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The Doctor Who column: Missing with confidence

FEATURES - TV

Time hasn't always been kind to our favourite Time Lord, particularly regarding his archest enemy - the BBC.

At last we have found thee...

Do you remember those old sticker albums that you used to have when you were a kid? There you are, stuck plonk in the middle of a 1983 school playground, clutching a tattered copy of the Return Of The Jedi sticker album, wondering how to fill in those missing gaps. They're frustrating things, those sticker albums – what would happen would be that you would spend your hard-earned pocket money on packs of stickers, only to find that tucked away inside are stickers that you already had. So your next option is to trudge wearily around the school playground asking if you can swap your duplicate sticker for one that you don't have. Of course, it never worked out that way, since the missing stickers were as rare as a sighting of the sun in Britain in June 2012.

Annoying? Well not as annoying as the gaps in Doctor Who's archive. This is stickergate on a much larger scale. To all newcomers looking to hope to see every existing episode of Doctor Who from 1963 to the present day, be warned – there's disappointment ahead, because a sizeable number of the early stories no longer exist. They're gone, banjaxed, end of the road, finito. This was to prove a particular thorn in the side for me when I reviewed all the Doctor Who stories. Back in the early days, I'd be trying to deduce what was going on from screengrabs and crackly soundtracks that sounded like Doctor Who had been recorded from the bottom of a wishing well. The upshot was one big guessing game – in some cases, I was cheerfully optimistic about the direction, but I could be proved wrong if ever one of the missing episodes decides to surface.

These days, the missing episodes have become the equivalent of the Holy Grail. It's the sort of thing that Indiana Jones would fly halfway across the world to recover. Indiana Jones And The Lost Doctor Who Episodes – there, the title writes itself.

Doctor Who fandom is rife with speculation as to whether or not there's any remote chance of missing episodes turning up again. The lost stories have acquired a curious quasi-mythical status, simply because they probably will never be seen again. Fury From The Deep. The Power Of The Daleks. Marco Polo. Three very good examples of “classic” Doctor Who, even though they haven't been seen by anyone under the age of 40. The revelation that two lost episodes turned up in late 2011 was met with thudding jaws falling to the floor. Given that before this miracle, the last episode to have been discovered was way back in 2004, all hope had been pretty much abandoned, but all of a sudden, the fact that two episodes were back from beyond the grave meant that the hope started to come back again.

So just how did perfectly decent episodes go AWOL in the first place? Well, basically it was because the BBC had no room for all these Doctor Who episodes cluttering up the place. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, stories were recorded on those great big clunky spools of tape. You'd need the muscles of Popeye to lug just one set of episodes around, comprising four to seven whopping great big tin cans. Back in those days, there was neither the technology nor room to make storage a viable option. The common practice was that the stories would be copied and sold abroad for showing in other countries, after which the master tapes would be destroyed. Think of it as when you clean out the house, and you want to get rid of those old cassette tapes that you used to have from the old days. Not only do tapes have that annoying hissy quality, the tape will probably snap in two anyway.

Another analogy is when you no longer want the stuff that you recorded on video from the last Christmas gone. You've sat down, digested the latest antics of Kat Moon shrieking down the place in Albert Square, and then went to sleep with Kat's hollering still ringing in your ears like psychotic church bells. After that, you no longer have a need for it, so you tape over it. Well, the same idea applies to the junking of the old Doctor Who material. Back in the 1970s, there was no real idea that archived TV could have such a connection with the general public. Repeats weren't shown all that often back in the early 1970s, the video recorder only started to take off in the later part of the decade, and there certainly wasn't a big appetite for old black and white TV, especially now that programmes were made in colour. It was undeniably short-sighted of the Beeb to junk the old episodes – not only of Doctor Who – but of other old comedies, soap operas and good old Top Of The Pops. Back then, they just didn't see the potential in keeping old vintage episodes, but in all fairness, they couldn't have predicted how huge the demand for retro TV would become.

