Doctor Who Restoration Team on bringing lost episodes back to life

"Restoring the episodes wasn’t a simple matter of blowing some dust off the film cans and popping the lot onto iTunes..."

When missing Doctor Who episodes The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were recently discovered in Nigeria, it wasn’t a simple matter of blowing some dust off the film cans and popping the lot onto iTunes. Instead, to repair damage and make the episodes actually watchable again took 100 hours.


Per episode.

It was done by what’s called the Restoration Team but that’s not some official BBC team working out of Television Centre. It began as a group of fans who knew how to repair certain problems, discovered and invented ways to fix others, and then in 1992 persuaded the BBC to let them experiment on archive Doctor Who.

“We’ve been privileged that 2 Entertain and BBC Video have allowed us to spend this money and do this sort of work,” says Steve Roberts of the team. While the work is done with a fraction of the time and the money that film studios spend on restoring films like James Bond, it’s still expensive. The cost has to be met by DVD sales and, especially when they started, no one knew that Doctor Who would sell enough.

Commercially, it was a gamble and didn’t make financial sense, but because it was Doctor Who this team wanted to try anyway. “Because we’re fans,” says Roberts, simply. “It seems to have worked out because they’ve carried on employing us.”

The BBC kept hiring the Restoration Team and earlier this year they completed what they and everyone believed was their final project: a Blu-ray release of Jon Pertwee’s Spearhead from Space. It is the only classic Who to have been made entirely on film so it is the only one that can get a Blu-ray release. It was the end of a very long project and Roberts says they feel proud: “Proud that we’ve seen it right through, it’s a twenty-year legacy really.”

But then archivist Philip Morris searched for and discovered previously missing episodes starring second Doctor Patrick Troughton and the restoration team was back to work. “It was very exciting,” says team member Paul Vanezis, producer of Stargazing Live and the official Doctor Who 50th Celebration at London’s ExCel. “Philip called me up and asked me to take a look at films that he’d acquired. They were five films, which was what he had of The Web of Fear. But you have to put the excitement to one side and focus on the job which is, okay, what state are they in?

“Generally they were okay, but once I started unwinding them there was damage, scratches, the usual things you would expect on a film of that age. But also there were splices in the film [where TV stations] had put in commercial breaks. They’d splice the film, put the ads in, transmit it, then take the ads out and send the film on to the next station. When you look at the splice points there were clearly things missing and the frames had been damaged by the glue in the splicing.”

Crocker says that he then worked on the episodes shot by shot. At many times it was frame by frame: “We’re able to compare the footage with off-air audio recordings and say, okay, at this point there is one second and four frames missing.” Typically the gap is because of picture disturbance when a scene changes and often the image can be calculated and recreated using the film frames either side.

Much work is done in stabilising the image: being on film that was played very many times, the sprocket holes stretch and make the image judder. One episode had a video fault that ran through every shot “a load of white dots on the screen” and each one had to be removed. Then, at the same time as each image is being restored, the audio is being worked on separately by Mark Ayres to reduce hisses and other problems.

The team uses a lot of software they have developed themselves but restoration remains as much an art as a technical challenge: if you remove every bit of hiss or fix every pixel then the result can sound and look so clinical that it is distracting.

That’s even assuming footage can always be restored, and that isn’t true. There have been times when archive material has been found that is beyond any repair. It has yet to happen with any Doctor Who footage but all film will eventually fall to what’s called the vinegar syndrome. The chemicals in celluloid that is stored poorly will begin to eat away at the film and the resulting reaction is so potent that it even starts to affect films in other nearby cans.

The Restoration Team doesn’t know if there will ever be any more missing Doctor Who finds: Roberts says “We’re not expecting anything else but like everyone else we hope so” but Crocker says now they’ve done all that exist “I feel very unemployed at the moment!”

William Gallagher writes Doctor Who audio stories for Big Finish. His next is Doctor Who: Scavenger, which stars Colin Baker and is released in March 2014

He has also recently published Self Distract – from Doctor Who fan to Radio Times and Big Finish, available as a Kindle download for £1.93 at Amazon