#MissingEpisodesMonday: How Rogue One points to the future of classic Doctor Who

2017 has not started well for those fans hoping that Philip Morris and/or A.N.Other missing episode collector would be backing up a massive truck to BBC HQ with 97 cannisters of 16mm film cans. The animation of Power of the Daleks, combined with certain acerbic assertions made by Paul Vanezis (a reliable if untrusted source) on GallifreyBase, have persuaded those following the omnirumour that it was just that – a rumour.

More on that to come in due course – but for this week’s post I have decided to revisit a post I wrote two years ago, when Doctor Who fandom had lost all of the pent up optimism that followed the release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. I decided that it was time to stop waiting for Philip Morris to bring the rumoured shipping container filled with cans of missing episodes to the BBC, and to instead press on with recreating what was lost; I wrote a letter to this effect in October 2015, launching the #MissingEpisodesMonday hashtag (not, I confess, one of my more successful ideas!) and hoping to pester BBC Worldwide into keeping the classic DVD range alive. We have already had the first fruits of that, with the wildly successful release of The Power of the Daleks fully animated.

I think there is a pointer to where the BBC can go next provided by another creation that looked to recreate something lost. I delayed this post for a month, giving readers plenty of time to watch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (should they be that way inclined) without spoiling anything. I’m assuming a full month after release that if you have not watched it by now, you will not be troubled by a minor spoiler – but if you would be, this is your last chance to look away!

Rogue One, which is set just before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, caused a great deal of debate and discussion – not just for the storyline (good but grim) but also for a brave and contentious decision to recreate Peter Cushing’s character of Grand Moff Tarkin, and to create a Princess Leia who looked as the late Carrie Fisher did in 1977. The video below shows what sort of process was involved to do this – essentially, it required near lookalikes to portay and speak the roles, and then for CGI to be overlaid over the actor.

Of course the first question that has been raised in all of this relates to the ethics of recreating long deceased actors. This article by the Guardian focuses specifically on the ethics of it, and includes the following helpful remarks:

“This was done in consultation and cooperation with his estate. So we wouldn’t do this if the estate had objected or didn’t feel comfortable with this idea.

(For additional debate, you also may want to read this article by Max Farrow and this article by Dave Ehrlich)

While I know some readers will want to debate the ethics involved, I’m purposefully side-stepping the debate for this post as it merits an entire post to itself, and is being explored much more thoroughly and knowledgeably elsewhere on the internet! Instead, I’d like to focus on what this develop does mean – for better or for worse, we are rapidly approaching the point at which CGI renderings will be comparable to real life actors. We absolutely need to land on a humane and sensible agreement in terms of what is acceptable and what is unethical – but we also won’t be able to avoid for long the question of how this applies to missing episodes of Doctor Who.

This idea is not exactly new – I speculated in May 2015 that the BBC could recreate Marco Polo using an entirely new cast as a reference point for the animators, the driving factor there being the proliferation of motion capture in computer games. Rogue One has demonstrated that movies are quickly catching up, and that television or on-demand viewing cannot be far behind. Yes, in 2017 it is probably prohibitively expensive to map William Hartnell’s CGI created expression on to David Bradley. But it is not impossible – and it was not that long ago that we were warned that animating a completely missing episode of Doctor Who was financially impossible.

This being the case, then suddenly the BBC have a lot of questions in front of them, in terms of productions, values and ethics – never mind the business decisions! Even if BBC Worldwide could bring together a cast to re-make Marco Polo, and wanted to do so, how far should their creative freedom go? The animators of The Power of the Daleks have already faced questions on the decisions they took when animating the adventure. Imagine having to decide whether Marco Polo: Reimagined should be recorded in widescreen colour HD, or instead as close to the orginal as possible? Should all of the original cast be faithfully recreated, or only the recurring cast? Should the original soundtrack be used? And especially given contemporary debates about cultural appropriation, would the BBC have to ensure that Chinese actors portrayed Chinese roles?

