Your Guide to Doctor Who: Lost & (possibly) Found


If you're a Doctor Who fan, then you've invariably heard the news that "a number" of missing episodes, long thought to be lost forever, have been returned to the BBC, and we can expect an official announcement on Thursday as to what that "a number" actually entails.

For those of us who can't bear to wait another 24 hours, or are desperately hoping for news about a particular favorite episode, I figured now was as good a time as any to dust off my copy of the Molesworth list, and break down for my fellow io9ers everything I know about missing Who; which episodes are most likely to be recovered, which ones are probably gone for good, and one particular episode that would require the TARDIS itself to bring back from the great beyond.

For those unfamiliar with the classic series, and wondering what all the fuss is about, let's start with an abbreviated history of Doctor Who and the BBC Archives' junking policy.

Part I - Nothing at the End of the Lane

Back in the 60's and 70's it was common practice for the BBC, ITV, and other broadcasters to wipe or record over their master videotapes after transferring a copy onto 16mm film for the purpose of repeats or overseas sales. These 16mm prints would then be sent out by BBC Enterprises (their commercial wing) to the country wishing to broadcast the program, and after transmission would either be passed along to another buyer (a system known as 'bicycling'), destroyed, or returned to BBC Enterprises for possible later distribution.

At this time there was not a strict archiving policy, and wiping master tapes for reuse wasn't an accident or an oversight, it was simply something that the BBC did because nobody thought these things would ever be watched again. Sadly, many great series of the time suffered the same fate, including The Avengers, Quatermass, A for Andromeda, Doomwatch, Adam Adamant, and Patrick Troughton's version of Robin Hood... all lost forever because nobody anticipated that someday we might have magical boxes in our living rooms that would let us revisit our favorite television programs whenever we wanted.

Whatever their misguided reasons, by the time the BBC finally stopped their wiping process in 1978, every single Hartnell and Troughton story transmitted on video tape had already been wiped or overwritten, and most of the film copies were destined for destruction as well. When super-fan Ian Levine finally stepped in and started demanding to know where all the Doctor Who had gone, only 47 of the 253 originally transmitted black and white episodes still existed.

Thankfully, mainly due to the hard work of guys like Levine, the BBC have since recovered an additional 100 episodes from overseas television stations, car boot sales, and people's attics, though those sources largely dried up in the early 90's, with only the 4-part story Tomb of the Cybermen being discovered in Hong Kong in 1991, episode 2 of The Dalek Masterplan in 2004, and single episodes of Galaxy 4 and The Underwater Menace most recently in 2011. That still leaves 106 episodes missing to this day... but not, it would seem, to the end of this week.

Part II - The Chase

Okay... now we get down to the numbers. Which Doctor Who stories were sold to whom, and where they might be now. Troughton fans might want to skip ahead to the next section, if you don't like hearing bad news.

One of the reasons why we currently have way more surviving Hartnell episodes than we do Troughton, despite the fact that they recorded nearly the same total number of episodes, is that Troughton's stories just didn't sell as well overseas. You can check out the full ratio map here, but prints of First Doctor episodes were sold to 34 countries, whereas the Second Doctor was only distributed to 8 (with two of those being Australia and New Zealand, which were the first places fans started looking for missing episodes back in '78.)

It gets a bit more complicated from there when you take into account 'bicycling,' which as I mentioned earlier, was the practice of sending along prints to the next country or station in the chain after broadcast. Technically, none of the overseas buyers should have kept their prints after transmission, but we know that that didn't always happen, and the BBC didn't much care about enforcing their destroy/return policy as long as the next group who wanted to show the serial got their copy on time. Since copies were often dubbed into the country's native language, these are the prints we're most likely to find, which isn't a problem for English speaking fans, as the audio tracks to the missing stories are one of the few bits that the BBC actually held onto.

That said, we stand an increased chance of finding stories at the end of these 'bicycle' chains, where they may still have a dubbed version, or they might have an official BBC print that was marked as "destroyed," but really got shoved in the back of a film vault for several decades and forgotten.

