It’s been 58 years since Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, and if diehard fans of the classic series could commandeer the TARDIS, they would undoubtedly return to the period between 1967–1978 to prevent the destruction of an important part of the show’s history.
In a move that would be unthinkable today, numerous episodes from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras of the programme were destroyed by the BBC in a purging of the archives. But how could such a tragedy have been allowed to happen?
From its debut in 1963, Doctor Who was pre-recorded on videotape. Repeat transmissions were a rarity due to rights and actor union laws prohibiting reruns of shows over three years old, and with video recording an expensive process, the tapes were wiped for re-use. (It wasn’t just Who that was purged – episodes of Dad’s Army and Z-Cars suffered the same fate.)
When the programme was sold overseas, the tapes were transferred to 16mm film for export, with countries instructed to either return the eps to the BBC or destroy them after broadcast. The ones that were returned led to a clutter of film cans at the Beeb, and with space at a premium, these old black and white films were summarily exterminated over a period from 1972–1978, until a policy change was introduced to preserve vintage content in the BBC Film Library.
The ones that weren’t returned or went AWOL from the BBC are the reason that episodes believed lost forever have been discovered in the decades since, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Two episodes of the 1965 story The Daleks’ Master Plan – a 12-part epic and one of the “holy grails” of missing Who stories – were found in the basement of a Mormon church in 1983. What they were doing there is anyone’s guess!
Some missing episodes were retained by former BBC employees – like episode three of the 1965 story Galaxy 4 – or found their way into the hands of private collectors. Indeed, the second episode of The Evil of the Daleks was purchased by film collector Gordon Hendry in 1987 from a car boot sale in Buckinghamshire. It’s the only episode of this classic 1967 story that still exists (the story was recently reconstructed as an animated version for DVD and Blu-ray, with this original episode included).
Word of mouth led to more collectors revealing that they had Who episodes in their possession, and realising their historical significance and rarity, dutifully returned them to the BBC archives. Although it’s been speculated that it’s likely a number of lost episodes still out there in private collections will of course remain there.
It was sales to international TV stations that would yield the greatest treasure, however, with discoveries in Nigeria, New Zealand and Cyprus, and some on our own turf – episode four of The Celestial Toymaker was located in the ABC’s library in 1984. The most notable finds are complete stories, like the classic The Tomb of the Cybermen in Hong Kong in 1992. And in 2013, missing episode hunter Phil Morris located second Doctor six-parters The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear in Nigeria – a serendipitous discovery that coincided with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations, even though episode three of Web mysteriously disappeared soon thereafter.
As well as complete episodes making their way back to the BBC, numerous clips from still missing episodes survive, having appeared in other programmes (like kids’ series Blue Peter) and documentaries. Indeed, a number of clips turned up at the Australian Censor Board, having been snipped for being too scary or violent for the times. These film fragments remain the only glimpses of still lost stories like Fury from the Deep and The Smugglers.
While many Who stories will forever remain incomplete and lost in time, they all survive as off-air audio recordings that were made by dedicated fans in the ‘60s (bless ‘em), enabling lost episodes to be animated and synched with the original audio, thus filling the gaps.
To date, 97 episodes of Doctor Who are still missing from the BBC archives. And while the global pandemic has halted the hunt for now, hopefully the search will resume and more lost gems will be unearthed.