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.