Magic Bullet Productions

The Sound and the Fury:

Is Doctor Who Better Suited to Audio or to Video?

by Fiona Moore

Amended version of an article originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 316


One of the most divisive questions with regard to Doctor Who today is the question of audio versus video. To explain: in the 1970s, large portions of the 1960s Doctor Who stories were wiped, but still survive, and in many cases have subsequently been released, on audio. However, there is a fair contingent of people who consider audio a poor substitute, including some who go so far as to claim that if one hasn't seen an adventure in all its visual glory, then one has no right to comment on any aspect of the production. Others, by contrast, swing just as far in the other direction, claiming that the visual is spurious, and that if the surviving Doctor Who stories were wiped tomorrow, it might even be a good thing. The question of whether audio is a viable Doctor Who format in its own right or simply a poor substitute for video is thus one which bears consideration.

It is worth noting at this point that the argument of this essay is a limited one, bearing primarily on Doctor Who. There is no question, for instance, of whether or not a film could transfer successfully to audio; films, stemming from a purely visual tradition, focus on images, facial expressions and panoramic views to the point where even a fairly talk-heavy picture like Twelve Angry Men would be lacking something without the images of the protagonists' faces. The more recent effects-heavy American TV dramas, which imitate the techniques of films, also would not transfer well. Finally, I will also be confining my argument for the most part to Doctor Who made between 1963 and 1989, and leaving aside the recent all-audio productions.

1. Pro Audio

In the case of Doctor Who, the most obvious argument in favour of the audio stories is the inescapable if unpalatable fact that some Doctor Who stories suffer visually, particularly over time. "The Celestial Toymaker", for instance, is a splendid, surreal adventure on audio, in which one's imagination can run wild, filling in images of the Toymaker in a sumptuous office, Dodo and Steven romping around game-boards stretching on into infinity, and the Doctor's disembodied hand hovering over the Trilogic Game. The surviving episode, by contrast, is a severe disappointment, as the scale abruptly returns to that of a low-budget television programme in the 1960s, and the sumptuous offices and gigantic game boards are reduced to cramped, somewhat sparsely-decorated sets, further detracted from by lamentable direction.

In addition, there is the psychological factor. Many of the core of Doctor Who aficionados today are people who started out watching the programme as children. The usual pattern from there on is for the child to reach adolescence, and consequently the stage at which one begins to distance oneself from the things one liked as a child, through belittling them and making fun of them, at least in the presence of one's friends. Once through this phase, however, when Doctor Who again becomes something that one can admit to liking, the result is that the programme as one remembers it from childhood takes on the glow of nostalgia (and the programme one remembers from adolescence seems in comparison a cheap parody of its former self, but that's another story). For those who were children after the 1960s, the glow of nostalgia can easily be challenged when a repeat of some beloved childhood favourite reveals in stark, clunky, set-wobbling detail just how much one's tastes, sense of discrimination and willingness to suspend disbelief have changed between the ages of five and twenty-five. In the case of those who were children at the time when the missing stories were screened, however, the visuals are not available to expose the monster that seemed so terrifying as simply a badly-done effect.

Following on from this, there is the fact that even if the story is actually as brilliant as one remembers it, the inevitably dated aspects of costuming and effects are always going to prove problematic for some viewers. No matter how good a serial made in the 1960s might be, some inane commentator will always appear to make snide remarks about the hairdos and clothing. Such generally-acclaimed 1970s stories as "Image of the Fendahl" and "Inferno" are sniggered at in some circles for poor effects and dated fashions; if "The Macra Terror" existed on video, it is probable that some people would be making fun of the monster effect rather than enjoying the story. As it is, these commentators are silent, to the great benefit of those who prefer to take each adventure on its own merits.

It is also worth noting again that Doctor Who has its roots in more auditory based traditions. Not only did a lot of television actors and production people of the time come into the medium from radio-and many have subsequently returned there-- but several TV programmes of the time had once been radio serials (for instance Hancock's Half Hour, Dick Barton, and The Adventures of Harry Lime/The Third Man). Furthermore, Doctor Who was done on a small budget, which meant a concentration on dialogue over visuals, and the story taking place in a small number of easily identifiable settings. Early Doctor Who is consequently very talk-heavy, with even the more action-oriented scenes containing a lot of dialogue of one sort or another.