So it's a good thing that over the years, Doctor Who fans have campaigned to make the 1960s era of Doctor Who as complete as possible. Ian Levine, for example, managed to save some of the old episodes from a fiery demise, such as the first Dalek adventure. And from the late 1970s onwards, Levine and other fans have managed to source some of the missing episodes. They have turned up from all sorts of odd places – overseas TV studios, a car boot sale, a church, a cupboard. It's the sort of stuff you really couldn't make up. Sometimes, private collectors of old vintage TV had missing Doctor Who episodes in their collections without realising. The collectors wouldn't necessarily be Doctor Who fans, more like people with an interest in acquiring rare film and TV finds. The guy who discovered Galaxy Four's Episode 3 and The Underwater Menace Episode 2, Terry Burnett, was unaware that the episodes were actually missing in the first place.

On the subject of these two, curiously, some of the fans have started to reassess both stories in a more favourable light. The Underwater Menace especially, has drawn praise from some quarters for aspects such as Patrick Troughton's superlative performance and more of a sense of fun that you don't really get in Episode 3. Well, for me, the jury's still out on that one, at least until it's brought out on DVD. But curiously, the fans seem to be a lot more forgiving of archive TV a multitude of sins. Compare that to when The Tomb Of The Cybermen was found intact in 1992. Before its discovery in Hong Kong, it was one of those legendary stories, the ultimate 'missing find'. And yet when it surfaced and was rush released onto home video, the brickbats came out over the wonky stereotypes, pantomime acting and Toberman on wires. I think these days, more people are willing to overlook this and accept that these stories are very much of their time (catchphrase copyright, Peter Davison) and were not made to be scrutinised in OTT detail. The stories were made to amuse, excite and most of all, entertain – so if any classic story is found again, odds on, that the reception will be more favourable.

What are the odds of more missing Doctor Who episodes turning up? That's anybody's guess. Between 2004 and 2011, I would have said remote. You can have Zoe Salmon offering a prize Dalek on Blue Peter as a reward, but it seems that if there are any hoarders out there, they're keeping schtum. And it seems that a lot of sources have been checked, double checked and triple checked for any leads – in the case of Sierra Leone, there were rumours of existing episodes of a clutch of Season 3 stories, but these were destroyed before anything could be done.

But these days? Well, after last year's discovery, I'm maybe less of a sceptic. After those two episodes turned up, the news was broadcast on TV, in the papers and on the web. Long-lost TV episodes make for headline news these days, and that raises the profile of the campaign, which is good. Given that car-boot sales and antique fairs yielded results in the past, it's not impossible that this sort of thing could happen again in the future. Perhaps the media could help to raise the profile on TV. Picture a special edition of Dickinson's Real Deal in which The Duke hovers over the shoulder of a quaking hopeful with a pile of film cans before the eager eyes of Mike Melody and his crumpled, nicotine-stained five pound notes or Ian Towning and heez fake bleeng. Or a special Who version of Bargain Hunt in which bow-tied posho Tim Wonnacott presides over two teams of cagouled hopefuls who are commanded to scour the local antique fairs and boot sales for any possible reels. And given that Australia's held out promise, well, maybe Sid James impersonator Lou Carpenter from Neighbours is holding onto many a lost episode, in order to impress Shrugalero helper Kate as well as Lucas and his greasy mullet.

Yeah, maybe not.

I don't know if I'll see any more lost Doctor Who episodes in my lifetime. I guess the attitude to take is to expect the worst and then if any do turn up, it's a very pleasant surprise. There's still the power to surprise in this day and age – 10 years ago, I'd have thought that the chances of seeing The Mind Of Evil in colour were less than zero, and heck, next year, apparently the story's available to buy in colour. So even this old sceptic can be surprised now and then – and who knows, maybe, just maybe, I'll be proved wrong when The Web Of Fear turns up in 2022.

John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.

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