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Doctor Matrix

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Systems from The Matrix have restored Doctor Who to real time, Angus Kidman reports

WHAT do you get if you combine legendary time traveller Doctor Who, digital imaging systems developed for The Matrix movies, and an economy drive at the BBC?

Answer: A new system for restoring classic television shows into the format in which they were originally broadcast.

This unusual story begins back in 1963, when Doctor Who began its long television run.

Like most BBC shows at the time, it was filmed on two-inch videotape, which stored 50 frames per second.

However, video tape was extremely costly, and different formats were used around the world.

So, for export sales, the BBC transferred episodes of Doctor Who (and many other shows) to 16mm film.

This was much cheaper and could be exported almost anywhere, but it had one major disadvantage: it only stored 25 frames per second, giving a jerkier appearance, as about half the original images were lost.

During a 1970s economy drive at the BBC, most of the original videotapes from the 1960s were wiped, so the export film copies of many episodes are now the only ones left.

Many episodes are still missing completely, but film copies have been recovered from numerous locations, including Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Fans of the show are still eager to watch these episodes, but they compare unfavourably with more recent productions because of the film conversion.

BBC video engineer Peter Finklestone, who works regularly on the BBC's video releases of Doctor Who, has long recognised this problem.

As early as 1990, he contemplated using computers to regenerate the missing frames, restoring the 50- frames-per-second video look, but at that time image processing software was not advanced enough.

A system originally used for The Matrix's "bullet time" slow-motion sequences proved crucial to the solution.

Finklestone, who is visiting Australia as part of the local Doctor Who fan club's celebration of the 40th anniversary of the show, adapted this technology into a specialised image processing system known as VidFIRE, which calculates what the missing frames would look like using a standard PC.

VidFIRE still requires serious processing power -- converting a single 25-minute episode of Doctor Who takes about three days on a high-end desktop PC -- but the end result is much more lifelike.

"It really does look quite amazing," Finklestone says.

Since its original development, VidFIRE has been used to process two Doctor Who stories -- Planet of Giants from 1964 and The Ambassadors of Death from the 1970s -- for video release, and two for DVD -- The Aztecs (1964) and The Seeds Of Death (1968).

It was also used to prepare two long-lost episodes of Dad's Army before retransmission on the BBC at Christmas 2001.

Finklestone says VidFIRE is only a part of the restoration process.

Before VidFIRE is applied, each episode must be painstakingly cleaned to remove film scratches, dirt and other interference.

At the same time, the audio soundtrack for the show is tidied up, sometimes using off-air tape recordings made by fans, as well as the original film soundtrack.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Kidman, Angus (2003-04-01). Doctor Matrix. The Australian p. T15.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Kidman, Angus. "Doctor Matrix." The Australian [add city] 2003-04-01, T15. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Kidman, Angus. "Doctor Matrix." The Australian, edition, sec., 2003-04-01
  • Turabian: Kidman, Angus. "Doctor Matrix." The Australian, 2003-04-01, section, T15 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor Matrix | url= | work=The Australian | pages=T15 | date=2003-04-01 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 April 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Doctor Matrix | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 April 2024}}</ref>