Monday, November 26, 2012

The Tape Traders: Those Were The Days!

In 2010 we saw the release of the Cybermen Box Set that included both Revenge of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis. One of the specials that I was really looking forward to was an extra produced and directed by Ed Stradling called Cheques, Lies and Videotape. This feature focused on how fans had to seek out hard-to-find Doctor Who episodes at a time when old episodes were not shown in the UK nor were episodes available on video to purchase. Fans had to find other ways to meet their needs and soon an underground movement began where fans could get videos via the pirate video circuit but in some cases they would have to pay for it. I really found this an interesting subject because you see, I was doing the same thing but in the US. In the late 1980s, I became a tape-trader.

I look at my article as an unofficial addendum to Ed Stradling’s superb documentary except from a US perspective. I actually think the US angle is a little more interesting but I understand for a multitude of reasons why this angle was not pursued in the actual documentary. Ever since that documentary came out, I wanted to tell my story as for myself it became a hobby and a way to meet people from all around the US as well as Canada, Australia and of course the UK. I took tape-trading very seriously and in my journey I found that I was not the only one. Once you are finished reading both parts to this article, you may think I took it way to seriously.
I consider this my sister article to the one I did last year about missing episodes titled Missing You! My Experience with the Missing Episodes of Doctor Who. That was a reflection of my own thoughts and theories about the missing episodes of Doctor Who. I apologise upfront for this article because I know it will come across as self-indulgent, possibly very smug and probably dry. There will be a tiny group of people who will appreciate this article as they lived it in the 1980s as I did. My only regret is that I started my tape-trading later than a lot of other people. It was a fun time. Tape-trading is simple. You have something that someone else wants on VHS and you arrange a trade for it. This trade would take the shape of blank tapes or trading for some program that maybe I would want. Obviously money could be a part of it but that is not tape-trading but selling. I am not going to go into the ethics of copyright or the rights and wrongs of doing this. Trading tapes as I did, there is no excuse for trading copyrighted materials and I know that. I cannot defend myself for doing it. If that is something you morally/ethically object to, it is probably best to read no further.

Throughout this article, please click on Youtube links to see the poor quality we put up with. Here is my original camera copy for The Wheel in Space Episode 3

As I mentioned before, I started watching Doctor Who in the mid-1980s on the public television station KTCA. It was shown in movie version and we generally got the Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories. In 1985 we got the Jon Pertwee package of episodes. To this point, we were still seeing all the stories in full (albeit without Planet of the Daleks: Episode Three and Invasion of the Dinosaurs Part One) but some of the stories were in black & white. In 1986, we started to get the Hartnell and Troughton stories which was when we started to see that not all the episodes existed. To be honest, at my young age I didn’t realize that the stories were episodic. I know I sound pathetically naïve but I never really collected anything that would tell me otherwise. So, if KTCA didn’t show The Reign of Terror, I had no idea any of the episodes existed, I thought they were all gone. Eventually I realised that a story was made up from anywhere of 2-6 episodes (or more) thanks to Jean Marc Lofficier’s Program Guide. Still, what I saw on KTCA is all I thought existed for Doctor Who. In July of 1988, my mind would be blown.
I dipped my toe into the fandom pool in 1988 as I decided to go to my first 3-day Doctor Who convention called Time Festival. I had been a member of a local Doctor Who fan club called The Whoniversity since 1986. I saw The Whoniversity was heavily involved with Time Festival and I really wanted to go. It was a hugely magical time for me as the idea of getting together with like-minded people getting together to talk about Doctor Who was appealing. Like many young fans that get into the series, going to the first event where you can speak openly about your love of Doctor Who, I probably was overly enthusiastic. Everything was new to me. The idea of people dressing in costumes, props, seeing Jon Pertwee, Fraser Hines and Janet Fielding, and so much more. Weird things such as an Eric Hoffman panel titled, A Twisted Garden of Pertwee or something like that. I also thought about going to a panel about the Peter Davison era but I went to the room only to find a couple sitting in the corner making out. It was after seeing that panel was going nowhere, at least for me, I walked past the video room. I poked my head in to see Miss Hawthorne be rescued by Sgt. Benton. Obviously it was The Dæmons. I had seen it a few times on KTCA but it was different this time. It was in color. For whatever reason, I didn’t stick around. My problem at conventions and still to this day is that I can’t stay in one place. I have to wander so I can meet people but I knew I needed to keep my eye on that video room. Going back to it later, I saw Shada. WTF! I knew that parts of it existed but this was put together in an episodic format. Finally, on Sunday morning I stopped in to see the final moments of something I wanted to see for many, many years. The final moments of The Tenth Planet Episode 3. For some reason seeing The Dæmons or even Shada didn’t faze me but seeing The Tenth Planet told me two things: 1.) More orphan episodes are available than I ever thought and 2.) I can get my hands on these. Suddenly, everything changed.

