Saturday, 23 November 2013

Doctor Who and the progress of TV Technology.

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who shows that even as the world changes, good storytelling does not.

Doctor Who is 50 today. Amongst the celebrations of the stories and the characters, it occurs to me that the Doctor’s longevity has seen him experience many changes in TV technology. After all, The Doctor has been around for more that half of the lifespan of our ability to watch TV – TV was first broadcast in the UK in 1929, and the first Doctor Who episode was broadcast in 1963. It was actually broadcast on the day of the Kennedy assasination; TV and history go together.

From its first episode (An Unknown Child in 1963) Doctor Who was a technical pioneer. Its titles was a pioneering use of the camera pointing at its own monitor, and the theme a pioneer of electronic music. It was broadcast in 405 line black and white following the ITU System A standard, and was called High Definition! But it had technical shortcomings, which were addressed by the next standard PAL-I, introduced in 1967. The resolution increased to 576 usable lines, audio was carried in FM, and so allowed broadcast of its first colour episode (Spearhead from Space in 1970).

This technical change required the entire production workflow to change. Sets now had to look good in colour, make-up was different. The increase in detail meant that composition of shots had to be re-thought. And the increased bandwidth of the PAL signal needed a change in video tape technology. All of this was needed, as well as stories that continued to capture the audience’s imagination.

There is a recurring theme throughout Doctor Who’s journey through broadcasting history: technology changes and increases the visual vocabulary available, but always  subservient to the storytelling. The Doctor Who makers have had to re-learn time and again how to tell their story as their storytelling tools changed.

Viewers expected more detail in the production with the introduction of 576 lines of black and white (The Web of Fear in 1968), then with colour (Spearhead from Space in 1970), then with greater picture area with widescreen (Rose in 2005), and even more detail with HD (Planet of the Dead in 2009), and most recently 3D (The Day of the Doctor in 2013). And as the screen size has increased from an average of 24” in 1963 to 36” in 2013, there is more screen to fill with more detail.

Soundscapes have had to become more complex, first with the introduction of stereo (Remembrance of the Daleks in 1988), then with surround sound (Planet of the Dead in 2009).

Special effects have always been important to the programme, and these have developed from ropey carpentry, to ropey plastic, to ropey visual mixing, and now to sophisticated computer-generated effects that its big budget finally allows.

A second theme to emerge is how business models changed, and Doctor Who changed to exploit them. The introduction of Betamax ushered in the next revolution in TV, the ability to record episodes of the Fourth Doctor for later viewing – time-shifting the time lord. But the ability for viewers to fast-forward through the ads would prove to challenge the business model for commercial broadcasters around the world, a challenge that still hasn’t been satisfactorily answered.

The advent of Digital TV came whilst Doctor Who was in hiatus. When it returned rejuvinated and rebooted (Rose in 2005) it arrived into a fragmented broadcast environment. Viewers changed to consumers with a variety of consumption channels competing for attention. So Doctor Who started publishing webisodes (Pond Life in 2012) and iPlayer-only mini-episodes (The Night of the Doctor in 2013).  Viewers started watching on their black and white cathode ray televisions, now watch on-demand, streamed over the internet, on their flat screen LCD TVs, and communicate with the show over the web site and its social media presence.

I think the viewers have rewarded the unwavering focus on storytelling by making the programme more popular than ever, across borders and ages. For today’s 50th anniversary episode, it was simultaneously broadcast in over 75 countries. In the UK, it was also shown in cinemas in 3D, despite being broadcast on a free-to-air channel. Quite a journey through time, space and technology.

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