Recently, Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke embarked on a marathon project, the kind of thing that is only really ambitious for Doctor Who fans: They agreed to watch the entire series. It’s amazing to think about, really; what would be the baseline for fans of most other science-fiction/fantasy show, “Have you seen every episode?”, is considered to be the mark of utter devotion to Doctor Who fans. They’re actually writing a three-book series about their epic re-watch, “Running Through Corridors” (full disclosure: I’ve hung out at cons with Lars Pearson and Christa Dickson, and they’re really nice people and I enjoy plugging their stuff.)
But it’s more complicated even than that. Because if you read “Running Through Corridors”, you’ll notice that they don’t actually watch every episode. They can’t. They listen to audio recordings, they look at still photographs that another devoted fan has formed into a sort of slideshow, and occasionally they’ll view short clips, but for 108 of the episodes they write about in Volume 1, no recordings exist. Think about this for a moment. If you were to define a “true Doctor Who fan” as someone who has actually seen every single episode, they would have to be fifty years old at a minimum (and older, if you want them to have coherent memories of the missing episodes.)
It’s hard, I suspect, for fans of other shows to really wrap their heads around this. Sure, ‘Firefly’ or ‘Star Trek’ gets canceled (frequently, in the case of the latter…) but they can console themselves by watching and rewatching the old stories, creating a shared experience based on the show throughout their fandom. While Doctor Who fans…Doctor Who fandom is generational. Older fans share fond memories of stories younger fans cannot, by definition, experience, and must discuss solely based on received wisdom. (It was even worse in the pre-video days. ‘Star Trek’ might have been endlessly re-run, but there were many Doctor Who stories that were not seen for decades due to a lack of rebroadcasting. Even the stories that the BBC saved, they didn’t decide to show again until home video made it a lucrative moneyspinner for them.)
Which is why Doctor Who fans experience an unprecedented excitement when, as was the case today, new episodes get discovered. It’s not just that there’s more Doctor Who for us to watch; as mentioned, it would take a solid year of two-a-day watching to get through the whole series, and probably several thousand dollars of financial outlay to buy them all. (To say nothing of the books, the audios, the films…I’m not sure how long it would take you to watch “all of Doctor Who”, but suffice it to say we’ve never been short of it.) It’s not even the sense of joy that something we consider to be part of the world’s cultural heritage has been restored. I don’t hold any illusions that Doctor Who is high art, even though I do consider it to be significant and worthy of preservation.
It’s the sense of discovery. For decades, all we’ve ever experienced of ‘Galaxy Four’, visually, is what other people have told us; fans who’ve described it, writers who’ve novelized it, reviews that have discussed it. Most of us don’t even know what the Rills or Chumblies look like; only a couple of still photos exist of either of this episode’s principal “monsters”. (Although, not to spoil, the real monster is prejudice!)
It is exciting, to finally get a chance to see for yourself what you’ve only heard about from others your whole life. Of course, it probably won’t live up to those excited, fannish descriptions; what does? (Certainly not ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.) But it’s the joy of reclaiming some of the series for ourselves, away from the “fan consensus”, that is unique to Doctor Who and one of the reasons why days like today are such an event. An event that seems unlikely to be repeated; the number of attics and cellars containing lost episodes has to be growing smaller by the day, and these discoveries are rarer and rarer each time. This may be the last…but we thought that last time, too.