At one time, Doctor Who videos were the only way that people could enjoy the Time Lord’s adventures – be it at HMV, or on the black market.
During The Wilderness Years, there was zero Doctor Who on TV. The Television Movie had aired for a single night in 1996, but otherwise there was nothing. Fortunately, Doctor Who videos were in strong supply, even if most rental chains had only (at best) the sole Eighth Doctor adventure.
And whilst the VHS format is now obsolete, it’s important to remember that some Doctor Who videos truly changed the shape of the Whoniverse. For many people, the VHS releases gave them the opportunity to see long-lost adventures for the very first time.
Of course, in the UK, those with Sky subscriptions had classic Doctor Who aplenty, with such stories as ‘The Sensorites’ and ‘The Time Meddler’ being screened with the same regularity as soap operas. But spool back a few years, and the situation was quite different. Many of these stories hadn’t been seen since their original transmission, as was the case with ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen,’ which was returned unexpectedly in 1991.
For this reason, VHS was the place for Doctor Who content. Indeed, ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ quickly shot to the top of the UK sales charts upon release – the only one of the Doctor Who videos to do so. Prior to this, the adventure had existed solely in fans’ imaginations, and as a series of audio recordings and telesnaps. Moreover, for many years it was the only complete story to exist from Doctor Who‘s fifth season, until the discovery of ‘The Enemy of the World’ in 2012.
Then there were Doctor Who videos such as ‘The Ice Warriors’ collection in 1998. This special set was a true collectors’ item, featuring all of the surviving episodes from this classic Second Doctor adventure, plus his earliest surviving episode from ‘The Underwater Menace,’ and a fascinating documentary presented by Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines entitled ‘The Missing Years.’ And for many fans, these Doctor Who videos had been a long time coming; ‘The Ice Warriors’ had been discovered some 10 years earlier, in the back of a cupboard at BBC Enterprises.
However, some Doctor Who videos made it to the shelves a little faster. For instance, when the first episode of ‘The Crusade’ was returned in 1999, the BBC didn’t delay in making it available. It was presented in a luxurious collectors’ edition boxset a few months later, together with an audio CD and all four episodes of the following story ‘The Space Museum,’ plus some introductory material from actor William Russell, who played the First Doctor’s companion Ian.
And despite the excitement these releases generated, the Doctor Who videos didn’t necessarily have to be long-lost classics in order to be popular. There was a clear appetite for Doctor Who on VHS, and when the 30th anniversary came around in 1993, BBC Enterprises planned to make a straight-to-video special. Entitled ‘The Dark Dimension,’ the adventure would have reunited all of the surviving Doctors, plus the Cybermen, and a brand new villain in the shape of Rik Mayall.
But sadly, the production ran into problems at an early stage, and never made it to cassette. Instead, the special was replaced with an extended version of the TV documentary ’30 Years in the TARDIS.’
Even the advent of DVD didn’t quell the popularity of Doctor Who videos. Between 2000 and 2003, fans enjoyed concurrent releases, with stories being made available on both DVD and VHS in alternating months. The BBC was committed to releasing every classic story on video, and forged ahead through to the end of Doctor Who‘s 40th anniversary year. It concluded the range with a special boxset that contained all the surviving episodes of ‘The Reign of Terror,’ ‘The Faceless Ones’ and ‘The Web of Fear.’ At the same time, fans could enjoy new remasters of stories as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani,’ which were among the first DVD releases.
At the same time, Doctor Who videos were a popular format on the black market. For many years, fans had been trying to get their hands on copies of their favourite adventures, and these were available if you knew the right people – and had enough cash.
In the BBC documentary ‘Cheques, Lies and Videotapes,’ some fans discuss the lengths they went to in order to secure rare Doctor Who videos. One example is the colour version of ‘The Silurians,’ which only existed in the BBC archive as a black and white print. However, off-air colour recordings from the United States had made it onto cassette, and were in circulation among dealers. In the documentary, one fan reveals that he and his friends pooled together the equivalent of £800 in order to buy a complete colour copy of this classic adventure. Indeed, many fans paid a great deal more for classic Doctor Who videos – even when the quality was questionable at best.
But today, fans are lucky to have the majority of the Doctor Who back catalogue at their fingertips, be it on Blu-ray, YouTube, BBC iPlayer – to name but a few. Doctor Who videos can be located with a mouse-click.
That being said, the appetite for archive rarities is as strong as ever. For instance, when the missing episode hunter Philip Morris discovered ‘The Web of Fear’ in Africa, he unearthed all six episodes – only for episode three to mysteriously disappear before he could secure it. This film is now believed to be in the hands of a private collector, who probably paid a premium price to acquire it.
And whilst we’re unlikely to see this (or any other Doctor Who story) on VHS anytime soon, there is no doubt that Doctor Who videos have changed the lives of fans the world over. For some, the format was their first introduction to the world of the good Doctor, and it offered a glimmer of hope at a time when the airwaves were Who-less.
What’s your earliest memory of Doctor Who on VHS? And do you have a favourite release? Let me know in the comments below.
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