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Have You Heard of VideoCDs? Yet Another Rare Format That Doctor Who Has Appeared On

A while ago, I did several essays on the different, more obscure, media formats that Doctor Who has been released on. On one such essay – about the Sony Playstation Portable’s UMD releases – an eagle-eyed DWC reader named Dallas Jones informed me, in the comments, that there had been a VideoCD (VCD) of the animated adventure, The Infinite Quest, but in Turkey only.

At the time – this was in 2019 – I was curious, but I felt that The Infinite Quest wasn’t a mainstream episode: it wasn’t live action and it hadn’t been on BBC One. Plus, that format hadn’t been released in the UK.

However, it has since come to my attention that this wasn’t the whole story and other Doctor Who VCDs exist. In fact, it’s not just confined to Turkey…

But What Are VideoCDs?

A VideoCD’s description is quite on the nose as to what it is. Effectively, it’s a low-resolution digitised video on a humble CD.

CDs only having a data capacity of around 700mb, the video has a low data rate of 1150 bits per second with a picture resolution of 352 x 288 (Pal) or 352 x 240 (NTSC), using the video compression of MPEG1 (a precursor to the DVD standard of MPEG2). In this format, about 70 to 80 minutes of digital video would fit onto a standard CD. Picture quality could be described as fair; VHS was slightly better, but VCD didn’t have the drop-out problem that plagued magnetic tape and was less fragile.

VCD didn’t support the widescreen and, as a result, its presentation would follow the VHS movie standard of losing the left and right of the picture or adding black bars to the top and bottom of the screen. In addition, the length of an average film meant that they would be spread across two discs.

Having such low bitrates, VCD could suffer from the picture turning into blocks during scenes where there was a lot of movement (see the TARDIS in the Vortex picture, below). The same fate could befall a DVD release where the bitrate has been badly compromised (the original DVD of The Green Death, for example), but a VCDs low bitrate overall made it quite susceptible to this issue.

Sounds pretty horrific to today’s world of hi-def and 4K and I’ll freely admit, it was… but it served a purpose. VCDs were at their most popular in Asia in the mid-1990s to just after the turn of the century which was when home computers had only just become commonplace. Computers in those days, as you would expect, were not very powerful.

Hence the VCD: any low powered PC could read and play it, plus MPEG1 wasn’t under licence so they would play right out of the box without having to buy extra software.

Even so, the VCD did pre-date DVDs by a few years. Also, especially in areas of the world where VCD was popular, they were much cheaper than the DVDs that started to take over at the end of the 1990s and many DVD players would play both formats.

“But It Must Have Looked Awful!”

Bear in mind that in those days the resolution of a VCD wasn’t much smaller than the average PC monitor resolution (around 640 x 480 pixels) and, as a result, they would be very forgiving of a VCD’s picture. Added to that, the portable television was still a thing. They looked okay on a 14” small screen. Watch a VCD on a larger modern television and it will look like a blurred mess.

But why am I talking as if VCDs were a thing in the UK? We just packed away our VHS tapes and went straight to DVDs, right? Well… there was a bit of a dabble with magazines to use VCDs as giveaways. I have a freebie given away with an issue of DVD Monthly (circa 2002) which features an episode of The Twilight Zone. Specifically, the episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet which features William Shatner as an airline passenger who witnesses, during a storm, something tearing apart the wing whilst in flight. As you will see further on, VCD giveaways were tried with Doctor Who too.

VideoCDs and Me

I started to digitise my VHS collection around 2001 and VideoCD was the first format I used. It’s also what launched me into the world of digital video and taught me how it all ticks; hence a little bit of a soft spot for the humble VCD.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t go straight into converting to DVD quality, I must point out that in the first few years of this century, home computer DVD burners were eye-wateringly expensive; a CD burner was all I could afford at the time. Plus, computer hard drives had small storage capacity so converting video for hard-drive storage wasn’t an option.

Of course, when DVD burners were more affordable, I updated, but I still have many of the VCDs I created from those few years I dabbled; one of note is the cult comedy, Withnail & I, starring a very young Paul McGann.

Bizarrely, I collected Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor season on VCD (off-air directly to PC capture) even though by 2005 I did have a DVD burner. I think this was something to do with the (then) considerable lag between the original broadcast and the DVD release — sometimes up to a year! Doctor Who had stormed back and home recording was my way of re-watching the episodes while waiting for the commercial releases. No iPlayer back then! It was also a bit cheaper to use CD-Rs than DVD-Rs.

If I feel the need to watch one of my VCDs now, I can just get away with a video playing in the corner of my Mac’s 5K monitor at no more than two times resolution size. Remember this essay?

But back to the point…

Doctor Who on VideoCD

To date, I have found evidence of four Doctor Who releases: one of which is why I’ve written this piece as VCD now qualifies (for me, anyway) as a legitimate separate Doctor Who format.

Sonsuz Macera (The Infinite Quest)

Only released in Turkey in 2008 was a VCD version of the Cosgrove Hall animation, The Infinite Quest.

This was the release that Dallas told me about and I did wonder why it was a Doctor Who animation that got the VCD treatment. One answer could be that animation doesn’t have the detail of live-action. As a result, lower bit-rates can be kinder to the end product.

