It took a long time for the complete set of Doctor Who VHS tapes to make it onto fans’ shelves. For many years, a number of classic adventures were only available in edited form, and some were extremely costly.
As you probably know, there is a large number of Doctor Who episodes, and when the BBC started to make them commercially available in the 1980s, the release schedule was slow to the say the least. After all, these were uncharted waters; the BBC didn’t know if there was much demand for Doctor Who VHS tapes, particularly as the format hadn’t been widely adopted and some viewers were veering towards alternatives such as Betamax.
Nonetheless, during Doctor Who‘s 20th anniversary celebrations at Longleat House, the BBC gave fans a survey asking them which Doctor Who story they’d most like to see on video. The answer was perhaps a surprising one, and in 1983 the first ever Doctor Who VHS tape arrived in the shape of ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ – a classic Fourth Doctor story from 1975.
The questionable artwork notwithstanding, this first Doctor Who VHS release began a trend which would continue for many years. The story was released in edited form, condensing the four-parter into a single, movie-like adventure. This made sense at the time (and indeed still does) but as the years progressed, the BBC discovered that fans actually preferred to have the episodes in their original format, complete with cliffhangers and closing credits.
But for the first four years, the Doctor Who VHS tapes adhered to the movie format, and ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ was followed by ‘The Brain and Morbius,’ ‘Pyramids of Mars,’ ‘The Seeds of Death’ and ‘The Five Doctors.’ But as mentioned previously, this was a slow process; the BBC only managed to produce around 15 commercial tapes between 1983 and 1989, plus a couple of re-releases.
And even then, these Doctor Who VHS tapes were something of a luxury item. In the 1980s, video tapes were an expensive commodity, and collectors could pay up to £40 in today’s money to purchase a cassette, not to mention the upfront cost of buying an actual video player.
Of course, there were some fans with much deeper wallets, and had a taste for the more exotic Doctor Who VHS tapes – like the ones that could only be found on the black market. Sensing that it could take the BBC some decades to actually release the more obscure stories, some fans paid heavily for pirated copies of such classics as ‘Planet of the Spiders‘ and even a colour copy of ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ from off-air recordings. Fans would sometimes pay upwards of £500 for such material – approximately £1,300 in today’s money.
It may seem strange at a time when Doctor Who VHS tapes, DVDs and Blu-rays are in abundance, but in the 1980s there was a genuine belief that the black market was the only way to see some of the rarer stories. Indeed, even the BBC didn’t have a colour copies of ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ – only black and white film prints. So it made sense that there was a market for these rare classics, illicit as the practice was.
However, the fans had nothing to fear. In 1989, the BBC started to ramp up their rate of Doctor Who VHS releases, and began issuing stories in unedited form, beginning with ‘The Daleks’ and following up with ‘An Unearthly Child’ and ‘The War Games.’
The real game-changer came in 1992 with the unexpected return of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ from a TV station in Hong Kong. This story was rush-released with little restoration and presented in its entirety, going on to become one of the best-selling Doctor Who VHS tapes of all time, and topping the VHS charts throughout the UK. The message couldn’t be clearer: the appetite for Doctor Who videos was strong, and from this point the BBC seriously increased its rate of releases, even issuing some special, straight-to-video offerings like ‘The Hartnell Years’ and the unfinished ‘Shada.’
And whilst the very earliest Doctor Who VHS releases featured simple photographic composites, the early 90s saw the dawn of artist Colin Howard‘s involvement in the series, who produced stunning bespoke pieces for each story. And for many Doctor Who fans, these video covers have become as nostalgic and firmly-engrained in their minds as the stories themselves. Howard would continue to produce artwork for the range throughout the 90s, even taking on such mammoth commissions as the entirety of the Key to Time series in 1995, complete with its linking spines which formed a piece of art of their own.
Interestingly, it was the launch of the Doctor Who TV movie in 1996 which threw a spanner in the works of the VHS schedule. Indeed, Doctor Who projects across the board were suspended as the programme entered a period of uncertainty, and a number of planned releases were put on hold, including ‘Time-Flight,’ ‘The Happiness Patrol’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock.’
As such, the only Doctor Who VHS tapes to come out in this year were the TV movie itself, ‘The Hand of Fear’ and ‘The Green Death.’ Moreover, a large number of older titles were deleted from the range, and ‘The Hand of Fear’ was removed almost as soon as it was launched, making it one of the rarest and most sought-after tapes in the collection.
And when the Doctor Who VHS range did eventually re-launch in 1997 (complete with new branding from the TV movie) this was the end of artist Colin Howard’s involvement in the series, save for ‘The Awakening’ and ‘Frontios’ twin release, ‘The Leisure Hive,’ and partial work on ‘The Happiness Patrol’ (they used Howard’s rendition of the Kandyman on the front cover.) From this point on, the BBC opted for computer-generated artwork using archive photos, the first of which being ‘The War Machines’ in 1997.
This final era took six years to complete, with ‘The Reign of Terror’ box set rounding off the range in 2003, just in time for Doctor Who‘s 40th anniversary. This was packaged with some final, obscure rarities from the Doctor Who archive – the surviving episodes of ‘The Faceless Ones,’ and the (at the time) only surviving episode of ‘The Web of Fear.’ After this, the BBC made the DVD releases its main focus.
And whilst these were undoubtedly superior in quality, there are still many fans who hold the Doctor Who VHS range in high regard. Some people have even kept hold of their old tapes. And why not? If you’ve accumulated all five versions of ‘Spearhead from Space,’ you might as well use them!
Who knows, maybe one day the Blu-ray sets will have been surpassed by some superior format and will have become something of an sought-after, nostalgic obscurity. But for those fans who grew up during the era of the Doctor Who VHS tapes, it was one of the most magical and exciting times in the programme’s history – a true light in the darkness of the Wilderness Years.
What do you remember most fondly about Doctor Who on VHS? And which video was your favourite? Let me know in the comments below.