Sunday, 30 January 2011

Book Review: Wiped! Doctor Who's Missing Episodes

One of the greatest frustrations of being a ‘Doctor Who’ fan – apart from other ‘Doctor Who’ fans – is the fact that there are currently 108 episodes of the long-running sci-fi classic missing from the BBC’s archives. The show, like many others from the 1960s, fell victim to the Corporation’s policy of selectively purging its own broadcast history due to reasons of space (it was considered impossible and impractical to keep copies of everything the BBC made, particularly during the ‘60s and ‘70s when volume of output was increasing) and cost (the videotape on which programmes were recorded was prohibitively expensive and it was considered more cost-effective to wipe and reuse). Incredibly, by 1975 (recent memory as far as Stuff is concerned), the master tapes of all 253 black-and-white ‘Doctor Who’ episodes had been wiped along with over half of the more recent Jon Pertwee episodes. How this could possibly have happened – and the extraordinary work done by a group of dedicated (some might say obsessed) fans to recover and restore as much of this precious material as possible – is told in ‘Wiped! Doctor Who’s Missing Episode’, a fascinating and sometimes eye-wateringly detailed new volume from Telos, publishers of specialised ‘Doctor Who’ and genre material.

It was in 1981, when an edition of the ‘Doctor Who’ Magazine published an interview with the BBC’s then-Archivist alongside a list of which episodes of the series were no longer in existence, that the majority of the show’s fans became aware of how much of its heritage had gone, apparently forever. Like a bunch of science-fiction detectives these fans began to dig a bit deeper, to find out how and why this had happened and, with the BBC eventually on board as they’d finally realised they’d inadvertently destroyed something culturally significant, sent out calls all across the world – to film collectors, fans and, most importantly, all the overseas TV stations known to have purchased old ‘Doctor Who’ episodes in the past. The search was on to recall anything hidden in foreign TV archives or secreted away in private film collections. As a result, the gaps in the Archive began to be filled as episodes were recovered (most famously from Hong Kong when the long-lost 1967 serial ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ was returned in 1992) or discovered in the most bizarre places (history’s now not clear regarding the finding of two episodes of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, said to have been found in the basement of a Mormon Unification Church in London, the actual location of which remains a mystery of modern researchers). Other episodes were returned from as far afield and far apart as Cyprus, Nigeria and even New Zealand. One particularly-zealous researcher even managed to scour the Archives of ABC in Australia and located a series of brief sections edited from 1960s ‘Doctor Who’ episodes by the station’s censors. Perhaps the most hair-raising anecdore on ‘Wiped!’ is the tale of how notorious and sometimes-controversial ‘Doctor Who’ enthusiast/record producer Ian Levene, interested in buying private prints of classic ‘Doctor Who’ years before the BBC even considered commercially exploiting their Archive (and years before the arrival of home video, to be fair) arrived at the Corporaiton to find all seven episodes of the 1963/4 serial ‘The Daleks’, which introduced Terry Nation’s legendary creations to the British public, bundled together and labelled for imminent junking. Let’s think about this for a second. The Daleks had become a phenomenon in the 1960s, probably the first big commercial and merchandised success of the TV age; surely by virtue of this alone their episodes had secured their place in any TV archive, especially their very first appearance. Apparently not; the BBC’s policy of junking programmes two years after broadcast (sometimes sooner – some Troughton serials were wiped after a few months!) was ruthless and paid no heed to historical importance. What's even more astonishing is the fact that, in 1975, just as Tom Baker was taking over as the fourth Doctor, destined to take the show to new heights of popularity, well over half of his predecessor Jon Pertwee's colour episodes had already been consigned to the dumper; fortunately the damage wasn't quite as permanent as episodes were quickly recovered and restored from abroad but even today there are a handful of Pertwee episodes which exist only as raw black-and-whtie prints (for overseas broadcasters who were late in adopting colour TV) but which are currently undergoing gruelling, costly and time-consuming colour conversion processes in readiness for DVD release.

‘Wiped!’ is full of fascinating facts and is absolutely the definitive work on the subject of what’s gone and what’s been found in the world of ‘Doctor Who’. Author Richard Molesworth has done an extraordinary job in contextualising both the BBC and its policy in relation to junking its output and he’s identified and recognised the key players in the recovery of so much of this priceless material. Eyes may glaze over here and there as the author explains in intricate detail the various ways the BBC recorded and copied and preserved its material, eyes may roll at yet another list of the ‘state of play’ of the ‘Doctor Who’ Archive at any particular point. Moleworth’s enthusiasm leads to a bit of repetition in the text here and there; the anecdote recounting the response from Iran to a BBC enquiry about missing ‘Doctor Who’ episodes – “In the name of Allah, what are you talking about?” – was amusing the first time but the joke had worn off by the third time it was repeated in the text.

Minor quibbles aside ‘Wiped!’ is a massively impressive work and, considering its potential dryness (and there are some bits which are as dry as the desert), it’s surprisingly readable and entertaining. It’s hard not to admire the dedication and perseverance of the fans who, even today, are striving to find ‘Doctor Who’s missing history and ‘Wiped!’ deserves its place on the bookshelves of anyone with even the remotest interest in this ongoing search. It’s been some years now since the last ‘find’ of a missing ‘Doctor Who’ episode and as the years roll by, with new leads drying up and practically all the overseas Archives scoured, it’s beginning to look as if there are always going to be 108 missing episodes of the series. ‘Wiped!’ is a fitting testament to the work done by many people to ensure that it isn’t a whole lot more.

Coming soon to Stuff: Primeval, Being Human, Buried on DVD, The Listening Post with Adele and much more...

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