At the time of writing, I discovered a copy of this for sale on Kitantik (a Turkish e-commerce site) and the information I obtained here is that it appears to be dubbed into Turkish and it is a BBC Worldwide release and not a licenced product from a domestic company. I decided not to buy; yes, it would have a novelty value, but I couldn’t see the point of watching something that I already have on DVD and then not being able to understand it.

The Next Doctor

It was the discovery of the existence of The Next Doctor on VCD which prompted this essay, but information is very had to come by. I have only seen this referenced twice but information that I can find is that this was released in Indonesia in 2010. This does seem to follow the trend of VCD being popular in Asia and that VCD releases were still a thing a lot later than the turn of the century.

However, with The Next Doctor and The Infinite Quest, I find it quite astonishing that they were released so late in the 2000s. DVDs had been established for at least a decade by this point and the cost of producing DVDs would have fallen drastically in the previous five years or so (as it had with DVD burners for PCs).

Or could it just be that there is something that I don’t understand about the domestic media markets of Turkey or Indonesia at the time. After all, there are some odd precedents: remember my laserdisc article where it mentions that there was a Doctor Who: The Movie laserdisc release, but for some reason only in Hong Kong…?

BBC DVD Doctor Who Promotion Clips

A VCD where I actually managed to obtain a copy for this review: this was a free gift with Starlog magazine (release date November 2001), which was effectively a promotion disc for the BBC range of Doctor Who DVDs. This featured clips from, among others The Five Doctors, The Robots of Death, and Spearhead from Space, as well as ‘forthcoming’ releases of The Tomb of the Cybermen and Vengeance on Varos.

But it isn’t just a compilation of clips. Each segment plays in a linear fashion, but the presentation for each story featured has ‘extras’. For example, the sequence for Doctor Who: The Movie begins with the BBC One trailer from the day it was broadcast. Other extras include a segment of commentary (Remembrance of the Daleks), a deleted scene (Vengeance on Varos), and several of the stories featured have representations of what a Doctor Who DVD menu would look like (with “not interactive” across the top of the picture).

There is the question to be asked: why did Starlog get this Doctor Who freebie and not Doctor Who Magazine? The only answer I can proffer is that the readership of DWM didn’t need to be told about the DVD releases, whereas Starlog – with its wider coverage of genre films and TV – possibly had a section of readers where the Doctor Who DVDs were not on their radar. Could it have also acted as bait to bring some Doctor Who fans to Starlog magazine, perchance?

And just notice the minimum specifications required to play the disc on a PC: a Pentium 166 mhz processor is Windows 95 era.

TV Zone Special #48 Resurrection of The Daleks

This was a promotional disc specifically for the DVD release of Resurrection of the Daleks.

Given away with TV Zone’s 2002 Yearbook Special #48, it features Part One of Fifth Doctor era Dalek adventure (25-minute version), along with some related extras. There were specially filmed links (at Shad Thames, the location of the episode’s opening shots) which introduced clips of some of the extras from the Resurrection DVD.

Again, the same question can be asked as to why Doctor Who Monthly didn’t feature this kind of promotional material. TV Zone was television based (clue is in the title) and its Doctor Who coverage would have pulled in many of the same readers as DWM anyway.

More to the point, why didn’t this sort of promotion happen a bit more with other Doctor Who DVD releases or any other BBC DVDs such as Blake’s 7?

VCDs Promotional Stumbling Blocks

As far as using Doctor Who VCDs as promotional material in the UK is concerned, they were only ever going to be a novelty as there were a few issues as to why they may not have been a good idea…

All of the promotional releases were at a time when DVDs were well established. For example, why would anyone want to watch an episode of Resurrection of the Daleks in low-quality video when the proper DVD was imminent?

But even though the VCD of Resurrection is a DVD preview, the chances are that most Doctor Who fans would already have the VHS; us VHS collectors would not have gotten rid of said tapes until it had been replaced by the DVD. This effectively rendered the VCD promotion episode obsolete; either wait for the DVD, or re-watch the VHS.

What if there were no previous VHS and this was a brand new release? Notice the statement on the Starlog disc under ‘Playing your V-CD’: “[the VCD] does not reflect the quality of Doctor Who releases on DVD. Doctor Who DVDs have full interactivity, and have a vastly superior picture quality.” That’s almost telling you the item in your hand is poor and you might as well wait for the DVD anyway!

There was also a problem that DVD players, around the turn of the century, didn’t all have the ability to play VCD; there is another note on the cover of the Starlog VCD which states “compatible DVD player”. It’s quite likely that someone with a late 1990s DVD player would just end up with, what was then referred to, a coaster (an unplayable CD/DVD). My first DVD player (a Toshiba SD-22E, hardware fans) could play VCD, but I would hope so with a price tag of £320 in 1999.

Like the MP3-CD, the Playstation UMD and the 4K Blu-ray (which is for another day), we are left with another attempted, and abandoned, format.

Still… it keeps sad old anoraks like me entertained.

Colin Burden

Have You Heard of VideoCDs? Yet Another Rare Format That Doctor Who Has Appeared On

by Colin Burden time to read: 9 min
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