A shot from the NTSC recording of The Dæmons.
After Time Festival, The Whoniversity organizationally changed. I went to one of their meetings in a park and I made it very known that I was looking for these orphaned episodes or anything new. It’s funny because on reflection, I hate people like that and I have dealt with many of them over the years. One of the guys there who would go on to be one of my greatest friends Roger offered me a copy of Season 24. It hadn’t aired over here yet so it was pretty cool. There was one guy in town that was getting all the cool video stuff. He had the rare episodes and he was getting all the new stuff from people he knew. It was still a few generations down from the originals but he was the only one getting this stuff. The problem was is that he generally wouldn’t trade unless you had something he wanted. A bad habit I eventually picked up. He was getting new stuff from other people all the time in the US. Ultimately, I don’t think he was too far off from the man who was selling videos in Cheques, Lies and Videotape. My “friend’ was getting out of the Doctor Who fandom thing and was selling off his collection. The Whoniversity made a deal with him. They would put ads in the newsletter for free so he could sell his stuff if he provided videos for the Whoniversity parties. The first party was at the Lowry library in November of 1988 and we showed Remembrance of the Daleks. It was success and the quality of the video wasn’t that bad. At that party, someone who I never met before was kind enough to lend me his tapes of all the orphan episodes of the 1960s. He didn’t know me but another friend vouched for me. I was so happy to have this stuff; it was Doctor Who I had never seen before and opened my mind to what was available. Not only did I see all of these episodes I never thought I would see because they weren’t on KTCA but I also saw for the first time the unaired pilot. I had no idea that existed! That night, after the Whoniversity party which in itself was a whirl-wind of excitement, I got home and watched in my basement The Invasion. I couldn’t believe it but why was the picture flickering?

The first thing I ever got before it aired on KTCA, Paradise Towers. But at what cost?

Being naïve, I figured that a videotape in the US is the same as a videotape in the UK. I assumed if they sent us something, we could play it. I guess more accurately, it never crossed my mind that there were 2 different broadcast systems which were NTSC and PAL. There were two ways of getting episodes over here in the US at that time, converting episodes from PAL to NTSC or making a camera copy. A camera copy is what it sounds like. Someone, whether it is in the UK or the US, has the PAL tape with the episode playing it from a PAL TV at which point someone with an NTSC camcorder (at the time analogue) would point it at the screen and record it. Because the frame rates were different between the PAL tapes and the NTSC camera the recording would have a flicker to it. The flicker is profound. It hurts after a while. That’s what all these episodes were; camera copies. Not only were they camera copies but multiple generations from the original recording. It could have been worse than that. The tapes that were used as the source of the camera copies could have been down multiple generations before any camera was even pointed at it. On top of that, the camera copies were many generations down too. Please do not think me ungrateful. I still have these tapes today. They mean everything to me. Why did someone not just make a conversion of the PAL tape to an NTSC tape? It was extraordinarily expensive to do. There were people who had the equipment but that was the challenge; the challenge was for me to get copies of these episodes as converted versions and not camera copies. Unfortunately, I am hugely competitive with stuff. Remember my “friend” who had a ton of stuff but didn’t share very often, in a way I wanted to be him.

In this video, one of the flickering blobs is actually William Hartnell! Ah camera copies!

