How One Doctor Who Fan Brought Colour to the Show’s Classic Era

How One Doctor Who Fan Brought Colour to the Show’s Classic Era
Classic Daleks, as god (or Davros) intended us to see them. (Screenshot: BBC/Rich Tipple)

Doctor Who has been on TV long enough to transition through so many evolutions of the medium and survived in spite of some shoddy archiving techniques in the process. So much of what remains of the show’s earliest years is, of course, still in black and white — and while the BBC itself has made attempts to colorize Who’s history, one fan is taking it into his own hands.

Rich Tipple is a producer, director, and colorizer who’s both a Who fan and someone who’s worked with the BBC on home releases of the classic show. In the run-up to this year’s 58th anniversary of Doctor Who’s debut (November 23, 1963), he’s turned his professional career into a bit of a fandom hobby, taking clips from the sci-fi series’ earliest era and trying to faithfully recreate them in full colour.

“I got into Doctor Who during the ‘wilderness years.’ I was too young to really remember McCoy, but by the time of the [Paul McGann-starring] TV movie I was a huge fan! I’ve got my dad to thank,” Tipple told Gizmodo over email. “One day in HMV [Ed’s note: That’s a video/music store called His Master’s Voice] he picked up a double-VHS set of ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth.’ We watched it together the following day and I was hooked. I loved this mysterious time traveller, and Daleks coming out of the Thames… magic! I had nightmares about Daleks and Robomen for weeks afterwards. My mother was so angry at dad — but we kept sneaking off to watch it!”

Tipple’s fascination with classic Who might not be so typical of fans who have grown up with the modern iteration of the show for the past 16 years. Audiences used to the flashy CG, action pacing, and visuals of modern Doctor Who can find revisiting the show’s past a daunting prospect, especially when it comes to the earliest Doctors like William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton, who also have the extra hurdle to face in their stories being in black-and-white.

“I kept meeting younger Doctor Who fans that wouldn’t give the ‘60s era a go. I found this difficult to process because for me it’s the golden age of the show. Some people just don’t connect with black and white — so I thought I’d do something about it,” Tipple added, explaining why he started colorizing clips from the series.

“As soon as you add colour something magical happens. A clip you’ve seen a hundred times before suddenly feels new. It’s like watching something for the first time. It breathes new life into something familiar. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of things it’s hard to see the wood through the trees. Perhaps I’ve spent eight hours colouring a bronze button on the Doctor’s coat… when I zoom out and watch everything back I’m like, ‘hey, that works!’ It’s time consuming but that’s what makes it rewarding!”

Tipple’s passion for restoring classic Doctor Who is something he’s been able to spin into part of his career as well, helping the BBC’s home release of Doctor Who season eight — Jon Pertwee’s second season as the third incarnation of the Doctor. Although it wasn’t quite Tipple’s usual colorization work, building on original black-and-white material (Doctor Who debuted in colour in 1970’s season seven, when Pertwee joined the series), it was still a chance to work on one of his favourite shows.

“It was a huge honour to be involved in the season eight Blu-ray release. The BBC were encountering some issues with the colour on a 1971 Jon Pertwee story called ‘The Dæmons.’ It’s a story that has had all manner of ingenious colour recovery thrown at it, So I was building on top of some excellent colour work but some scenes still required manual intervention. I worked with Gav Rymill, Anthony Lamb and Kieran Highman, so a real team effort! The whole process was amazing. I kept pinching myself. To use my colourisation skills to help restore ‘The Dæmons’ to how it looked when originally broadcast was thrilling.”

But beyond his chance to work on the show officially, Tipple has started sharing his passion for restoring Doctor Who online by painstakingly working on bringing clips from classic stories like “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” and others to life in colour. Even working as just a single fan, it’s an arduous process. “You always start a colorization by looking for source material. Are there any behind the scenes colour photos of the sets? Were any props reused during the colour era? This stuff is vital as it allows you to pick the correct colours out,” Tipple said of the process.

Being faithful to the original is just one step, but given Doctor Who’s shaky archival history in its earliest days, proof of costume colours or set decoration isn’t always going to be easy to find.

“Of course you’ll never get a reference for everything and you do have to use some artistic licence. It’s important to be creative, and use a pallet that works tonally. The 1960s was a vivid, technicolor decade and I like that reflected in my work,” Tipple continued. “There’s an age-old debate about the TARDIS console too. It was painted green so that it would appear white on a monochrome television set. So at this point do you go with the authentic colour of the prop, or go with what the production team wanted to achieve? I don’t think there’s a wrong answer but I’ve definitely favoured a subtle green colouring.”

Tipple sees his work, fan project or not, as something the BBC’s slowly been getting into lockstep with in recent years as it seeks to recover as much of Doctor Who’s lost early history as possible. It’s a way to celebrate the earliest era of a sci-fi legend, breathe new life into it for younger audiences, and preserve it as it was imagined to be seen by its cast and creators all those years ago.

“I think as a community [Doctor Who fans] are so well looked after. I can’t think of another franchise, bar possibly Monty Python, that gets half the love and energy that Doctor Who releases get. The people that put this stuff together really care about the show. They go above and beyond. Even now, nearly 60 years since the first episode, people are still unearthing new information,” Tipple reflected. “It’s incredible. Some things are lost, and some will never come back, but the fans are keeping it alive. It’s brilliant to see the BBC animating things like ‘Evil of the Daleks’ and ‘Galaxy Four,’ two stories I never thought I’d have on my DVD shelf!”

As the BBC works to restore — and where it can’t, re-animate — classic stories lost to time (and space!), Tipple remains hopeful as a fan that there’s still more joy to be found in revisiting the series’ earliest days like this.

“The future for the classic Doctor Who range is in safe hands and as a fan, I’m excited to see what the future brings. We’ve cleaned up old prints, we’ve restored the sound, we’ve vidfired the picture… as technology improves perhaps we’ll see Hartnell in HD! Maybe we’ll get the whole 1960s era in colour — who knows! Even today we’re seeing things that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have thought possible, so we really can’t rule anything out.”

You can see more of Tipple’s restoration and colourisation work on his Twitter account.