Update #2: Classic “Doctor Who” Time Travels Back to American TV

Update: 7/10/14  2 p.m. 

It’s time to clear off your DVRs.

Retro TV announced today that classic Doctor Who will premiere on Monday, August 4. Two episodes will air each weeknight at 8 p.m. (ET/PT), beginning with the 1963 first episode, An Unearthly Child. A “second run” will also be available on Saturday nights, as part of the newly branded Sci-Fi Saturday. 

The Saturday programming block will kick off with two installments of One Step Beyond (1959-61, ABC) at 5 p.m. (ET/PT), followed by four Who episodes starting at 6 p.m., then reruns of Mystery Science Theater 3000 at 8 p.m. Saturday night Who broadcasts will continue in order, with episodes 1-4 airing on Saturday, August 9, then 5-8 on Saturday, August 16, etc.

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Original Post – 5/29/14: 

Film Title: Dr Who.Doctor Who fans in the United States are getting a (slightly late) 50th anniversary present. And it involves jelly babies.

Starting this summer, 489 episodes from the sci-fi series’ initial, 26-season BBC run (1963-1989) will begin airing nationally on Retro TV, “the original classic programming digital network.” Owned by the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Luken Communications, Retro is currently available in more than 61 million homes in 74 U.S. television markets.

And good news for you cord-cutting Whovians: Retro TV is free. The network is available over-the-air (in many cases as a digital subchannel of a broadcast television station) with some affiliates carried by local cable providers. (You can check availability in your neck of the galaxy here.)

Unlike the contemporary BBC series, which regenerated in 2005 and currently features Peter Capaldi as the twelfth incarnation of the titular Time Lord, most “classic” Doctor Who stories are serialized, typically unfolding in a handful of thirty-minute chapters, with memorable, cliffhanger endings (accompanied by the distinctive theme music sting).

PeterDuring the height of the show’s first-wave popularity in the U.S. in the 1980s, daily half hour installments aired on many local PBS affiliates, with some channels also broadcasting re-edited, feature-length compilations on weekends. I won’t tell you how many Saturday nights I spent during high school watching Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) and Peter Davison (the Fifth) on New Jersey Network with my little sister. Or maybe I just did.

Retro’s deal with BBC Worldwide North America will give the network broadcast rights to remastered episodes featuring the first seven doctors: William Hartnell (seasons 1-3, 1963-66), Patrick Troughton (seasons 4-6, 1966-69), Jon Pertwee (seasons 7-11, 1970-74), Tom Baker (seasons 12-18, 1974-81), Peter Davison (19-21, 1981-84), Colin Baker (22-23, 1984-86), and Sylvester McCoy (24-26, 1987-89). McCoy also briefly reprised his role in a 1996 BBC TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. That film is not part of this package.

Doctor 2-3Best of all: Retro will offer more episodes than are currently available on subscription video-on-demand platforms like Hulu Plus (which streams 387 classic installments) or Netflix (94, by my count). It also exceeds the number of digital downloads that are available on iTunes, which offers roughly 350 shows at varying price points, both as individual episodes and in a variety of collections. Sadly, nearly 100 episodes from the 1960s are lost, many intentionally purged by BBC technicians who, hopefully, have all been exterminated by Daleks.

For longtime fans, an announcement of this magnitude leads to many questions. So I fired up the TARDIS and went right to the source: Matthew Golden, Retro TV’s vice-president of production. As befits the topic, we chatted electronically. The following is an edited transcript:

WM: When will the classic Doctor Who debut on Retro TV? 
MG: TBA, but this summer. (see above for updated info)

WM: Do you plan to start with the black-and-white episodes from Season 1 and broadcast in order? Or will you begin with the more familiar color shows, like the Tom Baker series?
MG: We will start at the beginning, with An Unearthly Child and proceed chronologically (or, at least, as chronologically as a series about a time traveler gets) through Sylvester McCoy’s final story, Survival.

WM: Does your package include any of the lost episodes that were rediscovered in 2013, such as The Enemy of the World or The Web of Fear from Season Five?
MG: Our license does not currently cover these recently recovered serials. We are investigating the option to add later.

