|By Ann Hinch
BALTIMORE, Md. — With a television phenomenon as old as Doctor Who, it’s the show itself that might be many fans’ ultimate antique, argues one of those fans who also happens to be something of an expert on collecting.
Today’s Whovian takes it for granted they can do a casual watch of episodes from the past few decades anytime they please: there’s DVD, Netflix, the DVR cable queue, digital downloads for mobile. But fans old enough to have seen the original series may never see some of their favorite episodes again, while younger fans may never see them at all.
Arnold T. Blumberg explained in the 1970s that the BBC junked a wide swath of its 1960s’ Who serials by taping over previously used film with other shows or throwing it out. This kind of recycling wasn’t uncommon in television – and consider that even a decade ago, being a fan of the show was still outside the mainstream.
“Nobody ever thought there would be a market for it beyond a repeat or two,” said Blumberg, adjunct faculty teaching pop culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and University of Baltimore who also is an editor, writer, collector and Who expert with a mile-long list of fan credentials.
Because the BBC had, however, also sold broadcast of the serials to overseas markets, there were black-and-white copies made in those, of many episodes.
Film cans shipped by the BBC have also been found in storage outside the United Kingdom; it was reported in October that Philip Morris, executive director of the Television International Enterprise Archive, tracked down in Africa a handful of the program’s 106 “lost” episodes from the 1960s, featuring the first and second Doctor incarnations acted by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. (See sidebar for an explanation of how The Doctor’s changing face works.)
BBC made these recovered episodes available for download from iTunes in time for the 50th anniversary of the series’ Nov. 23, 1963, premiere, much to Blumberg’s delight.
“I was amazed at the idea that I was watching something that was lost before I was even born,” explained the 42-year-old – and using technology that allowed him to download it on his phone in less than minutes.
It was fitting, considering his doctoral degree in communications design focused on the psychology of collecting, particularly the ways a person can carry as much of their collection with them as possible.
The BBC owns the rights to the media on any recovered film, explained David J. Howe, though he observed, “There certainly is a value in the original films and so on, and there are collectors of the same out there. Unfortunately, film degrades over time and needs specialist cleaning, repair and storage, which is usually out of the ability of people who own or find these films to manage.”
Not just film
Howe, 52, whose memories of watching Who go back to the Troughton years after 1966, started collecting related items in the 1970s “when I basically stopped throwing away things connected with the show,” he wryly noted.
He too has great capital among fellow Whovians as the editor of Telos Publishing and co-author with Blumberg of Howe’s Transcendental Toybox, a comprehensive collectors’ guide to “Who” merchandise and collectibles, in addition to his day job as an IT consultant in North Wales, UK.
It isn’t just overseas stations that managed to keep recordings of some early episodes.
“People that are fans have actually been involved in the preservation of the show,” Blumberg said, explaining there was at least one man decades ago who liked the show so much he took still photos of the TV screen and shared them with fellow fans. Along with old scripts, these have helped people piece together what the sets and characters looked like from lost episodes.
Doctor Who has broken into a more mainstream audience within the past decade, with the reboot of the program in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus (and one 1996 television movie). While recently issued action figures, T-shirts, clocks, salt-and-pepper shakers and a whole host of other official merchandise is available, the manufacture of toys and collectibles goes back to the first Daleks targeted to children nearly a half-century ago.
The Daleks are an alien race of mutants closeted in protective robotic units that resemble elaborately studded trashcans, and are The Doctor’s chief foe. It’s a toss-up between that form and the boxy TARDIS time machine for Most Iconic Image in the fandom. “If there’s something that can have a TARDIS or Dalek on it, it’s been made,” Blumberg said.
“There have always been a lot of different manufacturers/publishers of Doctor Who material, but these days, there tends to be a ’master’ manufacturer for each line. So Character Options does most of the toys, Ebury (Publishing) owns BBC Books and does the books, along with Penguin for the younger age group,” Howe said. “In the 1960s, companies like Louis Marx and Lone Star produced many items. But there are also a great many companies who just released one or two items. Dapol wasn’t around until the 1980s and did a lot of plastic figures and Daleks while they had the license.
“Collectors tend to specialize and go for one particular sort of product, or from a specific period ... There’s no particular brand which is more collectible than any other.
“The old 1960s merchandise has always fluctuated in price, but there seems to have been a fairly steady increase over the years. Of course, the world being in recession doesn’t help on that score,” he explained. “Props are always (or usually) more expensive than merchandise – they are by definition more limited edition – but again, if two people want the same item in auction, then the price will be high for it.”
The owner of Who North America, Keith Bradbury, runs a storefront in Indianapolis, Ind., as well as a website selling all manner of Who and other British science fiction merchandise. He first saw the show in American broadcast on his local PBS station around 1980 and has been an avid collector for nearly as long. His store also houses a personal collection of antique and new merchandise for customers to view and enjoy.
“I think part of it was … there was so much of it,” he said of his attraction to the show and to collecting. “Even after the show went off the air in 1989, I was still trying to find out more.”
Besides VHS tapes of old and lost footage in the 1980s and 1990s, he collected Target novelizations. Blumberg described them as averaging about 126 pages each from scripts, aimed at younger viewers and “very faithful” to the televised stories. One of the most popular Target authors was Terrance Dicks, who Blumberg said possessed “a keen understanding of what made a Doctor Who story work.”
These Target books are generally not worth a great deal of money, he added, since they’re not scarce. A casual perusal of eBay shows asking prices of well under $10 each.
A few particular authorized novels are considered highly valuable for their stories as well as rarity. For example, Lungbarrow, published by Virgin in “The New Adventures” line in 1997, is currently listed for no less than $150 used on Amazon. Blumberg said the storyline explores The Doctor’s origins, an irresistible topic for longtime fans.
Bradbury, 45, said before 1997 he had a difficult time finding Who merchandise because it was still largely confined to the UK, coming over only a little at a time with collectors who knew someone in the UK or had visited there. Some could be purchased at U.S. sci-fi/fantasy conventions, but they were “incredibly expensive.”