The Revival of Missing Episodes of “Doctor Who”


The Doctor and their friends face the Macra Terror! Image: BBC

Stratis Bohle

With the rise of color television, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) began a process of wiping old videotape copies of black and white television programs starting in the late 1960s. The policy was in place due to the high cost of purchasing new videotape for the recording of new episodes, the limited use of old shows with no home video existing at the time, and the (then) current contracts with actor’s unions regarding re-airing of television programs. By 1974, all master videotapes were wiped.

BBC Enterprises would make a 16mm film of the 2-inch master videotape for international distribution as 16mm film was able to be distributed and exhibited much easier than videotape. After distributions to the British colonies and Commonwealth nations, there was the problem of who held the responsibility of archiving these reels. The BBC Film Library had no responsibility to hold onto material not originally produced on film and the BBC Enterprises did nit have the original tapes.

With the switch to color transmissions in the Commonwealth, BBC Enterprises felt no need to make new agreements regarding old B&W programs that would be severely decreased in price from a few years prior. This decreased value in the reels, which took up precious space, made the BBC begin a purging of old film reels. This axing was in a haphazard manner with no manner of care for how to properly dispose of them. The sacked episodes were spread throughout the shows first 11 seasons, affecting the First, Second and Third Doctors.

The first and second seasons of the original B&W seasons are the most complete and distributed of the first 6 seasons. This was accomplished through recovery efforts starting in the 1970s by reaching out to television stations confirmed to have aired the show at one point. These stations were primarily in former British colonies. After their emancipation from the British Empire, they had some occurrences of war which resulted in incomplete records, destroyed television stations, and their use as propaganda machines. This effort resulted in a reduction from 152 episodes out of 262 episodes missing, to just 97 over the past 40 years.

The most famous of these findings was the recovery of the full serial of the Tomb of the Cybermen from Hong Kong in 1991. The release of these episodes was rushed for release in May 1992, to correspond to the planned prior release date of the audio release of the serial with third Doctor Jon Pertwee narrating. Most recently in 2013, the 50th Anniversary of the show on the BBC, the full serial of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear were recovered in Nigeria. The Web of Fear later was later discovered to have been missing episode three; it was presumably sold off to a private collector prior to the returning of the film to BBC Enterprises.

Sadly, the recovery of these episodes are a rare exception. Many others are presumed to be lost forever in the visual format, as all episodes of Doctor Who were recorded in audio by fans during original transmissions. This is especially true of serial “The Daleks Master Plan” Episode 7: The Feast of Steven, which aired on Christmas Day and was made as a Christmas special. The serial was never broadcast outside of the United Kingdom and was actually removed from the serial’s distribution package due to its Christmas themes. When the master tapes were wiped on the 17th of August, 1967, the episode was believed to be gone for good.

Even with the recovery of missing episodes, there are still 97 episodes missing, resulting in the BBC commissioning the creation of animated recreations of missing episodes, using the original transmission audiotapes, scripts, and whatever photos or video clips that exist of the missing episodes being recreated. Starting with the release of the Second Doctor serial “The Invasion” in 2005, there have been seven total serials completed with animation, including two serials being completely animated due to the serial being missing in its entirety. “Power of the Daleks” and “The Macra Terror” are the two most recent serials to be animated. The release of “The Macra Terror” on March 18th will be the seventh release, indicating a potential for more releases in the animated form. Hopefully, more episodes are found in the hands of private collectors or the animation route is discontinued to  allow more episodes to be available for viewers in a normal manner.