Against all of these challenges however, I would like to present a positive case. Unless the episodes show up (and optimism is at an all time low) we have 97 gaps in the classic catalogue, of which only fifteen have been satisfactorily plugged. The Power of the Daleks animation was great, but also lacked fluidity – you had to get past the realisation of the human characters. There is definitely a case for using motion capture to improve the quality of future animations – the question seems not to be if we should use motion capture, but rather the extent to which we should use motion capture and CGI.

It is not just missing episodes at stake here. If a convincing William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton could be re-created, why not a convincing Peter Davison or Colin Baker? Take Big Finish’s excellent audio drama Spare Parts (available to buy online here) – the clip below shows a test animation attempted by a fan (there are four on youtube in total):

While Cybermen (like Daleks) are easy to animate, humans are unsurprisingly somewhat more difficult. Given the pace at which technology is advancing however, we may not be far from the point that we can produce so much more than missing episodes – we would be able to turn audio dramas into reasonably realistic animations. Of course – this would instantly put fandom into a schism inducing uproar – certain fans would refuse to accept ‘non-canon’ stories, while even those who accepted it would be divided in terms of whether these new adventures would be welcomed into the ‘classic’ DVD range, or should be a stand alone range.

Plainly there remains a lot to debate, and absolutely no easy answers. But the future for classic Doctor Who is nevertheless extremely exciting, and persuades me that regardless of whether further material is found, Doctor Who fans can eventually look forward to a day when the missing episodes have been recreated in some form, and we can enjoy the classic era in its entirety.

36 – The Three Doctors

Back in 1973, a bright spark at the BBC suddenly realised that Doctor Who had reached a significant milestone – its tenth season. To mark the occasion, the producers took the bold step to write a story featuring every one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and the resulting story was entitled exactly what it was: The Three Doctors.

Of all the ‘multi-doctor’ stories, I believe that this one is the best. Unlike The Five Doctors it is not overly self-referential, instead telling quite a good story; unlike The Two Doctors it is clear and cohesive, and reasonably well told! It has to be said that, in my view, it is the participation of the Doctor’s first three incarnations in one story that makes what might have been a quite ordinary U.N.I.T. adventure into a truly great one, and one that is a pleasure to enjoy.

At the beginning of this story the Doctor is still trapped on earth; but having found a variety of different ways to circumvent the BBC’s restriction (or rather, dressing up in different ways sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords) the BBC finally gave up and decided it was time to let the Doctor off his leash. The narrative device to restore the Doctor’s freedom was for Gallifrey itself to come under attack from an unknown source, requiring the help of the Doctor to overcome it. When it transpires he requires the assistance of another Timelord, the High Council decide there is only one other person they can spare – the Doctor’s past self!

The villain of the piece is one of the original Timelords – a chap called Omega who harnessed the power of a star near Gallifrey, creating the conditions in which the Timelords would be able to travel in time. He himself was thought lost in the resultant supernova, but had in fact been sucked into a parallel anti-matter universe. The force of his will enables the world to exist, but he cannot escape it without someone else willing it to exist. He is therefore seized of two purposes – to destroy the Timelords (who he felt abandoned him) and to bring to himself another Timelord to take his place and enable him to return to the matter universe.

The Three Doctors does require you to shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride – but it is an extremely enjoyable ride! The scenes between Pertwee and Troughton are genuinely funny rather than forced, leaving it only a pity that Hartnell was so unwell that he could not participate as fully as one otherwise would have hoped, appearing instead in pre-recorded scenes from the TARDIS monitor. It also feels like the beginning of the end for the U.N.I.T. family – at the end of this story the Doctor is given his freedom by the Timelords in gratitude for defeating Omega. As The Brigadier and Benton depart to ‘mop things up’ while the Doctor prepares the TARDIS for take-off, one rather senses that the dismemberment of the U.N.I.T. family, which would start in the season finale The Green Death was already taking place.

The Three Doctors is by no means the most complicated Doctor Who you will ever watch – but it is good fun, easy to follow, and features some extremely enjoyable acting – not least from the three leading men. As the Brigadier famously remarks: “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”

Next time: A savage introduction to a new companion, facing against a schizophrenic computer