Doctor Who

That time when Doctor Who educated Ontario

Youthful old Sci-Fi institution Doctor Who rematerialized Saturday night on Space in an exciting adventure with the Daleks, kicking off a new season of thrilling "timey wimey" business with hipster heart-throb Matt Smith as Fez/bow-tie/funny hat wearing Doctor number eleven. This almost 50 year old TV series created by Torontonian Sydney Newman retains a truly feverish cult following in our city (witness the number of costumes it inspired at last weekend's FanExpo, fostered in no small part by its strange coupling in the 1970s and '80s with our provincially funded broadcaster TVOntario.

Christened initially as the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (behold that scary Orwellian style animated ident) and spearheaded by then Minister of Education Bill Davis, TVOntario reported to the Ontario legislature through Davis, in accordance with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority Act, and was therefore expected to produce and screen only serious, educational content, meaning shows such as Polka Dot Door, The Science Alliance, Téléfrançais and Write On! dominated the schedule.

After picking up Doctor Who in 1975, TVOntario was then tasked with the somewhat daunting challenge of justifying it as an educational program, and a costly one being footed by Ontario tax payers at that. TVO had already addressed a similar problem by using the perennially jolly Elwy Yost to engage his encyclopedic knowledge of film history to bookend to their two successful film series Magic Shadows and Saturday Night At The Movies, and so it was decided to hire someone credible to come on the air after Doctor Who and bring some semblance of "education" to the proceedings.

Conservationist and futurist Dr. James Dator hired by TVOntario's CEO Ran Ide to build awareness of a "Futures Project" and work on those serious science programs, was roped in to film these intros and outros. Dator recalls "I did lots of things for OECA while I was there but nothing nearly as popular as those last-minute Doctor Who portions, however."

When TVO acquired the Tom Baker episodes of Doctor Who in 1977, they replaced Dator with noted Speculative Fiction author Judith Merril, the "little mother of Science-Fiction" whom J.G. Ballard described as "the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men." Merril clearly relished her title here as "the Un-Doctor:"

While Dator and Merril's discussions were perhaps slightly deeper and more intellectually stimulating than what the preceding episode of Doctor Who would have offered up, it's still impossible to imagine subject matter such as species extinction, deforestation, future-phobia, etc., being publically pontificated upon after a Matt Smith-era romp. When the CRTC loosened their regulations regarding TVO's educational obligations, these post show chats were scrapped and tragically the tapes were wiped. It's a real shame TVOntario didn't hang onto Judith Merril's post shows as they would have made an amazing addition to the Toronto Public Library's Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy, which already boasts the finest collection of SF material in Canada.

On the subject of wiping tapes, this abominable practice was also sanctioned by the BBC and is the reason why a large chunk of Doctor Who episodes from the '60s and '70s are missing. Several stories from Jon Pertwee's era survive because ironically TVOntario hung onto the 2" master tapes longer than they should have, only returning them when the BBC, embarrassed at having destroyed much of their historic output, saw the error of their ways (things like Monty Python's Flying Circus only barely escaped complete destruction).

Perhaps the most lasting impression Doctor Who left on TVOntario viewers was one of outright fear: for many young people growing up in the 1970s and '80s, TVO was a trusted electronic babysitter, tacitly approved by teachers and parents alike thanks to their high grade educational output. So it was not an unusual occurrence to find the peace and serenity of Polka Dot Door violated by the sudden arrival of Delia Derbyshire's tunnel of doom a.k.a the scary Doctor Who credits.

TVOntario lost their rights to Doctor Who in 1990 when fresh upstart YTV outbid them, ending an un-interrupted and loyal fifteen year run. While it may be a global sensation now with Hollywood style yearnings mostly accepted by the cool kids, old Doctor Who was weird, occasionally frightening and thanks to TVOntario, somewhat educational.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.


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