01 February, 2015

Fan Memories: Audiotape Recordings

It seems a ridiculously antiquated thing to do now, but there was a time when I recorded episodes of Doctor Who as they were broadcast on television. Not on DVD-R or even VHS, but on C60 audio cassettes.

In the 1980s when I was a teenager, our family didn't have a video recorder. We didn't have a colour television until 1985. These were expensive luxuries - or at least my parents considered them so.

I can pin-point the day I started making audio recordings of Doctor Who: 25 April 1983, the day that Part Three of Four to Doomsday screened in New Zealand. 

It started with wanting to make a recording of the theme music. Having worked out how to set up the stereo and microphone in front of the television in the living room to do this, it occurred to me that I may as well record the entire episode.

Lacking a microphone stand to point the microphone horizontally at the television speaker, I constructed a rudimentary cradle using my younger brother's Duplo blocks. 

I begged my family to remain quiet for the duration of the recording, so as to avoid capturing unwanted background noise. I was so anxious about getting the recording right that I often forgot to properly focus on watching the episodes.

As I only had a handful number of reuseable C60 audio cassettes and could only fit two episodes to a tape (one on each side), I was selective about which stories I recorded. If I had the novelisation, I didn't bother making a recording, so for example I skipped Time-Flight. When I acquired a new novelisation, I'd reuse the tapes for that story.

I made good use of the recording of Black Orchid. I listened to the audio of that story so many times. Rewatching the story years later, I realised that I could recite the dialogue from memory. I transcribed the audio and turned this into a novelisation, typed up and bound as a Target-sized book for my own personal collection. It sat on my bookshelves slotted between The Visitation and EarthshockSadly I no longer have this: when the 'proper' adaption arrived in 1987, I promptly binned my inferior version, ashamed of an achievement I'd been immensely proud of just a few years earlier. 

The very last story I recorded on audiotape was The Ambassadors of Death, in July 1985. Around the time of the broadcast of that story my family finally replaced our old black and white television with a brand new colour set. I eagerly looked forward to watching Doctor Who on our new television, but The Ambassadors of Death was broadcast in black and white - oh the irony! The first episode I saw in glorious colour was therefore Episode 1 of Inferno

I was still a few years away from acquiring my first video recorder, but it was at that point that I stopped making audio recordings. I'm not entirely sure why I stopped, but I suspect it had a lot to do with owning most stories beyond this point as novelisations. My priorities had changed too, Doctor Who wasn't quite the all-consuming interest it had been and I'd become more interested in recording songs off the radio than television programmes. 

When I later got involved in Doctor Who fandom, I was fascinated to learn that I hadn't been alone in making off-air audio recordings. This was, I discovered, a common fan activity that dated right back to the beginning of the series. Indeed it is entirely due to these fan recordings, that audio copies survive of every missing episode. 

  • For more on the subject of fans recording Doctor Who episodes on audio, I recommend 'Love Off-Air' a feature on Disc One of the DVD Doctor Who: The Invasion.