My Low-Res DIY Doctor Who Video Collection

Yesterday’s announcement of the new Season 10 Doctor Who Blu-Ray set has me reminiscing about my homemade Doctor Who tape collection from the eighties. Jon Pertwee episodes at better than broadcast-quality! If you’d told me we’d have this some day, my teenage brain would have exploded.

We didn’t have the Internet! And the BBC hadn’t started issuing official Doctor Who tapes yet. So I survived on my own shady, low-res off-the air recordings. Luckily, my family hardly ever touched the VCR. So I took it over. I knew how to program it and I could bend it to my will. I wasn’t Omega or The Master, but I was dead-set, I was driven.

We lived in San Francisco and the only Doctor Who station in the area was KTEH, down the road in San Jose. Monday through Friday, I’d record the ongoing run of Hartnell, Troughton, or Pertwee, episode by episode. On Saturday nights, we’d get a full story from another Doctor’s run, at 11:30pm. I’d stay up late, watch it live, but also hit Record, so I could add another story to the collection.

The picture quality was appalling. Even though Viacom cable carried the KTEH feed in their channel lineup, the signal was weak. I still don’t know why! This was cable TV, after all. But I remember all of the times an episode would break up into snow or rainbow bands or ghostly double exposures.

Thankfully, this didn’t happen every night. Sometimes the picture was clear. I’d cross my fingers and pray that I’d get a decent image on the tape. Now consider this: I recorded most of the series on bottom-of-the-barrel EP mode, which let you fit six hours of content on a single tape. That’s a lot of Doctor Who. But all of it was low-res, grainy, and full of tape hiss.

Still, I wanted a collection of my own, something to keep and showcase. So I spent a good chunk of my allowance on blank tapes and plastic storage cases, the kind they used to put your tape rentals in.

My cases were black and had plastic sleeves on the front, perfect for tucking in some artwork. I would pillage the Doctor Who books and magazines I owned, which consisted mainly of John Peel’s Files Magazine episode guides or Peter Haining coffee table books like Doctor Who: A Celebration. I’d hunt down the best black and white stills, photocopy them at the S.F. State Library down the block, then trim them down to just the right size. Rule of thumb: the image had to relate to the season.

Every once in a while I’d hit a milestone story and I’d make an exception. The story would get its own tape, recorded in high-quality SP mode. At this speed, you could only fit two hours on the tape, perfect for four-parters. Regeneration stories and multi-Doctor adventures always got special treatment–episodes like “The Three Doctors,” “Logopolis” and “The Caves of Androzani.”

And then I had to display them! All of those black tapes, neatly assembled on my shelves, numbered and labeled. There must have been fifty of them, at least. They moved around with me for years. Got left behind in closets when I went off to college in San Diego. Came out again when I graduated. Moved across the country to my in-laws garage in Virginia when we spent two years in a fifth-floor walk-up in New York City.

I don’t have them anymore. My last VHS player died seven or eight years ago. I waited a while before I felt ready to dump this whole collection in the trash. Then one weekend, I was frantically packing to move out of my Austin apartment, and there was so much left to sort and pack and throw away. My DIY Doctor Who tapes went into the dumpster. I haven’t really given them a second thought till now.

Like a lot of you, I still love the experience of collecting physical media. I love the boxes and the artwork. I love the way they look on the shelves. The picture quality on the new Blu-Ray sets is superb, especially when I think about what I had to deal with for so long just to watch my favorite show. And the special features! Who knew we’d have a team of producer-fans lovingly assembling behind-the-scenes interviews and crafting offbeat documentaries.

I still love the ingenuity and determination of the collector-kid I used to be. A part of me even wishes I hadn’t thrown away all of those tapes. But I like this new era of collecting, too. No more static or rainbows or tape dropout for me.

Review: “A Weekend with Waterhouse”

My copy of the new Doctor Who: Season 18 Blu-Ray arrived mid-morning yesterday (that’s Tom Baker: Season 7 in the U.S.) Perfect timing! I’m on vacation this week, so there was time to rip into the package and get started right away. Instead of launching “The Leisure Hive,” which was the very first Doctor Who story I saw as a kid, I did what I think a lot Who fans did, and went straight for the extras.

Now this set is massive and it’s going to take me months to make my way through the whole collection, but I wanted to get a taste of some of the new documentaries, especially after seeing some of the clips producer/director Chris Chapman shared with us during his Kaffeeklatsch last month at Gallifrey One.

“A Weekend with Waterhouse” (a supplement on Disc 3) follows comedian and Doctor Who fanatic Toby Hadoke on a visit to the seaside town of Hastings, where we drop in on Matthew Waterhouse (Adric), whose character was first introduced in Season 18’s “Full Circle,” and was originally conceived as a sort of E-Space Artful Dodger. Instead of a dull studio interview, we follow along as Matthew invites Toby into his apartment and into his life, sharing his book collection (he loves Graham Greene), his Batman and Prisoner DVDs, his love of jazz, and introducing us to his American husband Tim. We also take in Matthew’s childhood home, meet his sister, and visit some of his favorite haunts, stopping for dinner at a favorite Thai restaurant and taking in a jazz show at a wine bar down the road. All the while, the conversation flows, touching upon everything that you’d want to know about Matthew’s take on Adric, his role in the crowded TARDIS, what it was like to work with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, and his life before and after Doctor Who.

