Do you remember when you first discovered Doctor Who? For me, it was a sunny summer morning in the late 70s. My dad had dragged me to his girlfriend’s house in the country for the weekend. I woke up early and was alone in the house with nothing to do. I grabbed the TV listings and ran across this weird listing for a show I’d never heard of. What kind of name is “Doctor Who”? Bored, I turned on the TV expecting to be disappointed. Instead, I discovered what would become one of my all-time favorite shows.

I don’t remember who that first doctor was that I saw that morning. It was a black and white episode so it must have been a rerun of one of the first three doctors. The acting wasn’t great and the “monster” was a ridiculous prop that I could have made myself for a couple of bucks. But something about the show immediately captivated me. Anyone who is a fan of the show knows what I’m talking about.

Over the years I caught episodes very sporadically. I think I’ve seen all the Tom Baker episodes but I’ve only seen a smattering of the others. Even the new episodes escaped my attention until recently. Somehow, seasons went by before I even knew that they were being made again. Once I did hear, I somehow assumed that they were just an American version trying to cash in on the name and didn’t pay any attention. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally starting watching the new episodes and kicked myself for waiting so long. They are every bit as good as the earlier ones. Thanks to my DVR, I think I’ve seen all the new ones now.

Collecting Early Episodes

I decided that I wanted to start building a collection of the early episodes. There were certainly quite a few that I hadn’t seen so I was a bit excited to gather them all up.

Naturally, I went to Amazon expecting to see episodes bundled by season just waiting for my credit card. Boy was I in for a shock. The new episodes were bundled up like that but the older ones were not. Each story was sold separately and contained between one and thirteen segments, with the prices varying accordingly. A great many stories were available but I quickly began to suspect that more than a few were missing. Sadly, it was much worse than I suspected.

Lost Forever

Apparently, the BBC at one time had a policy of reusing film. Many episodes were lost before the policy changed. To make matters worse, a great many others were lost to improper storage or otherwise destroyed.

Other studios, who had purchased episodes to air on their own networks, were kind enough to supply copies to replace some of these. Private collectors were able to supply even more.

But the damage was done. Many episodes are lost forever with little hope of copies ever being found.

What I Did Find

Like many Doctor Who fans, Tom Baker is my favorite. Fortunately, all of his episodes still exist. Presumably due to his greater popularity, all of these have been put on DVD (I wasn’t able to find any classic Doctor Who episodes on BluRay). With only a few exceptions, all episodes with other classic doctors are only available on VHS.

So now I have some understanding as to why not all episodes are available and an idea of what is out there. But where do I start in building my collection?

A quick search turned up a wonderful Doctor Who site with episode listings and details on doctors, seasons, and anything else you would want to know. After a little copying and pasting I had a spreadsheet with all the episodes, showing doctor, season, etc. After a bit more work, I added the current Amazon price to each entry along with format (VHS, DVD, Region).

Sure enough, every single Tom Baker episode was available on Amazon on DVD. That’s the good news. The bad news is that for these 42 story lines (178 segments), these DVDs come to a total of roughly $750. That’s way beyond what I’d be willing to spend (even if I had it) and that’s just the Tom Baker episodes.

Looks like my Doctor Who collection has come to an end before it even started <sigh>

A Digital Alternative

Amazon offers “Instant Video” streaming video (7-day rentals) and digital download (buy a digital copy) services. You can buy or rent an episode in this manner for $1.99 each. Unfortunately, when they say episode, they actually mean segment not story. The average story is around four segments long. The 178 segments, representing all the Tom Baker episodes, comes to roughly $350 (opposed to $750 for physical copies). That’s much more affordable, although still outside my range and no physical copies which makes me uncomfortable. To make it worse, not all episodes are available for download (some may only be rented) and not all episodes are available at all times (it looks like only one story arc, from each season, at a time and no idea how often these change).

They also offer a “Prime Membership” for $79 a year which seems to offer unlimited viewing but looks to me to be rentals only and has the same episode availability limitations as well.

What Have I Learned?

Don’t wait! I should have sought out episodes and watched them decades ago. I assumed that these would be around forever and that I would always have another opportunity to watch them. Now, many are gone forever and the others are unlikely to ever be aired again. Since buying them all isn’t really an option, I’ve effectively robbed myself of ever seeing the ones I’ve missed.