A quick interview with Steve Roberts

by Dean McIntosh


    Steve Roberts' name should be familiar to the more technically-inclined fans of Doctor Who. He is one of the five men at the core of a team who have made it their business to restore Doctor Who serials to as much of their former glory as is possible using current technology, and present them to the BBC for mastering on VHS and DVD-Video. With the new DVD releases of many popular serials now taking place, it seemed like a good time for me to take him aside and ask him a few questions about the process.

01. The first question I'd like to ask, just as a place to put our feet, is how you originally came to work for the BBC and as a member of the Doctor Who restoration team.

    I joined the BBC in 1987 as a graduate engineer, and I am now a Senior Post Production Engineer for BBC Resources in London.

    The Restoration Team is something I do outside of my real job - it's a professional hobby. With the exception of Mark Ayres, our audio restoration specialist who does this sort of work for a living, the Restoration Team all have full-time jobs and work on Restoration Team projects in their own time. We started out as a group of friends who collaborated on a project to restore some monochrome Jon Pertwee stories back to their original format by combining monochrome film recordings with the colour from off-air NTSC Betamax tapes, and we grew from there!

02. What is your favourite Doctor Who serial, and why?

    Of the surviving stories, probably the Tom Baker adventure called The Horror of Fang Rock. For me, Doctor Who has always worked best when it pitted a small group of people against something nasty in an isolated environment, in this case a lighthouse. It's quite a dark, Victoriana-influenced story and is notable for the Doctor and his companion being the only survivors at the end. Of the missing stories (there are a hundred and nine episodes missing, all from the sixties), it would be a toss-up between The Web of Fear, the one surviving episode of which is my favourite single Doctor Who episode, and the entirely missing story The Power Of The Daleks. I've always been a sucker for the Daleks, and that story was Patrick Troughton's first, so I think it would be quite something.

    I'm also very fond of The Caves of Androzani, which we released recently on DVD. It's a cracking story and it's our best disc to date, in my opinion.

03. Do you have a particular favourite Doctor and companion character?

    I grew up with Jon Pertwee / Katy Manning and Tom Baker / Lis Sladen, so I guess I have strong links with both those pairings. My favourite Doctor is probably Patrick Troughton, paired with Debbie Watling and Frazer Hines, although I never saw any of their stories at the time. Unfortunately this is the era most badly hit by the blight of missing episodes. Ironically, if I'd been growing up in Australia, I would have seen most of them during the early seventies!

04. Could you explain in simple terms how different restoring a serial for transfer to DVD-Video, as opposed to VHS, is?

    Actually, the two are tending to converge more and more as we realise that some of our VHS masters may well end up being used for DVD. This was going to be the case for the United States, until they backed out of doing dual-format releases. For DVD we really now have a very low defect tolerance, so we will try to remove every last bit of film dirt, sparkle and tape dropout. It's also usual for us to have the soundtrack restored for DVD. For VHS we're a little more relaxed. Our standards are evolving all the time. In hindsight I wouldn't have allowed some of the small faults on our earlier releases.

05. The most recent DVD-Video of Doctor Who released in Australia was Spearhead From Space, the first Jon Pertwee serial. I've found it to be of significantly better quality than the previous two releases in Australia, with less grain and artefacting in the image. What source materials and processes were used on Spearhead From Space, as opposed to The Five Doctors or Robots Of Death?

    Spearhead is unique in BBC in-house produced Doctor Who history, as it was shot entirely with 16 millimeter film on location rather than in a TV studio on videotape. We used the world's best telecine, the Spirit Datacine, to scan the films in order to get the best quality. We work very closely with our colourist, Jonathan Wood, who is an absolute stickler for quality and he ensured that the best possible results were obtained from what is actually not terribly good source material.

    One of the advantages of film is that it responds much better to the MPEG-2 compression used on DVD. Electronic video is very different and has to be handled very carefully in order to minimise MPEG encoding artefacts, especially when the source is multi-generation analogue composite videotape.

06. How do you manage grain in the source material? Do you use some form of grain reduction processing? How does this work? What artefacts might this process introduce into the final image?

    We use the Digital Vision DVNR-1000, the industry standard adaptive noise reducer. It can reduce noise and grain and conceal small transient faults such as tape dropout and film dirt or sparkle automatically. The downside is that if overused it can make the image look synthetic and smeary. We now tend to use very low levels of DVNR to take the smaller problems out and then manually correct the remaining problems on image retouching tools such as Scratchbox.

