The TV Movie Blu-ray: What is Upscaling Anyway?

Our favourite show is used to reaching for new frontiers, and Classic Who burst onto Blu-ray a few years ago with Spearhead from Space. Sadly, this was to be an oasis of clarity as we realised that was the only story capable of being released in a higher definition than the DVDs fans have snapped up since 1999’s The Five Doctors.

And then Doctor Who: The TV Movie was announced.

Celebrations for the Blu-ray release would’ve reached the same levels as parties on New Year’s Eve, circa 1999/2000, but then it was revealed that it would merely be “upscaled.” You might’ve read “upconversion,” but that’s the same thing.

Technical whizzes immediately groaned, while the rest of us scratched our heads and concluded that upscaling must be something to do with The Underwater Menace. You’ll find the phrase bandied around the Internet left, right, and centre; shopping for a Blu-ray player, and you’ll be faced with that phrase too. So what does it actually mean…?

Very simply, upscaling purports to be upgrading a low resolution image into its optimum definition. It’s supposed to be sharpening an image, making it look as beautiful and crisp as possible. It’s been going on for some time now, and no, it’s not just Blu-ray players that do it. In most cases, your Full HD screen upscales DVD content so it makes use of the monitor’s optimum resolution.

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Say your flatscreen TV has a resolution of 1920 x 1080p. That literally means 1,920 pixels horizontally, multiplied by 1,080 rows of pixels. A Standard Definition film (the likes of which are pretty hard to find, unless it’s an old example or made on a low budget) is 720 x 567p; again, that’s 720 pixels horizontally, and 567 vertical rows.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a 720 x 567p film doesn’t take advantage of a 1920 x 1080p screen. That’s without even mentioning 4k UHD (Ultra High Definition), which is 3840 x 2160p!

Your TV or Blu-ray player upscales content to fully take advantage of what your screen offers. It does this by stretching the image and “filling in the blanks”, so to speak. It does the latter with an interpolation algorithm. This infers data based on what’s on either side of the blank pixels. In basic terms, it automatically decided that, if the pixels either side are purple, this blank one should be too. Of course, it analyses the exact shade of purple and comes to a decision based on that.

Some manufacturers also add sharpening technology, so the picture looks as good as it possibly can.

This sounds great, right? The problem is, upscaling doesn’t add more detail than is already there. It simply can’t. It’s basing its decisions on what’s around it.

However, from a distance – and who needs to sit close to a television these days anyway? – upscaled content generally isn’t noticeably different from HD. Get close, and you may some blurring or other visual artifacts (basically, resolution issues), especially on a 4k TV.

Okay, so why might some people think this is this disappointing for Doctor Who fans? With the Spearhead from Space Blu-ray, it was acknowledged that it was the only Classic Who serial to have the capability of being released in HD because it was shot, on-location, on film, not video. To get it looking as beautiful as possible, the original negatives were re-scanned and re-edited. Lovely. The Autons have never looked better.

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But we class The TV Movie to be Classic Who too, and yes, that was shot on film. You’d expect the same process as Spearhead would be used on a TV Movie Blu-ray – but not so. This is upscaled.

Why? The 35mm master copies are reportedly hidden away in America, so the restoration team didn’t have that content available. Hence the Blu-ray being upscaled instead.

Many TVs and Blu-ray players upscale automatically already, so it might be safe to say that your DVD copy will look as good as it can anyway. No need for the Blu-ray, despite the addition of Night of the Doctor as a Special Feature. But bear in mind that the BBC will likely have taken further sharpening measures to make this new release worthwhile, as well as having improved sound quality.

And there we have it: the basics of what you need to know about upscaling before you grab The TV Movie off the shelf.

Do you think it’s worth forking out your cash again? Is this the last hurrah for Classic Who on Blu-ray? Have you picked up the release to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Paul McGann’s debut as the Eighth Doctor?