Back to the Future

If you were watching TV in the 1980s, there are certain things you will remember. The Vietnam veterans who were brilliant at taking down loan sharks despite their inability to actually shoot straight. David Hasselhoff running into the ocean in slow motion – and then, regrettably, running back out again. Richard Dean Anderson building a small explosive out of three rolls of parcel tape and a paperclip. Scott Bakula in a wig and heels. David Hasselhoff again, upstaged by a Trans Am. David Duchovny, in a wig and heels. And Tom Selleck somehow managing to make Hawaiian shirts look almost cool.

There was a technique to producing a memorable intro, and that was to talk over it. I say “In 1972”, you say “a crack commando unit”. I say “A shadowy flight into the dangerous world”, you say “of a man WHO DOES NOT EXIST”. I say “…hoping each time that his next leap”, you say “will be the leap home”, the unavoidable lump in your throat stemming from the knowledge that he never quite managed it. We knew those voiceovers as well as we knew the opening themes that followed, whether they were by Mike Post, or – actually, they were all by Mike Post, so let’s leave it there. In any event those voiceovers have entered fan lore and it is impossible to imagine the show without them. We still do them at parties. Perhaps that’s just me.

But Doctor Who has always had that opening theme, and it’s always been…well, very of its time, somehow, whatever time that happened to be. The titles have always been played over stars, or a swirling vortex, or weird camera effects – something abstract and general. You can’t really imagine it any other way. It’s difficult to envisage a Doctor Who that emulates that cheesy montage-style opening, replete with freeze frame stills of the leads, and shots of at least one explosion, or Dwight Schultz with a glove puppet.

Hence this.

Technical stuff first. It had to be Tennant. The ‘Voyage of the Damned’ speech that makes up the bulk of his narration practically lends itself to an 80s style intro (the BBC used it for at least one trailer back in 2007) and even if it hadn’t, there was no one else who could have pulled off that debonair, slightly irritating leading man pastiche. Smith is just too…English. As much as I love the Eleventh Doctor, his predecessor’s monumental impact with fans is easy to analyse: he’s the sort of person they grew up watching in the 1990s. He’s Fox Mulder, right down to the suit. Barrowman’s presence was a given. Casting a companion was trickier – I almost plumped for a selection until the moment I realised the shot of Tennant closing the TARDIS door with his fingers was ripe for inclusion – and he’s with Donna, so the decision was more or less made.

“Why Max?” asked Gareth, and various other people, so I explained. “It is scientific fact that any American sci-fi / private detective drama from the 1980s had an eccentric older character played by an established veteran, and he was usually called Max.”
“Is it? I can’t think of any at the moment. What examples are there? (So that I can say “oh, really?” or “ah, I haven’t seen that”.)
Hart To Hart. And. Um. Max from Ben Ten? OK, that may be it.”

Details aside, the casting of the comic relief veteran was standard practice, as evidenced by Macgyver and Magnum P.I., among others. Actually, when I think about it this whole thing was really just a reaction to this trailer, which I did years back and which I was unable to post on Facebook.

Right down to that shot of Barrowman hefting the gun. Which may be iconic one day. But not today. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.

Music was provided by Philip Chance – I wandered around YouTube looking for appropriate rights-free synth-and-drum-machine combos for a good long while before I found what I was looking for. The post-production work was done in Adobe After Effects – which I downloaded specially – although I couldn’t have managed the grainy VHS look without the help of this tutorial. Basically it’s a question of whacking up the contrast and pasting over some noise effects. If you look at the bottom of the screen you’ll see a jagged line running throughout, which is supposed to be that poor tracking you always had when the heads needed cleaning.

“Do you see what I mean about the old-style 3D-ness, though?” said Gareth.

“I do,” I said, “because the process is basically the same. Basically you split the picture into three separate signals and then isolate the colour in each – one red, one blue, one green – and overlay them. Then you shift each one a few pixels to the left and right so that the different colours are very slightly out of sync. It’s not enough to make it look any worse than a less-than-brilliant VHS transfer – real 3D signals are completely separate and are headache inducing when watched with the naked eye – but it’s a similar principle.”

“These days, I’m all about wearable technology.”

It’s not perfect, but I got bored. Some projects have a clear beginning, a middle and an end. When you’re doing a montage you’re looking for clips that work. Intro parodies (as with the Magnum one above) are trickier but narrow down your scope considerably, so that it’s easy to tell when it’s done. When mashing up dialogue it’s usually a question of finding enough material that works and then chipping away at the bits that you don’t need until you’re telling the best story you can.

With something like this it’s harder. Should I move that frame a little more to the right? Up the blur to 60 rather than 50 per cent? How authentic does this need to look? What’s it going to look like after encoding? In the end I settled for “Well, you get the idea”, which is sometimes about the best you can do when you’re not actually getting paid for doing this stuff. At least you don’t have to worry about copyright.

Reaction was…variable. Lots of people liked it, but more than a few missed the point.

“Umm, shouldn’t it be ‘If NuWho was produced in the 80s’? Because there were new episodes of Doctor Who coming out in the 80s.” (Reaction: Yeah, I was being vague. It helps with the hit count.)

I will never understand the fetishization of VHS. (Reaction: That’s TOTALLY NOT WHAT I’M DOING, it’s just about authenticity.)

“One thing – Tennant would have been a pimply teenager in the 80s (or possibly a little kid, I’m not sure how old he is), and Capaldi looked more like Colin Baker.” (Reaction: Yeah, he does look like Colin Baker.)

“Have people actually forgotten that doctor who was in fact around during the eighties and still looked better than this?” (Reaction: No one’s forgotten. Why have you reminded us?)

“Doctor Who was around in the 80s and before and shot on video so what’s the point of this?” (Reaction: Ah yes. The old ‘What’s the point?’ maxim. It’s people like you who get arts funding cut.)

“But… there already were episodes made in the 80s…” (Reaction: You’re really not getting this, are you?)

Gaah. Look, it’s a parallel universe, right? A parallel universe where we never moved beyond VHS and cassette tapes and gigantic brick-sized mobile phones (glances at Samsung S7 on desk, shifts uncomfortably in office chair) and contemporary Doctor Who, when they eventually made it, looked like this. And you had to tape it off the TV and find you’d missed the last five minutes because the Videoplus got the timing wrong, so you’ll never see Peter Capaldi bust through that wall. And it looks rotten because when you see 1980s TV recordings uploaded to YouTube, they look rotten as well. Savvy? I’M TIRED OF HAVING TO EXPLAIN THIS SHIT TO YOU PEOPLE.

Missing the point is something that happens quite a lot in fandom. It’s appropriate that we’ve just had Mothering Sunday, because last year I published the meme you can see below, which was picked up by a fan page (as opposed to Peter Capaldi himself – a man who is not on social media, although it’s sorely tempting to pretend he is and is reading my stuff). Comments varied from ‘LOLOLOL’ (which doesn’t even make sense) to the acidic ‘That’s horrible, and so are you’ – but it was one particular remark that caught my eye and then twisted a sharp stick into the socket over the course of the head-against-the-brick-wall conversation that followed. It is reprinted below as is: I have no qualms about embarrassing the girl / boy, because that’s not a real photo and that’s almost definitely not her / his real name.

I despair.

Then along comes John, who gets it instantly. “We found the Americanized Who!” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “That’s what I should have called it.” Dammit.

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Categories: Videos | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Back to the Future

  1. Very interesting use of creator credit, given the recent DWM article over actually created the show.

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