When I say be like him, I meant more in a collector sort of way. I wanted to have a collection of videos. I wanted to watch stuff that wasn’t readily available. What I didn’t want was the ethics of my “friend”. I wanted to collect Doctor Who episodically but in the Twin Cities only movie version was being shown. My “friend” (this is the loosest possible definition of the word) told me he knew someone who had all the stories in episodic format. My “friend” was kind enough to offer up being an intermediary between myself and this other person. My “friend” told me this other person was pretty reasonable with his pricing and would charge only about $12/tape but I would need to go through my “friend” to get the super price. Even at 14 I knew this was crap and I was eventually connected with this guy who had the episodic stories and spoke to him myself. Unlike my “friend” who I don’t dare name and who was not actually a friend, this guy who had the episodic stories became a friend and someone who I still call a friend to this day. His name is Mike. Mike took pity on this poor 14 year old kid who wanted not only the stories episodically but wanted them in SP. Mike’s collection was in EP (or back in those days SLP). This meant that Mike had to do extra work to make sure that all the right episodes were on the right tapes. This was a colossal undertaking. I appreciated it at the time but I doubt I appreciated the effort that was put into it. I always got the feeling that his collection was my collection. Nothing was out of bounds to be requested. If I wanted a copy of his Shada, he would always be kind of enough to make a copy of his Shada. His philosophy was to share and I will admit that I don’t always follow that rule but with reasons I will go into later. I was able to get many of the orphaned (or as we called it back then “archive”) episodes from him converted i.e. not a camera copy. In MN, both Mike another mutual friend Peter really helped me out when I got into tape trading. They both have been incredibly kind with their collections to get me started out. Thank you both! I know Mike will be reading this. Thank you Mike!
I don’t know about anyone who was into tape trading back in the day but for me the type of tape and how the label looked were extremely important to me. I think because of my friends back in the day, the tape of choice for me was always the black box Scotch tape. I was so particular about it. After all, I figured that I would never replace these tapes with any other kind of media so I better get it right. Someone once gave me a couple of their tapes of off-air episodes of the Nickelodeon re-runs for The Tomorrow People. The labels were done on a typewriter. I fell in love with the idea especially as my own handwriting is atrocious. It made these things look professional. Anyone who ever made copies of stuff for me knows that when I provided tapes, there was always a typewritten (or later printed label) on them. I probably took all of this a little too seriously? Plus on top of that, I never trusted a T-160 thinking that tape on them was too thin. So I broke up all of the 6 or 7 part stories over 2 T-120s. I remember when I gave tapes to Mike to record all of season 1 episodically for me, my mom bought me a 10 pack of Scotch tapes and I couldn’t get over the excitement of opening these tapes and preparing the labels. The Scotch tapes had this aroma when you took off the cellophane wrapper. It was marvelous! I gave all of these tapes to Mike at Polaris Con in 1989 and the poor guy had to take them all back to Sartel to dub for me! Plus, he never, ever charged shipping to send them back to me!

This poor clip has nothing going for it. Blurry, hissy and even unfinished. SHADA!!!!

