It’s hard to imagine that a franchise with such an important history as Doctor Who doesn’t have a complete archive of its journeys across time and space. But that’s been the case for Who since the ‘70s, and the impact of a controversial BBC program that impacted many shows of the ‘50s and ‘60s is still felt today.
Although much of the BBC’s early TV programming from the 1930s through the late ‘70s is lost to time, its most celebrated sci-fi series is arguably one of the most famous victims of “junking”—the archival destruction of old videotapes and film recordings to make way for more modern programs recorded on modern formats. As the BBC slowly begins bringing entire seasons of classic Doctor Who to Blu-ray and animating what it can of the missing stories still out there, here’s everything you need to know about the hows and whys of Doctor Who’s lost history.
Of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who that were broadcast in the ‘60s—from its beginnings in 1963 with William Hartnell’s Doctor, all the way through the era of his successor, Patrick Troughton—initially only 156 (more than half) survived in the BBC’s archives, giving the series a better survival rate than many other programs of the time. When the BBC first actively started maintaining its archives in the late ‘70s, the number of missing Who episodes stood at 152, but over the years there have been several recoveries—mainly thanks to the return of tapes that had been sold to international broadcasters in the ‘60s. Currently, 97 episodes across 26 “serials” (in the classic era, a single story, or serial, was told across multiple episodes, unlike modern Doctor Who, where it’s a single episode per story outside of the occasional multipart episode) remain lost, but thanks to fan efforts, the BBC actually has a complete audio archive of even the missing Doctor Who episodes.
Most of that 97 make up entire serials of Doctor Who. Between Hartnell and Troughton’s Doctors, 10 serials are missing in their entirety, including famous stories like “Power of the Daleks,” Troughton’s first story as the second Doctor. Beyond that, eight have more than half of their episodes missing, while the remaining lost episodes make up individual episodes across another eight.
Here’s the breakdown:
- “Marco Polo” - 7 episodes of 7 missing
- “The Reign of Terror” - 2 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Crusade” - 2 episodes of 4 missing
- “Galaxy 4” - 3 episodes of 4 missing
- “Mission to the Unknown” - 1 episode missing
- “The Myth Makers” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Daleks’ Master Plan” - 9 episodes of 12 missing
- “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Celestial Toymaker” - 3 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Savages” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Smugglers” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Tenth Planet” - 1 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Power of the Daleks” - 6 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Highlanders” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Underwater Menace” - 2 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Moon Base” - 2 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Macra Terror” - 4 episodes of 4 missing
- “The Faceless Ones” - 4 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Evil of the Daleks” - 6 episodes of 7 missing
- “The Abominable Snowmen” - 5 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Ice Warriors” - 2 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Web of Fear” - 1 episodes of 6 missing
- “Fury From the Deep” - 6 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Wheel in Space” - 4 episodes of 6 missing
- “The Invasion” - 2 episodes of 8 missing
- “The Space Pirates” - 5 episodes of 6 missing
The BBC didn’t have a concrete policy on archiving its programs until the late 1970s. Before then, the BBC’s Film and Engineering departments destroyed or recorded over much of their archived programming on a regular basis. And different groups kept different recordings—Engineering kept the original 2" videotapes (known as quadruplex videotape) the episodes were shot on, while Film kept the 16mm Film versions that were “telerecordings”—known as kinescopes in America, literally just film recordings of the original videotapes transposing the footage into a more widely used format—to be sold to international broadcasters.
The reasons were myriad—as the TV industry moved toward color broadcasts in the late ‘60s and onwards, there was less inclination to keep monochrome programs in the archives over newer color shows. Culturally, in an era before the idea of repeat broadcasts and home video even existed, television was seen in a much more different light to how it is today. In its earliest days, television was treated almost like a live event, with few shows in the ‘40s and ‘50s actually being telerecorded for archival or sale. Actors unions like Equity even fought against repeat broadcasts of plays, demanding studios simply rehire the actors for a second performance instead of repeating a recording of the original. The thought of keeping some of these old shows around was seen as inconsequential at the time, even for a pop culture sensation like Doctor Who had become (even if it had not quite reached its apex in the classic era yet, with the arrival of Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor).
