When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I lived in the United States; Doctor Who was relatively unknown as it was broadcast only in a few markets in the States on PBS channels – Public Broadcasting, which is a commercial-free network of channels that rely on government funding, corporation grants, and donations from the public to help pay for their programming. Usually they show educational shows (Sesame Street and Mr Rogers, for example, are staples of PBS) as well as news programmes and cultural items. PBS is also where you went to watch British dramas, exported to the US and shown under the umbrella of Masterpiece Theatre, hosted by Alasdair Cooke.

        PBS also showed British comedies – not the splashy silliness of Benny Hill, but endless reruns of Are You Being Served?. Yes, Minister, and Fawlty TowersThe wealthier stations might also show Butterflies and To the Manor Born; later on we got Black Adder and other nifty stuff such as Monty Python before PBS’s funding dried up from the 1990s, and cable and satellite stations such as A & E and BBC America sprang up. But PBS was in there first in the ‘good years’, and it didn’t have adverts (don’t get me started on pledge breaks, though). And, of course, for many of us it was the gateway to Doctor Who.

        I was fortunate that I lived in the crosshairs of two rival PBS stations, WHYY out of Wilmington (DE)/Philadelphia and WNJS, out of Trenton, NJ. These were fairly wealthy stations, as well (the fortunes of a PBS station depended on its location – Boston, NY, and Chicago, for example, could afford to show quite a lot of British television, especially in the 1980s.) WHYY showed Doctor Who as a serial, an episode an evening, in the late 1970s, and I couldn’t get enough of it as a kid; it was more common, however, to show the programme as a ‘movie,’ all the episodes edited together and shown on late-night Friday or Saturday schedules. On pledge night, it could and did take up to five hours to screen The War Games.

        Back in the mid-70s, though, for me, it was mostly Tom Baker’s episodes from the Hinchcliff/Holmes era, all crazy pseudo Hammer-thrillers. I loved Sarah Jane Smith! I played Doctor Who out in the woods behind our house.  I also read a lot, but the only books you could get on DW at that time were a dozen adaptations of Target novels  published from about 1978 by the American company Pinnacle Books (introduced by fan Harlan Ellison, no less, although his intro was mostly a diatribe against Star Trek, and praise for Doctor Who as being ‘intellectual science fiction.’) Some of the books baffled me, because at the time I didn’t realize, for example,  that Colony in Space was a Jon Pertwee episode, and the American novelisation described the Doctor physically as Tom Baker, but left in Pertwee-flavoured dialogue. And who was this Jo?

        The early 1980s was a boom-time in the US for Doctor Who and other British ‘cult shows’ such as The Prisoner and Blake’s 7 especially as it became wildly popular among university-aged fans – the 1983 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors, was actually shown on PBS in the States before it aired in the UK! Much of this was because of the strong underground following that the Tom Baker episodes had gained over the years, but also because his successor, Peter Davison, was known to PBS viewers by this point thanks to reruns of All Creatures Great and Small. Suddenly, there were new Doctor Who episodes on Channel 12! And new companions! And, hang on, what’s this, what do you mean, the Doctor is ‘regenerating’? And changing into Tristan Farnon? I’d already been traumatized at age 12 when I saw Hand of Fear and the Doctor had ditched Sarah, because how can that happen, and wait, what, you’re telling me now that this show has been running for twenty years?! And five people have played the Doctor? Oh, my giddy aunt.

        Ah, the days before internet, when communication and sharing culture across the Pond was much slower and more challenging. Those fans who complain now that they have to wait five or six hours to see the latest episode of Doctor Who on BBC America, well, listen to grandma here – for a while, the US broadcasts were three years or so behind the UK. And then after a while, PBS could no longer to afford to screen any episodes at all, as the BBC was asking too much money for licensing (if you wondered why Fox stepped into the breach in 1996).

        And while I was excited, and fascinated, to read Peter Haining’s book Celebration: Twenty Years Inside the Tardis, I was even more intrigued by the first real academic book published on Doctor Who, Tulloch’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (1984). There was a heck of a lot more to this show than Haining’s (and John Nathan-Turner’s various commissioned) money-spinners and  the millions of REAL Target novelisations that were suddenly showing up in the nearest college and university bookstores…

        I’ve never been a big reader of the magazines, like Doctor Who Monthly and other fine publications of that type (they were difficult to find when I was the target age, and we don’t have the British tradition of Annuals). Puff such as Confidential has never interested me, either. But I have been keen on history since I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed over the years the behind the scenes books, the Handbooks by Stammers et al., and various episode guides. The About Time series filled a gap, and of course, more and more academic studies of Doctor Who are popping up all the time.