At this point, one might compare Doctor Who with another TV genre which is low-budget, talky, and uses a small number of settings, and which has successfully made the transfer to audio: the sitcom. Many BBC sitcoms, despite the fact that most if not all of the video episodes are still available, have found their way into audio format, either through simply transferring the video soundtrack to a tape with added effects, being rerecorded as an audio using the original actors, or through being entirely reformatted as an original radio series. The list includes such diverse programmes as The Good Life, May to December, Steptoe and Son and even Blackadder. In the case of May to December, the change of format had the advantage of allowing a rapidly-aging Anton Rogers to carry on playing a fifty-five-year-old. Attempts to revive popular TV comedies in visual form after several years' absence often fall flat due to the ages of the stars, as witness the disastrous attempt to revive Are You Being Served. By transferring the format to audio, the characters can remain forever the same, with no distraction from the realities of aging.

The discussion of radio comedy brings us to another point, which is the contention that the more visual aspects of Doctor Who, as of comedies, are lost in the transition to audio. This has, however, not proven to be the case for comedies at least, as witness the surreal hilarity of The Goon Show, caused partly by the ludicrous descriptions of the action by the narrator, and partly by tantalising hints from the dialogue and effects (FX: [loud explosion] BLOODNOK: Any questions? ECCLES: Yes-- where are my legs?). Similarly, a good actor will indicate emotion through auditory as well as visual means: Kevin Stoney's raised brows may not be visible in "Master Plan", but the sarcasm in his voice is palpable. Where this is not possible, narration fills in the gaps: the narrative line in the audio release of "Master Plan", describing Karlton "staring at [Chen] with an expression that could be horrified disbelief or deepest admiration," easily conveys the nature of the scene, underlined by the edgy burst of incidental music which runs under it. Music and dialogue thus easily convey even the subtlest of visuals, with narration always available for those moments when this is not possible.

Finally, it is worth noting that Doctor Who itself has made the "official" jump to audio with little trouble on several occasions. In the 1960s, TV Century 21 released an audio drama consisting of portions of "The Chase" with linking narration by David Graham; a proposal was drawn up for a Doctor Who radio series with Peter Cushing after the films came out. In the 1970s we had "The Pescatons" as well as the audio release of "Genesis of the Daleks" (which actually, let heresy be spoken, has a number of advantages over the original - no giant clams, for a start) and the educational programme Exploration Earth. In the 1980s we had "Slipback", and then, in the 1990s, the much-derided "The Paradise of Death" and "The Ghosts of N-Space" (of which, it must be said, that there exist visual stories of equal or worse quality). Doctor Who has thus successfully made the transfer to audio with little difficulty.

In sum, then, the fans who audio-taped the programme in the 1960s may take comfort in the fact that they weren't simply creating a poor substitute to remind them of a favourite story in the absence of commercially available VCRs. The fact that people can still enjoy the "missing stories" in audio format suggests that Doctor Who is not hampered by, and indeed benefits in some respects from, being heard only on audio.

2. Pro Video

Despite this, a case can be made in favour of prioritising the visual. Sometimes, for instance, a story suffers when available only on audio: in the case of "The Massacre", for example, some of the characters sound the same, making the adventure as it stands more confusing than it would be if we could see them. Furthermore, no matter how good the narration, much of the humour of "The Feast of Steven" (which draws heavily on silent cinema) is lost because the visual gags are no longer there. Sometimes adventures which are effective on video do not translate well to audio format.

There is also the flip-side of the nostalgia question discussed above: that is, that without video, a story tends to get an inflated reputation. The presence of fan audios of "The Tomb of the Cybermen", coupled with some impressive colour stills, no doubt contributed to the mythic air surrounding it and the subsequent backlash after it was re-discovered; it must have been hard for fans to see the video and realise how the lack of decent direction lets down something which, in spite of the dodgy plot, could have been a very atmospheric story. Having the adventures available in visual form, although it would deal a blow to childhood nostalgia, would thus go some way towards eliminating the tendency to promote lesser serials to the level of "classics" due to unreliable memory and over-active imaginations.

