June 02, 2012


Missing, presumed lost - over a hundred episodes of Doctor Who...

Some of my earliest TV memories are of being frightened by the many monsters of Doctor Who. Daleks, Cybermen and Yeti lived on in my nightmares, memories mingling with images I thought I'd seen on TV. I saw many Patrick Troughton stories and must have seen some William Hartnell episodes before that (I was only five when his reign as The Doctor ended in 1966). 

1973 magazine that listed every story to date -
before some of them were lost forever

Through the years, Doctor Who novelisations, photos and comic strips kept these early stories alive in my imagination and occasionally a clip or a repeat would appear on TV. Eventually, many years later with the coming of home video, there was the chance to see them again, measured against my childhood memories. The BBC also started transmitting archive shows on the cable channel UK Gold, and thankfully showed every complete Doctor Who story that they had at the time. 

This 1972 behind-the-scenes paperback also teased us
 with its catalogue of early adventures

But this revival was tempered for me by the awful news in the September 1986 issue of 'Time Screen', that the BBC simply didn't have many of the recordings any more. They'd been wiped, dumped or lost. After many years of piecemeal news and rumours, comes the complete story of how so many episodes survived.

"In the 1960s, the BBC screened 253 episodes of its cult science-fiction show Doctor Who, starring William Hartnell and then Patrick Troughton as the time travelling Doctor. Yet by 1975, the corporation had wiped every single one of these episodes. Of the 124 episodes starring Jon Pertwee shown between 1970 and 1974, the BBC destroyed over half of the original transmission tapes within two years of their original broadcast", Richard Molesworth's thoroughly researched book 'Wiped! Doctor Who's Missing Episodes' declares on its back cover.

The Evil of the Daleks - six out of seven episodes are missing

The book describes as fully as possible the history of these recordings, how the BBC worked through the decades and how so many shows could disappear. Even to non-Doctor Who enthusiasts, this is a thorough description of television production and recording techniques from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The original videotapes of all the Hartnell (1963-1966) and Troughton (1966-1969) stories were indeed wiped, because early videotape was so expensive, and the recordings were only really necessary for a single transmission. During the two years respite before the tape was reused, filmed copies were made for overseas sales. In most cases, these black and white 16mm prints returning from overseas are the only surviving versions of many episodes. They even account for some of the Jon Pertwee season (which was entirely filmed in colour), during which the automatic wiping of master tapes thankfully ceased, but not before 108 Hartnell and particularly Troughton episodes had been lost, perhaps forever.

'Wiped!' goes into incredible technical detail about the formats they were recorded on and precisely how every restoration has been achieved. There's also enough information for what detectives around the world should keep their eyes out for in film and video archives (as well as collectors' circles), including a checklist of missing episodes as of 2010.

BBC Home Video (now called 2Entertain) teamed up with Doctor Who fans to restore the quality of their remaining archives, including adding back the colour to many Pertwee episodes. Only 'The Mind of Evil' remains in black and white now. Without any surviving colour elements, only an expensive colourisation process could restore it. The book helps explain the variable quality of the surviving episodes in the ongoing programme to release every complete story on DVD.

The episodes that remain lost that hurt me the most are the two stories 'The Abominable Snowmen' and 'The Web of Fear', which I enjoyed being frightened by in the 1960s. The collective interest in all the lost stories have thrown up some remarkable retrievals and reconstructions. Besides ardent fans, the British Film Institute also joined in the hunt for lost footage, and interest is still high enough for new finds to quickly make money! But what if they're never ever found?

The earliest way of reliving the episodes were the novelisations of each story, which started publishing in the 1970s. Normally these would just be adapted from scripts, but the authors also tried to see the recordings again to refresh their memories, but even then some had already been lost.

Even better were the successful recovery of audio recordings of all the missing episodes, usually from fans recording off their TVs at home. These have now been released on CD, sometimes with linking narration to turn them into 'audiobooks'.

The many publicity photographs taken on set for Radio Times help fill in the gaps and some are better quality than the original transmissions anyway. 'Doctor Who: The Sixties' and '...The Seventies' are two glossy large-format books full of the best photos and behind-the-scenes stories.

More precise memory-joggers are the "tele-snaps" - photos taken off the television of every scene as they were being transmitted. Before home video was affordable, directors and actors would buy these as visual examples of their work. These surviving early 'screengrabs' are now available on the BBC website, and are of course complementary to the audio recordings. Above is a tele-snap from 'The Web of Fear' - Yeti in an abandoned London Underground...

More recently, the cyberman adventure 'Invasion', an eight-episode Troughton story had two missing chapters rebuilt with animation, using the tele-snaps as a visual guide. This was very expensive, but meant that it can now be enjoyed on DVD. (I reviewed it here.)

Individual episodes and fragments have also been released, particularly in the Lost In Time boxset, covering the Hartnell and Troughton series. This was the first and only opportunity I've had to see the two surviving Yeti episodes. This DVD boxset, also available in the US, includes orphaned episodes, clips and even censor cuts that have been recovered.

Poor organisation and a lack of money or foresight are all easy to pinpoint in retrospect, but this huge example of how lost programmes later became valuable can be applied to many other television archives then and now. Not to mention a warning of whether you'll remember anything you seen or hear on the Internet in a few decades time...

Do you want to know more?

An interview with Richard Molesworth, the author of the book Wiped!


  1. I thought this might be an interesting book until I read

    "'Wiped!' goes into incredible technical detail about the formats they were recorded on and precisely how every restoration has been achieved."

    If it's full of technobabble that the average reader can't understand I think I'll give it a bodyswerve.

  2. It isn't full of techo-babble, but offers the detail if you're interested.

  3. Wow Mark. I had heard a little about this, but had no idea it was this extensive. A sad loss for television history.