‘Missing Believed Wiped’ is an annual event held by the BFI (British Film Institute), showcasing film and television curiosities and rarities, long since thought to be deleted. This year, on 11th December, they screened two newly unearthed episodes of sci-fi series Doctor Who, which had previously been presumed lost forever. Amongst the cult-tv and geek community the announcement of the rare find was widely greeted with excitement, and, for a while, the story topped the most read sections of a number of news websites, including the BBC’s own. It would be easy to dismiss its popularity as it falling on a slow news day, but to some it’s a story of significance.
Both episodes were originally transmitted in the 1960s, when it was standard BBC practice to only keep tapes for a limited time before wiping them for economical reasons and as a space-saving exercise. Doctor Who was not the only victim of this policy, with episodes of Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Z-Cars and others now only recorded in distant memories. The classic black and white era of the sci-fi series suffered severely, with many episodes that do now survive having been recovered from abroad, where they had been sold for syndication. Of the 253 episodes made between 1963-1969, 106 are missing.
Many episodes containing iconic moments from the series no longer exist or are else incomplete in the BBC’s records, such as the first time the Doctor regenerated; the first appearance of his second most popular foe, the Cybermen, and several early Dalek stories. The two episodes recovered are far from classics – one starring original Doctor William Hartnell, the other his successor Patrick Troughton – and embody many of the characteristics the series was criticised for, namely wobbly sets and dodgy monsters. Plus, with over a hundred still missing, they plug only a very small hole in the gaps.
Previous finds have been made, the greatest of which was undoubtedly the 1992 discovery of all four episodes of ‘Tomb of the Cybermen,’ complete and undamaged, from a television company in Hong Kong. Attics. car boot sales and private collections have also proved a rich source for lost footage, including these two finds.
It’s no great secret that I am a hopeless geek. You could even go so far as to describe me as a nerd, although I’ve never been quite sure of the distinction. I am also of a generation that is just about old enough to have caught the tail end of the original series before its cancellation in 1989, although my main experience came about through repeats in the early 1990s on satellite channel UK Gold. Every Sunday morning I would rise early to watch it. They were shown on chronological order, beginning with Jon Pertwee in 1970 – the first colour series – and ending with Sylvester McCoy. But, due to their poor preservation, the earlier stories were rarely seen.
Since its reboot in 2005, Doctor Who has enjoyed unparalleled levels of success. It remains the most viewed drama on British television, the most watched on BBC iPlayer, has gained popularity in the US – where it previously had only had a cult following from the Tom Baker era – and has been nominated for and won more awards than at any point in its previous incarnation. It has gained a whole new generation of fans, while still retaining many, like me, who remember its origins. My experience of showing stories from the classic series to its new audience has been that they enjoy them, and are not as judgemental about the overall cheapness of production as you might expect. It is a shame, however, that it is currently not possible for them, or even I, to view a number of classics from the birth of the series. But finds like these two episodes, along with the much that has been recovered already, give me hope that one day they will be found somewhere. With luck, they are not wiped, but merely missing and, like generations of children, merely hiding behind the sofa.