At this point, also, a sticky and decidedly unanswerable question must be posed: Is the listener's knowledge of the series informing his/her experience of the audios? Most people listening to, say, "Galaxy 4", will have seen photographs from the series - possibly also the surviving clips - and even if this is not the case, they are likely to have a mental image of the way in which William Hartnell, Peter Purves, and so forth move and speak when in role. It is thus worth asking whether the actors' performances do really come through on audio "exactly the same as on video," or whether we are filling in the gaps with memories and mental reconstructions. It is thus entirely possible that audio adaptions are acting simply as ersatz video, an aid to memory rather than a genre in its own right.

Furthermore, even in a dialogue-heavy programme like Doctor Who, certain visual touches do add to the enjoyment of the programme. It is one thing to hear the narrator briefly describing the bald-headed Techniks at work in the background in "Master Plan", and another thing to actually see them wandering about, adding an eerie futuristic air to the proceedings and perhaps causing the viewer to speculate on the task they are performing. Similarly, in "The Robots of Death", much of the presence of the eponymous robots is visual; the effect of a robot society is created by the fact that we see them in the background of every scene, working on the command deck, wandering the corridors. If the story existed only on audio, the robots' presence would be much less marked (this is, of course, one of the great balancing-acts faced in writing Kaldor City: the conveying of the ubiquitous presence of the robots without continually making them the focus of the story). In some cases, the audio just is no substitute for the visual.

Finally, it does have to be said that the stories were made for television, and therefore to be seen. Even if "The Celestial Toymaker" is much more effective on audio than on video, the fact remains that it has been changed from its original format. The same argument thus applies as against reediting the videos and improving the special effects: It still involves changing the original. For some, the changes may be welcome; others, however, would prefer to have the original, however flawed, simply because it makes the experience, in their eyes, that much more "authentic."

It must be said, therefore, that a case can be made for prioritising the visual above the audio when it comes to Doctor Who, if only because the original story was created with a viewing audience in mind. While it cannot be denied that audio has its place in Doctor Who, it can be questioned whether or not this is a good thing for certain stories.

3. Synthesis

Ultimately, it must be said that the video-audio question is really a case of swings and roundabouts. There are some brilliant visuals which can never be even fractionally conveyed on audio; by contrast, audio is able to smooth over some of the more unfortunate defects of the original video production. Much also depends on the story in question: it is possible to argue that "The Gunfighters" would have made a much better audio adventure (as the story on video lacks the sense of vast, empty space of the Westerns from which it draws), but it is equally possible to argue that "The Highlanders" (shot partly on location, and without any tricky effects) is lacking something without the visuals. One point to draw from this, however, is that, like it or not, audio is a legitimate medium for Doctor Who as for other series, and not just as a poor substitute for the visual either; audio, it must be said, has in some cases distinct advantages over video, which should be recognised by anyone interested in Doctor Who.

Finally, the audios have had one great benefit to Doctor Who as it stands today: the show's audio connection, and the presence of fan-made audio bootlegs of 1960s episodes, paved the way for first fan, and now professional, audio productions. Consequently, groups on a small budget can turn out a quality product without having to spend vast amounts of money on visual effects; a video on the budget of even the most expensive professional audio would have a threadbare look. Unlike many telefantasy fans, people who enjoy Doctor Who are spoilt for choice, not only with regard to new or previously-unreleased adventures, but also for spin-off stories; if Doctor Who had never had an audio presence, it is unlikely that this market would have taken off. Whatever the problems of the audio medium, Doctor Who today would be the poorer without it.


In sum, then, it is impossible for reasonable people to say that the audio medium has the edge over the video medium, or indeed vice versa, in the Doctor Who context. However, it must be said that not only has the presence on audio of stories missing in the visual format given us more than a glimpse into what the original was like, but it has also demonstrated that audio is not simply a poor substitute for television, but a powerful medium in its own right with distinct advantages over video. Furthermore, by demonstrating that Doctor Who can work in any medium, the audio-only stories have helped pave the way for the current rise of the independent audio production.

Images copyright BBC

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