TWIDW Supplement - The Howard Da Silva Story
- (The following article was originally published in the August 24, 2001
edition of This Week In Doctor Who - Vol 4, No 34.)
The Howard Da Silva Story
by Benjamin F. Elliott
with TJ Lubinsky
Warner Video is releasing "The Robots Of Death" on DVD in September 2001.
All the extras from the BBC release are included. But an extra bit of
mastering has been done, and an additional extra (for North America only)
will be on the disc - Howard Da Silva's Introductions at the beginning and
end of the episodes.will be on the "featurette", along with the unedited BBC
half-hour versions (or as the American Dr. Who syndicators call them
"mini-series"). The Howard Da Silva segments for Robots Of Death will be
digitally preserved on the discs.
Howard Da Silva? Who on Earth is Howard Da Silva?
Doctor Who fans who did not live in the United States and parts of Canada,
or didn't discover the series until the late 1980s or later usually have no
idea who Howard Da Silva is. Personally, I grew up with no knowledge of him.
As I write this piece in August 2001, I have never seen a complete example
of his narrative Doctor Who work. The obvious reaction to the news that his
introductions will be included on the US DVDs is - who is he, and why should
I care? Almost by definition, an extra is something you can skip completely
if you don't want to see it, so it's better to have extras for those who
want to see them. But
why Howard Da Silva's introductions??
I spoke with the producer of the Da Silva DVD bonus material on The Robots
Of Death (TJ Lubinsky) to find out the story behind Howard Da Silva, the
narrated versions of Doctor Who in the USA, and Da Silva's segments getting
onto this DVD.
Well, Howard Da Silva lived from 1909 to 1986. (For perspective, William
Hartnell was born in 1908.) He was a veteran American character actor and
voiceover artist. One of those people who you heard all the time but never
knew the person's name. In 1978, events would cause him to get involved in
the world of Doctor Who in a small way ...
In June 1978, the head of the syndication department of Time/Life television
chose 3 TV shows to syndicate in the US for fall 1978 from a list of
possibilities. Two of the were BBC productions, per their contract via
1) Monty Python
2) Dave Allen At Large
3) Great American Dream Machine (non-BBC one)
And they needed a show with 98 episodes to round out the "syndication strip
package". Doctor Who (the first 98 Tom Baker episodes) was thrown in the mix
to fill out the first-run syndication offer.
Doctor Who was deemed to be a show that could have commercial syndication
potential for the fall 1978 multi-show package launch.
The Hand Of Fear was quickly shipped over and "test marketed" as a preview
story to acquaint potential stations to purchase Doctor Who. It aired in
movie format in June 1978 on WOR 9 New York, NY (a superstation then
available in many US cable households) and WPTV 5 West Palm Beach, FL, an
NBC station. The Hand Of Fear test garnered good ratings, and 92 stations
(commercial and PBS) had cleared the package by early August for a late
September/early October launch. But there were problems. The biggies:
1) Some viewers and many station programmers were confused by the nature of
the show. Who is this alien? What is that telephone booth? Why did the
assistant leave at the end of the story? Some of the British characteristics
confused station managers as well.
2) Episodes were too long. The show's being sold on a cash basis - stations
have to sell the commercial time themselves. Enough commercial time to
justify the show's expense, and generate profit revenues.
3) Where's the first 11 seasons of the show? Where's the backstory for the
characters? Why are we picking up with Year 12?
4) It's less than 2 months before the show goes on the air, and not all the
episodes have been standard converted for editing and distribution for the
US yet. Satellite systems are not yet commonly available to send episodes to
stations in 1978, so episodes must be dubbed are shipped to 92 stations on
bulky 2" quad tape.
