very creative-based, or some days it can be very business-based where you’re putting together business models for the releases, thinking ‘Shall we do this? And then if not, what is the business case behind it?’ The job is incredibly varied, but thankfully it’s a very enjoyable one. Worldwide make it very easy because they are very good paymasters in that they allow the classic Doctor Who range to be treated like a channel. I think I’ve said this before, that I don’t treat each release on its own, I’ll look at the whole range almost like it’s a television channel and when we commission stuff, we commission it with an idea that a certain series is featured across multiple releases, and in a way that’s the most enjoyable part of this job. You’re looking at the whole thing, looking across a whole range and saying, “People will be buying all of this; how can we make it entertaining, how can we make it really good quality?” I suppose in a way that’s what my job for Worldwide is, to come up with products and make them money, and for the customers, my job is to come up with a product that they feel is worthwhile spending money on. If I’ve done my job correctly, both of those people are happy.

I was very lucky in that I inherited a format from the Restoration Team, who of course ran the DVD range before me and who created the brilliant template that I inherited. The documentaries that we have, all the production subtitles, the commentaries, are put together by an incredibly loyal and fantastic team, who don’t have a huge amount of money, and who work incredibly hard, and all I really do is coordinate them. I’m very lucky to have a programme alongside me that talented, intelligent people feel very passionate about, so it makes my life incredibly easy, it really does. Having intelligent, passionate people work for you is just brilliant – because they do all the work! So much of managing projects is about having to keep people’s morale up, or keep people delivering on schedule, or inspiring people to come up with good ideas, and the programme does all that for me, it really does. And so I feel like a bit of a fraud, because I’m surrounded by really talented people who do all the magic, so all I do is boss them around! So big, big applause must go to them.

Does your “professional self” feel a greater responsibility to do a good job on account of your “fan self”?

Peter Crocker: Not really, as that would imply a lesser responsibility on other material.

Mark Ayres: We do a professional job, but push it further because as fans we want it to be just right. This can be a blessing and a curse, of course!

Steve Roberts: Some of that is because I’m interested in presenting material in the best technical quality anyway, but mostly it’s because we have created arguably the most comprehensive archive release catalogue that any television programme has ever seen. That’s an enduring legacy but also an on-going mission. I’m not prepared to let those standards slip!

Dan Hall: The market is a tough one and a demanding one, and you know what? Ask me on the wrong day and I’ll say, “They drive me crazy!” But 99% of the time, I love it, because it stops me becoming complacent, and I think complacency isn’t about laziness; complacency naturally wraps around your shoulders with too much ease – and when you have a market who do not let you get complacent, that’s actually a really good state to be in. Because it means that you get to the end of the working week and you’re proud and you’re pleased with what you’ve done. You know, when I do go to conventions, I won’t just go up and do a panel, I’ll be there for the whole time, I’ll sit in the bar, I’ll sit in the coffee shop and I’ll talk to people, and people will say to me, “I liked this, I like that.” And I’ll say, “Well be honest, what didn’t you like? What isn’t working? What do you feel I’ve done that feels too exclusive?” And I change what I do as a result of it – because all you guys pay my salary.

Peter Crocker: Also, I’m not sure I fulfil the attributes of a “fan” – I was at one time, but I don’t think I’ve watched an episode for pleasure since the 1980s and, to be honest, there are lots of other programmes I’d love to restore above Doctor Who. The mantra is “we do the best of our ability, with the resources available to us”. I’m always aware that we could do better with more time and unlimited technology, but in the end, we have commercial and economic deadlines to meet, and we do need to sleep occasionally. Work is always abandoned, never finished. Hopefully the quality of the work speaks for itself. We don’t always get everything right, but we have done our best.

Tell us a bit about the Revisitations...

Dan Hall: I know it took a year for fandom to stop saying, “Oh they’re trying to encourage us to double-dip for the sake of it,” and that was never ever the intention. The intention of the Revisitations was to bring basically the first five years of releases up to the standard of everything else.

Those early releases didn’t have access to the special features and restoration technology we have latterly had.

Dan Hall: Exactly, because when the range was launched it had to have the stronger stories, which meant that some of the strongest stories had some of the weakest DVDs, which just wasn’t right. The Talons of Weng-Chiang was one of the ones that inspired me to do the whole thing to start with, because I used to live in Lime House, and I moved to Lime House, because I loved that story and I love East London. When you watch that DVD, I think you really feel my passion in the commissioning of content, the stuff on the music halls – and again, that’s the whole thing about looking outwards, using Doctor Who stories to teach us about other things. It’s been really nice seeing the market realise what we do with the Revisitations, because they’re not made any cheaper, they have the same budget as if it was a brand new story. So it’s not as if Worldwide are saying, “Here’s half the money, let’s stick it out again.” They treat it like it’s a brand new release. They’re restored from the ground up... It’s great. I love them!

Do you ever pinch yourself that you’re contributing to the way Doctor Who will be remembered by generations to come, as well as those who grew up with the show?

Mark Ayres: You can’t think about that. It’s a job, albeit one that is a great privilege. I just get on with it, do it the way I wish to see it done, and hope that it is appreciated in the long term.

Steve Roberts: It has been a part of my life since 1993, so it’s just what I do now. I am hugely proud of the work we have done and of the technical barriers we have pushed back – for example Colour Restoration, Colour Recovery, Reverse Standards Conversion and VidFIRE.