WM: Can you confirm that Retro will be airing 4:3 transfers, not the stretched 16:9 versions that have been offered in some home video releases?
MG: Correct, 4:3 all the way.

WM: Classic episodes available from other sources typically run 24-26 minutes. Will Retro be airing the shows intact, or making edits to allow for more commercials?
MG: Retro TV has contractual obligations to meet regarding commercial time for our affiliates. However, based on our preliminary information, it appears that most shows will meet our requirement as-is; those that aren’t will be reviewed with the utmost care, and not a single frame will be cut that isn’t absolutely necessary. This is for fans, by fans, and we’re a protective lot.

WM: What other programming does Retro air that would appeal to classic film and TV fans? 
MG: We recently announced the addition of episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (not seen on television in nearly fifteen years), and other shows include Naked City, I Spy, Highway to Heaven, Lassie, Route 66, The Beverly Hillbillies, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dragnet, One Step Beyond, and many more. Additionally, for film fans, we air Off Beat Cinema.

WM: For viewers who want Retro but don’t get it, what can they do?
MG: Call, write, email, or otherwise inundate your local TV channels to request that they add Retro TV to their digital subchannel lineup.

WM: Last question. Would you like a jelly baby?
MG: I would indeed, thank you. Never trust someone who doesn’t accept one.

Update 6/4/14: According to comments posted on the network’s Facebook page and a report on Nerdist: Retro will be broadcasting 489 of the 591 classic episodes that are extant (in total, 694 were produced). Retro’s package excludes a total of 102 classic episodes that exist, but for which broadcast rights are unavailable. In addition to the aforementioned The Enemy of the World (6 chapters) and The Web of Fear (6 chapters, with one still missing), these include any stories penned by Dalek creator Terry Nation, who wrote for the series between 1963 and 1979. It also seems to include all classic stories featuring the Daleks, including those not written by Nation, due to rights issues with Nation and his estate.

For more info on Retro TV, visit their website. Special thanks to Frank Gruber for assistance with this article. 

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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12 Responses to Update #2: Classic “Doctor Who” Time Travels Back to American TV

  1. Jennifer says:

    That’s fantastic! Hopefully it will help all of the younger fans get acquainted with the classic Doctors and their Companions.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Jennifer. Despite the limitations of technology and budget, I loved those episodes so much. I never really got a chance to experience the William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton shows, and only saw a few of the Jon Pertwee’s. I’m definitely hoping to watch, and Retro is apparently available in New York. I just have to figure out how to get it.

  2. I freaking LOVE Doctor Who <3

  3. I also got hooked on Doctor Who back in its PBS days, and can remember tuning in to watch every Saturday night with my father and brother (fellow Whovians). Tom Baker was a particular favorite of mine; his episodes were the ones that got me started.

    Interesting about free channels like GetTV and RetroTV now burgeoning. Is there a revolt against cable starting here?

    • willmckinley says:

      That is a very good point. Who ever expected that over-the-air broadcast TV would become such a growth sector?

      I think the high cost of cable is the primary factor in the cord-cutting revolution, but digital subchannels like Retro, Me-TV, Antenna TV, COZI-TV, getTV and others definitely make dropping cable easier to handle.

    • Kelly says:

      ME TOO Grand old movies used to be on KCET 28 back in da day then went to KOCE 50

  4. Kelly says:

    NUTS I don’ t get Retro TV

  5. I used to watch on PBS, then switched to TVOntario when PBS stopped broadcasting them entirely. Didn’t Bruce Springsteen write a song called 500 songs and nothing to watch ? Well Rogers Cable doesn’t carry Retro TV. I second Kellys comment – NUTS !!!!!!

  6. Kelly says:

    Get this oldmoviehouse in my area it replaced by METV LOL!!!

    OH well I hope somebody in my area pick it up hey maybe ABC 7 would pick up on their sub channel since Live well network going off the air

    • willmckinley says:

      Kelly is “oldmoviehouse” a digital subchannel? If so, I’ve never heard of it. I know of MOVIES! TV Network, getTV, This TV, Antenna TV, Retro TV, Me-TV, COZI-TV, Bounce TV (African American-themed programming), and The Live Well Network (which is going under next year).

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