The last week or so has been just about the most exciting time to be a hardcore longtime fan of Doctor Who ever: at midnight last night after months of frothing online speculation it was finally confirmed by the BBC that nine previously missing episodes of the show from the late 60s Patrick Troughton era had been recovered. And if that were not enough to cause severe palpitations across a large swathe of middle-aged men around the world the Beeb also announced that the episodes would be made available via iTunes with immediate effect, with DVDs to follow in the next few weeks.
Some context is probably called for here. Back in the days before home video players television was considered a pretty ephemeral medium and the idea of preserving and archiving entertainment programmes didn’t really exist. The videotape on which shows were recorded was expensive but reusable so it made sense to wipe the tapes of broadcasts after a respectable interval had passed – the BBC even had a policy agreed with the actors’ union of not repeating programmes more than once, as it was felt that repeats cut down the time available for new commissions. Subsequently by the mid-70s the cupboard was pretty bare of vintage Who, though some episodes had managed to hang on to existence by dint of being transferred onto film for potential sale in other countries. By 1978 when the Corporation woke up to the possibility that they were destroying an exploitable asset there were only 118 black and white Doctor Who episodes known to exist, with 135 missing. Over the next few years recoveries were made in dribs and drabs from overseas television stations and private collectors, with the most notable find being all four parts of the Troughton story The Tomb Of The Cybermen which was reclaimed from Hong Kong in 1992. After this last though it looked like that was that: in the next twenty years only another four episodes were located and by last year it seemed pretty unlikely that the missing episode count of 106 would be whittled down any further.
However. Doctor Who fans are nothing in not tenacious, and one in particular had the time and resources to actually travel to broadcasting companies across world in search of missing TV programmes. Philip Morris started his epic hunt round about the time that the successful revival of the programme hit our screens and has been trawling archives across Africa and beyond. His dedication paid off: the trail eventually led to a TV station in Jos, Nigeria where he found some highly interesting cans of film. The full results of his labours are yet to be revealed (one persistent rumour suggests that he’s dug up something like ninety of the missing Who episodes, along with tonnes of other programmes that went AWOL in the 60s and 70s), but the discovery of just these nine episodes is mind-boggling enough, particularly as they represent the complete restoration of one Troughton six part story The Enemy Of The World and the near-complete restoration of another, one of the fans’ absolute Holy Grails, The Web Of Fear (aka The One With The Yetis In The London Underground. You know, the one where the Doctor meets the Brigadier). I know it’s basically just a children’s TV series we’re talking about here, and a fairly cheaply made one at that, but for those of the anorak persuasion this is on the order of someone suddenly popping up with ten hitherto-unsuspected Shakespeare plays, or five unreleased Beatles albums, or a revised version of the 1990 World Cup which shows England beating Germany on penalties in the semi-final and going on to lift the trophy. The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who has until now been something of a disappointment, with not even the casting announcement of the fabulous Peter Capaldi (surely one of the two men on the planet best equipped to play the Doctor, and Benedict Cumberbatch has already let it be known he’s not interested) really making up for the paucity of new episodes and the slightly so-what quality of those that have been screened, but it’s hard to imagine a better end to it than this.
I haven’t downloaded the material as it perversely seems a bit too…well…easy, and I prefer to watch things on DVD rather than on computer screens anyway, but I’ve seen a few clips from the recovered stories and they look bright, shiny and as in good nick as any of the stuff that’s been available for years. Pat Troughton looks like he’s having a whale of a time and is uncannily reminiscent of Matt Smith in places…or should that be the other way round? This is an amazing find, and the possibility that it might just be the tip of an iceberg may be enough to make the whole of Who fandom spontaneously combust. Mr Morris, we thank you very much.