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Doctor Who's Missing Episodes and the Changing Value of Television

Ddoctor Whos over the decades
BBC/Matt Burlem

Of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who produced by the BBC between 1963 and 1969, 97 are missing. This number had stood at 106, until the news broke in 2013 that nine lost episodes had been returned to the BBC after being located in Nigeria. The find represents the largest discovery of missing episodes ever and made front-page news; ‘THE LOST DOCTOR’ screamed the front page of the Daily Mirror on 11 October 2013. Dr Richard Wallace explains how the episodes came to be lost in space and time.

Between 1963 and 1989, each series of Doctor Who was produced as a sequence of serials numbering anywhere between one and 14 parts. All nine of the recently recovered episodes come from two consecutive serials from the Patrick Troughton era (1966-1969), The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, first broadcast between December 1967 and March 1968. Bar episode three of The Web of Fear, which remains missing, the find sees the completion of two six-part stories from Doctor Who’s fifth season.

The episodes were located in Nigeria at some point in the last two years (the exact time remains undisclosed by the BBC) by Phillip Morris, the executive director of Television International Enterprises Archives Ltd, a company specialising in archival management and the recovery of missing material. As well as the Mirror’s front page, the story was also widely covered on that day’s news, and a section of that evening’s The One Show was dedicated to the recovery and Doctor Who’s missing episodes in general.

Such media attention is not really surprising. The approaching fiftieth anniversary means that Doctor Who is high on the news agenda. However, the degree of public attention given to nine half-hours of 45-year-old children’s television seems to have far outstripped the attention previously directed towards these episodes by anybody other than Doctor Who fans. What the Mirror’s front page seems to highlight is that the cultural status of these nine episodes (and we might extend this to the remaining 97 missing Doctor Who episodes as well) has changed significantly in the time between their first broadcast and the announcement of their recovery. This could tell us a great deal about wider changes in the value of television as a medium in the time between the re-emergence of the BBC Television Service after the Second World War in 1946 and the present day.

It is first worth exploring some of the reasons why such a large amount of British television from the period before 1970 no longer exists. In terms of the BBC, this is the result of a combination of logistical, technological and bureaucratic factors as well as those relating to value (both cultural and commercial). Between 1946 and 1960, a good deal of the BBC’s output was broadcast live, the studio output sent directly to the control room (and then the transmitters) by electronic camera. At this point in time, for any television programme to be preserved it had to have been made on film, an uncommon practice in television at that time. Produced in this manner, a programme might then find its way into the BBC’s Film Library or the National Film Archive. The only alternative was to create a film recording of the live broadcast (a process known as tele-recording), which required a direct decision to keep the programme for posterity. It is because of this process that classic BBC dramas such as Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959) and Rudolph Cartier’s adaptation of 1984 (1954), starring Peter Cushing, still survive.

The important issue here is that for programmes in this era to survive, a choice had to be made to make a physical copy on film for the specific purposes of preservation. There was seen to be little cause for this process, particularly given the expense involved in terms of film stock, man-hours and storage requirement. There was little demand for an extensive television archive due to television’s low cultural status.

The development of videotape technology during the 1950s meant that by the mid-1960s a significant amount of television produced by the BBC was being pre-recorded. As such, physical copies of all episodes of programmes such as Doctor Who have existed as some point; the programmes were made on videotape and then broadcast from those same tapes. However, this does not necessarily mean that television from this era has a greater chance of surviving. Videotape was expensive (the BBC’s own website suggests that each tape cost about the same price as a Mini), and its primary virtue as a recording format was that it could be re-used. Unlike film, which can only be developed once, electronic videotape could be wiped and re-used repeatedly. The tapes were also the property of the engineering department at the BBC, with production offices effectively hiring the tapes for the period of production (the cost coming out of the programme’s budget), before returning them to the engineering department for re-use. So the engineering department owned the tapes, but had no interest in the programmes recorded on them. As a result it was common practice for programmes to be wiped shortly after broadcast. It is important, in this regard, to note that no episodes of Doctor Who made between 1963 and 1969 exist on their original broadcast videotapes; all have come from other sources.

Clearly, the BBC felt that the programmes that it was making were worth far less than the videotape that they were made on. There were no domestic video players at this time so programmes could not be sold to the general public. In addition, Equity, the actors’ union, was concerned that videotape might increase the number of repeats on television, and thus reduce the amount of work for its members. As a result, a deal was struck limiting both the number of times any one programme could be repeated (and including a time limit on when that repeat could be), as well as imposing an overall limit on how many repeats each BBC channel (then only BBC One and BBC Two) could show over the course of a year. The programmes were seen to be virtually useless in terms of both domestic re-use and financial value. Whereas in the pre-videotape era for programmes to survive they had to be actively recorded, in the videotape era programmes had to be actively saved from wiping. That this was rarely done allows us to think about the perceived value of television without technological aspects being a central consideration. We can, for example, ask the question as to whether the cultural value of television was seen to be greater than the financial value of the tapes, the answer to which is a resounding ‘no’.

