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My 40 Years of Doctor Who Fandom

I had designs on publishing this article back in September when my fandom-versary came. Then in November for the 60th. Alas. But anyway.

I recall a very vivid dream when I was in my early 20's (1990's). I might have still been in college at the time. I was holding a handheld device and watching a Jon Pertwee era episode, possibly "Day of the Daleks." I remember waking up thinking what a wonderful notion, to be able to watch any Doctor Who episode on demand at any time. I also remember deciding that there was no way this would ever happen in my lifetime. How could they fit that much video and audio content on a device I can fit in my pocket?

As we're all aware, probably, we just passed the 60th anniversary of the premiere of Doctor Who. Also, in September, I passed the 40th year of my Doctor Who fandom. Not saying it as a boast or a brag, though I do feel obligated to acknowledge my debt to this fascinating – and occasionally maddening – TV show.

Even though I've been a fan for forty of those sixty years, those forty somehow don't feel as long as the twenty that preceded them.

Because I started watching when I did, and where I did, and how I did, I have some experiences that are neither unique nor universal, but specific to my age group. Some of my experiences may apply to you, some might seem odd. Who knows?

I am American, and watched Doctor Who on a variety of PBS (Public Broadcasting System) stations. I was very fortunate that even though I grew up in a relatively small town, it overlapped three PBS market areas, and at one point all three carried Doctor Who. Channel 11 (New Hampshire) and Channel 26 (Maine) broadcast 'omnibus' versions of the stories, in which all four (or six) episodes were edited together into a single feature-length adventure; a 4-parter would run 90 minutes. Channel 11 started at 4pm and Channel 26 started at 5, which meant that there was 30-minute overlap and the remote control would get a workout. Channel 2 (Boston) carried individual episodes, weekday evenings at 7pm.

The very first story I sat down and watched was "Arc of Infinity" in September 1983, as Channel 11 was broadcasting the most recent Peter Davison stories. Eventually I discovered Channel 26, which (I think) was carrying Tom Baker.

One of the most frequently posted questions on Doctor Who forums and social media groups is what are the most ideal episodes for introducing Doctor Who to new fans. "Arc of Infinity" probably does not appear on many lists, if any, and I openly acknowledge that it's not the best of the era. BUT! My dad's housemate's six-year-old daughter absolutely loved the Ergon, which she dubbed "Chicken Man," and now I never call it anything else.

And this is the thing. We obsess about how to curate other people's experiences. As much as I wrung my hands over the idea at the time, some people were going to stumble across "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" first, laugh their asses off at the rubbish dinosaurs, and switch over to Star Trek, and I had to make peace with that. Nobody curated my entree into Doctor Who. I remained open-minded enough that even if the Chicken Man, Spaghetti Head, Paper Snake, and such made my dad bust out laughing, I was still intrigued enough to watch.

My experience with science fiction was mainly limited to Star Wars, which had just finished its first trilogy, Battlestar Galactica (original series), and Star Trek. The latter, to me, was what sci-fi tv shows were supposed to be: essentially submarine chase war movies in space, with a captain that the entire ship revolved around in a very regimented and disciplined routine, who shagged the alien females, shot the bad alien monsters, etc.

My bewildered mind struggled to comprehend that this was also science fiction. Set on contemporary Earth, with some odd looking guy with a vegetable on his coat who was seemingly in charge, but wasn't a commander, per se, of his two young female charges, neither of whom he shagged. And they survived on their wits, not their fists or phaser guns. And for a 12-year-old nerd who was a target of bullies, and didn't exactly share a compulsion to kiss or shag every female around me, this Doctor character was someone I identified with much more than Captain Kirk.

And, really, I did come in at a great time. This was, I would soon learn, their twentieth season. But even then, "Arc of Infinity" introduced me to the TARDIS, the Time Lords, offhand references to regeneration, to past companions, the Matrix, etc. In the coming weeks I'd meet the Brigadier, Black Guardian, the Master, and the idea that four previous actors had played the role. I'd see tantalizing glimpses of past adventures via the Brig's flashback in "Mawdryn Undead."

