Doctor Who: Invasion (part one)

Regular readers might recall that last month, I explained how Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in America, made the call to edit two of the 24 TV movies instead of releasing complete black and white films. “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” – part one is, weirdly and with some controversy, just called “Invasion” – was actually wiped by the BBC just seven months after it was shown, as though they wanted to spare themselves further embarrassment over how dopey it looks. Color prints of parts two through six were recovered a few years later, but only a black and white print of part one could be found.

And yet… there were video traders in the eighties who swore blind that a low-quality color copy of part one was making the rounds. Going to get a little technical here, so bear with me.

Since UK television was on the superior 625-line PAL standard, and North America on the 525-line NTSC, you couldn’t just hook two VCRs together to get a copy of a British tape. Ideally, somebody would take the PAL tape to a video production company and pay $40 or $50 for an NTSC copy of it. Some of us called this a “digital copy,” wrongly. The other way was by pointing a NTSC camcorder on a tripod to a screen where the PAL copy was playing. This was called a “camera copy” and it was always substandard, marred by flickering, faded color, and many other visual defects. In 1987, a guy I knew flew to London with a camcorder, got a hotel room with a TV, taped Sylvester McCoy’s first episode on the camcorder and flew back to Atlanta the next day. That’s dedication!

So there were two copies of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” part one floating around, and bear in mind that the best one I could get hold of was probably fifth generation. There was the black and white “digital copy” and then an eighth or ninth generation “camera copy” that was allegedly in color. The story went that it was shown in color at a convention in Canada or Koozebaine or someplace and somebody videotaped it. Nine generations later, my copy was mainly various shades of blue, as happened with camera copies, and it suffered from tape hiss and audio that had been recorded via condenser mic from the convention video room’s crappy speakers. I used to say that the copy was so bad that the Tyrannosaurus Rex looked good.

There was, to be clear, no way to confirm anybody’s claim that this was a color print. Had any color been present in this recording, it had been lost after eight or nine generations of copying. But a weird little quirk gave us hope. If you traded tapes in those days, you remember how the picture of down-the-line copies would occasionally warp and you’d get interference lines. There were points in this crappy copy where the interference would wash up little smears of color information. Jon Pertwee was standing in front of a brick wall and that little smear of color that belched up was red like the wall should be.

Yes, we know now that it’s because this was a color camcorder trying to record in color, and therefore a color tape even though the subject in the picture was black and white. When the tape would, every few minutes, go ZZZZzzWWWaaarrp and the visuals loop around with a line, that was “color banding,” information from the recording distorted, not color information from the projected print. Any similarity to the actual color of the brick walls was a coincidence.

Some of the Pertwee serials had their color restored by a process called chroma-dot recovery. On the black-and-white 16mm film recording, there are all these tiny, tiny patterns of dots that contain the original color information. It’s absolutely fascinating, and you should read more about it here. Unfortunately, the black-and-white print of “Invasion” part one was too poor, and too damaged, to extract the color at the best quality resolution. The DVD includes the color version as a bonus feature for those who’d like to try it.

Isn’t it neat, though, that a color videotape of a black and white film gave us false hope, while a black and white film of a color videotape gave the technicians the information they needed to restore it?

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