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That time when Doctor Who educated Ontario

Posted by Ed Conroy / September 2, 2012

Doctor WhoYouthful 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



Graeme Burk / September 2, 2012 at 07:12 am
This is a sensational piece, and I salute you for finding some Jim Dator outros-- I have wanted to see these since again. They're exactly what I remember from when I was 7!

But your piece isn't quite accurate. The existence of Dator and Merrill wasn't just because they needed to justify having some expensive entertainment, but rather at the time at OECA, everything had to rigidly demonstrate educational value and the achievement of educational goals, even its entertainment programs. They actually had to have a curriculum in other words.

Elwy Yost's film shows, as you say, does that. But when TVO showed The Prisoner around the same time as Doctor Who, it not only had similar intros and outros discussing it (and ended the run with an interview with Patrick McGoohan), it also had an actual proper curriculum guide to it, which discussed different aspects of the series, that viewers could order.

Never mind that. I know that TVO has little-to-none of its intro and outros for Doctor Who. So I'm really deeply impressed that these outros were out there for Dator. (I would have loved to have seen the intro, which had the stock opening where Dator goes to a phone booth, steps inside and winds up inside an office-- a demonstration of how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside!) The Merrill ones are more plentiful; this is the first time I've seen Dator ones at all ever!
BH / September 2, 2012 at 09:23 am
Great find! Even though I had grown up in the late 70s/early 80s I had all but forgotten Dator and "un-doctor" Merril. Seeing their clips brought back some great memories.

Yes, even with the cheap special effects Dr. Who was a great show. Great imagination on the part of the writers and perfect casting of Pertwee and Baker. Classic.
W. K. Lis / September 2, 2012 at 10:04 am
Remember the Literature classes in school. Where us students had to explain the who, what, when, and why about a chapter in a book we were reading in the classroom. It was generally in the same vein with TVO's shows at that time. They were "Literature" on film. Please discuss and hand in by the end of the week.
Travis / September 2, 2012 at 05:18 pm
What's amazing, Ed is that the intro post PDD you have posted would have been from the ONLY time TVO aired "Talons". Future screenings were prevented due to the complaints of viewers citing it as racist! Wow, what a find!
Andy Lehrer / September 4, 2012 at 12:25 am
Wow! As it happens, Planet of the Spiders on TVO with these very Dr. Dator extros - was the very first Doctor Who I ever watched. It was Judith Merril who I became more familiar with. A real shame her Doctor Who commentaries were wiped; hopefully more will turn up!
Graeme Burk / September 4, 2012 at 09:35 am
Travis: not quite right. TVO referred Talons of Weng-Chiang to a Chinese Canadian citizens group when it came time to air Talons in 1980 and based on their feedback didn't broadcast it in the first run of Season 14. They did however put it in the summer repeat season in 1982 (I think). Odd that they would do that; I can only surmise that either a) viewer feedback from fans (and there was some at the time) trumped their concerns and b) it was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand did.
Graeme Burk / September 4, 2012 at 09:53 am
Further to my comment at the start about TVO's need to create a curriculum, they also created a "resource handbook" for their 1976 season of Who episodes. You can see it here:
Jon Preddle / September 4, 2012 at 05:52 pm
According to our research, there is NO indication that "Talons..." ever aired on TVO. The Polka Dot Door has a (c) date of 1981, and the only summer repeats that year were of Season 12 serials, and in 1982 it was season 13 and the first two serials of season 14. One possibility is that this screening of "Talons..." (and the rest of season 14?) was on a day other than the usual Saturday and Thursday slots that DW usually occupied?
Travis / September 5, 2012 at 10:04 am
@Jon - Keep in mind, that just because the PDD copyright date is 1981, doesn't mean that episode actually aired THAT year.

However . . . based on @Graeme's suggestions, it seems like this must of re-aired at some point post winter, 1980, correct?
Jon Preddle / September 5, 2012 at 11:27 pm
One need to track down TV Guides or newspapers for that period to ascertain what day/s of the week and time slot PDD aired...
Jon Preddle / September 6, 2012 at 01:16 am
Courtesy of The Ottawa Citizen online archive (at PDD aired weekdays at 6.00-6.30pm. DW aired Thursdays at 7.00pm. Since DW didn't follow directly on from PDD, it's not unreasonable to consider that the Talons clip above might not be from a TVO screening...

A quick scan of random editions in summer 1981, 1982 and 1983 supports what we have recorded in BroaDWcast as screening on those dates.
Graeme Burk replying to a comment from Jon Preddle / September 7, 2012 at 07:18 am
What an interesting little mystery we have here.

Of course the minute you mentioned the timeslots I knew you were right. PDD aired always at 6 and Doctor Who at 7. There was always a half-hour of programming between the two, like Jeremy or Tales of the Green Forest or Doctor Snuggles-- as TVO transitioned out of young kids programming to family fare like Who (and other weekday at 7 shows) and then Magic Shadows.

I guess there's 3 possibilities:

1) The clip is deliberately fabricated to replicate a TVO watching experience, eliding certain details
2) If the off air video is exactly like this, then it's two separate things taped (the PDD outro and TVO interstitial and then an ep of Doctor Who from PBS?)
3) There is some week where against all common sense and research, TVO showed Talons a half hour early at some point!

Given the body of research showing a) PDD and Doctor Who never had adjacent timeslots and b) TVO never showed Talons, I'm going to presume 1) or 2).

(Jon Preddle, by the way, is the man behind BroaDWcast, a website which researches when Doctor Who aired in every country/region the show was distributed to. The TVO section is very detailed and well-researched.)
Tiffiny / January 27, 2013 at 07:55 am
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Brian / November 23, 2013 at 09:03 am
I don't ever recall us running DW at 6:30 after PDD. There was always a buffer and transition of some kind. (Loved hearing John's Net Cue here again BTW). Anyone from programming in those days around here? Anyone? Of course, as Travis mentioned, the logo/copyright date on PDD has no timeline verification at all.
Janice replying to a comment from Jon Preddle / November 23, 2013 at 08:54 pm
Jon, the last clip in this article proves you wrong. Check it out.
Chris / August 21, 2014 at 09:47 pm
Doctor Who used to air after The Ghosts of Motley Hall on Saturday evenings and I believe either before or after Magic Shadows on Thursday evenings. I also remember Elwy Yost broadcasting the Peter Cushing movie of Doctor Who and The Daleks on Magic Shadows, which although it was a spinoff of the canon series, it was the first time I saw a pre Jon Pertwee story of Doctor Who. ;-)
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