13 Jon Pertwee stories had been syndicated in movie format to PBS stations
by Time-Life in 1976-1977, and they had seen what happened before when the
questions had not been resolved (the show performed badly and virtually all
the stations dropped it). There was no reason to believe that a similar fate
would not befall Tom Baker now, unless the episodes could be packaged to win
over the station ad execs and more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with
Given the time constraints of the series launch, several hard choices were
To help the show make sense, a "name valued" narrator would be hired to
introduce and close each episode. To fit in the narration segments, 70's
style tv syndication packaging elements, and get the shows within commercial
guidelines circa 1978, all episodes over 23 minutes, 56 seconds long were
cut as close to to that length as possible.
Though mostly the cuts were mostly minor incidental establishing shots,
sometimes dialog was trimmed ... sometimes whole scenes had to be cut (Tom
Baker trying on outfits in Robot 1), sometimes establishing shots without
dialogue, sometimes British aspects that they thought would not translate
well. The effort was made in what time they had to try to keep the episodes
from being hacked beyond recognition. However, the goal was to "Americanize"
the episodes for the broadcast potential commercial audience possible.
Each episode would now begin with opening credits, followed by an "American
named" narrator teasing key scenes and storylines for the upcoming episode
(for episode 1). This was designed to get typically short attention mass
commercial audiences hooked, to stay through the first 2:02 commercial
break, or in the case of continuing storylines (Episodes 2 and on) recapping
what the viewer may have missed if they didn't see the previous episode(s).
After the first commercial break, the original episode would begin (For Part
1) or continue (Episodes 2 and On).
There were 2 additional commercial breaks in the middle. When the
cliffhanger came up, the closing theme would begin, with the Dr.Who logo
flying down the vortex from the opening sequence and fading to back just
before revealing the story title.
After the final internal commercial break, the American narrator would
preview the following episode, followed by the closing credits. The ending
credits would also have to be modified to credit the American actor/narrator
in accordance with U.S. Talent Union guild guidelines.
The closing preview would hopefully tease the viewer to see the next
episode. (Keeping them tuned in and coming back from week-to-week) Final
episodes of the story would not need a full preview of the next episode, so
less to nothing would have to be cut from those episodes. Robot had extra
narration through the episodes to explain to viewers the concepts of
regeneration, the TARDIS, etc. The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis Of The
Daleks, and Revenge Of The Cybermen had a few
extra bits of voiceover material after the first commercial break to try to
clarify the Ark In Space story arc. The break formatting would be
standardized, 4 internal breaks per episode, with the exception of the
concluding episode of a story arc or "mini-series", where there would be no
ending tease added (meaning the storiy-arc's or individual 23 mini-series
could stand alone - in theory - even out of order). Given the need to
bicycle tapes and dub copies from station to station, the likelihood of
episodes getting unsequenced was reduced by not forward promoting the next
"mini-series" or stoy arc.
It's August 1978. Less than 2 months till the episodes have to be available
to 92 stations. Not all the episodes are over here in America to be cut yet.
Narrations have been put together using notes the BBC provided on the
stories. (Note the similarities between the description on the back of The
Robots Of Death DVD and Howard's scripts from 23 years ago).
One afternoon the people at Time/Life call in Howard Da Silva, who was in
town promoting stage performances after the movie release of 1776 (Howard
played Ben Franklin in the famed musical), Under contract and in-session to
voice some documentaries for Time/Life Films - Howard agreed to voice the
narrations for all 98 episodes (over 200 voice-overs) in just 4 hours, the
time remaining on the recording session.
With no pictures, videos or clips provided or available to work with, or
review for inspiration..... Just a script. Howard was annoyed that there was
no pronunciation guide, which could help him at least avoid embarrassing
gaffes. (Think about it, how many non Dr. Who fans can pronounce Mandragora,
Sontaran or Dalek - but amazingly, with no coaching he did, perfectly.)
As it was, in the 98 episodes he recorded "blind" in 4 hours there were only
two pronounciation goofs - Styggron got pronounced "STI-gron" and Doctor
Solon became Doctor Salon.
The afternoon session was the only time Howard Da Silva would ever be
involved with Doctor Who, apart from one time he and his wife saw "Robot"
Part 1 on WOR, and thought the excessive narration was..."too much".