Peter Crocker: I am very grateful that I have been able to earn part of my living working on a programme that was a happy and important part of my childhood. But I don’t think my contribution should be remembered or even noticed by people. It’s a bit like a visual effect: if it stands out, you’ve failed to a degree. I liken my work to that of a window cleaner. If I do a good job, I make the work of the people who made the episodes more enjoyable. But people should be saying “What a lovely view,” and not “What clean windows these are.”

Steve Roberts: Twenty years ago, archive Doctor Who was in a lamentably poor state really, but sitting here in the fiftieth anniversary year it’s looking pretty damn good thanks to the work of our team and the other talented people who have used or created technology to help us to restore the show over the last two decades.

Peter Crocker: I also hope that it’s a work in progress and in fifty years people will be watching episodes restored by someone else, to a better standard using tools not yet invented, and saying “How did we put up with that old rubbish?” in much the same way that people compare the DVDs to the laissez-faire VHS releases of the 1980s.

Dan Hall: It’s an absolute pleasure, it really is, because while it’s a very vocal market, it’s also a market that says thank you, which is fantastic.

Steve Roberts: Through a shared love for the show I have met some amazing – and amazingly talented – people, many of who are my very closest friends and whose friendships will endure to my dying days. I think that’s something the Doctor would very much understand and approve of.

Dan Hall: And Doctor Who fans turn up in the strangest places! I remember I did a series with NASA a few years ago, when I was working on the Doctor Who range, so I was across at Cape Canaveral, and I was speaking to an astronaut who loves Doctor Who, and who liked classic Doctor Who and liked Tom Baker! And he was one of these sort of casual fans, he’d bought a few DVDs, and I couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe this guy who was training to be an astronaut was buying the DVDs and watching Doctor Who extras! It’s really funny – I was like, “Oh my God, a real spaceman!”

We’ve seen Genesis of the Daleks turning up in the least expected places...

Dan Hall: There’s something about Genesis, isn’t there? But of course really they should all have Time and the Rani! And you know, I don’t understand why everyone has such a problem with the casting of Beryl Reid. Everyone says, “Oh, it’s Light Entertainment casting,” but has anyone seen The Killing of Sister George or Smiley’s People? This is not a Light Entertainment actor, this is a BAFTA Award-winning serious actress! There might be other reasons for having issues with her being cast – which also by the way I don’t agree with, I think she’s fantastic casting – but the idea that just because they’ve seen her on Blankety Blank a couple of times... I think, “Come on guys! This is a really quality actor!”

What are your favourites among the features you’ve worked on, and which things are you most proud of?

Steve Roberts: There are honestly just too many, but on the restoration side I think the thing I might be most proud of is returning Planet of the Daleks Episode Three back to colour. It brought together so many of the restoration techniques that we had pioneered over the years and concentrated them into one twenty-five minute episode. One evening at TV Centre, I played the episode down the line to the ops supervisor in the VT area and asked him for a quick opinion of what he was seeing. He genuinely thought he was watching a pretty normal early 1970s videotaped show. His reaction on being told it was actually a black and white 16mm film recording is sadly unprintable!

Peter Crocker: And finding a way to return The Mind of Evil to full colour within the DVD budget is a recent example. Otherwise, it’s usually when I’ve done a difficult repair and people aren’t even aware that a fix has been done.

Mark Ayres: As a technician who is also a “creative”, my favourite features – and those I have most fun with – are the 5.1 surround mixes and the extended “directors’ cuts” I produced of The Curse of Fenric and Battlefield. I am also very pleased with the upcoming Terror of the Zygons release, for all sorts of reasons!

Peter Crocker: It’s usually where something has been achieved that seemed initially impossible.

Mark Ayres: I am proud that we have set a standard, and then improved upon it.

Dan Hall: There was a feature we did a while ago, which felt like I was going full circle as a child, and I thought fitted in with everything that I wanted to achieve with the DVDs, and that was one of our smaller documentaries, about the Magna Carta, that Stella Broster made, on The King’s Demons. What I loved about that is I remember as a child saying to my mother, “What’s the Magna Carta?” and having her explain it to me, and that obviously added power to the narrative.

I thought, that is exactly what the show should be; it is providing sugar to take the pill down of education and history and that kind of stuff. When I commissioned that documentary and when Stella delivered it – and she delivered it fantastically, she really compiled a beautiful piece about the Magna Carta and about democracy that went all the way up to 9/11 – I just thought, this is what we should be doing, this is what the programme was commissioned for, this is exactly what the BBC stands for, in entertaining and educating and informing. And it was crystallised in that one documentary, because it’s something I’ve always been very vocal and very passionate about.

To me that’s kind of the heart of what public service broadcasting is, and also what the character of the Doctor and also what the whole point of Doctor Who is about, and that is it’s using a fantasy and a beautiful, simple, fantastic premise to educate you about the real world. Which is why I love some of those Pertwees, that are basically about Israel and Palestine – you know, to have a Dalek story that is about suicide bombers; are they criminals, are they terrorists? These are really quite difficult, and pretty serious narratives done in a brilliant way. So, the Magna Carta documentary crystallised my commissioning drive behind the whole direction I’ve taken the range in, and the whole attitude I have towards it. When Doctor Who is at its best, it doesn’t encourage you to stay in the fantasy world, it illustrates the real world, if that makes sense.

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