The Perils of Remastering Geek TV in High Definition

How does classic geek TV like Buffy, Doctor Who, and Star Trek: TNG fare in high definition? Mark examines the art of remastering shows...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer HD

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

There’s an adage in fandom that tells us “the memory cheats.” Coined by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner in the 1980s, it refers to a kind of Mandela Effect where we improve TV episodes we haven’t seen in a while in our heads. But in the age of DVD and Blu-ray, these shows are now available for posterity. Some of them have even been upscaled for glorious but utterly unforgiving high-definition formats.

To a certain extent, we’ve become conditioned to expect our TV shows in the highest possible definition and those who hold home media and streaming rights to our favourite geeky shows are usually eager to deliver.

So it goes with the recent Red Dwarf Blu-ray boxset, a 30th-anniversary release which comprises all eight series from the BBC era, remastered with six times the pixel count of the existing DVD releases. Further color correction and noise reduction have also been undertaken, but despite looking as good as the series ever has, it’s come under fire because of a smeg-up.

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Out of 52 episodes, nine are affected by a disc authoring fault where the HD versions have been encoded in a progressive rather than an interlaced frame-rate, which means the picture has been “smoothed out” at the expense of natural motion. It’s difficult to tell what’s happening unless you do a side-by-side comparison with another version, but if you think those episodes look a little off, then this explains it.

The error, which affects all of Series III and Series V’s “Quarantine,” “Demons & Angels,” and “Back To Reality,” resembles the motion smoothing effect that Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie have made efforts to educate consumers about of late. Crucially, it’s not a fault with the restoration, purely an error with the affected discs.

Thanks to some prodding from the good people at Ganymede & Titan, the BBC have since announced that fans who bought the boxset will be able to get replacement discs with the fault corrected in “approximately six weeks.”

It’s a fairly amicable outcome by the standards of other remastered geek TV releases because it really gets consumers’ feckles up when the highest possible definition is not the same as the best possible quality.

Appreciating that their target audience will definitely notice, and even go online and write up an itemised list of errors or differences from previous versions in the week of release, producers have a daunting task when it comes to upscaling pre-HD shows.

Loose definition

When HBO Home Entertainment remastered The Wire in HD for digital and Blu-ray releases in 2014, they invited creator and executive producer David Simon to supervise the process. Converting the show from the then-industry-standard 4:3 aspect ratio to a more modern 16:9 widescreen look included digitally touching up any resulting goofs and continuity errors, to create a better-looking version of the show that remained faithful to its vision.

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Beloved science fiction and fantasy shows require much more work than acclaimed crime dramas however, mostly because there are more special effects to take into consideration. But on top of everything else, it’s essentially the art of upgrading something that was never meant to hold up to modern picture quality standards.

Where movies may really benefit from restorations based on original film negatives, TV shows comprise many more hours of footage, that will often have been either shot or edited on video. Often, not every part can be preserved exactly as the producers originally intended.

Take the example of the generally well-received X-Files Blu-rays, where fans were still quick to notice changes and errors in the title sequences. It may seem like minutiae, but it matters to those expecting some kind of definitive release. But in the case of The X-Files, it’s certainly not the worst HD job that 20th Century Fox has ever put out.

Buffy vs Blu-Ray

“20 Years On, Slaying Vampires Has Never Looked So Good”, boasted the marketing for 2016’s anniversary boxset of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Alas, the contents of that box were the same DVDs we’ve all been re-watching Joss Whedon’s ground-breaking teen show on for the last decade or so. Heck, even the famously awful menu navigation hasn’t been updated.

When Buffy started in the 1990s, the first two seasons were shot on 16mm film and everything thereafter on 35mm. Even though extensive post-production work is required, it’s fairly suitable for a big restoration like those that other popular shows have got, so where are the Blu-rays?

Well, for those who don’t know, Fox planned to release the high-definition version for the home market, but plans were cancelled after a wave of negative coverage about what turned out to be a pretty disastrous attempt at remastering Buffy in high-def.

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Currently in circulation on Netflix in the US and Amazon in the UK, as well as in syndicated repeat runs on various broadcasters around the world, this HD version has become the model for what not to do when remastering shows from this era.

