It’s hard to believe that in an era where everything is available to us, whether through Netflix, Hulu, DVD, Blu-ray, or just bootlegged on VHS copies, that hours and hours of programming so near and dear to our nerd hearts can be lost to time. Nerds are self appointed protectors of culture, digitally downloading massive amounts of data just to have it “in case of an emergency”. However, the hard truth of the matter is that even though we are currently in the era of the nerd, the things that we love are not always considered an important part of our culture. In the dark times before, the unthinkable often happened. Monumental works of art were destroyed, The Library of Alexandra was burned, and scrolls of Papyrus were used for toilet paper. Most importantly, to us at least, videotapes were erased.
The long-running British science fiction show Doctor Who was a unfortunate victim of just such an incident. During the 1960s and 70s for purely economic and space-saving issues many of the old Doctor Who episodes were completely wiped from existence. Modern fans of science fiction think this was blasphemy but back then it was a common occurrence. In the 1960s and 70s it was common practice because the idea of selling things on VHS or DVD was completely out of the picture. The advent of home video wouldn’t happen for another 10 to 20 years. The BBC had no policy for archiving shows until 1978 so everything that was aired between 1930 and 1978 was lost. Unfortunately, one of the main casualties were the episodes starring the first two doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.
Looking at this in context however is very important. Television was a new medium in the mid part of the 20th century. The television viewer still had the mindset of a “theater-goer”. That is, you see something once, and if you missed it, too bad. That would change when Lucy Arnez became pregnant. As strange as it seems, Lucy and Desi Arnez were the real pioneers of television. Because television was usually broadcast live on the East-coast, the West-coast, which was on a different time zone, would have to have kinescoped, recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor, versions of shows at lower quality. Lucy and Desi began having their show filmed and then distributed. Now that the shows were filmed, they had higher quality and were preserved. This was important because in 1953 Lucy gave birth and was unable to film her highly successful show. Thus the rerun was born. Showing that one could still maintain viewership with old material led to a revolution in broadcasting. Shows would now be on the air long after they were cancelled, but could still make money from syndication rights. This single-handedly saved Star Trek from obscurity. This was amazing in America, but in Britain, the idea of syndication wouldn’t take off until the advent of satellite TV in the late 90’s. Until then, the BBC was remiss to save many old shows due to numerous factors. This would often lead to entire show runs being wiped out.
The actors’ union, Equity, had actively fought against the introduction of TV recording since Lucy and Desi showed that it was successful. Equity’s concern was that if broadcasters were able to record the original performances, they would be able to repeat them indefinitely, which would cut down on the levels of new production (issues that are still plaguing the industry today). The union was able to add standard clauses to its members’ contracts that stipulated that recordings could only be repeated a set number of times within a specific time, and the fees for use beyond those dates were deliberately set high so that broadcasters would consider it unjustifiable to spend so much money repeating old programs.
Most Doctor Who episodes were made on two-inch videotape for initial broadcast and then telerecorded onto 16mm film. The BBC kept only shows they deemed commercially exploitable. Combine that with storage space issues and in 1972, less than 10 years after it began airing, Doctor Who began being junked.
Back to Lucy and Desi though, their forethought became important to the nerd cause when the home video recorder became widely accepted in America in the late 70’s early 80’s. Now people found that they could record their favorite shows and watch them whenever they chose. This once again shifted the consumer paradigm and created a market for selling shows directly to the consumer through video cassette. Though initially very expensive, and difficult due to space limitation of the medium, eventually cassettes became cheap enough that show runs could be placed on them. This led to studios pouring through back catalogs, trying to find not only popular shows, but ones with cult following. In the case of Doctor Who and the British wiping program, this new found shift in watching became a story similar to what you would expect on that show.
At first count 152 episodes were initially missing. This of course led to an extensive worldwide searches for the missing episodes. To many the search for the missing Doctor Who episodes has become a quest. And the ways that these episodes are being found are just as interesting as the source material.
The easiest way that many of these episodes have been found is through television stations overseas. Fortunately for fans of the show, money actually saved many of these missing recordings. The BBC actually transposed the original videotape onto 16mm film so that they could sell the series to different countries around the world, most notably Australia and Nigeria (?). After airing the prints, copies were sent to other television networks. The Tomb of the Cybermen was recovered in this manner in Hong Kong in 1992. The 16mm films would then find their way to private collectors. For example the episodes the Evil of the Daleks/The Faceless Ones were returned to the BBC by film collector Gordon Hendry after he purchased them for 8 pounds (about $12) each at a garage sale. Due to efforts to recover the lost episodes, 41 of the missing episodes have been found. Still leaving 106, ironically, lost to time.
Just last year two episodes from 1965 and 1967, starring the First and Second Doctors were unearthed. Terry Burnett, a former television engineer, bought the episodes in 1980s. The sad thing is that many more of the episodes probably exist in private collections though the collectors have no idea that the episodes are actually missing.
A bit of an oddity in the hunt is that even though episodes are still missing, full-length audio soundtracks for all the missing episodes are still held by the BBC. These came from recordings made by fans using microphones placed next to the television.
Aside from efforts to locate actual prints of the missing episodes, The BBC and fans have taken upon themselves to find other ways of presenting these missing episodes. One method is by using still photographs taken on set. John Cura, was a photographer hired by the BBC to document the transmission of many of their shows. In the 1990s reconstructions of many of the missing serials have been made by fan groups by taking these pictures adding the audio soundtracks, and adding rolling subtitles indicate action that the viewer cannot see. There are also official reconstructions using the same methods for episodes such as “The Ice Warriors” and” The 10th Planet”.
The sad aspect of the story is that some episodes may never be found, or were truly destroyed along with their tapes. This is truly horrifying to a modern audience who never had to sit through “one time only television.” On the bright side, if you find one of these “lost tapes”, the BBC is still offering a life sized Dalek as a reward.
Read Joe’s other articles:
Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II, Game of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros