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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “The Myth Makers”

About two years ago I decided to go back and watch all of William Hartnell’s First Doctor episodes and finally grapple with the missing stories for the first time. Most of the time when I hit chunks of lost episodes, I would Google around and find a telesnap reconstruction on YouTube. The Loose Cannon recons were usually best. At least I’d get the gist of the story and hear all of the dialogue, music, and effects, even if I sometimes found my mind wandering. Somehow I made it all the way through “Galaxy 4” and even “Mission to the Unknown” in this way, but by the time I got to “The Myth Makers” I was done. I needed a break. I even started to wonder if maybe I wasn’t enough of a real fan. How can you just stop?

At cons like Gallifrey One, I started buying copies of some of the Target novels. I’m not really collecting these, I’d say. I’ll just focus on the missing stories. Maybe if I can’t make it through another recon, then I’ll read the Target novel. I found a few here and there, but most of them are still on my shelf unread.

The sad thing is I was really enjoying my rewatch until I hit the wall. And I had all sorts of fellow fans and travellers to keep me company. I would chase a night of viewing with Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke’s diary entries in Running Through Corridors or listen to podcasts like Lazy Doctor Who, on the way to work the next morning, comparing my impressions to Steven and Erika’s.

Well, I got a second wind a few weeks ago. I can do this. I’ve always heard that the “The Myth Makers” is an utter delight, one of the stories that fans desperately hope will turn up in someone’s attic and find its way back to the BBC.

Here’s the journey I took with “The Myth Makers.” This isn’t a review of the story itself, which I’m so happy I finally experienced, but a few takeaways about listening vs. watching.

For the record, yes–it’s a wonderful story with crackling dialogue and all of the legendary figures we know from The Iliad treated more like snarky Arrested Development characters than heroes.

Telesnaps and Visual Recons – Not Always Best

Not really knowing any better, I dialed up a recon of Episode 1 that I found on YouTube and a few minutes into the story, the same old malaise hit me. I’m usually a visual person, so I thought that fan-edited recons using scraps like publicity photos or telesnaps would at least show me something about the characters and the action that I would otherwise miss. This is the way you have to experience a missing story.

Well, no. My mind wandered, my eyes glazed over, and I found myself so distracted that I wasn’t even entirely sure who was Agamemnon and who was Menelaus.

Reading the Script

Another couple of searches led me to a script for “The Myth Makers” posted online. I’d heard Lazy Doctor Who’s Steven Schapansky and Erika Ensign talk about following along with camera scripts whenever they watched recons of missing episodes. The script I found was basically a transcription of the dialogue, bridged with simple stage directions to indicate what we should be seeing.

I quietly read Episode 1 without listening along to the soundtrack, and had a totally different experience. I knew who was speaking now. I could see the characters’ names on the page. The story began to reveal itself to me. I was no longer struggling just to keep my attention on the damn thing.

Listening to the BBC Soundtrack

Around this time, I stumbled on a Twitter thread in which Verity podcast’s Deb Stanish mentioned that she absolutely adored “The Myth Makers,” but she recommended that people having trouble with recons try the BBC soundtrack, which is a complete recording of the episode’s audio with bits of linking narrative by Peter Purves (Steven). Somewhere in this thread, she tweets, ” I think with the missing eps everyone has to find the medium that works for them.” There isn’t “one right way,” she says.

I know some of you probably own the CD, but this was a case where the internet could immediately satisfy my curiosity. I had a leftover Audible credit and I downloaded the BBC collection, Adventures in History, which also includes “The Massacre” and “The Highlanders.”

I put on episode 1 and drove to work. Throughout the week I listened on my commute, and on Saturday, I went for a long walk and listened to the story’s finale: Troy falls, Vicky stays behind with Troilus, and the Doctor flies off with handmaiden Katarina and a gravely wounded Steven. Along the way, I laughed at the dysfunctional family antics of Paris and Priam, rolled my eyes at Cassandra’s shrill warnings and hysterical prophecies, and finally, I was sorry to see Vicky leave us.

Most surprisingly, when I reached the end, I had the sense that I had “seen” the story. I think I know why.

Freeze Frames vs. the Imagination

I think the visual recon suffers more than most because there simply aren’t any telesnaps for “The Myth Makers,” so there’s precious little to work with. And yet, because there’s an image to stare at–one that insists that it conveys vital story information–this is where most of my attention ends up. But the freeze frames, the actors frozen like statues, and the filler shots that are repeated over and over–don’t convey anything of the life or the movement of the story. They take up my attention and sometimes they start to annoy me: not this shot again. How many times for this shot? Every time Agamemnon speaks? Meanwhile I miss dialogue, I grow impatient, my wanders, I get bored.

When I listen to the audio, I can visualize the action. Maybe not precisely; not the way it was broadcast. But I can see the Doctor climbing into the Trojan Horse, or Vicky and Steven in their prison cells. Nobody’s frozen in place. In my mind, they have life, they move and run about, swing swords, and give each other knowing glances. It’s the same magic at play when we listen to an audiobook, a narrative podcast, or a Big Finish audio story.

It’s radio days all over again. It worked seventy or eighty years ago for our grandparents and it still works today. And who knows, maybe now I’ll finally give the Target novel a shot to see what other pleasures this lost story has to offer. I’ve already moved on to the BBC soundtrack for “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” because this format is working for me. Whenever we aren’t lucky enough to have a fully animated reconstruction like “The Macra Terror,” I’m heading to the audios first and possibly skipping the telesnaps altogether.

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 BroaDWcast.org

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