Monday, February 14, 2011

The Missing Stories

A Scene from The Daleks' Master Plan, a missing serial
Perhaps the most frustrating part of being a fan of classic Doctor Who is the simple fact that not every story exists in its original form. Over 90 episodes, starting from the show's debut in 1963 through to 1970, are missing.

To many new viewers, particularly those in North America, this seems inconceivable. How could any television show, particularly one as popular as Doctor Who, have entire batches of episodes missing? After all, aside from some live television from the 1950's and 60's, we in North America have a pretty complete archive of most of our television history.

But in England this is not the case. During the 1960s and 1970s, the BBC and other British television networks had a policy of wiping or "junking" film and videotape copies of their shows. This was done for various reasons, some economical and some in the name of a simple lack of space. But no examination of Doctor Who can be done without taking a look at this era, so I thought it would be best to give a quick explanation in order to provide some context.

Doctor Who is certainly not unique in this situation, and indeed, in some ways its popularity has made it more fortunate than other series (about which more later). ITV wiped its earliest episodes of The Avengers. Such BBC staples as Steptoe and Son, Z-Cars, and Dad's Army all have complete eras missing.

A telesnap depicting the first regeneration at
the conclusion of The Tenth Planet
One reason for this policy was that there was an agreement with actor's Equity and other trade unions that limited the number of times episodes could be repeated. There was a fear that if the networks could rerun old episodes and series, it would lead to less new material being produced, and therefore limit job opportunities for actors and behind the scenes personnel.

As discussed before, Doctor Who was, for the most part, recorded on 2 inch videotape. In those days, videotape was hugely expensive, and it was deemed cheaper to wipe the tape and record over than buy new tapes and store the old ones. The BBC did not have a huge amount of space in those days (they had to rent rehearsal space as they didn't even have room for that), so as the videotapes piled up, with programmes on them they weren't permitted to rerun, the BBC began to look at options. The series was sold overseas, and before it was sold, the episodes were recorded onto 16mm film, as film was easier and cheaper to transport. Some of these were kept in the BBC archives as well, but the space issue reared its head again, and the BBC felt even more pressure.

So, beginning in the mid 1960s they began to wipe videotapes and junk film copies. This practice continued until as late as 1978, though various people had managed to get the BBC to stop junking Doctor Who by 1974. By that time, however, every single one of the of the series' first 253 episodes had been seemingly lost. Every episode from 1963 to 1969. What decided which episodes were junked and when? Typically, when the agreements to sell the episodes abroad lapsed, that is what put them on the junk pile. However, some episodes that were deemed too local to sell effectively were junked even before that. The Highlanders, for instance, was junked only 2 months after its original broadcast. The fact that these stories were recorded in black and white also didn't help, as many overseas broadcasters had already converted to colour.

A scene from The Power of the Daleks, Troughton's first story

After 1978, and the advent of the home video market, the BBC began to realize how big a mistake they had made. They put the word out that they were looking for any extant copies of the missing episodes that may have existed. And from overseas, many were returned. Some were found in broom closets, old archives, garage sales and locked trunks. They came from Hong Kong, Algeria, Australia and Canada. As of today, 156 of the missing episodes have now been returned or recovered, leaving 97 still lost. The first two seasons were two of the most widely sold, so they are fairly well-represented, missing only eleven episodes. However, Troughton's years, as the least widely sold, are hit particularly hard. We are missing the first regeneration scene, Patrick Troughton's first adventure as the Doctor, arguably the best Dalek stories in the history of the series, and most of the legendary historical stories.

But, as I mentioned earlier, in some ways Doctor Who fared better than other series of its era. The first reason for this was that fans created off-air recordings. These were the days before VCRs, after all, so the only way that many fans could record their favourite shows and experience them again was to set up a reel to reel tape recorder and put its microphone right up to the speaker of their TV set. Miraculously, audio recordings of every single Doctor Who episode of the 1960s, many from different sources, exist. These have been returned to the BBC, where the different recordings have been cleaned up and pieced together to create the best audio version of the story.

The second method was called "telesnaps". In those days, if a producer or director wanted to have an actual physical document of his work to show to perspective employers, there weren't many options. If the guy didn’t remember your work, you were pretty much out of luck. So, a few professional photographers came up with a plan. They would set up a still camera, point it at the television screen, and snap away as the episode was broadcast. This would create a series of stills that the client could show to anyone interested in hiring them. Over time, many directors and producers returned these to the BBC as well.

The Evil of the Daleks
From these two sources, fans created what became known as "Reconstructions". Combining the telesnaps, behind the scenes and publicity photos and the audio recordings into as close an approximation to the real thing as we are likely to get. There is still hope that somewhere out there some missing episodes still exist, waiting to be discovered, but it is very unlikely that many more will ever surface. But fans can be thankful that there are still ways these stories can be enjoyed, and marvel to the pull that these stories, even robbed of visuals, still exert.

However, one can never give up hope. In 2013, the long lost adventures The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were recovered from Africa, proving that it's never too late to lose faith that one day, maybe, a far more complete archive of Doctor Who could exist.

Next up is the first of the missing serials, and one of the most sorely missed ones at that; Marco Polo.


  1. So heres' a query:
    If you had the opportunity to refilm these lost episodes, would you?
    I'm talking you have the final decision making word on all aspects.
    -recreate old-style sets or use more modern ones
    -have new actors copy the style of the original actors, or let them come up with their own interpretation (though still be the same characters in name)

    As much as many would cry heresy, I would do it. I would try to copy the style of the original actors and series, but update the sets a bit (maybe)(though no CGI or fancy effects). My thinking is they wouldn't serve to overcede the originals and make people forget about them. But it sure would be fun to see them brought to life and acted out.

  2. You know, I don't think I would re-film. It's hard to say why I wouldn't. I totally see where you're coming from, because it would be so awesome to see the whole deal. Personally, I'd rather see them animated. That would keep some aspect of the original qualities.

    Still, I think cost is what keeps them from doing either option. The Invasion cost a pretty penny, apparently, and I'm not sure fan reception was entirely positive. I for one, loved it. I think The Tenth Planet would be the enxt logical choice for that process, but no one has come forward and said they're even considering it.