Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Doctor Who: Animating The Invasion

George Lucas continually tinkers around with his Star Wars movies. Paramount recently began revamping the effects work for each episode of classic Star Trek. Now it’s Doctor Who’s turn to present its take on reimagining the past.

Two weeks ago saw the milestone R1 DVD release of the 1968 story "The Invasion". The 8-part serial has been missing the visuals for a fourth of its episodes – Parts One & Four – since the BBC scrapped huge chunks of the Doctor’s ‘60s adventures years ago. Why you may ask? Nobody foresaw the eventual resale value of the series, and back in the day Auntie Beeb wasn’t all that keen on reruns. Thankfully, obsessive Whovians date back to the beginning, when pockets of industrious fans presciently recorded the show’s audio every Saturday afternoon.

Enter animation house Cosgrove Hall, cleaned-up fan-recorded audio tapes, and a current demand for Doctor Who surpassing any other period in the Time Lord’s long history: "The Invasion" is complete once again – six episodes of crisp, restored black & white goodness interspersed with two animated episodes that are as close to what’s missing as anyone can currently hope to see.

"The Invasion" was an ideal selection for the experiment.

For starters, it features the Cybermen, and since the Senators of Steel have enjoyed a resurgence, they’re an obvious draw for people looking to feed their Who addiction. Furthering that logic, "The Invasion" was a huge inspiration for the recent "Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel" two-parter, which restored the Mondasian Marchers to their former glory.

Also, it’s a pretty damn good yarn -- which is no faint praise for a tale clocking in at nearly 3 ½ hours. Yet any ‘60s TV sci-fi of that duration must have problematic areas, right? The events encompassing the first four episodes could easily fit into half the running time. As a result, animating Episodes One and Four elevates material that might be considered a tad sluggish into something new and exciting -- and the kicker is that they’re animated in black & white! By the time a Cyberman bursts from its cocoon for Part Four’s cliffhanger, the proceedings kick into a higher gear and the final four parts move with a pretty intense momentum (well, by late-‘60s Who standards anyway).

Lastly, any excuse to serve eight episodes of Patrick Troughton on silver platters is more than OK by me. Back when the BBC took to scrapping ‘60s Who, Troughton’s era was hit the hardest: Only a single story ("The Tomb of the Cybermen") from his first two seasons exists in its entirety. His third and final season, however, exists as nearly complete[1], and this DVD brings the season that much closer to its original dramatic vision.

The story in brief: The Doctor and Co. arrive in present-day London (i.e. the late ‘60s/early ‘70s), realize a corporation called International Electromatics is up to no good (similar to Cybus Industries from the recent two-parter), and before long Cybermen are popping up all over the place. The most notable difference from the David Tennant outing (aside from the lack of an alternate universe setting) is IE’s head honcho, Tobias Vaughn (superbly played by Kevin Stoney): Unlike John Lumic, he isn’t creating Cybermen, but rather working with them to take over Earth. When the plan sours, Vaughn dedicates his final actions toward revenge against the “uninteresting metal men” [2]. The story also set up the Jon Pertwee-era template by reintroducing Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), unveiling UNIT and testing the waters for a series set in a contemporary Earthbound setting – it could be argued that it’s a major ancestor of the current series. "The Invasion" paved the way for ‘70s Doctor Who and as such is something of a benchmark.

Due to the massive success of this DVD (it sold bucketloads in the UK), many a fan is calling for more -- and with good reason: If this was the test run, then the sky’s the limit. There’s no reason the other 106 missing episodes couldn’t, over time, be animated in the same manner. Indeed, many feel "The Invasion’s" animated segments engage more than the original taped episodes! One can only assume the Cosgrove Hall team (as well as Mark Ayres’ exceptional audio restorations) will only get better as they move forward[3].

I’d like to see a few more trial runs via completing stories that exist in "Invasion"-like limbos before aiming for completely lost epics such as "The Power of the Daleks" or "Marco Polo". The next logical choice would be "The Tenth Planet" -- William Hartnell’s final story. The four-parter introduced the Cybermen to the series and lacks only one episode: Part Four -- in which the Doctor regenerated for the very first time; the Cosgrove Hall animators would have a field day with that sequence.

The problem with a lot of ‘60s Who is that it’s often very slow. I challenge anyone to watch all six episodes of "The Seeds of Death" without at some point screaming at their TV, “Get the fuck on with it already!!” There are even parts of "The Invasion" that could benefit from some simple audio editing. As wonderful as "The Invasion" results are, what would viewing an entire animated adventure feel like? A unique situation has arisen.

Let’s take, for instance, Troughton’s "Fury from the Deep" – six episodes, all lost and considered a missing classic. I once tried to listen to an audiotape release and admittedly didn’t get all the way through it (but the novelization rocked!). Would animating a nearly 2 ½ hour serial be the thrill ride it sounds? 2 ½ hours with pacing dictated by low-budget ‘60s TV constraints?? This is borderline heresy, but what if the audio was edited into a tighter form retaining the meat of the material and was then animated? What if "Fury from the Deep" was better with a 1 hour and 45 minute running time? One of many ongoing jokes about old Doctor Who involves the endless running around corridors. Episodes had to be 25 minutes, and sometimes padding was required to make the half hour each week. Why animate corridor scenes with banal dialogue? Why not cut [to] the chase? Because then you’re mucking about with a legacy, and there’ll inevitably be an uproar when somebody (or likely many bodies) shouts that history is being rewritten. But isn’t animating this stuff in the first place already a rewrite of sorts? How about the cost of animating minute upon minute of boring filler material? What about the probability that it may actually be more cost effective to produce a better and more engaging story with a shorter running time?

Animating the missing "Invasion" parts in black & white and in full was a smart first move – they match the other six episodes, offer up the nearest to what's been lost and please all but the most anal fan. But when it comes time to animate a full story, why not go for color? (It’s hardly comparable to Turnerizing It’s a Wonderful Life.) Is that too messing with history?

Another classic in need of an overhaul is Hartnell’s "The Celestial Toymaker" (Michael "Alfred" Gough guests as the titular baddie), a four-parter missing its first three installments. Here’s a story that not only begs to be animated in color, but should probably even have its final episode animated as well (present the original Part Four as an “extra”). Why view three episodes of slick cartoons only to end on a clunky black and white finale? Where does reverence for original material end and presenting the most engaging DVD begin?

This animating of missing Doctor Who has opened up a slew of possibilities that all need to be explored before just going for the obvious slavish devotion to history. And with eyes focused on the future, what exactly is history? Aren’t all the missing episodes currently (in the slang usage of the term) “history”?

[1] Aside from the two missing parts of "The Invasion", Troughton’s final season lacks only five episodes of the six-parter "The Space Pirates". Based on the narrative quality of Part Two (recently released in the "Lost in Time" DVD collection), we aren’t missing out on much.

[2] Credit due to Sheik Yerbootie for the phrase “uninteresting metal men”. I’ve been unable to shake the description since he first coined it.

[3] Credit must also be given to The Restoration Team (of which Mark Ayres is a member). Without all the fine work these guys have done restoring Doctor Who episodes from all eras to their former glory, it’s doubtful this animated revolution would even be happening. Further details on the DVD release of "The Invasion" can be found on their site.