07. How cooperative is the BBC in regards to the supply of source materials and information relevant to the restoration process?

    Brilliant. We know the BBC's TV Archivist Christine Slattery very well and she allows us access to master material, including film recording negatives. It's absolutely essential that we use the best possible materials as a starting point - Garbage In, Garbage Out! In return, the library gets copies of our work which can then subsequently be used for transmission, sales, and so forth.

08. What decision processes are there in regards to which serial will be presented next on DVD-Video?

    Well, we're still only just beginning the DVD releases, so at the moment the decision is based on popularity, quality of story, number of extras we can source, and things like that. We're also tied into releasing one story from each Doctor in the initial run of discs, although we've sneaked another Tom Baker in to split up two black and white releases next year. Also, we're sticking with four-parters at the moment until we're happy that we can get a six parter plus extras onto one disc in acceptably high quality.

09. Would you consider releasing six-part serials as two-disc sets, for quality's sake?

    Yes, but we should be able to avoid that. The disc producer has currently been leaving a lot of blank space on the discs (to allow for the inclusion of other extras at a later date, even though this is unlikely), so if we were able to use all of that space we should be able to fit six episodes plus extras on in the sort of quality we're already achieving. The acid test will be the DVD release of The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, which we also worked on, which has a hell of a lot of material on both discs. If that looks OK then it will give us the confidence to go for six episodes.

10. Are there any serials you are presented with where you've decided that the source materials are simply too far gone for a presentable restoration?

    Not really. I nearly had a heart-attack when I saw the state of the prints of The Tomb of the Cybermen a couple of days before we started work on it - I had no idea that they were in such poor condition. We had to employ a lot of techniques to get the material up to standard, including some CGI restoration. I did all the Scratchbox restoration myself (digitally painting out dirt, sparkle, videotape dropouts, film recorder faults, and so forth) and manually retouched over 16,000 frames over the four episodes!

    There's only one really problematic episode in the BBC archive and that's The Lion, an episode of the incomplete William Hartnell story The Crusades, which was discovered a couple of years ago in New Zealand. That has a terrible film scratch through most of the episode, which is virtually impossible to correct.

11. The soundtracks for Spearhead From Space and The Robots Of Death have been presented in mono, as opposed to The Five Doctors' Dolby 5.1 remix. Do you have any plans to release other serials in Dolby 5.1? What's the limiting factor in deciding how a soundtrack will be presented?

    We're very, very limited in which stories we can attempt a 5.1 remix on. In most cases, the only surviving soundtrack is the final mix - music, effects and dialogue all mixed together. To remix a soundtrack into 5.1, you need access to all of those elements separately. There are a handful of stories which meet this criteria and we're hopeful that there will be another 5.1 release next year.

12. Will we ever see more esoteric stories from the Doctor Who canon, such as The Curse Of Fatal Death or Dimensions In Time, on DVD-Video?

    I imagine that the former definitely will, whereas the latter definitely won't. The artists contracted their services for free on the understanding that there would be no commercial release. It was a one-off charity thing.

13. I understand that several Doctor Who serials have also been planned for release in America. What are the differences in terms of transfer that apply to these Region 1 releases, and do they seriously degrade the resultant image quality?

    That's a question I can't really answer until we see the discs! They have basically taken our restored masters and standards converted them to the US video format. Standards conversion is very good these days, so I imagine they will get very good results, but I've no idea how this will translate into video quality on the DVD.

14. Why were The Robots Of Death and Spearhead From Space encoded without timing information?

    I'm not sure. Our involvement in the DVD process ends when we hand over our restored videotape masters to the BBC's DVD producer. He is responsible for taking those masters to an authoring house who encode and author the DVD. I believe the answer is something to do with the way that the disc is encoded to allow it to be viewed in one sitting or episodically, but I'm really not the person to ask.

15. Can you tell me which serial Australians can expect to have released next?

    Roadshow appear to be taking the discs in the order we have put them out in the UK, so you can expect to see Remembrance Of The Daleks, The Caves Of Androzani, Vengeance On Varos, The Tomb Of The Cybermen, and The Ark in Space in the next year or so.

16. One last question. In this day and age of digital television and imminent high-definition formats, do you still feel there is a place for Doctor Who?

    Of course. It's a format with very few boundaries.