It’s Christmas Eve as I write this, and for the last near-decade, at least in my household, my children have learned about the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas, you see, is when Dad watches Doctor Who. Since the show came back in 2005, viewing each year’s Christmas Special has been something of a ritual, a little extra treat in the midst of all the other holiday shenanigans.
My first contact with Doctor Who happened in 1980, but it wasn’t on television. I had a friend, Israel Litwack, who had on a few occasions spoken about this science fiction show that aired on WOR-TV channel 9 on Saturday mornings for an hour. Alas, by that point I had a twice-weekly Pennysaver paper route, with which i earned the money to purchase comics and other things, and so i was never able to be around the house whenever this mysterious show was airing.
Instead, my first WHO experience was in the pages of MARVEL PREMIERE #57, which collected and reprinted stories originally created for the UK DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY magazine. They had lovely Dave Gibbons art, and the first storyline, Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, had an interesting flavor to it that I’d never quite experienced before. (The flavor of British comics, as it turns out.) And yet, I couldn’t imagine what the actual show might be like, using these comics as a reference point. It all seemed rather bizarre.
I got my opportunity to see firsthand about a year later. My father’s job had us relocating to Delaware, and that meant giving up the paper route, which meant that I was around that final Saturday before we left New York, to tune in. If memory serves, the first DOCTOR WHO episodes I saw were chapters 4 & 5 of THE INVASION OF TIME, the six-part serial that wrapped up both the show’s 15th season and the package of four seasons that had been syndicated at that point to US television. In all honesty, it probably wasn’t the best place in the world to come in. But it was intriguing enough to get me interested.
As it happened, in Delaware I still had access to New York’s WOR-TV on Cable, so I was able to watch the follow-up a week later, which included not only the final chapter of THE INVASION OF TIME but then also looped back to the beginning of the sales package for the first chapter of ROBOT, the first Tom Baker serial. A much better place to hop on.
These episodes all came from what is now called the “Howard DaSilva Package.” Because DOCTOR WHO was a serialized story, and fearing the American audiences wouldn’t be able to quite keep up week-to-week, the distributor has actor Howard DaSilva record new openings and next time trailers for each individual episode. Of course, in order to make room for this, footage had to be cut out of the episodes themselves. As I understand it, DaSilva recorded all of these bits of narration in one or two goes, having never seen the program or really having any idea just what he was talking about. Consequently, he’d often mispronounce terms.
There’s an example of the DaSilva narrations available on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj68m6acfEI
In order to make sure that I’d be able to get my comics in the unfamiliar territory of Delaware, I signed up Steve Geppi’s Diamond Delivery Service. This meant ordering all of the books I wanted in advance every month, and everything coming in a single C.O.D. shipment every month. I didn’t stick with Geppi’s that long once I’d scoped out Delaware, but they did give me access to certain publications I hadn’t seen before, one of which was DOCTOR WHO MONTHLY, the British magazine put out at that time by Marvel UK. The first issue I ordered and read was #57, shown above. It was here that I began to get a sense of the history of the show. I also learned that the lead actor, the charismatic and magnetic Tom Baker, was leaving the program, and that his replacement would be Peter Davison.
I also found that DOCTOR WHO was airing on Saturday afternoons on PBS, in movie-length blocks. They’d take a complete serial of between four and six episodes, typically, and edit them together to be broadcast as a movie. I had no idea at the time, but when I first found them, they were deep into transmitting Tom Baker’s final season. And so, I had the delightful experience of witnessing Baker’s swan song and his transformation into Davison without realizing that was what I was going to be seeing ahead of time. It really is much better that way.
Delaware also received television transmissions from Philadelphia, and some Maryland-based stations. As it turned out, it would soon become Doctor Who central, as the various PBS stations in the area soon learned that the show brought in substantial revenues during pledge drive time. At the next pledge drive cycle, NJN ran just the first episode of Davison’s first full episode, CASTROVALVA, and indicated that they’d be able to purchase the rest of the season if they hit certain contribution figures. The money poured in–so much so that they actively began looking to get access to not only other, earlier episodes of DOCTOR WHO, such as the color Jon Pertwee era and eventually even the black and white surviving Harnell and Troughton episodes, but also anything available from the BBC that was even remotely like DOCTOR WHO, such as BLAKES 7 and, eventually, RED DWARF. I’m sure that it was among the first if not the first station in the US to broadcast each of those.
The other place DOCTOR WHO was available at that point was in paperback form. Men’s Adventure publisher Pinnacle, riding high on the success of their EXECUTIONER and DESTROYER series, began issuing series books like crazy. And among other things, they licensed the rights to a number of the UK Target novelizations of earlier Doctor Who stories and issued them for American audiences. It was a haphazard line, mostly due to the fact that Pinnacle just grabbed whatever books looked interesting to them, without any regard as to which Doctor they might have featured. So you’d get stories with unfamiliar characters and unfamiliar status quos, even from the books preceding and following them, and even if you were watching the television series religiously. But for all that, they were a cracking good, fast read (and the lack of any budget in the reader’s imagination made several of these classic stories seem more spectacular when consumed this way.) By the mid-1980s, Pinnacle had let the license lapse, and Target itself began distributing its novelizations to the States.
Two final points on DOCTOR WHO as it existed when I first encountered it.
Firstly, it’s astonishing to see how far it’s come in one regard: in those days, Doctor Who fans were at the absolute bottom of the social pecking order. These were the guys that Trekkies made fun of. With its scant television budgets and wobbly sets, to say nothing of the way it would mix film-shot exteriors with videotaped interior sequences (which was a bit headache-inducing), Doctor Who was held in low regard by even many of the more fantasy-minded fans of the comics and science fiction circles. it was tough to admit to being a Doctor Who fan in those days. Which is one of the reasons why it’s so amazing to see the show on the cover of TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, and for it to have built up the enormous audience that it has today. Frankly, nobody in 1980 would have believed it.
Secondly, back in those days, you had to have either a VCR or stamina to really be a DOCTOR WHO fan. Because, after a while, many PBS stations began airing the show on Friday or Saturday nights, late night. So a six-episode compilation film that began airing at Midnight would run until close to 3:00 in the morning. Not the easiest thing in the world to hang on for, if you couldn’t record it and timeshift it.