In researching this, we’re indebted to Buffy HD, the Facebook group that has collected an exhaustive list of all the errors and mistakes entailed in the transfer, as part of their campaign for Fox to carry out a new, more thorough restoration. There are major problems throughout the series, but let’s cover some of the biggies, starting with this one…

That’s not an image from a behind-the-scenes documentary. That’s a screengrab from the HD version of the fight scene between Buffy and Faith in season three’s “Graduation Day Part 1.” If you don’t remember the production crew being visible originally, let us save you checking your DVDs. They weren’t.

Like The Wire, this HD version of Buffy is taken from rescanned original negatives and switches the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9. Unlike The Wire, this has been achieved through near-indiscriminate cropping, widening, and in some cases, even stretching of the image as broadcast.

Switching aspect ratios is already iffy ground, (see also, Fox’s cropping of early Simpsons episodes for their broadcast on FXX) but here it’s just one aspect of a shoddy transfer. As a network show with special effects, any HD transfer of Buffy requires careful post-processing that simply hasn’t been observed here.

As a network show, the show made use of day-for-night photography (and even day-for-dusk, occasionally) for both practical and budgetary reasons. It wasn’t the kind of lavish, big-budget TV production you see nowadays.

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So, in a show where several major characters are vampires who catch fire when exposed to sunlight, you can’t convert the original footage into high-definition footage and then not carry out the color grading work that, say, keeps Angel in the dark rather than lying beneath Buffy’s window in full sunlight.

Even without this problem, there’s stuff where sunset scenes (like the famous one in the season three opener “Anne”) look like they take place in the middle of the day. Moreover, there’s a weird tint to all the daytime and exterior scenes that belies the absence of post-production that took place on the original standard definition version.

Further tampering with the show’s original look comes in the form of re-rendered special effects, which mean that staked vampires turn into smoke rather than dust. Meanwhile, the process of digital noise reduction takes a lot of detail out of the picture, reducing skin textures and motion to give the kind of plasticky look seen above.

All of this adds up to a fairly cheap and nasty-looking version of the show that not only disregards the producers’ original intentions but also undermines itself by creating brand-new production and continuity errors that never existed in standard definition.

Due to fan protests, this version is not available for purchase, but it gradually seems to be replacing the SD version on streaming services, meaning that blissfully unaware new viewers will just think that’s what it’s meant to look like.

Egregious as this is, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a popular enough property that it would seem like Fox is leaving money on the table by not doing it justice with a proper remastering job. However, as one major remastering project has shown, the cost of doing it properly may be prohibitive…

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The Next Generation

Released on Blu-ray in 2009, the HD remaster of all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation may be the platonic ideal of restoring geek TV for… well, the next generation.

Following popular HD releases for The Original Series and The Animated Series, CBS and Paramount turned their attention to The Next Generation, which originally ran from 1987 to 1994.

While shooting and editing on film had been the norm for shows like this until around the mid-1980s, The Next Generation had been shot on film and then edited on NTSC videotape. Like Buffy, the show had all its post-production completed on video in order to save time and money.

This means that the film negatives, while boasting a 20-megapixel resolution, were without the original special effects or editing. In a show of confidence that hadn’t been seen before and is frankly unlikely to happen again, the studios greenlit a massive restoration of all 178 episodes, including restored special effects and a 7.1 DTS soundtrack, using the original film negatives.

Adhering as closely as possible to the broadcast versions of the show, (including the 4:3 aspect ratio) the labour-intensive project took years to complete and wound up costing $12 million altogether.

The results speak for themselves, but with such a colossal overhead, it may not surprise you to learn that the release didn’t really wash its face. Although still anticipated in fandom, spin-off series Deep Space Nine and Voyager come with their own problems, with their greater reliance on CG effects.

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As the boxset’s director Robert Meyer Burnett told Trek News: “Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager would require at least the same amount of time, manpower, and money, but neither show was ever as popular as TNG or TOS. So, how can CBS be expected to shell out probably 20-million dollars per series to remaster them into HD?” 

Fans are gonna fan, so of course, there was some backlash to some of the minor changes entailed for practical reasons, but it still stands as an almost peerless example of what’s possible. Few restorations on this scale are undertaken with both the care and the money to back it up.