        I consulted a number of those books for my essay here on Doctor Who and the episode on the Romans. This includes my pile of the old ones that I refused to part with despite moving across the States several times over the past 25 years, hundreds if not thousands of miles at a time, and across the Atlantic to resettle here in the UK. And of course, with the renewed interest in the show from 2004, there are loads of books floating around out there now, especially with the fiftieth anniversary coming up – which meant when I had to re-buy long-since out of print books for reference, Amazon had jacked up 1p books into the stratosphere (shakes fist!). Of course, it also makes me additionally more smug to have my pristine copy of the Handbook: The Second Doctor close at hand on my bookshelf. Have you seen the price on that one?

        When I was working on my essay, however, I started to think, ‘Hmmm…lots of quotes  from people who worked on the show and a lot of production trivia…where did these quotes and  tidbits originally come from?’ A partial answer to that line of inquiry is, of course, interviews from the various incarnations of Doctor Who-related magazines and fanzines. Some of the other stuff came from publicity material and official releases from the BBC, as might be found in Haining’s general-purpose histories, or from contemporary newspaper cuttings. Tulloch’s book got me thinking, though – included in The Unfolding Text is intriguing information about the beginnings of the show, for example, Sidney Newman’s determination that the show be educational as well as entertaining and references specifically to The Romans that it was to be written as a farce. And I’ve seen this type of general statements repeated and re-referenced in a number of these books, whether officially sanctioned by the BBC, or written as unauthorized histories (as the About Time series notes in headers and footers of every page of its seven volumes) – sometimes verbatim and uncredited.

        As someone who studies about and writes on ancient and medieval history, I make use of archives quite a bit – it’s one thing to read about Beowulf, it’s another to look at carefully annotated and transcribed editions of the poem, and it’s still another thing altogether actually to hold the manuscript in your hands (which I’ve been very privileged to do, I have to say!) The same holds true for illuminated manuscripts – you know the ones: the words on the page are nowhere near as interesting as the amazing illustrations that fill the margins. I’d seen these beautiful pages reproduced in books for years, all through my schooling and undergraduate days. Ok, fine, yeah, here’s another carpet page from the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. Nice. I get it.

        But I didn’t. Not at all. There is no substitute for seeing or investigating the original source. None.

        The first time I saw illuminated manuscripts ‘for real’ was when I was in graduate school, working on my master’s degree, and I had a chance to come over to London to take a workshop on medieval handwriting at the British Library, then a part of the British Museum. The lecturer took us down to the little room in the Museum where the illuminated manuscripts were kept on public display (it’s a small room just off Gallery 2, for completists). While the room was dimly lit to protect the fragile parchment, small lights were placed in the cases so that the manuscripts could be seen – and in that shadowy room, those tiny rays of light bounced off the gold ink that was used to bling up these documents. Gold does not lay flat like other inks and pigments. It is faceted. It bubbles up. It had a rough surface. Therefore, when you shine a pinspot on an illuminated manuscript, it glitters as if dusted by fireflies. Walking into that room was no different than looking out over the sea on a sunny day, and seeing millions of tiny sparkles coming off the waves as the light bounces off the moving water. That manuscript room twinkled and shone like Aladdin’s cave as we walked into it.

        There is no substitute for seeing or investigating the original source. None.

        So, coming back to my work this summer on Doctor Who – I thought, ‘All of these quotations and sound bites on the show’s origins, and all this stuff about Derek Francis (Nero) and how The Romans was filmed – where did it come from? How many times have these stories and tidbits been repackaged and passed along? The texts quote interviews, but as found in other magazines and books. What’s the original source? Where are the original sources? Does…the BBC have an archive?’

        Of course it does – a little searching on the main BBC website produced the information I needed to contact the Written Archive, NOT where they keep all the props! The Archive is very strict about who can access it, and this is not unusual. I have never been in an Archive where any member of the public can bounce in and ask for Beowulf. Most require a formal application; many require letters of reference from someone of professional standing who can attest that you won’t come in there like and run rampant through fragile documents like a wounded wildebeest.

        The BBC Written Archive requires a description of your project, and you must have academic credentials. So, yes, you have to be ‘a doctor’ to access the Doctor! But do keep in mind that students can access the Archive; there were two students there the day I was there.


Carey Fleiner
Doctor Who: Adventures in the BBC Written Archives

How many times have these stories been repackaged and passed along? The texts quote interviews, but as found in magazines and books. Where are the original sources? Does… the BBC have an archive?