Many people are surprised when they first hear about the missing Doctor Who episodes. What’s the reason for their disappearance, and will we ever get them back?
We preserve everything these days. The British Library, for example, has a copy of every publication that has ever been released in the UK – even the quarterly newsletters of charitable organisations. Similarly, broadcasters have become diligent about preserving their archives, even if their content is unlikely to be seen again.
But back in the 1960s, things were very different. There weren’t just missing Doctor Who episodes; there was missing everything. Even today, very little (if any) original copies of BBC programmes from the corporation’s earliest days exist. The BBC systematically wiped and junked its videotapes to save money and make room for new shows – a process that continued well into the 1970s.
At the time, the practice made sense. For a start, there were legal restrictions; many actors’ contracts stated that the BBC was entitled to one broadcast and one repeat of any programme they appeared in. After that, the material could not be re-used, rendering it effectively worthless.
Moreover, the 1970s heralded a new era of programme-making. Even though much of the UK population still had black and white TVs, people were starting to adopt colour, and the BBC wanted to cater to them. As such, its backlog of black and white material now seemed more worthless than ever. Why would people who were paying for colour TV licenses want to watch old black and white shows?
Indeed, in those days, few people considered TV to have any cultural or historical value. To many, the shows were like theatre performances – they happened once, and were quickly forgotten. Why would anybody want to see them again? And indeed, how could they? Home media was still a long way from becoming a reality, and from the BBC’s point of view, it had stockpiles of film cans that were taking up valuable space.
In short, that is why there are so many missing Doctor Who episodes. The BBC destroyed them for financial and practical reasons, which made perfect sense at the time. Few people could have foreseen that these programmes would one day become sort-after. The original videotapes were usually wiped for re-use, and the film copies that had been returned from oversees were quickly burnt in order to ensure that the artists’ contracts were adhered to.
And that is why there are currently 97 missing Doctor Who episodes. But why isn’t the figure higher?
Well, it probably would have been if the BBC hadn’t made film copies for international distribution. And even though these were all meant to be destroyed, not all of them were. Some TV stations simply disobeyed the BBC’s instructions and never lit the furnace. Some films were returned to the BBC, but fell into the hands of passing employees. And sometimes, missing Doctor Who episodes survived for inexplicable reasons; for example, four episodes of ‘The Ice Warriors’ escaped the incinerator because they’d been tucked away in a cupboard at BBC Enterprises!
And then there were the fans who turned the hunt for missing Doctor Who episodes into a vocation. The most famous of these is Ian Levine, who first learned about missing Doctor Who episodes when he visited the BBC in the early 70s. He’d been hoping to buy some episodes for his own collection, as the BBC no longer had any use for them. But it was only when he started exploring the archive that he discovered a growing number of gaps.
From this moment on, he and a number of other individuals tried to halt the BBC’s systematic destruction and bring missing Doctor Who episodes back to the archive. Their endeavours were somewhat successful; the original story of ‘The Daleks’ was saved in this manner. Moreover, the BBC itself decided to give certain Doctor Who episodes a reprieve because of their historical significance, such as ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ and (bizarrely) ‘The Space Pirates’ episode two.
Otherwise, the search for missing Doctor Who episodes became something of a worldwide treasure hunt among film collectors, and indeed the search continues to this day. Another famous example is the archivist Philip Morris who, in 2013, located a haul of missing Doctor Who episodes at a TV station in Africa. Again, these films had destruction orders looming over them – destruction orders that, thankfully, had been ignored for over 40 years. As a result, Morris was able to return the entirety of ‘The Enemy of the World’ and almost all of ‘The Web of Fear‘ – two classic adventures from the Second Doctor’s era.
The event did, however, highlight just how valuable these missing Doctor Who episodes had become. According to Morris, he located ‘The Web of Fear’ in its entirety, only for episode three to be stolen and sold to a private collector before he could move it to a safe place. He has since gone on to claim that there at least six missing Doctor Who episodes that are sitting in the hands of private collectors.
But as stated previously, none of these are the videotape originals. They are long gone, and there is virtually no possibility of seeing them again. Interestingly, this is true even for the Third Doctor’s era, with some episodes existing only as black and white film copies, most of which have now been colourised for DVD. ‘The Mind of Evil‘ is a good example of this.
So will we ever see any missing Doctor Who episodes returned in the future? You never know. The BBC famously claimed in 1999 that it was “unlikely” that any more missing episodes would turn up – and since then, no fewer than 13 have found their way back to the archive. And with Philip Morris stating that he knows of at least six that are sitting in the hands of private collectors, you can never say never.
Which missing Doctor Who episodes would you most like to be returned to the archive? Let me know in the comments below.
Cybermen Doctor Who scarf – order now from the Lovarzi shop!