As Doctor Who nears another milestone anniversary, the long shadow of the BBC’s loss of almost a hundred stories from the earliest eras of the show—destroyed in the process of archival junking in TV’s nascent age—still lingers. But the corporation is still clinging to one lifeline that could still let fans experience this missing history.
Although several episodes have been recovered in fits and starts in the years since the BBC concluded its policy of junking archival programming in the mid 1970s, of the 253 individual episodes of Doctor Who broadcast in the ‘60s across the tenures of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctors, 97 episodes are still lost. And while there’s still very small chances some of those stories could be recovered, the further time marches on, the less likely copies of those missing tales will ever see the light of day—whether they exist at all or are kept from public access in private collections.
But that doesn’t mean these stories are entirely gone forever. Thanks in part to the effort of Doctor Who fans over the years—who, in an age of television where repeat broadcasts were a glimmer in the mind’s eye, would make audio recordings of shows to re-experience them—the BBC has a complete audio archive of Doctor Who’s early era, an archive that has helped form the basis over the past few years for a series of Doctor Who home releases that bring those episodes back to life in animated form. At a screening for the British Film Institute for the latest of these releases—an animated adaptation of the Patrick Troughton serial “The Underwater Menace,” which has two episodes of four total missing from the archives—executive producer Paul Hembury said the hope is to keep going until every missing episode lives on in animated form.
That is, as long as Doctor Who fans keep the market alive to support the remakes, that is. “As long as there’s an audience out there who want to see them, then we will endeavour to continue,” Hembury told audiences (via Radio Times). “The DVD and Blu-ray market isn’t getting any bigger and it was a significant contributor to the financing that we used to make these, so it’s really incumbent upon us to say, ‘OK, if we’re going to be seeing less revenue from that source, we need to be able to replace it’–and more, because our budgets have gone up pretty significantly. So we just need to be able to make it balance out.”
For now, while more animated releases are expected beyond “Underwater Menace,” Hembury was hesitant to commit beyond a hope that eventually every missing story would live on in this format. “We don’t have a five, 10-year plan to work through. We do them one at a time,” the producer continued. “In all truth, I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to a situation where we’ve done every one. [But] there is something coming.”
His comments come at a time where the BBC, on the advent of Doctor Who’s 60th anniversary next month, is trying to make good on a living archive of the show’s long history. In the UK from November 1, fans will be able to, for the first time, stream over 800 episodes of Doctor Who in a single place—the corporation’s own streaming platform, BBC iPlayer—from across its history. And although that effort in and of itself has been hit by some very peculiar setbacks that mean even some non-missing stories are absent, it’s a commitment that, alongside the corporation’s desire to re-animate missing episodes, shows that it is at least trying to do right by the mistakes it made long in the past.
“I’d like to thank the BBC for all the hard work, to get this massive back catalogue under one roof, at long last,” returning showrunner Russell T. Davies said in a statement at the time of the streaming archive’s announcement. “I’m so excited for new viewers—imagine being 8 years old, spending winter afternoons exploring the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond. And we’re determined this won’t be a dusty museum—we have exciting plans to bring the back catalogue to life, with much more to be revealed!”
Fingers crossed that future includes Hembury’s hopes to bring Doctor Who’s missing history to life in at least some visual form.
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