Way back in the early part of the late 20th Century, I used to do a lot of work for the Columbia House Video Library, which sold old TV shows on VHS tapes. You’d get two hour-long episodes on each tape, so you could conveniently collect the entirety of a long-running show like Gunsmoke on approximately 318 videos.
They’d send you two tapes a month until you had the whole series, or told them to stop, or could no longer send checks because the videos were blocking the path to your front door, or you died, which was a very real possibility, since it would take about 26 years to get the whole series. This also meant if you began when VHS was first introduced, you just barely had enough time to collect all the episodes before VHS became obsolete.
I’ve often wondered about the hypothetical customer who was 298 videos into his Gunsmoke collection when the show came out on DVD.
But this post isn’t about any of that.
Every time Columbia House started offering a new TV series on video, I’d have to consult my various reference books like The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows so I could write a blurb about the show (this was before all the information in the entire universe was a Google search away). But occasionally, the client would come up with a show that was so obscure, they had to actually send me one of the videos.
And that is how, in 1997, I first came across Doctor Who.
In case you haven’t heard of this show, it’s British, and it first aired in 1963, and it’s still being produced, so you can imagine how many VHS tapes you’d need to collect that series. One of the quirks the show is known for is that, every few years, it changes the actor who plays the lead character. It’s the same character, he just looks and acts like a totally different person. It’s as if you’re in, say, the 6th season of Seinfeld and, all of the sudden, Jerry is being played by George Takei. He’s still Jerry, but he’s 17 years older, and Asian, and gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Doctor Who episode on the video Columbia House sent me was “Pyramids of Mars,” which originally aired in 1975 and featured the 4th Doctor (although I didn’t know about the multiple doctors then). I dutifully watched the tape, which was childishly ridiculous (it was about a guy who traveled through time in a phone booth), and had special effects which indicated it had been produced on a budget of about $2.97, or whatever that is in pounds.
I wrote my blurb and forgot about it. Then VHS tapes went away. Then the Columbia House Video Library went away. Then 2005 came along.
The show, which had been off the air for over a decade, was resurrected, and a cable network began showing it in America. And my daughter Casey discovered it.
Fast forward about 10 years, specifically to August 23rd, 2014. It’s a huge date in Whoville because it’s the premiere of the first episode with the 12th Doctor (if you don’t count “The War Doctor”1.) The new lead actor, Peter Capaldi, had been introduced last fall with a gala, worldwide live telecast of the type British people usually reserve for coronations.
My wife Barbara, however, had neglected to put “DR. WHO 12TH DOCTOR PREMIERE–BIGGEST EVENT IN OUR LIVES THIS YEAR INCLUDING CASEY’S WEDDING” in Outlook, so she had invited some friends over for dinner. When Casey and I reminded her, she asked our friends, whose names are Joel and Stacy, if they’d like to watch Doctor Who after dinner, to which they replied that they’d love to watch Doctor Who with us, even though Joel hadn’t seen the show since around 1978 and Stacy had never seen a single episode.
They weren’t even going to binge-watch a few seasons to try and catch up, like Barbara and I are doing with Ray Donovan, so that I’m constantly telling people who have been watching all along to shut the hell up, we’re not up to that episode yet.
That’s right: Joel and Stacy came in as stone cold as angel statues that move whenever you’re not looking at them, a statement that will make no sense to you unless you watch Doctor Who.
I figured Joel and Stacy would have absolutely no clue what was going on. I’ve seen every episode since 2005 and I often have no clue what’s going on, because in order to know what’s going on in Doctor Who, you need an encyclopedic knowledge of every character who has every appeared, every line that was ever uttered, every article of clothing that has ever been worn (especially this one friggin’ scarf); and every subplot, no matter how trivial it seemed at the time, that has ever been in a script.
Fortunately, we have Casey, who has just such knowledge. So we’ll be watching, and I’ll ask something like “Have we seen that guy before?” and she’ll reply, with an eye roll, “Oh, dad, he was in the fifth episode of the first Tennant2 season and Matt Smith3 referred to him when he was fighting the Cybermen” or some such thing, and I’ll wonder yet again why my daughter sometimes does not seem to have an actual life.
Anyway, along with the delicious fajitas Barbara had made, Casey force-fed Joel and Stacy what she deemed essential information, so that they at least knew going in that the Doctor had been young (even though he’s like 2,000 years old–Casey could tell you exactly how old, and probably his birthday), but now he was older (although not that old).
See you soon.
1) If you have to ask, you don’t want to know. 2) David Tennant, the 10th Doctor. 3) The 11th Doctor.