Who in New Zealand

by Graham Howard © 1990


Dr Who has been seen in many countries throughout the world since its original beginnings in 1963. Most fan attention, however, seems to be directed at only three countries (at least, that's how it seems here), namely the UK (which is understandable because that is where the programme is/was made), the United States and Australia. New Zealand seems to have a fairly low profile as far as international Who fandom goes, so hopefully this article will help to improve the situation.

Television in New Zealand currently consists of three channels, all of which use the PAL system. Television New Zealand, which is state-owned, comprises channels One and Two, while TV3 is a private venture. This fledgling third channel commenced broadcasting to around 50% of the population last November, but TVNZ's extremely aggressive response to the new competition appears to have been designed to destroy TV3, or at least consign it to a position of irrelevancy. This policy appears to have worked, with TV3 now in receivership and looking for buyers. All channels are fully commercial, i.e. they are expected to return a profit - primarily from advertising - for their owners. Stereo television is available in some areas (channels Two and 3 only) for those who have NICAM (Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex) televisions and/or VCRs. It is claimed that of the systems of stereo broadcasting available, NICAM offers the best possible sound, with CD level quality.

Dr Who debuted on Friday 18 September 1964 at 7.57 when the then New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation screened An Unearthly Child in Christchurch. Back then, television was still regionally based, and the three other main centres (Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin) commenced screening on subsequent weeks, so that each episode was in fact shown on four different dates. I believe that New Zealand was actually the second country after the UK to see the Doctor - Australia had bought the series first, but had to wait until 12 January 1965 to see An Unearthly Child as a result of their censor classifying it "A" and therefore, "unsuitable for children."

The first "series" of Dr Who in New Zealand lasted only for the first thirteen episodes (that is to say, An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction). Since then, and up until 1985, the most notable feature of screenings by the NZBC and its successors (of which TVNZ is the latest) has been their irregularity - there has never been a regular time or "season" length. Even worse, a large number of stories were never shown at all! For example, after the 'The Brink of Disaster', it was over a year before Marco Polo was screened, and then another year before The Reign of Terror. However, from around October 1968 until February 1970, Dr Who was screened continuously. The worst case of Who neglect was when we saw The Wheel in Space in 1971 and then - inexplicably - had to wait until 1975 to see Spearhead From Space (with Season 6 being skipped completely!). The one positive side to all this is that I am actually able to remember bits from The Web of Fear and The Wheel in Space, which - had they been shown nearer to their original UK dates - I would have missed. In all, we missed ten Hartnell and ten Troughton serials. Pertwee fared even worse, with 14 stories being missed in all. Fortunately, Tom Baker came off better, with only (!) five of his adventures being omitted. Target novels were therefore the first - and often only - glimpse of many stories, and this situation did not really change until a few years ago.


By 1985 there was little for a Who fan in New Zealand to get excited about. Mawdryn Undead was the last story to have been shown (in 1983!!), and I had all but lost interest in the programme. And then, without warning, TVNZ announced that it would begin screenings of Dr Who again, starting with The Mind Robber and The Krotons! Since then they have shown every story from Spearhead From Space to Survival at a rate of one, two, or five episodes per week, normally with only a small break during the summer. Although the ratings have fluctuated over this time, I believe it is fair to say that fan interest has never been greater, and I'm sure a lot of people - myself included - have had their interest reawakened since the "repeats." I would add that personally I believe that moving through the stories chronologically helps one to appreciate an era or period of Who history as a whole as opposed to watching a story - or "package" of stories - out of their original series' context. This is especially true for companions arriving/departing, regenerations, etc.

The top rated story since the 1985 repeats was The Hand of Fear, with a story average of 14.1% of the potential audience (i.e. NZ's population [In UK terms that would be around 7.9 million. Ed/Nick]), while The Robots of Death came next with 13.4%. As a matter of interest, the top Pertwee story was Terror of the Autons with 12%, while more surprisingly The Ambassadors of Death came "second" with 11.9%. The rating since the Tom Baker stories have generally fallen, although some of this can be attributed to erratic scheduling.

There have been problems with these screenings, however. From the later Tom Baker stories onwards, some - if not all - of the tapes that we have been seeing are in fact sourced from Australia, and it would seem that the Australian censors are much more strict with regards to violence than their New Zealand counterparts, and so we have had to endure some shocking cuts. Episode 4 of The Caves of Androzani spring to mind: the climax had about three minutes hacked out of it, along with various death scenes. Vengeance on Varos was even worse, with eight minutes chopped by the Australian censor! TVNZ came to the party by lopping off a few seconds in the late Baker/Davison episodes... to fit in more adverts! Fortunately, in its more recent timeslots this does not seem to have a problem. It currently screens on Sundays at 9.35am, and was moved there reportedly because of low ratings in its previous weekdays 4.35pm slot.