Buffeted by the changing home entertainment market at the time of their release, the remastered Next Generation episodes have also popped up on Netflix in recent years. it’s likely to be the last project that we ever see on this scale. With the growing emphasis on streaming television, projects as impressive as this are unlikely to be seen as profitable.

Who knows

With any further high-def Star Trek releases on hold for the foreseeable future, the longest-running show with the broadest range of what’s achievable in terms of picture quality is still Doctor Who.

Like Trek, changing production circumstances over more than 50 years on the air mean that the definition of Who extends from black-and-white stories that sometimes got taped over or discarded by short-sighted staff, to the full-color, shot-in-HD episodes starting from 2009’s “Planet Of The Dead.”

For most of the first 26 years that it was on the air, the programme was largely shot on tape for studio shots and on film for exterior shots. For their part, the aptly named Doctor Who Restoration Team has always been open about how far the picture quality can go with the source material at hand.

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The only other pre-2005 stories that could show a significant improvement from being remastered in high definition are 1970’s “Spearhead From Space,” which was filmed almost entirely on location, and the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, which was shot on film. Despite rights issues surrounding the latter, both stories duly received individual Blu-ray releases after the classic series DVD range reached a conclusion.

Other releases have included “Shada,” an incomplete story that was halted by strike action before any studio footage could be shot, whose 2017 Blu-ray treatment comprises a patchwork of restored exterior footage, animation, and a specially shot insert starring the present-day Tom Baker. The newly animated edition of 1966’s “The Power Of The Daleks” similarly got a high-definition disc release.

However, BBC Worldwide has recently started producing season boxsets on the format for the first time, starting with Season 12, which marked Tom Baker’s debut. Peter Davison’s first season followed, with Baker’s swansong due in shops next month. These sets have proven popular so far and based on people who have reportedly contributed to the special features, it’s been reported that seasons of the Jon Pertwee and Sylvester McCoy eras will arrive on Blu-ray later in 2019.

While these don’t represent a massive improvement in picture quality over the existing DVDs, they do give fans a rare chance to buy seasons all in one go. Added to the reliable diligence of the show’s Restoration Team in creating new special features to go with the existing ones, these upscaled sets provide pretty good value for those who don’t already own these stories on disc, while giving completists enough reason to double dip.

As with certain releases in the DVD range (some will still shudder at the very mention of a spanner), there are optional improved special effects on these upscaled stories, but as far as classic Doctor Who goes, the idea is to faithfully represent the show on home media, whether through the episodes themselves or the newly produced documentaries and other features.

In the aftermath of recent Twitch marathons, switching to season boxsets is an even more timely move for reaching new fans who might be interested in older adventures as the current incarnation stays off-air until 2020.

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Appropriately for a show without an end, the release of each classic Doctor Who story has enough diligence put into it that it feels definitive at the time of release, and there’s always added value each time they revisit one. For physical media releases at least, these additional features are more of a selling point than the incremental improvements in picture quality.

“Enhance!”

Returning to Red Dwarf, there’s a standout gag in the first UK TV special, “Back To Earth,” that explains the earlier series’ 80s-centric view of future technology by explaining that in the future, we’re all going to swap back to good old VHS tapes after we get fed up with discs.

With the way technology and nostalgia are developing in opposite directions, we wouldn’t even be surprised if VHS becomes the new vinyl in the next few years, but there is something in that gag about the changeability of home media in the high-definition age. Ultra 4K Blu-ray players only arrived on the European market in 2016 and even while consumers are catching up, Japan has already got an 8K TV channel.

In terms of television, there are more obvious landmarks in sports coverage than scripted programmes. Just last summer, the 2018 FIFA World Cup was described as a landmark because all match coverage was produced in 4K resolution, but Japanese broadcasters are already gearing up to broadcast next summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games in 8K.

Can these shows keep up with the latest demands of high-definition technology? And more importantly, should they? Whether it’s the superb restoration of The Next Generation from the outright vandalism done to Buffy, remastering shows in high-definition always changes them in some way.

Not everyone finds the vintage quality of classic telly enjoyable, especially in areas where the special effects are of their time.

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When done well, remastered shows are nice to look at. But historical context is arguably more important than endlessly refining shows to look like today’s entertainment, especially when the process demonstrably doesn’t actually make them any more entertaining.