The Talons of Weng-Chiang

The classic Fourth Doctor favourite 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' finally sees DVD release as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations. Released for the first time in its original episodic format and untouched by the hands of the BBFC censors, 'Talons' is also, thanks to an extras package running to two and a half hours, packaged as a double disc set.

'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' exists in on it's original transmission videotapes (2" Quad recordings) which were transferred to D3 as part of the BBC's archive project. These composite digital recordings were dubbed to Digital Betacam via theTransform Decoder providing component pictures free from PAL cross-colour artifacts suitable for the DVD re-mastering of the story.

Jonathan Wood once again looked after the video remastering for this release and explains some of the problems involved...

"It was obvious from the start that a particular look had been sought for the pictures in terms of lighting and camera adjustment in order to conjure up the dim, lantern lit feel of the Victorian era. In other words there is a lot of low level lighting throughout the story with a definite bias towards yellow. However, this seems to have contributed to the most variable video pictures yet seen in terms of shot matching. In addition, the sequences shot in a real theatre may have been recorded as an outside broadcast multi camera set-up as opposed the single-camera technique, which again has introduced a degree of variability. The low-level lighting, while producing a great atmosphere, has at times caused the tube cameras to struggle with a fair amount of smearing and a great deal of noise evident.

Each episode was graded shot-by-shot to maintain a uniform black level and colour balance during scenes, while preserving the original look of the story. In later episodes this rectified some bad green shots caused by one of the cameras going out of alignment. As is usually the case, the exterior film sequences were not kept in the library which prevents a new transfer on a modern telecine which would have significantly improved the quality. Thankfully, the film inserts were played into the studio from a reasonably aligned MKII telecine, and these were re-graded from tape along with the video material (but to a greater degree) and compiled together for intensive clean-up later on. The DVNR was programmed to switch between video mode (for tape noise reduction) and film mode (grain/sparkle reduction) as appropriate. During the transfer via the grading system, the odd single frame here and there was removed as usual, due to flash fields, non-PAL edits (causing picture hops) and bad film joins. A further viewing of the masters was necessary later to locate and fix videotape dropout and line-flashes, with the same problems as always when it comes to field by field motion across a fault and a minimum of a 2-fields that can be edited. (See "The Three Doctors" article for details.)

The re-graded film inserts (including a new transfer of the 35mm Tom Baker titles) were treated using the Scratchbox to remove dirt and sparkle, and  a fair amount of large black blobs. One of the inserts was found to  have the wrong field dominance (ie the film frame was on video fields 2 and 1 rather than 1 and 2) preventing clean-up, so this was put through an aspect ration converter (unity aspect settings) with a field dominance inversion to bring the film sequence into picture phase. There was also some later treatment with the Philips VS4 scratch reducer on some fine vertical scratches, and in video mode some further work on the saturated reds in Greel's lair during the later episodes.

The opening titles of this story were once again originally played in from a probable 16mm dupe print, with the telecine operator not even bothering to have the film running in rack! As this betrayed the quality of the production following, it was decided to replace them with the 35mm version. However, once again (as with the story itself) it was important to maintain the overall feel in terms of colour balance of the original - in this case predominantly blue. As with all title replacements though, the problem is re-keying the captions over the film sequence. The Tom Baker opening titles generally contain more bright parts in the image than say the early Pertwee ones, meaning it's very difficult to separate the original captions from other parts of the picture and generate a key signal. The only way round this was to import still frames of all the captions into a PC and very carefully draw around them with black, which eventually resulted in a "clean" white on black image to use as a key. This also meant that attempting to track down the exact font used and match the positioning and size of the originals wasn't necessary. The title sequences are then rebuilt with a separate edit each time there's a caption change ensuring that the original timing is maintained. The results are sequences which in essence look the same as the originals but in a much improved quality."

It's fair to say that this is probably the noisiest video material we have had to work with so far and sadly this is still reflected in the finished DVD, which has some particularly noisy sections. In hindsight it might have been better to push the noise reduction a lot harder, which would have resulted in even more picture smear but less noise. It's debatable which is the lesser of two evils... Running the DVD against the original masters shows that the DVD is indeed cleaner, which will probably come as something of a shock to the average viewer, who might not realise just how bad noise levels really were on some of these stories.

As usual, DAT copies of the soundtrack were sent up to Mark Ayres for audio cleanup which was a fairly routine job as no particular problems were noted doing remastering. Mark notes... "I replaced the themes and denoised the episodes. Tidied up a few edits and some mild distortion. There were a few level problems on the last two episodes (the opening of part five was very quiet, but part six went way over on a couple of occasions, so I've brought it back into line), and there was at least one point where it sounded as though the mixer's hand slipped on the fader with a sudden increase in level apparent."

On Sunday 5th January 2003, a commentary was recorded in Dubbing Theatre 3 at Television Centre with stars Louise Jameson, Christopher Benjamin and  John Bennett, director David Maloney and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. As with the 'Seeds of Death' commentary, the participants were mixed and matched on a per-episode basis.

(L-R) David Maloney, John Bennett, Chrostopher Benjamin, Louise Jameson, Philip Hinchcliffe

A very comprehensive extras package is being compiled for this release, necessitating the use of a two-disc package. Subject as always to clearances, the provisional list includes :-

Copyright Steve Roberts,  20th March 2003