Sadly, all Who was not distributed equally. Even though Troughton was sold in 8 countries, and Hartnell in 34, most only got a very limited assortment of episodes. The Tenth Planet and The Power of the Daleks were only sold to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Fury From the Deep was only sold to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and Singapore, and the record holder for least-distributed Doctor Who story ever, The Dalek Master Plan was only sold overseas once... to Australia... where it was never transmitted.

In fact, our chances of recovering any further Dalek stories at this point is exceedingly slim, simply because they were pulled from distribution shortly after Evil of the Daleks went out in 1967 because Terry Nation held all IP rights to the word 'Dalek,' and the BBC didn't fancy paying him any additional royalties after their contract had expired.

One thing's for certain. There's one episode of Doctor Who which we can absolutely 100% guarantee will never be seen again, barring the invention of the time machine, and that's the original Doctor Who Christmas special, The Feast of Steven, better known as The Dalek Master Plan episode 7. This episode is the only one not to be transferred to 16mm film (probably because they wanted to give the poor bloke running the telerecorder the night off), wasn't included in the print sent to Australia, and only transmitted once on December 25th, 1965.

Part III - Tomorrow's Times

Which brings us to the BBC's big announcement on Thursday.

What's in the box? What can we expect, and what can we write off pretty much right off the bat? Well, that mainly depends on where these missing episodes came from, but if we're talking anything more than a few standalone episodes from somebody's private collection, the most likely source is Zambia (the country we heard all those rumors about several months ago), which is one of the few nations outside of Australia and New Zealand who actually ordered Troughton stories.

Assuming an absolute best case scenario, and this haul the BBC are about to announce miraculously contained copies of everything that was sold to Zambia between 1965 and 1973, we could in theory be looking at a total of 71 recovered episodes from the following stories:

Marco Polo, The Reign of Terror, The Crusade, Galaxy 4, The Myth Makers, The Massacre, The Celestial Toymaker, The Savages, The Smugglers, The Highlanders, The Underwater Menace, The Moonbase, The Macra Terror, The Faceless Ones, The Abominable Snowmen, The Ice Warriors, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, and The Space Pirates

We would definitely **NOT** be getting:

Mission to the Unknown, The Dalek Masterplan, The Tenth Planet, The Power of the Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, Fury from the Deep, The Wheel in Space, or The Invasion

Depressing, I know... since many of these are considered the cream of the crop when it comes to Troughton stories, but as I said, you can mostly blame Terry Nation and the BBC licensing department for that.

However, remembering what I said about 'bicycling,' Zambian TV (or ZTV) was not the last stop on the distribution chain for Africa for the first round of Hartnell episodes (so the BBC originals for Marco Polo and The Reign of Terror would have been sent on to Uganda) but was the only African nation to purchase Patrick Troughton episodes... and they got them at the very end of the distribution run, meaning that any prints they had of the twelve Second Doctor stories I listed above should have been junked or returned to the BBC.

The BBC has no record of ever receiving them back, and it's not like anyone was actually enforcing the junking policy, so that's 68 episodes which could very well have been sitting in the back room of the ZTV film storehouse for 40+ years!

Now that's a pretty unlikely expectation, but given the amount of buildup to BBC worldwide's announcement on Thursday, I'm cautiously optimistic that they've found more than just one or two lost episodes, and may even have a couple of complete stories for us.

And even if it turns out to be The Highlanders Episode 1, The Macra Terror 3, and Enemy of the World part 6, that's still 3 episodes nobody has seen in nearly 50 years, and even more importantly, templates that the official 2|Entertain DVD animators or fans groups like Loose Cannon can use to create reconstructions down the road.

Two years ago, nobody knew what a Rill looked like, and then Galaxy Four episode 3 suddenly turned up. Maybe by this time next year we'll finally be able to sit down and properly enjoy the Celestial Toymaker taunting The Doctor's companions with sadistic children's games, Yeti clomping through a cobweb filled London Underground, or the Second Doctor facing his evil doppelganger who dresses like a mariachi player and speaks with an Australian accent.