The episodes premiered in fall 1978 on a mixture of commercial and PBS
stations. The most prominent commercial station was WOR 9 New York, which
aired 2 episodes every Saturday at 10AM Eastern Time for several years in
much of the country. (WOR liked to air episodes "off-cycle" - ex: ep 4 of
one story followed by ep 1 of another, to keep people coming back for more.)
WPBT 2 in Miami, FL and WGBH 2 in Boston, MA were prominent early PBS
stations on board with Doctor Who. PBS stations in this period usually ran
promos for other PBS shows (like Nova) in the breaks provided for
commercials, though sometimes they would just go to a slide for the :15
second black spaces included every 7 minutes or so intended for commercial
insertions. Also, commercial stations were likely to run 1 or 2 episodes a
week, while PBS stations often ran the show weekdays in the early evening.
(This was before the Newshour was one hour long, when it was the 30 minute
It was very common for PBS stations to air commercial shows in the late 70s,
and still occurs on occasion these days. Star Trek: The Next Generation,
Little House On The Prairie, St. Elsewhere, and I Spy have aired on
individual PBS stations in recent years. Commercial shows could and were
pledged like any other shows.
Time/Life was not given certain information that might have made it easier
to air the package. For instance, the BBC didn't tell them the proper
episode order - they only had alpha codes.
Time/Life aired the show in production order in lieu of information. Season
12, for instance, went Robot, The Sontaran Experiment, The Ark In Space,
Revenge Of The Cybermen, Genesis Of The Daleks - which must have made the
stories and Howard's extra narrations on the story arc a tad confusing.
Seasons 13 and 15 also had stories out of order due to the airing order, but
fortunately there were no story arcs there to confuse. (Except K9 appearing
in Image Of The Fendahl, then being introduced in The Invisible Enemy. This
was presumably a misreading of the codes in some manner, since even in
production order K9's first story comes before any other K9 stories.) Must
have been a very different way to experience Doctor Who.
By early 1981, Time/Life noticed that their plan to launch Doctor Who on
commercial TV was only semi-successful. Howard's narrations and the previews
had succeeded in helping build a fanbase and commercial base. New viewers,
with no previous history with the series accepted them as a part of the
show, with virtually no clue that they were not part of the original
episodes. But the show only performed so-so on most commercial stations
airing it. Ratings were below expectations. On the other hand, it was a
large pledge success, pulling in money hand over fist to PBS stations that
So the new potential PBS market was exploited by the Time/Life sales staff,
with an agressive marketing plan to re-launch Tom's first 98 "now with
"extra material" previously unbroadcast in the U.S. and uninterrupted by
commercial break "stopdowns and recues". The complete versions of the 98
Baker episodes were brought over for the use of PBS stations, while the
versions narrated by Howard Da Silva continued on commercial TV.
Fans were surprised to suddenly see new footage from episodes they knew very
well, and shocked to find out that Howard's narrations were not part of the
original episodes. There was a bit of a negative reaction to the Da Silva
narrated material, now that uncut installments were available. But with the
challenge of so many new PBS stations airing the show, the multiple 2" quad
tapes that were being "bicycled" from station to station nationwide often
got mixed together. Wackiness would ensue from this. Ex: one PBS station ran
an uncut Robots Of Death Part 1 & 2, follwed by an odd Da Silva mixed in on
Part 3, and then an uncut Part 4. Depending on the station's run of the
episode and how often they got tapes shipped in, the next time they aired
the story, they may all have been complete or all commercial versions - luck
of the draw with so many tapes floating around marked with the same episode
In 1982, with the formation of HBO, Time/Life television is forced to
break-up and dissolves. Many of the employees get together to create a
partnership and form the new Lionheart Television International to do the
same job. Lionheart is partly owned by the BBC. It's virtually the same
staff, in the same roles - all the same offices, and the same videotapes
puchased with the formation of the new company (Ah-ha, and that's why we
still see the Time/Life logo on BBC shows to this day).