In some cases, copies were destroyed when certain actors or writers’ contractual rights over the international sale of the material expired. In others, they were destroyed due to human error, because a lack of communication between the BBC’s Film and Engineering libraries and the Enterprises division—who were in charge of “exploitable” archival programming, as in things that could be sold for broadcast outside the UK—meant no one was sure just who was meant to be responsible for maintaining an archived copy, leading to all three departments destroying their copies. In some cases, it was a matter of physical space, with film and tape reels taking up the limited capacity the BBC had at its studios.
But the advent of home video as a new market for archival programming in the late ‘70s, as well as a renewed desire to maintain an archive for cultural and historical merits, brought the systematic junking process at the BBC to an end, even if the BBC itself wouldn’t enshrine a duty to maintain an official archive of all its programming in the corporation’s royal charter until 1981. From 1979 onwards, the Film and Videotape libraries were combined into a single archive, pooling together what they had between them of the ‘60s episodes of Doctor Who. With the return of several international reels from BBC Enterprises—brought about in part by fan efforts, most notably by music producer and infamous Doctor Who superfan Ian Levine—the number of missing Who episodes in the BBC archives was cut down to 152.
Over the years there have been several discoveries—most recently in 2013, when the recovery of nine previously missing episodes led to the complete restoration of the second Doctor serial “The Enemy of the World,” as well as the recovery of most of another, “The Web of Fear.” That’s brought down the number of missing episodes as of today to 97.
Honestly? There isn’t really much the BBC can do other than wait and hope that not only are tapes still out there, but that they’ll one day be returned to the corporation. Third party initiatives spearheaded by the likes of the British Film Institute’s Missing Believed Wiped or the Radio Times have attempted to get collectors and fans to come forward if tapes are found. In 2006, BBC kid’s variety show Blue Peter even offered fans their very own Dalek! Some could be just lost somewhere, unrecognized as missing pieces of history. Some could be kept in private collections, away from public access to maintain their rare value (or in many cases, not knowing their value). There might simply be no more tapes to be found, and what’s lost will remain lost forever. More recently, the BBC has begun to turn to an alternative approach to “completing” missing episodes: animation.
From “The Wheel in Space” to “Power of the Daleks,” from “The Macra Terror” to the upcoming “The Faceless Ones,” the company has begun turning to completely animating missing episodes or serials in their entirety. It can do this, in most part, thanks to the work of dedicated fans (like Graham Strong, who passed away in 2018, and was singlehandedly responsible for some the highest-quality recordings of early Who episodes in the BBC archives) who, with no alternative, actually recorded the audio of episodes to listen back to when they were first broadcast, leaving behind an actual soundtrack and dialogue the animation can be matched to. For many years, the BBC also released these recordings on CD, just to have some record of these episodes out there, or matched them to found clips or pictures from the episodes to be released as bonus material on home releases.
Outside of the rare miracle of uncovering actual original film reels—there still could be some out there!—these animated reconstructions are going to be the only way many Doctor Who fans will get to experience these stories going forward. These recordings are the only actual complete versions of these missing stories the BBC has. Which means, at least for now, animation might be our best hope at getting to uncover a Doctor Who past that has been tragically lost to time.
In a modern era where digital copies of film and TV episodes—whether they were first broadcast in 2019 or 1969—are beamed to our computers, phones, and other devices every day, just as part of the way we consume media, the thought of such crucial parts of early broadcasting industry just being gone forever seems unthinkable. But just as media itself has evolved over the past century, the fight to archive our multimedia history has grown and evolved too—the battleground no longer being the film and video tapes of early broadcast history, but instead the internet itself, as digital “hoarders” archive terabytes of obscure texts that would otherwise be lost to the transitory ephemera of the digital ether. The more things change, the more they stay the same—whether you’re a Time Lord or otherwise.
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