For years, I avoided watching Dr. Who, not because I didn’t think it was interesting—it is—but because I didn’t need another thing to find interesting. I barely have enough time for the things I already find interesting.
Then, Christmas happened, and my mother, who always buys too many gifts (the tree lifts from the force of the presents beneath), got me a whole slew of Dr. Who paraphernalia.
“Do you like it?” she asked, brown eyes large with hope.
Since my sister and I haven’t lived at home for many years, my mother has had no choice but to make present-buying decisions more out of love than necessity. I once again enter January with a surplus of deodorant.
“Yes!” I replied. “I love … Dr. Who!”
So, now I have to start watching Dr. Who, and retroactively justify the mug, T-shirt, special commemorative ‘vault’ book (I’m not sure what that means—I suppose it was kept safe in a vault, which I suppose implies it’s expensive), and sonic-screwdriver pen set.
My sudden interest prompted a friend of mine, who I thought of as an active Dr. Who fan, to sheepishly admit he’s only watched two or three episodes. This surprised me. I always got the impression he was a big fan because of all the times he was constantly talking about it, referencing it, and making little vrooo-vrooo-vrooo sound effects.
Nervously and in hushed tones, he admitted to me that most of the Dr. Who he knows has been through BBC audio books, old recordings, and radio dramas.
Old obscure audio recordings, you say? My Trent Radio senses were tingling.
When I began my investigation of Dr. Who, generally just trying to understand where I should start with the whole bizarre franchise that seems to attract such obsessive, persnickety weirdos, I found out that many of the earlier episodes were lost due to the BBC’s clumsy and near-sighted practice of taping over aired shows.
To be fair to the BBC, the mentality of broadcasting was entirely different then. The assumption then was that it would always, somehow, be cheaper just to slap together some new show than it would be to store tapes of old material. (I bet now they wish they could go back in time.)
The audio for these episodes only survives because avid British Dr. Who fans, fellows who clearly didn’t have an upcoming date to worry about, had enough foresight to tape the audio of the show when it originally aired.
This would have involved the use of gigantic wood-panelled (and very expensive) early cassette tape recorders. The video for these episodes is gone now (the BBC destroyed it after broadcast), but at least something of the episodes survives as listening content.
It takes a bit of bending of my imagination to remember a life when what we got to watch on television was entirely subject to the broadcast. In this age of Netflix, I find it hard to remember a time when I couldn’t have even taped what the television was showing to watch it later.
But before the mid-’80s, unless you had all the money of Tammy Faye Bakker, taping a video broadcast at home just wasn’t a viable option. Early audio recording equipment was comparatively much cheaper and available years earlier than video.
I can only imagine being a young, disheveled, and spectacled geek in 1968, brushing back the long hair from around my eyes and thinking, “I could really go for some Star Trek.”
So, I would walk across the room, the corduroy of my brown trousers and frilly cuffs of my floral-print shirt making swish-swish sounds, and I would choose from my shelf a special cassette tape labeled “ST-S1E1:ManTrap” in squiggly-marker. I would pop it into my wood-panelled ‘home entertainment unit’, and listen on three-foot tall speakers to the drama of a horrific, slurping salt vampire from planet M-113 attacking Mr. Spock while I busily made dinner.
I imagine the audio recordings of Dr. Who to have been something like that, except, for a still-climbing majority of fans, there is no longer any video component to reference. I can imagine revisiting the audio of television already seen, but who is going to just sit there and listen to the audio of something that is supposed to depend on visual reference, and has none? Apparently, there is a geeky little community that does just that, a community that includes my sheepish friend.
I write, direct and, when I can’t find a way out of it, act in many radio dramas made here at Trent Radio, so I’m comfortable with and have a great interest in dramatic audio space. However, it kind of blows my mind that there are some people out there who would rather listen to the audio of a lost episode of Dr. Who than just watch the show.
The idea of a whole geeky sub-culture secretly pioneering an alternative understanding of media by listening to video without picture, contrary to the fact that there is video of the same type readily available, gives me pause, and makes me think that there may be something else going on here.
When I think about it, they’re not entirely alone. I know lots of non-geeks who turn on the television while they’re making dinner and never look at a bit of it; they just listen to what is going on, and that’s good enough for them. Audio books are popular with some people, but copies are needlessly expensive. (Notably, this is not the case in the U.K. where audio books are cheap, plentiful and of high-quality.) I have many friends with long daily commutes in car rides who trap themselves in a near-constant state of needing to find new listening content because audio books simply cannot meet the demand.
This is the case with my friend, the Dr. Who fan, who instead turned to podcasts, radio dramas, and amateur recordings of lost episodes. On a long drive to work each day, he fell in love with Dr. Who through the sounds available to him.
After mulling this over, I decided to encourage my friend to embrace his interest as legitimate, and not feel intimidated that somewhere out there are also video copies of some strange Dr. Who television show. There is also an army of daytime soap fans out there who only ever hear the thing while they’re busy with some other activity. There are even people who read books while listening to the television. So, what kind of experience are they getting? One that isn’t really any different than what we do with radio.
In fact, at Trent Radio on Monday, February 3, 2014, we’re having an event day: “Geek Day”. Our regular programming will be swept aside, and people will sign up for their own shows on the topic of the day, which, in this case, is “geek”.
(If anyone wants to get involved, just email me at [email protected], or stop by Trent Radio House.)
On that day, I’m finally going to listen to one of these lost episodes, broadcasting through 92.7 FM a Dr. Who that has not known its own video for 50 years.
Honestly, I believe less and less that the missing part matters. The strange little subculture of ‘60s listening television suggests to me that the truth of these things, the relevant enjoyment of it, exists not in the picture, but somewhere in the joints of its parts.
Somewhere between video, sound, mug, T-shirt, special commemorative ‘vault’ book, sonic-screwdriver pen set, and long, boring car rides to work—you can enjoy something just for what it is.