The final 3 seasons of Tom Baker are finally brought over. At this time the
decision is made to offer stories in 4 versions - 1) uncut PBS "mini-series"
for PBS syndiction, 2) edited for commercial TV or "commercial versions", 3)
in "movie format", and 4) "commercial movie versions". All of Tom Baker's
stories are turned into movies at WHYY 12 in Philadelphia, PA. For
thecommercial edits of the last 3 Baker seasons (which were cut to 21:30
this time, apparently), Howard (now 73) is not asked back, and an editor in
a hurry cuts in commercial breaks every 7 minutes with little effort to keep
the story coherent. The "commercial movie versions" are for stations like
WGPR in Detroit, a religious broadcaster airing commercials.
Lionheart focuses more and more on PBS stations, though a handful of
commercial and religious stations (looking for family programming before the
days of The Family Channel) stick with the show for years beyond that point.
By 1986, when Howard Da Silva died and both Peter Davison and Jon Pertwee
episodes were starting to appear in the US, 300 PBS, commercial, and
religious stations were airing Doctor Who.
As the stations almost all became PBS, and more and more stations went to
movie format as well (because two 1" tapes were cheaper to ship than 4
reels - meaning the Lionheart sales staff could make price breaks for long
term packages), the Da Silva tapes fell out of use - other than when too
many copies of a story were shipped out, and these were the only versions
available. The last commercial stations stopped airing these tapes in early
Howard's involvement in the show's syndication was largely forgotten,
overlooked or disliked. The history and timeline for these events has never
been shared until now. T.J. Lubinsky's unique experience in the U.S.
syndication and distribution of Doctor Who has been gathered over two
decades of personal phone interviews with the original sales people,
producers and writers , tv programmers and sales staff for the various
incarnations of the U.S. syndication offers of "Doctor Who" in the U.S. As a
PBS fundraising producer, TJ also has the history, experience and advantages
of being "on the inside looking out" at the business of tv programming,
production and distribution. Lubinsky jokes "you know, it's
funny - I can remember being 12 years old with a Beta 1 machine in my living
room, being frustrated because I didn't know how to edit Howard's narrations
"out" of my home tapes. It's being exposed to all these different versions
of the show that taught me about editing and how to edit videotape, and
ultimately got me my first job at a PBS station because of answering
phones for - you guessed it - Doctor Who." Ironically, for the past ten
years it's been my sincere desire to make sure the talents of Howard and the
78' syndication team aren't forgotten and erased from our American Dr. Who
history," says Lubinsky.
In 1987, a purge was done in Lionheart to remove excess prints of the Tom
Baker stories during a conversion from 2" Quad to 1" videotape... The Da
Silva narrated versions of the episodes were "lost" from the U.S. library
since, at that time, there was no commercial syndication sales for the
series. There was no reason to keep these versions in circulation - they
just created problems for PBS stations. And the conversion staff did not
know that these tapes only existed in America. So,
it's really no one's fault - it was an accident that all these tapes were
"wiped, wiped out of existance".
Of the US broadcast masters, only Pyramids Of Mars episode 1 and the 4
episodes of The Brain Of Morbius still exist in the Da Silva narrated form
(in those episodes the full US versions of the episodes were wiped by
The American spin on Doctor Who that won it an audience here was essentially
destroyed. In a bad bit of irony, most of the poorly edited episodes from
Tom Baker's last 3 seasons survived the purge while the complete US versions
of those episodes did not, as fans who've seen Tom Baker's later seasons on
US TV have discovered in recent years.
Da Silva's narrations survive these days only on VCR recordings from the
late 70s/early 80s and on audio tape recordings.
Howard Da Silva's one rough August afternoon doing voice work may well be
responsible for Doctor Who succeeding in the USA. His clear voice helped
explain the more confusing elements of the show to the new US public in a
time when Doctor Who was a mystery. Fans and commercial advertisers got
comfortable enough with the episodes he narrated for Time/Life and Lionheart
to eventually send over the real episodes.