Very shortly after came "The Five Doctors," and the show's 20th anniversary merited a small article in TV Guide, including the mention that Peter Davison would be stepping down from the role shortly to be replaced by Colin Baker – whom I later realized was the captain of the guards who shot the Doctor down in "Arc."

In a few months both Saturday stations had cycled back to Tom Baker, though it took me a bit longer to warm to him because the first episodes that I remember were from his autumnal, occasionally cranky final season.

My father set up at a local flea market selling his antiques every Sunday, and I accompanied him every week. Across from his table was a guy who sold comic books and sci-fi stuff, including a lot of Doctor Who paraphernalia, in particular Doctor Who Magazine. They also had just reached their 100th issue, and it included a list of every Doctor Who story at the time (by then, it was up to "Revelation of the Daleks") as well as a list of every missing episode at the time. So the revelation that most of Doctor Who's black and white years were lost, seemingly forever, came fairly soon.

That vendor also had the Marvel releases of Tom Baker and Peter Davison comic adventures originally published in DWM. I soon had most of them before they ended the run. I was into Beep the Meep before it was cool! ;-)

Also a crucial element of my early fandom was the range of Target novelizations available at the mall bookstore. I soon loaded up with dozens of editions, including many of the lost stories. This was the only way for most fans, at the time, to ever experience these adventures.

Then the PBS stations started dipping back into the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee eras. This was bliss for me, even if maybe I didn't appreciate the black and white stories as much. To be fair, the prints that the stations ran were very poor quality – this was long before VidFIRE and other restoration techniques. I adored Jon Pertwee's stories and still do. Hartnell and Troughton I would warm up to in time.

Odd recollections:
  • When "The Chase" was broadcast on PBS, they included the bit in Episode One where Vicki dials up a performance by the Beatles on the Space-Time Visualizer. Even the VHS release kept this in. The DVD and Blu-Ray releases, alas, do not include it.
  • Likewise, "Spearhead From Space" included an excerpt from Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" over a stock footage sequence of a doll factory production line. I never had this on VHS, but the DVD and streaming versions leave this out. (I presume the blu-ray does as well?) Also I recall the original version of "Revelation of the Daleks" had Alexi Sayle playing Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," which is swapped with a generic rock song in subsequent releases.
  • Until the recolorization efforts in the 00's, I only had ever seen "Silurians," "Ambassadors of Death," "Terror of the Autons," "Mind of Evil," and "The Daemons" in b/w.
  • For years, until I got the VHS release, I only ever saw a broadcast edit of "Planet of the Daleks" that completely excised episode three, which only existed in b/w, and also edited out the first several minutes of episode four (involving the flight up the ventilation shaft), because apparently the jump in the action was considered less of a distraction than a stretch of 25 minutes in b/w.
  • Likewise, the broadcast version of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" completely skipped episode one, which at the time only existed in b/w.
  • Some story packages came using pre-broadcast edits of certain episodes. The first 25 minutes of "Brain of Morbius" had no music or sound effects, nor did the latter half of "Resurrection of the Daleks."

I would become aware that there were political machinations at the BBC that would impact the current Doctor. The eighteen-month hiatus, the return, the replacement of Colin with Sylvester, and then, finally, in 1989, the cancellation, and the end of the Target run of TV novelizations.

By then, we had bought a VCR, I had a library of VHS tapes with two or three stories on them, taped off PBS. I took them with me to college, where my roomies and I would get drunk and laugh. Bill and Frank would square off and very slowly karate chop each other like the robot mummies in "Pyramids of Mars."

There was a burst of interest when "Tomb of the Cybermen" was re-discovered in 1991; the first time in my fandom that an entire previously completely lost episode was found. That brought the number of complete Troughton serials to six. And... I'll get to Tomb and my problems with it in a later blog post.

The PBS stations' runs of Doctor Who dwindled and eventually ended altogether. The Sci-Fi channel, briefly, ran individual episodes of Doctor Who at noontime, with commercials. It... wasn't the same.

