Could AI breathe new life into vintage Doctor Who?
AI has been used as a force for good and evil in the show - but what about its real-life use?
Doctor Who has been exploring the ideas behind artificial intelligence almost from the moment it began. From WOTAN to K9 to the Cyberium to the TARDIS herself, AI has been both a force for good and for bad in the show.
But while Doctor Who has been talking about artificial intelligence for 60 years, it's only recently that we've begun to ask the question: what does its real-world possibilities offer the show itself? There are, of course, ethics issues with many of the opportunities AI provides – using the tech to generate first-draft scripts, deepfaking long-dead actors, etc – but one area which may well benefit, without too much controversy, is the classic, i.e. pre-revival series.
We've all seen those AI apps that can sharpen up a foggy old photograph or add a splash of colour to a vintage black and white image, but can that or similar tech be applied to classic television? Part of the queasiness that schedulers and streamers have about TV from the dim and distant is how poor the picture quality is compared to the needle-sharp HD and 4K programmes we've become accustomed to.
Most TV of the 1950s and '60s – in the UK anyway – was recorded on 405-line cameras, later upgrading through the late '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and much of the '00s, to 625-line (or 576i) – that's far less visual information than the 1080p of High Definition or 4320p (4k) of Ultra HD, hence the much blearier, fuzzier picture. Older shows made on film, such as Star Trek or The Avengers, don't have this problem, as celluloid can be upscaled much easier.
But can AI offer a way of extending the shelf life of these pre-HD programmes? Peter Crocker is a member of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, and is in charge of sprucing up those older episodes for Blu-ray release. He already uses AI "appropriately and sparingly", he tells us, but cautions that the technology isn't currently there to upscale, say, an old William Hartnell episode into eye-wowing UHD.
"At present, the benefits for any vintage TV made on old, non-digital equipment are relatively minor," he tells RadioTimes.com. "All of the programs for upscaling images have been developed primarily for the movie industry. The vast majority of films recently have been shot or post-produced at 2K resolution and for cinemas, upscaled to 4K.
"That process is very good because the source is typically clean and 'digital'. Old TV is inherently noisy and smeary, with lots of artefacts. The AI programs just don't know what to do when pixels are present that might be picture detail but are actually just noise in the image."
Part of the problem, Crocker says, is that the jump from a 405-line picture to even standard definition, let alone HD and 4K, is just too big.
"Going from 405-line to SD is a 250% increase in pixel number and SD to HD is 400%, HD to 4K is 400%, and so on," he says.
"Another factor is the range of brightness and colour that can be displayed. One reason modern productions look so much better is the high dynamic range that just isn't there in recordings from the first few decades of TV. In future, AI might be able to guess what detail might be present hidden in the bright whites or dark shadows that are currently just white or black.
"We have to be realistic, though, and for old TV like Doctor Who or Dad's Army, the aim should be to make the programmes look acceptable on modern huge flat TV screens which would be horribly unforgiving if fed raw, unrestored recordings."
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Without any kind of a slick-up, there's a danger that older television will become hard to find, the preserve of cultural scholars and cult TV devotees only. But Crocker believes that the technology will one day be there to digitally recreate vintage TV episodes.
"My Tomorrow's World prediction is that eventually image and data processing will be fast enough for software to assess a TV programme, identify the elements within the pictures – people, faces, costumes, sets, props, lighting, etc – and create a full 3D library of those elements which can be replaced with HD versions generated piecemeal from other matching details and textures," he explains.
"High quality photos of the sets and actors if they exist could help. The movements will be tracked and reproduced and the elements will be mapped back to produce what is effectively a photo-real, high-resolution computer animation based on the original production.
"That technology is there now, in high-budget movies for quite limited use. I think in another 10 years it might be feasible for short, easy clips, but really it'll be 20-30 years before it would be achievable to an acceptable standard on the sort of budgets – and material – I work on."
So while we shouldn't necessarily expect Evil of the Daleks to look as piercingly clear as Eve of the Daleks anytime soon, there are, and will be, AI-assisted ways of smartening up those older stories.
"It could certainly give old shows a bit of spit and polish, but it's not a magic wand."
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