Howard's work provided the bridge from no Who to real Who, and then he wound
up forgotten. TJ Lubinsky has spent the last ten years trying to recover the
Until the Robots Of Death US DVD release, at least.
Unlike TV broadcasts or VHS releases, the DVD format lends itself to having
both the narrations "featurette" without effecting the real episodes, which
remain complete and unmolested.
Since The Robots Of Death was not a story where the broadcast versions of Da
Silva's segments survived, the Da Silva segments had to be "reconstructed"
for use on the DVD.
The producer of this extra DVD segment spoke to Ruth Newald, the original
editor from 1978, to find out how the editing had been done.
With audio from a WOR 9, and personal copies of U.S. syndication broadcast
1" tapes, the segments were reconstructed frame by frame, with efforts to
match all the effects of the original 1978 broadcast, in spite of the
difference in format speeds. Slightly more difficult than peeling a potato.
Several years ago, while working at a PBS station in South Florida that had
Doctor Who under license, TJ Lubinsky personally and privately funded an
all-night edit session at a now defunct commercial tv station in Hollywood,
Florida to use their "grass valley 1600 switcher" - the same switcher Ruith
Newald used to generate the very distinct wipe patterns used to transition
the preview effects scene-to-scene back in 1978. This is when TJ first met
The Da Silva family, who gave him permission to use Howard's voice tracks on
PBS stations, and encouragement to seek copies of Howard's work, as his
family wished they had recorded them when they first aired.
TJ jokingly adds, "the only thing I'm missing in this new restoration is the
2" tape scratching/banding that always happened when Channel 9 re-started
the segments after their APEX TECH/STUCKO commercial breaks. Man I'm just
glad I kept a work reel from those replicated effects to be re-used for the
DVD restoration.....(sawtooth and venetian blind wipes effect wipes with
distinct pattern modulation is not easy to come by in todays world of tv).
These are the exact same patterns Ruth used back in the 70's when she edited
these the first time around. I even matched the same font used to credit
'Introduced by Howard DaSilva' at the end of the episode, in exactly the
same way the original was formatted."
Beyond the technical problem of reconstructing the segments, there were
clearance issues. The Robots Of Death DVD's contents had already been
cleared once. To include the Howard Da Silva bits, clearance had to be
gotten from Howard's widow and sons (who generously agreed) for his voice
segments to be rerecorded and reedited for the DVD.
The people at BBC Video who work on the DVDs are Doctor Who fans, and would
like to try more features like this in the future. Besides Da Silva, Doctor
Who's been around in the US for over 20 years, and there are US extra ideas
available for many stories. But US materials are unlikely to be included in
the main UK releases due to overseas clearance restrictions. To get the Da
Silva and other segments on US releases, they will have to go through extra
mastering costs and work.
The better the public reaction to having the option of seeing this material
or not, and the better the DVDs do in sales, the better the chance that
Warner will spare the money, facilities, resources and time to try US extras
again, on top of what the Brits provide in extras.
And obviously, the reverse is true. Bad reaction or bad sales, and North
American DVD buyers will just get what the UK gets on DVDs, saving the folks
at Warner a fair amount of time and money.
The Robots Of Death DVD comes out with The Five Doctors Special Edition DVD
and the Spearhead From Space DVD in the US and Canada on September 11, 2001.
The best way we can say thanks to the BBC folks, is to support the DVD sales
- reserve your copy now :)
One final comment from TJ Lubinsky:
"Without naming names, I can share that two individuals at BBC Video really
deserve the credit for making this project a reality. They are fans, and
care about the proper presentation of our favorite show. They took a risk in
trying to make this happen - and I can't thank them enough for the
opportunity and extra resouces they put into this project. BBCWA home video
rocks - and their staff, along with Steve Roberts and co. in the U.K. are
the absolute best."
Doctor Who is a BBC Trademark. Copyright 2001.