Over the late 90's and early 00's I slowly built a library of BBC VHS releases, including the Hartnell and Troughton Years retrospectives which were my introductions into some of the 'lost' episodes. As Target's run of novelizations ended, I did not move onto reading the non-canon adventures, and still have yet to jump into the Big Finish range (I know...).

Then bit by bit, I swapped out my VHS releases for DVD's.

There were some dark, dark times in the early aughts, even following the '96 TV movie. Compared to the arguable over-saturation of Doctor Who collectibles today (do we really need signature sonic screwdrivers? is that anything more than undisguised toy marketing?), there was nothing. You could go into the largest comic book/geek shops in New York City and if they had any Doctor Who items at all, they'd be in the back underneath something heavy.

What I did find were some bootleg reconstructions of lost Doctor Who adventures, which then led me to discover the Loose Cannon range of recons. Back then, there was a network of dubbers around the world, and you mailed whoever was closest to you some blank VHS tapes of the correct lengths along with a pre-stamped return envelope, then eventually you'd get them back with the recons copied onto them. As much as I enjoyed discovering these lost stories, due to the effort involved in getting the VHS dubs I was not sad when most if not all of these recons moved to YouTube or Dailymotion.

Another big development was when the BBC realized that just because a story had a missing episode or two, that there wouldn't be thousands of fans eager to watch them. Suddenly we had "The Invasion," "The Ice Warriors," "The Crusades," "The Reign of Terror," and "The Moonbase" on VHS, along with orphan episodes of "Daleks' Master Plan," "The Celestial Toymaker," "Wheel in Space," etc...

Now I have a Britbox subscription, and I very frequently fall asleep in bed to whatever episode is streaming on Pluto.tv. How time flies.

And one day about ten years ago, I was on the bus holding my iPhone, and very intentionally dialed up a mostly-legal Dailymotion video of "Day of the Daleks" and marveled at that dream I had some 20 years earlier coming 100% true.

Humanity is bitterly divided and at each others' throats, we're killing the planet at an ever increasing pace, we're all at a psychic breaking point, but we can now dial up any classic era Doctor Who episode (or reconstruction) at any time, so we've got that going for us, at least.


  1. John, a lovely article. I really like stories about how fandoms change and enrich our lives. I started going to Star Trek conventions when I was in my twenties, and fell big time for Buffy just after grad school, which is why this site is here at all.

  2. I was looking forward to you publishing this John! Our experiences are strikingly similar, despite some key differences.

    Channel 10 was the PBS carrier for the show here in the Milwaukee area back when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, although we would leave the area in 84 and move around a lot before I came full circle back to the area, luckily, not having to deal with the monsters and/colonists of the 4th Doctor story of the same name! Like your station(s), they put all the episodes into a single, movie length presentation, so I had no idea they were episodic until much later.

    We were all 4th Doctor here for a time, I never even knew there were other Doctors until I was reading the Target and Pinnacle novelizations. and then being a member of the Doctor Who Fan Club of America for a time. I did catch 5-7 on PBS later on though.

    I actually strongly disliked the show at first. I saw Genesis of the Daleks young, and the mutant attacking the Doctor freaked me out a bit at the time, so I was avoiding the show for a bit, but being sick and grandma sitting me in front of the TV, and Genesis coming back on again some time later, and I was hooked.

    I also loved Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and Star Trek, but Doctor Who eventually overtook the others long ago, and became my favorite sci-fi TV show by a wide margin. I also have that old technical manual and some of the extra adventures, but the TV show has been and will always be, my focus.

    I have some of the VHS tapes, and moved to DVD/Blu-Ray a few years ago, getting all the classics, animations, and new Who up to Jodie's 2nd season, which I've never watched as I lost interest in the show as it marched forward.

    The region 2 version of the Chase has the Beatles scene in it, I have region 1 and 2 of that one, partially to see that cut scene, and it's not Ian's best moment!

    Thanks for sharing, John! It is cool to see how close our experiences coincide!


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