CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO adventure The Ambassadors of Death is set to be seen in colour for the first time in 40 years.
Restoration experts are in the final stages of converting all seven episodes back from black and white, and hope to deliver the recolourised copies to the BBC “within weeks”.
A DVD release of the 1970 story, starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, is expected to follow.
Though originally made on two-inch colour videotape, six episodes of Ambassadors were only retained in the BBC archives as inferior 16mm b&w film recordings.
New technology, however, has revealed that these and some other black-and-white telerecordings still retain information that can lead to the restoration of the missing colour.
Steve Roberts of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, an independent group contracted by the BBC, has been overseeing the painstaking process of unpicking the colour signal and bringing one of the Time Lord’s vintage stories back to life.
Speaking to Wired magazine, Roberts, 35, said: “It seemed almost impossible. But when they made the black-and-white recordings, they didn’t filter off the colour carrier, which for the last few decades has been nothing more than an annoyance.”
The technique, developed from an idea of James Insell, a preservation specialist at the BBC’s Windmill Road archives centre in west London, has already been successfully applied to episodes of Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? and another Doctor Who story – episode three of Planet of the Daleks.
But recolouring episodes 2 – 7 of The Ambassadors of Death (tx March 21 – May 2, 1970) has proven the Restoration Team’s biggest challenge to date.
With much dedication and skill, team member Richard Russell used the weak signal on the films, appearing as a pattern of faint ‘chroma’ dots, to reverse-engineer raw colour pictures that could then be retouched frame by frame.
“It’s very, very labour intensive – several hundred man hours’ work every episode,” said Roberts, who is the team’s supervisor and a BBC senior engineer.
He adds that a new “quadrant editor” is helping them to produce better source material upfront and that they hope to deliver the Ambassadors episodes to the BBC “within weeks”.
A DVD release is expected to follow, though it is not currently on schedule for 2011.
Prior to 1978, the BBC junked many vintage episodes of Doctor Who featuring actors William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee in the lead role.
Today, 108 episodes are missing.
Episode one of Ambassadors is the oldest episode of Who surviving on its original transmission tape.
The only remaining copies of the other six episodes were b&w film recordings and poor-quality domestic colour NTSC recordings made from a US broadcast in 1977 and severely affected by a rainbow-coloured pattern of interference.
READ ON: Read the original Wired story – Time-travel TV: The mission to regenerate Doctor Who in colour. The Doctor Who News Page has also covered the announcement – The Ambassadors of Death DVD developments. Learn more about the colour restoration process on Wikipedia.
You can see an example of the rainbow interference present on the domestic colour copies of The Ambassadors of Death below: