Violating Copyright Through The Ages

As I bopped back and forth every few hours from the Real World to Cyberspace waiting for my personal magic pixie delivery elves to make with a proper copy of “Smith and Jones,” I found myself reflecting back on how things have changed in the quarter century plus that I’ve been a Doctor Who fan. Before the Internest, there was tape trading, and before tape trading, well… conventions.

Go ahead, read on. You know you want to.


Until Sweatcon (August 1982), the only Doctor Who episodes I had ever seen were viewed in movie format, broadcast on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station. I had seen “Robot” – “Invasion of Time” twice (at least), and had seen most of “Ribos Operation” – “Logopolis.” I had never, ever seen any other Doctor. There wasn’t a legal way to, in this country– the earlier and later Doctors hadn’t been made available in this country, and I had absolutely no connections to people who might know people who might know people who had camera copies of episodes. I had read all about the “new” season (that would be the 19th) in Doctor Who Monthly, though, so I was anxious to see the New Doctor (that would be Peter Davison) in action.

I must have had the con schedule in my sweaty (literally) hands for some time, once I paid my $$$ for membership and waited with the 10,000 other fans (not a lie) in the stifling hot foyer to the balcony of the Grand Ballroom of the Americana Congress Hotel waiting to be formally let into the convention. All I know is, I was all pumped up to see New Stories. I followed a small crowd to the video room and managed to snag a seat close to the teevee. (That’s right– no projection set-up whatsoever, just a 19″ teevee and a VCR on an a/v card in a space about the size of the average living room.) A con staff member came ’round, popped a tape in, and left.

You’ve never heard a room so full be so quiet.

The story screened was “Black Orchid,” and was followed up pretty immediately by “Earthshock.” Oh, it was love at first sight for me and the Fifth Doctor! I loved his quiet lunacy. (And it definitely helped he was totally shaggable, too.) Everyone else, as far as I could tell, loved the stories, too.

I went back later in the con and caught “Castrovalva.” I could have seen earlier Doctors at the con, too, but I wasn’t that interested, and, besides, they were on late and I had to leave early evening to catch the train back to the suburbs. Until the following spring, though, Sweatcon was my only chance to see episodes that hadn’t aired in Chicago. The lack of new stories didn’t stop me from becoming even more obsessed with the show. Finally, I knew I had to find some local club to join, so that a) I could find like-minded geeks and b) I could stop annoying all my Real Life friends with my Non-Stop Doctor Who Chatter. Fortunately, I scored flyers for several clubs while standing in line at the New Fantasy Shop in February 1983 waiting to get Peter Davison’s and Sandra Dickenson’s autographs. I chose to send my money to the U.N.I.T. Irregulars, since they had the best-designed flyer and was the only club that had at least some meetings I could get to.

I went to my first meeting the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1983. It was down at Columbia College, where one of the club members taught. Some Pertwee story was shown (I want to say “Claws of Axos”) that was recorded off a PBS station that had already bought the Pertwee Package. Ah, it was great! “New” Doctor Who!!!! I was hooked.

Even once the Federation split off from the U.N.I.T. Irregulars, club meetings were still the only way of seeing Doctor Who episodes that weren’t being shown locally. Most of the time, the stories were sourced out from other parts of the country, with PBS stations showing stories that WTTW wasn’t. Sometimes, though…. sometimes, we got to see new new episodes– yanno, episodes that had just aired 2-3 months ago in the U.K.

Many of these new new stories were camera copies. Sometimes referred to as “flickervision,” these tapes were made by pointing an NTSC camcorder at a PAL teevee playing an episode, with someone holding a microphone up to the teevee speaker to record the sound. The differences in frames-per-second between PAL and NTSC caused a flicker in the video– i.e. it sometimes looked like you were watching an episode with the shadow of a fan falling across the video. In large doses, it was headache-inducing. Still, if one had to see the story, all the physical discomfort was well worth it.

Early on in the Federation history, the club founder, through military base connections, scored a PAL teevee and VCR of his own. He also had a British connection who sent him all sorts of things (including Doctor Who related material featuring series stars– interviews, game show appearances, Jim’ll Fix It….). Setting himself up as the Mysterious Keeper of Tape-in, he provided an extensive array of video entertainment at club meetings. He also made copies of things for club members, although if you were a local member, getting copies of things was akin to pulling teeth. (We usually had to haul our own VCRs over to make copies of things, because he couldn’t be arsed otherwise. The “outer worlds” members were more important in that respect. (Quite possibly because he made some dosh off of “shipping and handling.” I’m just guessing, here.)

We got quite spoiled, really, getting to see a story just two or three weeks after it finished up in the U.K. Sometimes, several of us would be privileged to see a story before the Official Club Viewing, so we would annoy people by doing a spontaneous MT337 MST3K version as tape rolled, thus preventing people from hearing crucial bits of dialog. (Some of these antics were indeed fueled by the Executive Producer, a.k.a. Jack Daniel’s and Coke.) It was a heady time, really, because convention video rooms bored us (since we had seen everything already), and WTTW served only as a source for getting a copy of something we had already seen.

Eventually, the Keeper of Tape-in Went Away. I scored a different source for McCoy episodes by that time, and of course shared. (Although I didn’t share very well– got a huge bitch slap about it all eventually that still has repercussions on my psyche to this day.) Finally, the series went into a long Hiatus Hut, and no one really cared, since the McCoy episodes seemed such a come-down from the Davison (or even the Colin Baker) era.

The next time Doctor Who resurfaced, it hit the U.S. first. I dutifully recorded the Teevee Movie on SVHS, even while joining fellow Federation members for a Mass Viewing on OMG A Projection TeeVee. It was glorious to see the Doctor again, even if the story itself was somewhat suspect. Still, watching it en masse allowed us to discuss it all right away, face-to-face, just like the old days. There’s nothing like an exercise in nostalgia to warm one’s heart….

Fast-forward to 2005, and the return of the Good Doctor to the BBC. It’s such a no-brainer now to find a torrent/livejournal post/other networking post that will take one directly to an episode, sometimes within hours of it airing. Click a button or two, and there it is sitting on your hard drive a little while later. It boggles my mind to have a new episode available to me the same day it airs in the U.K. Yet I also feel myself frustrated that I can’t get the episode sooner. Two-four hours has almost become an exceptionally long time to have to wait for something to pop up on the Internest.

Needless to say, I find myself quite annoyed with people who come onto LJ or newsgroups whining some three hours after an episode aired that “it’s not in the torrents yet, does anyone have it?” I am much more annoyed by those who refuse to download stuff, and instead insist that someone mail them a DVD of it a.s.a.p. Hello? Darling? Fend for thyself, please. You don’t have to torrent if you don’t want to; plenty of other places to find Files of Interest if you only join the right community. You don’t even have to fess up that you’re downloading anything, if you’re that paranoid about Doing Illegal Things.

So, yeah, I’ve totally got a case of “and we had to walk five miles in the snow uphill both ways with just shoe boxes on our feet.” *sigh* Like the Swami says, “But why should I speak? For I know nothing.”

Leave a Reply