Doctor Who group

At that time, both within television companies such as the BBC and by the public, television was not recognised as an art form in the same way as theatre, literature, painting and increasingly film were. As Lynn Spigel has noted, it was not until the 1960s in the US and the 1970s in the UK that institutions such as art galleries and archives became interested in television as a product with cultural and historical value. Even television’s impact on the everyday lives of its viewers was not recognised as significant until the 1970s, when theorists such as Raymond Williams, in his ground-breaking study Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), and the researchers at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, laid the foundations of Television Studies as a discipline. Given the low view of television within popular discourse it is unsurprising that before 1970 very little of it was seen as worthy of preservation.

As Steve Bryant has highlighted, television broadcasts that were seen as important were documentary and news items covering significant historical events such as the Queen’s Coronation. In essence, those programmes were seen as worthy of preservation, not because of their status as television, but because of the events that they depicted. Other programmes likely to have survived were significant technological experiments or demonstrations, preserved by the television institutions because they were seen as important moments in their institutional development. Once again, items such as landmark outside or aerial broadcasts are likely to survive, not because of the quality of the programmes themselves, but because of the displays of technology apparent within them. Programmes seen as ‘everyday’ television were unlikely to survive – dramas, game shows, light entertainment shows, life-style, magazine and children’s programmes. And this list includes Doctor Who.

Where there was perceived to be value in these programmes was in the international market, and it is here that a level of irony begins to appear. The status of television has unquestionably grown since 1946. The appearance of nine episodes of Doctor Who on the front page of the Daily Mirror seems to demonstrate that a serial such as The Enemy of the World has far more cultural value now, at least within public discourse, than it did when it was first broadcast. The irony is that the reason that these episodes survive today to enjoy this change in their cultural status is not because they were always seen as valuable culturally but because they were only seen as valuable commercially, and even then not in this country.

Doctor Who has always been a valuable commodity for the BBC to exploit, but it is only since the early 1980s that it has been able to directly exploit it domestically within the UK through video and DVD sales. However, from 1963 onwards, the series was sold to overseas television stations for broadcast around the world. Film copies of each episode of Doctor Who were made by BBC Enterprises (later BBC Worldwide), the commercial wing of the BBC. These were film recordings, made from the original videotapes using the same tele-recording process used in the 1950s, and were created in between the programmes having been broadcast and the engineering department wiping the videotapes. Duplicates of the films could then be made easily and cheaply, and the international distribution of film prints also avoided any compatibility issues that could arise between different broadcasting systems. Every episode bar one (the 1965 Christmas Day episode ‘The Feast of Steven’) was duplicated by Enterprises and the majority sold to a number of international broadcasters.

As an example of the extent of Enterprises activities, the earliest story currently regarded as missing (though rumours persist that it was also recovered alongside the episodes of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear) is Marco Polo (1964) which was the most widely-sold Doctor Who serial. This story was broadcast in 24 countries: Australia, Canada, Malta, Singapore, Gibraltar, Aden, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Barbados, Uganda, New Zealand, Ghana, Zambia, Jamaica, Cyprus, Kenya, Bermuda, Thailand, Venezuela, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, Iran and Ethiopia. However, it should be noted that this does not mean that 24 copies of each episode were created; instead, episodes were often passed from one broadcaster to another in accordance with BBC regulations. This is why the nine episodes most recently recovered were located in Nigeria, even though it was believed that they were the same copies as those originally sent to Hong Kong.

It is significant, therefore, that of the 156 episodes of Doctor Who that are still known to survive from the 1960s, 152 exist as a direct result of the episodes having been duplicated by Enterprises. The remaining four episodes were originally made and broadcast on film, so were preserved in the BBC’s Film Library after broadcast. The irony comes, therefore from the fact that it is a direct result of the BBC’s commercial activities and Doctor Who’s value as a commodity that these episodes still exist to be enjoyed by audiences who now value the programme as an important cultural artefact.

There are however a number of issues. The first of these is directly related to the uneasy relationship between cultural and commercial value. Although we have BBC Enterprises to thank for the preservation of a great deal of Doctor Who’s past, we don’t have it all because Enterprises also junked many of their copies of the episodes following the introduction of colour television, at which point the programme’s black and white episodes were once again seen to be of little value. It is also important to note that the turn towards archiving by the BBC in the late 1970s seems to have come about in part because the broadcaster was able to see a commercial outlet for its programmes within the UK in the form of domestic home-video. This in turn increased the visibility of the programme, making it both a commercial property for the BBC with an attached economic value, whilst also raising its cultural status through its commercial activities.