If I had to pick a year in which Dr Who was most publicly prominent in NZ it would have to be 1988. First we had an Auckland fan appearing on TVNZ's Mastermind answering questions on Dr Who as his specialist subject. He won his heat, but lost in the semi-final (e.g. questions: "Name the only complete story in which the Doctor never appears?" "How much money did Polly and Kirsty take from Lt ffinch in The Highlanders?" "How did the Doctor describe his bowling when padding up for the counties match in Black Orchid?"). The terrible Doctorin' the Tardis was number 1 here for three weeks, and was actually one of the best-selling singles of the year (number 8, I think). I'd be surprised if these two events didn't contribute to TVNZ's decision to recognize Dr Who's 25th anniversary by showing old and new stories over the week, finishing of with Silver Nemesis 1-3 on Friday 25 November. I believe no-one actually knew at the time that we were to be the first in the world to see episodes 2 and 3, so it came as a big surprise when this was discovered. Incidentally, a contact I have at TVNZ said that it was rare for the BBC to allow another country to screen one of its programmes before its first screening in the UK, so it would appear the BBC's decision not to show it as a special may have been a last minute one (because of the Olympics?) - too late to stop TVNZ from showing it anyway... Promos for the week featured Katy Manning, while the Listener and TV Guide magazines both featured Dr Who on their front covers, along with articles and photos within. It is clear that TVNZ must have gone to some trouble for the Anniversary (by all accounts a lot more than the BBC did itself), which in light of past history was perhaps a little surprising.

1988 was also the year that organised fandom in New Zealand really took off, although it could be said to have actually started with the publication of the first issue of Time/Space Visualiser in July 1987. Since then, The Dr Who Fan Club - as it is now known - has expanded greatly, so that it is now claimed to be the largest science fiction fan group in New Zealand. A lot of the credit for the club must rest with the people who put - and have put - Time/Space Visualiser together. Their obvious enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, Dr Who, along with the benefit of reading about NZ fan activities and fandom in New Zealand is a real bonus for someone who has had to rely on UK sourced material for so long. There are reasonably active "local groups" in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, which hold semi-regular meetings and video screenings. A number of fans have produced or are producing novels of stories not yet officially adapted, along with other works of fiction, and also non-fiction, such as The Sixth Dr Who Dictionary. There is also one smaller Dr Who fan club which produces its own fanzine.

Over the weekend of 14-16 September, New Zealand's second ever convention is being held in Christchurch, with Jon Pertwee and Mark Strickson as guests, the latter a last-minute stand-in for Katy Manning who was unable to attend. Strickson, who now lives in Australia, was also a guest at a science fiction convention held in Auckland a few months ago. He and his wife (Julie Paradise Towers Brennon) moved to Australia because there were, "too many people," in the UK, and are both now studying full-time for Bachelors of Science at an Australian University, so they do not do a lot of acting anymore - Mark claimed that Australian actors fees are far too small to make much of a living!


The possibility of there still being any missing Dr Who episodes in New Zealand was first raised to me in 1980 by John McElroy, then of the DWAS Overseas Membership Department (that was in the days when overseas members were not treated like shit, as they have been in recent years), who suggested that I send a letter off to TVNZ asking them for any information they may have. Although I did eventually receive a negative response, I was not totally convinced and so continued to make periodic enquiries over the years. To cut a long story short, some month ago - after a great deal of persuasion - I was finally allowed to sift through the large stocks of old overseas programmes that TVNZ has been storing on behalf of the overseas distributors, these being mainly black and white programme dating from the 60s to the early 70s [Imagine the BBC letting a fan into their Archives like this! Ed/Nick].

Although I knew that TVNZ had already looked for missing episodes of a number of programmes including Dr Who, because of the large quantity of film cans stored there (hundreds), I thought there was still a slim chance that they may have missed something. So, when I pulled out a can labelled 'Assassin at Pekin' [sic - Marco Polo episode 7], and then - shortly afterwards - The Moonbase episode 3, I thought I must have been right. But, of course, the contents didn't match the labels (dammit!). Ironically, though, the film inside the 'Assassin' can was wanted by TVNZ for their own archives, so at least something was achieved for television history in general... According to the people I talked to about the Who episodes, they were almost certainly destroyed, the film cans being reused. Other possibilities are that the films were misfiled, "borrowed," or sent to Australia. It seems that we will probably never know as it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to trace them (or any others) now, and what is more TVNZ are simply not interested.

Left to right: Label from the 'Assassin at Pekin' [sic] can; transmission cue sheet for the same episode; labels for The Moonbase episode 3.

Well, that about covers New Zealand experiences of Dr Who thus far, and as should be apparent there have certainly been plenty of ups and downs. For the present, at the time of writing episode 2 of Survival screens next week, and it would seem that after this story, unless TVNZ decides to show more repeats, that it could be some time before we see the Doctor on our screens again given the BBC's incomprehensible treatment of the programme of late. In fact the BBC management seem to me to be completely incompetent, because surely no competent manager would attempt to systematically destroy one of its most profitable products in the way the BBC have done with Dr Who...?

The Doctor Who Listener by Paul Scoones
T/SV: The Dr Who Ratings by David Bishop

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