From the master tape of the original Ian
Levine Shada
Mike was kind enough to bring me stuff that I was showing in the Whoniversity video room that weekend. One item that was insanely popular was Shada. This was the Ian Levine version that had the text for the scenes that didn’t exist. We publicized at the convention we were going to show it. We probably had about 30 to 40 people in the hotel room we showed it in. It was crazy and a lot of fun to watch as people enjoyed seeing something they never seen before. It was at this convention I started to meet other people from places other than MN to get copies of stuff. It was here that I met someone by the name of Gordon from Chicago. I don’t remember his last name but he had an incredible collection of material. He was the first person I ever ran into that actually had his collection in PAL even though he lived in the US. He sent me his list. This was where I knew I needed to make a list of my growing collection. I realized quickly that you needed that so people could easily see what you have. What may not be a big deal to you and you would never mention could be a huge deal to someone else. Gordon’s list was nothing but series after series of British programs I had only heard of and never seen. It was an epiphany! Wonderful programs like Survivors, Doomwatch, Blake’s 7, and so much more. Did he live in the BBC archive? He had everything! This was pre-UK Gold and all of these were in PAL. It would list the format and the quality and everything is basically excellent quality. Gordon helped me out a lot. In the past I got Season 24 as a very ropey 8th gen copy. Season 25 came from my “friend” it was better than the quality of Season 24. Gordon was getting off-air copies of Season 26 from the UK. The tapes would be sent from the UK to Chicago. He would make a conversion of the stories and send them to me. For example, I got Battlefield less than a week after Part Four aired. Now a days it seems like a long time but anyone who was around during this period knows this was amazing. We would show these at the Whoniversity parties and the quality was better than anything we ever saw before. Gordon was very kind with the new stuff. He was more difficult with the rarer stuff. I remember calling him up and asked him if I could get a copy of something from him. I will never forget his reaction. His voice was very leery of me as he asked what I wanted. When I told him I would like copies of Season 22 from him in the original 45 minute episode format, he was relieved. He thought that I was going to ask for some of the orphaned episodes that were hard to get in good quality and he had all of them in amazing quality. He told me how hard he worked to get contacts that would give him high quality episodes so he was very careful who he gave copies too. I appreciated this and never forgot it either as eventually I saw his point. I sent him some tapes for The Two Doctors. Because I was so anal about the Scotch tapes and having anything longer than 120 minutes for episodes to be put on, I got even more obsessive. I wrote 3M, who made Scotch tapes, and bought T-60s from them. One of them I used to put Part One of The Two Doctors on so I could put the other 2 episodes on a T-120. I know it is really obsessive. I am sure Gordon had enough of me as after I sent him the tapes, I never heard from him again.
A page from Gordon's amazing list from 1989
VHS tape I bought at Visions
In my youth, I travelled to conventions all around the country with other friends from the Whoniversity. We met a ton of people and I met a lot more people who were into trading videos like me. A great place to meet people who were into trading was at Visions in Chicago.  There I met people from New Mexico, LA, Michigan, Orlando, and the UK. Often the Whoniversity would do video rooms at these conventions which I would program so people would come up to me and we would do trades. Sometimes I would actually buy a tape to see if it was better quality than what I had. My sole mission has always been (and still is) to get episodes at the best quality. That is a point of tape-trading is to continually upgrade the quality of what you have.  I will not be happy until I have episodes that are the same quality of the master tape. At Visions one year, I bought in the dealers room a VHS, Doctor Who: Lost Episodes & Rare Clips Reel Vol.1. It had a lot of stuff on it including the :30 clip of Galaxy 4: Four Hundred Dawns and the colour clip to The Mind of Evil Episode 6. It looked great. Probably the oddest buying venture for me was an ad I received for a place out of Chicago called Brit TV. They had a huge amount of material that they were selling $20/tape. I got on the phone with them and asked about the quality which they said was the best I will find anywhere. I asked them if the BBC knew they were selling these tapes. Their response was surprisingly yes! The BBC were trying out a new sales model of selling these episodes and they gave permission to Brit TV to sell the incomplete stories of Doctor Who. Now at that point, episodes being released on BBC video did not include any incomplete stories so it was feasible but even at 16, I wasn’t completely stupid, just mostly stupid. Even I knew that the BBC would never do something like that but the lure of getting better quality episodes were too much for me. I always wanted to have the best so I bought a copy of The Reign of Terror episodes 1,2,3,6. At that time Episodes 1,2,3 looked horrible no matter who you got it from but I got my tape and my jaw dropped. It was the best I had ever seen of these episodes!  Perhaps, just a coincidence that the type of converter used on these episodes looked very much like the type my friend Gordon (from Chicago) used. I didn’t buy anything else from them because I knew this could get very expensive very fast for something that wasn’t official. I knew I could find people I could trade with that I could get the best quality episodes out there. Soon, I would be right.

A burnt-in timecode wasn't the issue with this gem!

Next week: The second part of my article. As the Internet became accessible to more people, would that help or hurt your intrepid tape-trader? Why could someone be lucky working for a FOX affiliate in 1996? Why do I love Slates (aka VT Clocks) so much and can tape-trading strain friendships? If you have questions about my time tape-trading, let me know!
Don't forget: I am giving away 2 copies of each Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos Special Edition and Doctor Who Series 7 Part One. Both R1 DVD courtesy of BBC Home Entertainment. To enter for your chance to win, please check this out: Doctor Who DVD Giveaway!

Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I now have a regular column on DVDTalk called Brit-Streaming. Please check it out here: Brit-Streaming.

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.


Dave G said...

Memories of the good old days of the Whoniversity. TimeFest, Lowry Ave library, Southdale library - good times, great people, even the occasional whacko wondering if we ever looked into mind control. As far as your "friend", I have a funny feeling I know exactly who you are talking about.

I look forward to part 2!

Robert Saint John said...

What a great post! Just FYI, you said:

"There were two ways of getting episodes over here in the US at that time..."

Actually, there was a third way, and it was probably the origin of many of these tapes. Back in 1983, our local Doctor Who group actually sent a NTSC VCR to some electronics company in Florida, and they installed a switchable NTSC/PAL converter. IIRC, it was nearly $800, as much as the VCR itself in 1983! But it was worth it. We'd get 1st or 2nd generation tapes straight from the UK, shortly after airing. And it provided a mechanism to make new NTSC tapes for friends outside our local group. I don't think that was quite the end of camera copies for us (I seem to recall seeing "The Ice Warriors" for the first time as a CC as late as '89), but it certainly changed our world for those last few years of annual DW viewings.

GloriaFan said...

Lovely article! I find the topic of fandom during the original run very interesting, and episode circulation doubly so. Can't wait for the next part.

Greg said...

Dave G: I remember vividly when you and I met at Lowry library in 1988. Remembrance of the Daleks. Fun, fun, fun times!

Robert Saint John: The NTSC/PAL switchable converter sounds familiar. I remember my first camera copy of The Ice Warriors in 1990. It had the burnt-in time code and other information. The person doing the camera copy zoomed in to get rid of that information which made everything super zoomed in. I think I got my first converted copy of the story from New Mexico in November of 1990.

GloriaFan: Thank you for the kind words. Episode circulation is a favourite topic of mine too. There are some crazy stories out there. Thank you for reading my blog!

Take care,

Mike R. said...

Just to chime in along with everyone else. Well done! What a great trip down memory lane. It brought back lots of great memories, and the YouTube clips of the camera copies was fantastic. I too, remember being the loud obnoxious fan in 1987 standing up and asking if anyone had Who tapes to trade. That particular stunt landed me in Pete D's hands that night. ;)

It's hard to believe we ever got connected back in "the day" what with the Internet making it all orders of magnitude easier today.

Thanks, Greg!

Anonymous said...

My God, I have that same VHS tape from Visions. The "Variations on a Theme" videos made a huge impact on me, and I remember watching Evil:2 for the first time and instantly, immediately understanding why so many British fans were calling that serial the "best ever".

I had a copy of the whole PBS run in movie format, sans Planet:3 and Dinosaurs:1. I would make copies for people and do things like frame-accurate dropping the color footage in when copying Mind of Evil.

It's funny. I look back on those nth-generation copies now that I have the Lost in Time set and think "How did I manage to watch this?" But the answer is always the same. There was something about staring through the sparkles and flicker. Somehow it only emphasized the feeling that I was watching something special.

Those were the days!

Greg said...

Hi Captain18,

That tape from Visions really was a sort of landmark tape. So much on it and although a bootleg well worth the price.

In terms of getting episodes, my desire was to have all episodic versions of stories on VHS and all the movie versions on Beta. I had just acquired a Beta machine cheap and I wanted to make use of it. Only the movie versions were shown in our market at the time while I needed to find the episodics somewhere else. I eventually bought off a collection of movie version off-air recordings from someone who needed the money. I still have those and am converting those to DVD for nostalgia sake.

I did the same sort of thing you did with The Mind of Evil which was to drop in the colour bits into the B&W Episode 6. I also did the same with Evil of the Daleks Episode 2 because part of the opening credits were missing and I replaced them. I don't know how my younger self would have coped with the knowledge of how easy all that is now with computer video editing.

Take care,