Doctor Who and the Missing Video Format: There Was One More…

Way back in February, I made the claim that Doctor Who had been released on four video formats: VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. I have to report that this now appears to be incorrect as I have discovered there was one more which was very short lived and surprisingly recent. I would argue – even if to keep my integrity in one piece – that this other format was an optical disc similar to DVD, but then again it is different enough to warrant a separate mention: Sony’s Universal Media Disc or UMD as it was better known.

Specifically for use on Sony’s PlayStation Portable games console (PSP), UMD video was released in 2004 and used the same style of discs that the PSP’s games were loaded from. This was based on the (then) relatively new idea of portable media players, by adapting a hand-held games console, and it just pre-dated the 5th generation iPod which was the first iPod that could play video. (It’s worth a mention that they were both beaten to the line by the Archos Jukebox which was released in 2002; albeit with a tiny screen and a rather bulky and ugly body.)

There was, however, a way for others to have portable video players: in 2005, I owned a second-hand Microsoft palmtop computer and experimented with making Divx movies for it; one being a re-encoded video of my off-air to PC recording of Dalek. Thus, with a bit of know-how, other portable video players were available at the same time, but one just had to put in a bit of effort; not so with pre-recorded UMD discs and a PSP. 

That the UMDs could only be played on a PSP does strike me as extremely proprietary. Nevertheless, Sony had their own film catalogue to exploit and they got Universal and Paramount on board too. Most surprisingly, the BBC also joined in with this venture. 

The BBC’s input was almost exclusively comedy titles such as Little Britain, The Office, The Catherine Tate Show, Gavin and Stacy, The League of Gentlemen, and The Mighty Boosh; a slew of comedies from the mid-noughties. The only exception appears to be the Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who and the first three episodes from David Tennant’s second series. That’s it – five separate discs: one full chronological season with a bung-on at the end. Very odd!

The packaging is very similar to the DVD releases from the mid-2000s, except a bar across the top stating UMD VIDEO and the PSP logo. The box is also considerably smaller; about two-thirds the size of a DVD box. The spine has UMD VIDEO more prominently, but the back is practically identical to the DVD, bar “UMD” tucked away in the top left corner.

Out of curiosity – and for the benefit of this article – I went to that online auction site and wondered what I would find. There were loads of film and TV titles available; one of which stars in the photographs accompanying the article: Doctor Who Volume 2: Aliens of London – World War Three – Dalek. I picked this up for about £3 (plus postage) and it is a curiosity… 

When the box is opened, what is revealed is a tiny disc, within a casing, about 6cm in diameter. The nature of the case’s design means that there isn’t a lot of room for information as to what is on the disc, other than the Doctor Who logo and the BBFC certificate. Although the colour of the disc does reflect the overall colour used on the disc’s box’s cover, the only reference as to which volume is contained on the disc is the catalogue number (BBC UMD 8002). 

Data wise, a UMD disc could only hold 1.9 gigabytes of data. That’s under a quarter of what a commercial DVD can hold. But the video encoding used the far more efficient H264 codec rather than MPEG2 used for DVDs. This efficiency, from what I can find, allows the resolution of video to reflect the standard resolutions of DVD video. However, seeing that the PSP’s screen was only 480 x 272 pixels, there was some considerable down-sizing of the picture involved. 

Sadly, my little experiment didn’t get as far as to buying a PSP to play the video on, so I can’t provide any guide as to the picture quality. But from a little online investigation, it appears that there was a bit of ghosting on the picture. This doesn’t surprise me as I was making a lot of VHS to DVD-R conversions at the time and I was getting some ghosting on videos where I’d skimped on the video’s bit-rate to fit more onto the DVD-R. Over the years, TV and computer monitor refresh rates have become more efficient and seemed to have solved this issue. 

My previous statement about the format being very proprietary is very true, but I did try to buy a PSP on eBay and I was outbid on all attempts (I wasn’t prepared to pay silly money or settle for broken screens, missing buttons, or a lack of charger) and this told me that, at the right price, the PSP still has a following. This may explain why UMD videos were still being released as recently as 2016 (although the BBC bailed long before then), despite Sony dropping the UMD format from newer PSPs, in 2009, in favour of downloads.

Fair play to Sony for trying to launch a pocket games and video player; something we now all take for granted with our tablets and smartphones. It’s a far cry from my beloved Revenge of the Cybermen VHS.

Still, Doctor Who on unusual formats is always of interest and aside from Viewmaster sets, Chad Valley slides, or 8mm/Super 8 reels, there can’t be any more.

Can there…?