Tom Baker

This has only escalated in the current era. The merchandising potential of the programme in its fiftieth year demonstrates how to a large extent the programme’s cultural value is both reflected and promoted by the BBC’s commercial activities. Indeed it is significant that the announcement of the return of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear was not timed to break the news of their recovery, as has generally been the case with previous missing episodes, but to announce their scheduling as DVD releases and their availability to download immediately via iTunes. So, whilst the programme’s increased cultural status can be seen in the front page headline of the Daily Mirror, the strategy around making the official announcement (the news was embargoed until midnight on 10 October, following a week’s worth of speculation) was designed with maximum commercial impact in mind.

This also raises the question as to how useful the case of Doctor Who might be to a discussion of television and value. In terms of its longevity, the programme is atypical; only a handful of programmes including Coronation Street (1960 -) and Panorama (1953 -) have survived on British television for longer. Doctor Who’s current and continued popularity (and its imminent anniversary), therefore, means that any news relating to the programme, even its past, is of a much higher profile than, say, news relating to Dad’s Army (1968-1977) or Z Cars (1962-1978), two other relatively high-profile casualties of the BBC’s archival policy of the 1960s. Doctor Who was also the programme chosen as a case study by Sue Malden, the BBC’s first archive selector after the formation of the BBC’S Film and Television Library in 1978. It was because of this investigation that the programme’s archival status was highlighted, and as a result more attention has been paid to its past than many other missing television programmes.

There is an issue then, that only currently important programmes might be seen as culturally important because their archives can be exploited commercially, whereas, so called ‘lower status’ programmes will be searched for, and returns celebrated, in a less enthusiastic way. We have no idea, for example, whether any other material was found by Phillip Morris alongside the nine episodes of Doctor Who.

This, therefore, raises an even more fundamental question about the wider view of the question of value in relation to television as a whole. Did the return of nine episodes of 45-year old television warrant a tabloid front page because it was ‘missing television’, or because it was ‘missing Doctor Who’? The answer is most probably the latter. Even the BBC’s website acknowledges that, as has always been the case, certain types of television are valued (and therefore worth preserving) more than others. The precise wording is as follows:

At the moment, everything is recorded and everything is kept for a minimum of five years. But we do exercise a selection policy on that. We keep what you would expect us to keep, so all the drama is kept, all the entertainment is kept, all the very high value, expensive programmes to make. We keep our news, we keep all the current affairs. The areas where we tend to be more selective would be, for example, in a long-running quiz show, where it's really important to have examples of that, but we wouldn't necessarily keep them all for ever. Because when we're talking about keeping something here, we're saying we're going to keep it for ever and that's a big overhead to have.

– Adam Lee, BBC Archive 

So, some things have changed. The value of much of television’s output is seen as being worth the financial cost of preservation, though it is unclear whether this value comes from the programme’s status as a cultural ‘heritage’ or because it can now be exploited commercially.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not the focus on the recovery of ‘our television heritage’, to use both Lynn Spigel’s and Steve Bryant’s term, has been limited to the recovery of high-profile series such as Doctor Who and Dad’s Army. Archivally, these programmes have been prioritised in the past, and continue to be so today, over genres such as game shows which are as much a part of our cultural heritage but which continue to be perceived as low-status programmes. Indeed, is the visibility of programmes such as Doctor Who hiding the archival decimation of other high-quality dramas of the era? Does the case of Doctor Who actually tell us that what is really important to archival television’s cultural status is its commercial value? Hopefully not. Although it is pleasing to see 45-year old television episodes being welcomed home so visibly, the fate of much of our television heritage remains invisible; this situation needs to change.

November 2013

Dr Richard WallaceDr Richard Wallace is the project officer on the ‘Voices of the University: Memories of Warwick, 1965 – 2015’ oral history project currently running in the Institute of Advanced Study. The aim of the project is to create a large archive of audio interviews with a wide range of people who have been involved with the university at all levels in an all capacities in the 50 years since it opened in 1965. Richard completed a PhD thesis entitled ‘The Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever: Re-thinking the Comic Mockumentary’ in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick in January 2012. He held an IAS Early Career Research Fellowship from April to September 2012. As well as conducting research for the ‘Voices of the University’ Project. Richard also teaches and researches in Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies. His research interests include aspects of British television history, film and television documentary, and comedy on screen.

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