I’ve recently been rewatching the documentary Cheques, Lies and Videotape on the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD, which sparked off a few reminisces about my own dabblings in the Doctor Who pirate VHS era.
For those who weren’t there – until the mid nineties, watching old Doctor Who episodes in the UK was no easy task. There were very few repeats and only a small handful of stories had been commercially released on VHS. But virtually everything still in existence could be obtained on pirate tapes, provided you had a contact (and the patience to sit through nth generation copies which could be a trial on the eyes).
Throughout 1990 I quickly built up a collection of every existing episode from the sixties and seventies. Having been starved of access for so long, this meant I spent twelve months gorging myself silly on everything and anything I could get my hands on (yes, even The Mutants and Underworld).
With The Daleks having only recently come out on official VHS, I was keen for more Hartnell and so the first tape I asked for contained The Aztecs, The Rescue and The Tenth Planet 1-3. That was an exciting day ….
Pretty much all of the sixties episodes were sourced from copies of the telerecordings. These could sometimes be quite watchable (I only retired my pirate copy of the first three episodes of The Tenth Planet when it came out on official VHS many years later) but not always (I did sit all the way through a very muffled and blurry copy of The Gunfighters, but it wasn’t until the story showed up on UK Gold that I actually understood the plot).
Most of the seventies episodes freely swopped were taken from off-air Australian recordings, as our Antipodean cousins were fortunate enough to have the Pertwee and Baker T episodes repeated on a seemingly endless loop. I was pretty lucky here, as a fair number of the stories I received must have been only one or two generations down, as they were very watchable.
They did have their odd quirks though – sometimes two episodes would be edited together and occasionally stories would receive the omnibus treatment so beloved of Margot Eavis. One such omnibus story I had was The Power of Kroll, which I did watch in a single sitting – but even though it was quite short (around 80 minutes) it isn’t something I’d recommend.
Some episodes were edited for content (Leela’s knife-throwing in The Invisible Enemy, for example, was trimmed down).
There were a number of Pertwee stories (such as The Silurians, Terror of the Autons and The Daemons) which I first experienced, via these bootleg tapes, in black and white. And every now and again I like to drop the colour down and view them again in monochrome. Hopefully I’m not the only one mad enough to do that.
The days of tape swapping came to an end with the launch of UK Gold’s in 1992. With better quality versions of most of the series’ surviving episodes receiving regular television screenings, there was less need to refer back to the old pirate tapes.
For a new generation, these UK Gold repeats were their Doctor Who gateway. But that’s another story ….