Why Doctor Who‘s missing episodes captivate us

Fury_from_the_DeepBleeding Cool threw a grenade into classic Doctor Who fandom a week ago, running what they claimed was a reliable and well-sourced rumour. Apparently, the BBC have recovered a whopping 90 of the 106 missing Doctor Who episodes, along with a host of other lost programs from the 1950s and 1960s, and will announce the find during the show’s 50th anniversary in November.

The story sounds too outlandish to be true, as if generated by an amateur rumour-monger who didn’t realise that plausible rumours are most effective. The missing episodes that have been returned to the BBC always came back in small handfuls, and at a diminishing rate since the 1970s. As more archives were searched and more time passed, the prospect of the majority of episodes being discovered in one fell swoop became less likely, if it was ever likely at all.

But Rich Johnston has a history of breaking accurate stories in the comics industry, and other sites chimed in to say that they’d independently heard the same rumours. This still could have been an elaborate hoax or a joke gone wrong, however, and Johnston acknowledged that even former Doctor Who insiders like Ian Levine were angrily rubbishing the claims.

Then Levine reversed his stance on his Twitter feed. In an abrupt about-face, he claims to have seen “three tons” of physical evidence and apologised profusely to Philip Morris, the apparent investigator behind the discovery, for previously doubting him. Johnston also dug up freight records from 2011 for three tons of “old films” shipped for Morris to Liverpool from Lagos, which corroborated posts on the Missing Episodes forum for Doctor Who from that time about a massive shipment of missing Who episodes, among other lost TV productions.

And now the BBC have issued a non-denial that pours no cold water on the rumours at all. But Paul Vanezis, Doctor Who Restoration team member and current hunter for missing episodes, is declaring it nonsense.

So it’s all terribly exciting, albeit in a tentative, possibly foolish way. Even if the story is true, the leak still may jeopardise any remaining negotiations to secure the episodes. We may know nothing for sure until November, unless the BBC again blunders and accidentally spreads an internal document on the matter (which Private Eye alleges led to the announcement of Matt Smith’s departure) and announce the discovery early.

What makes this rumour particularly compelling is Ian Levine’s reversal. His Twitter feed went from anger at false rumours and assurance that key BFI staff had told him there was no truth to it, to revealing with shock that he’d seen the evidence and the BFI must have fibbed to him. Levine has a long history with Doctor Who, having helped recover missing episodes, so he was potentially in a position to either know with certainty that the rumours weren’t true or to to be deliberately excluded from secret negotiations and then lied to in order to protect them.

What strikes me about this potential find, and about the missing episodes in general, is how compelling they are even to those who have barely seen the original Doctor Who series. I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up watching it; I’ve seen all of the new series, the first few Hartnell serials, and “The Five Doctors”, but no more. Yet I’ve read a great deal about the missing episodes and the saga of their intermittent return. I’ve watched the documentary on the Lost in Time DVD set and read the Missing Episodes forums. I know that the only surviving clip of Hartnell’s final episode is his regeneration into Troughton, and that a swath of episodes are presumed to have been destroyed in the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999.

Why is this material so compelling even when lacking the context to fully appreciate their return as missing installments of a beloved series? Being able to understand the narrative significance of their absence has even been a partial motivator for watching the original series in chronological order, an epic project that I may never complete.

And if 90 episodes are restored to Doctor Who, then watching them will be an identical experience to watching the extant ones if, by the time I get any further into the original run, the recovered episodes are commercially available. After all, why listen to the audio recordings or return to the episodes later in the run when I may be fortunate enough to experience them in their proper order, as intended? The potential (and possibly imaginary) drawback would be that I’ll know they used to be missing, but they are still just episodes I haven’t seen. That’s a shame, and yet they are still fascinating.

What’s likely is that their appeal isn’t necessarily connected to Doctor Who itself. Its prominence and the fanbase who so ardently long for this material has made Who stand out in the popular imagination over other programmes with missing episodes, but as a victim of the BBC’s wiping policy, it’s no more special than The Avengers or Dad’s Army. The notion of a lone wolf digging through archives in Nigeria, Australia, or Hong Kong and stumbling upon a cache of a handful or dozens of episodes, once broadcast to the world but still ephemeral enough to be lost, has intense romantic appeal regardless of the show. We assign an authority to our media that inadvertently grants it a sense of permanence. We trust that whatever is professionally generated for us will be stored properly and always available to us. Most of us don’t even think about how many archives an organisation like the BBC, how big they are, or the practicalities of maintaining them. Especially today, when content can be generated, stored, and transmitted digitally with such absurd ease, that trust has become compounded.

Missing episodes of such a popular and important show as Doctor Who undermine those assumptions entirely, and their sheer wrongness is hypnotically appealing; we just have to know more about how this could have happened. Which episodes are missing, and why? What copies might have been made? What bizarre locations have episodes been found in? (A church cellar is the answer in the case of three Hartnell episodes.)

They also speak to a desire for completion. When that desire is perpetually thwarted but hope remains that it may one day be fulfilled, giving up is impossible. Even I’m irked that Doctor Who is somehow incomplete (merciful audio recordings notwithstanding), and I’ve barely seen the show. And the episodes themselves may not even be that good, or appealing to anyone but a long-time Doctor Who fan. I enjoyed the Hartnell serials I’ve seen as filmed SF or adventure stage plays, and I admire them as productions and am intrigued by them historically, but they’re not addictive, at least not yet. Plenty of new fans may devour the early episodes with the same glee they would a contemporary show, but those who will enjoy recovered episodes the most are surely the long-time fans. They watched Doctor Who much earlier, and are emotionally attached to it in a way that we newbies could not be. They’ve seen the surviving episodes that surround the missing ones and may have listened to the audio recordings, so any recovered episodes will have a far greater impact as art and entertainment as well as in terms of television history.

But if and when this mother lode of episodes is revealed, we’ll rejoice along with those fans. The flawed permanence of a cultural institution will have been significantly rehabilitated, perhaps nearly to completion. The errors of earlier generations of TV professionals will have been corrected, and a major moment in TV history will have transpired. And these old episodes, rendered paradoxically new, will entice us in a way the surviving episodes could not, and we may choose to finally watch Doctor Who all the way through, or at least a lot closer than we ever could before.

Is that fickle? Perhaps. We’re certainly late to the party, although many of us had no choice. But our interest in rediscovered episodes as distinct from the content they contain is still valid, because the history of a medium is as much about its technical and aesthetic nature as the content itself. This rumoured discovery does purportedly include a host of other shows too, and their recovery is equally important to television history as Doctor Who. This restoration of pieces of television’s cultural heritage, regardless of how we feel about the material or our history with it, is glorious for us all, and why the likely never-ending hunt for what remains to be found will always engage us, whether we care about the shows themselves or not.

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