Doctor Who – The Pirate Years

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 ….

10 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Pirate Years

  1. Spent a few days with my mate in Somerset in the summer of ‘86 copying some of his pirate copies on to Beta… Enemy of the World 3 was undoubtably the very worst possible quality, virtually unwatchable, but we did. Still have the bulk is Season 18 along with various Pertwee’s, Troughton and Hartnell episodes from that session. Great days!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I watched all of Enemy of the World on Patrick Troughton’s centenary. It’s like one of the purley historical stories, but set in the future. It was a forerunner of the Jon Pertwee futuristic stories.

      I thought Doctor Who was regarded as a children’s programme in the sixties, but Enemy of the World doesn’t feel like a children’s programme.

      Any story from the 2018 series of Doctor Who set in the present contradicts Enemy of the World.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw pirates of The Daemons and The Mind Of Evil about 2 years before they came out on DVD – The Daemons was nigh-on unwatchable in parts where the picture was completely washed out during the sequences where the village is being superheated by Azal’s presence (or something; I haven’t watched it for ages and can’t remember the exact plot point).

    I saw a lot of the early Pertwee era in black and white because that’s all the ABC had to broadcast here in 2003-2005, and B&W is still my preferred way to watch Terror of the Autons. It’s made much more chilling this way, especially the sequence where the Auton bursts out of the safe and nearly shoots the Brig.


    • When I first saw the Lively Arts documentary Whose Doctor Who I thought that Doctor Who was still being made in black and white when Jon Pertwee started and went into to colour during the Pertwee era, because some of the Jon Pertwee clipss were in black and white, when in fact those episodes were originally in colour but the BBC only had the black and white copies.


  3. When BBC Video started releasing the Peter Davison stories on video one fan wrote a letter to Doctor Who Magazine saying that he was pleased because their collection of Peter Davison stories which they’d recorded as broadcast were getting worn out.

    They said they had every episode of Doctor Who from the first Peter Davison story onwards on video, so it’s possible that they got their first video recorder for the Royal Wedding.


  4. I have only met two Doctor Who fans who were cranks. One was the person I met at my first Doctor Who convention who told me that nine out of ten Doctor Who fans were cranks.

    The other was a fan I met when I went to see the Doctor Who exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image. I was looking at the Doctor Who merchandise in the gift shop, and this man came up and told me he could get me copies of Doctor Who stories that were not yet available on BBC video.

    I was actually looking at a copy of the fanzine DWB, and he told me that Michael Grade shouldn’t have sacked Colin Baker – he should have sacked JNT.

    Firstly, selling pirate videos is wrong. Secondly, hawking your own merchandise in museum gift shops is wrong. And thirdly, I have no time for so called Doctor Who fans who think that JNT should have been sacked.


  5. I think I got the then two surviving Daleks’ Master Plan episodes and another story at a comic mart from someone selling virtually every surviving 60s episode (time coded copies!). On the end of one of the tapes, not labelled, was a Tenth Planet 4 reconstruction which was a very exciting bonus.


    • That’s interesting, virtually all of the black and white episodes I got via the pirate network weren’t timecoded (the only that was, was The ice Warriors which I got fairly soon after its recovery in 1988).


  6. I was fortunate to come into the Dr Who fandom in the mid-80’s, watching on a PBS station that survived by running Doctor Who six nights a week. So, I got to see the entire run of all the available, complete stories in a roughly two years. I never knew how good I had it until I got on the Internet years later and found out that — gasp!! — people hadn’t seen all of the Pertwee years. Of course, this was the time when the Internet was used for trading bootlegs of the orphaned episodes — which I did. Ah, the joys of the young fandom.

    Liked by 1 person

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