What I love about “A Weekend with Waterhouse” is that we get an intimate glimpse of Matthew Waterhouse as a person–kind, creative, witty, and literate–with a full life outside of this TV show that we all happen to love. We break away from the narrow focus of behind the scenes anecdotes, and come away with a deeper understanding of Matthew’s contribution to the show and his life in 2019.

I really enjoyed keeping these two company. The banter was perfect and I often found myself smiling as I watched. But when there is a good rapport like this, sometimes conversations lead to confidences. As Toby and Matthew walk through Hastings, considering Matthew’s past and present, there are some unexpected turns in the conversation, and we learn about some of the tragedies in Matthew’s past, including the devastating loss of a brother when he was a teenager.

Then we’re back in the here and now with Matthew happily married for twenty years, now an author as well as an actor. All in all, there is a wonderful candor and openness about this documentary that makes us feel as though we’re in the same room with Toby and Matthew and that we’re a part of this conversation.

Director Chris Chapman and Executive Producer Russell Minton are really setting a new standard of excellence with these Classic Who Blu-Ray seasons. This is just one feature on an 8-disc Blu-Ray set! I can’t wait to see what else is tucked away on this set, but I’ll savor it, like I said, and take it slowly, so that it lasts me until the next release.

The Day I Fell Into “The Leisure Hive”

Do you remember the first time you ever watched Doctor Who?

For me, it was years and years ago. I’m forty-seven now and first stumbled on the show when I was ten or eleven on a family trip to my aunt and uncle’s place in Denver, Colorado. But I remember the experience pretty clearly. My Uncle Lee watched a lot of TV, and he was parked one morning in the family room, watching a strange and mesmerizing British sci-fi show about some sort of half-mad space traveler wrapped up in a scarf that went on for miles. This mysterious traveler had a deep voice and huge, friendly eyes, and his companion was a self-assured and super-intelligent woman in some kind of sailor suit. Her name was Romana, I soon learned. They even had a poor little robot dog that blew up after rolling down a rocky beach into the sea.

What was this strange program? I didn’t ask many questions. My uncle wouldn’t have given them; he didn’t want to be disturbed. I just hunkered down and kept watching. Before I knew it, I was completely absorbed by these benevolent travelers and their adventures on the planet Argolis, which had something to do with alien tourist spots and tachyon technology–whatever that was–and two races of aliens, one with cone-shaped swirls of hair and the other in bulky, rumpled bug costumes.

Then something happened I wasn’t expecting at all. The Argolin recreation booth malfunctioned and the Doctor was ripped apart, arms and legs flying across the screen. An electronic stinger sounded and the curtain fell on the action, end credits scrolling across the screen. What? How was this happening? Doctor Who was the hero, right? The world of TV cliffhangers and multi-part stories was completely new to me except maybe for the time Bobby and Cindy got lost in the Grand Canyon. My uncle shushed me and told me to stay put. I didn’t argue. Like him, I became one with the sofa and watched the whole four-part story, one after the other, while the hours ticked away.

The story was “The Leisure Hive,” which I now know to be the first entry of Season 18, Tom Baker’s last season on the show. (By the way, I can’t wait to get my hands on the Season 18 Blu-Ray release that comes out next week!) But back in the early eighties, I didn’t know anything about regeneration, or Doctors past, present, and future, or the nearly twenty years of episodes that came before this one. Tom Baker was Doctor Who, but only for a short time. My mom and I stayed in town long enough for me to binge one more story with Uncle Lee the following weekend: “Meglos,” with its cactus-skinned Doctor imposter. We flew home to San Francisco and Doctor Who fell off my radar completely for about four more years until I found it once again on KTEH in San Jose, CA. I remember that one, too. “The Gunfighters” with First Doctor William Hartnell.

Here’s the funny thing. This morning I fell into an Internet wormhole trying to figure out when this all happened. Denver, Colorado in the eighties, for starters. I figured I was about ten or eleven. Unfortunately, my parents aren’t around anymore to pin down this trip to Colorado. But bless you, Whovians! You have made this kind of research relatively easy. Do you know about this site? A few Google searches and I dropped into a vast wiki called BroaDWcast, which has pages and pages documenting Doctor Who airdates all over the world.

A few clicks and I learned that the station must have been KRMA, the PBS affiliate in Denver, Colorado. There’s even a grid for Airdates in Denver that shows when each Tom Baker story aired in 1981 and 1982. The summer I was ten years old, “The Leisure Hive” aired on a Sunday morning, July 5, 1981 at 10:00 AM. According to the site, KRMA broadcasted complete Who stories every Sunday morning, which lines up perfectly with my recollection of blasting through all of “The Leisure Hive” in one morning, and also with my sense that I saw a second story in this way a few days later. According to BroaDWcast, “Meglos” aired the following week on Sunday, July 12.

Airdates in Denver (KRMA). With thanks to

Now I have some certainty. I don’t know why this really matters. Maybe because it confirms my memories, places them in time and space, assigns them precise coordinates, if you will. In fact, if I had a TARDIS, I could go back and tell that kid on the sofa that the adventure was just beginning.

Do you remember your first episode of Doctor Who? Where were you and what were the circumstances? Leave a comment and let me know.

“Lionheart promo card” by BroaDWcast is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0