A television archive retrieval company has discovered nine missing episodes of Doctor Who just in time for the science-fiction series’ golden anniversary later this month. The BBC quickly offered the restored 16-millimeter discovery as a birthday present to decades-deprived Doctor Who fans—for $1.99 an episode on iTunes.
The gauche commercialism, particularly after the BBC has implored discoverers of lost episodes to donate their finds as though a cultural duty, may strike observers as hypocrisy. But it is just that capitalist impulse that has saved episodes lost through statist negligence, administrative labyrinths, and trade-union bullying.
The Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, and other colorful villains never managed to defeat the Doctor. But the gray-suited British bureaucrat has exiled nearly 100 episodes to the far reaches of the universe. A relay station in Jos, Nigeria—site of the most recent find—surely qualifies for that designation.
Why are there more missing episodes of Doctor Who than televised episodes (all of which happily remain with us) of the original Star Trek?
The closed-shop British actors’ guild, afraid the repeat would put their ranks in the unemployment line, fought vainly against the recording of programs (programmes?) but succeeded in limiting them to broadcasts. So, unimaginative bureaucrats seeing no obvious use for the master tapes, and unable to anticipate the open shop, the VCR, or the future’s obsession with the past, embarked on an extermination campaign against Doctor Who to make even the Daleks envious.
The BBC Film Library, because Doctor Who transmitted to British sets on video and not film, interpreted its mandate strictly and didn’t maintain a proper archive. BBC Enterprises, which marketed the series for broadcast abroad, junked their copies once they had profited from them. They assumed that the BBC Film Library had maintained back episodes, and vice versa. Like any massive bureaucracy, a lack of communication doomed its mission. As a result, the Luddite BBC of the 1970s wiped, trashed, and lost every episode of Doctor Who from the previous decade.
Though American commercial broadcasters have wiped tapes of game shows, sporting events, and late-night talk, the small loss doesn’t compare to the BBC’s wholesale destruction of its early catalogue, leaving preservationists to rescue but a few gigs from the ’60s-era Top of the Pops, roughly half of the classic cop-series Z Cars, and a portion of proto-Python performances from John Cleese in David Frost’s satirical Frost Report, a sort of precursor to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”
While state broadcasters free from the unenlightened whims of King Ratings have created exceptional programming, they exhibit the flipside of freedom from the profit motive by their poor stewardship of pop-culture history. When broadcasters don’t really own the rights to their broadcasts, they mistreat them accordingly.
Exiled through time and space, the Time Lord has made an entrepreneurialism-aided comeback. As VCRs, DVDs, and now the Internet have restored commercial value to programs thought rendered useless by pre-Thatcher guild restrictions on rebroadcast, a global hunt ensued to track down the lost serials. Because a profit motive had motivated the BBC to earlier market the show for foreign transmission, discoveries came from as diverse locales as the basement of a Mormon meeting house, a stall at a New Zealand film fair, and a Cyprus vault bombed by the Turks in their 1974 invasion. Private film collectors, valuing the lost episodes of essentially a children’s show as much for sentimental reasons as for their rarity, proved especially helpful.
The largest haul of Who episodes in a quarter century, like the trades-union limitation on rebroadcasts, affirms the law of supply and demand. The nine recovered shows from the serials “Enemy of the World” and “Web of Fear” all star Patrick Troughton, the shaggy-haired “cosmic hobo” who by some estimations remains the most captivating of the dozen Doctors and by all counts the one shortchanged most by BBC vandals. The former has much to do with the latter. Part of Troughton’s mystique stems from the known existence of just a third of his complete serials, which can’t help but leave the audience craving more. Troughton’s avuncular but easily-frazzled Doctor remains the most enigmatic version of the enigmatic Gallifreyan.
Like the travelers in the TARDIS, fans of Doctor Who can’t help but perpetually wonder: What else is out there in time and space?