Think it’s hard waiting a day for the final episode of Breaking Bad to reach Netflix UK? Here’s something that Doctor Who fans have been waiting nearly five decades for: a huge haul of nine missing, presumed destroyed episodes from the 1960s, returned to the BBC with glorious fanfare.
And yet the result is the same following the BBC’s decision to make these historic, no-longer missing episodes available to watch right away, thanks to the immediacy and ease of digital downloads. Since midnight on Friday 11th October, fans have been able to download (the complete) The Enemy Of The World and (near-complete) The Web Of Fear, two stories from 1967-8 which haven’t been seen in the UK since… well, since 1967-8.
How those episodes were lost in the first place is the dark, sad secret of this show’s 50 year story, but their return using a state-of-the-art mechanism like VOD as the primary distribution platform is a joyous reminder that Doctor Who has lasted half a century by moving with the times. Old is new, and timey-wimey is wibbly-wobbly.
Back then, the BBC simply couldn’t comprehend the possibility that, one day, Doctor Who (not to mention a host of other vintage shows from Dad’s Army to Top Of The Pops) would be so cherished people would want to own copies to watch and re-watch at leisure. This was before home video, let alone DVD – and the idea of video on-demand was the sort of thing you’d expect to find in an episode of Doctor Who, not real life.
It just seemed so unlikely that the programmes held any long-term value. Add to that a prohibitive arrangement with the actors’ union Equity that barred extensive repeats, and the exorbitant cost of broadcast-quality videotape, and the BBC ordered that episodes be wiped. Years of priceless drama, comedy and light entertainment: destroyed.
The only glimmer of hope: these shows were sold worldwide, usually with the master tape transferred to film reels because film was the universal language of broadcast. Doctor Who, in particular, travelled far and wide – to Australia, Hong Kong and large parts of Africa. Ever since the late 1970s, when fandom realised what was happening, the hunt has been on for the missing episodes.
Many reels, which had been returned from overseas to the BBC only to be earmarked for destruction, were saved from the furnace, literally within hours of incineration. Other episodes have turned up in unusual places: according to legend, two episodes of The Dalek Masterplan were found in a box in the basement of a Mormon Church.
The biggest success came in 1991, when the entire four-part serial Tomb Of The Cybermen – something of a Holy Grail among fans – was returned from a TV station in Hong Kong. It was rush-released on VHS the following Spring, breaking the series’ sales record and setting a precedent: if you find the missing episodes, they will sell.
Between 1991 and this month’s announcement, though, only a further four missing episodes were recovered. The first two (returned in 1999 and 2004, respectively) appeared on Lost In Space, an odds and sods collection of surviving episodes – known as ‘orphans’ – from incomplete stories. (As for the other two, both returned in 2011, more on those later…)
By coincidence, Lost In Space included Episode 3 of The Enemy Of The World and Episode 1 of The Web Of Fear, at the time the only survivors of these six-part stories. Today, Enemy exists in its entirely and Web is now missing only its third episode. How delightful to be able to write that. Philip Morris, an Indiana Jones-style episode hunter who travels around the globe looking for long-forgotten film reels, located this haul of nine episodes in a station in Nigeria – just sitting on the shelf, apparently, unaware that grown men on the other side of the world weeped for their return.
And now, they are back! Nine is a big deal – remember, that figure is more than double what has been found since 1991. It restores some balance to Season 5, Patrick Troughton’s second term in the role and one of the worst hit by the BBC’s cull. It includes The Web Of Fear, one of the most lauded of Who stories, and The Enemy Of The World, notable for Troughton’s dual role as Doctor and chief villain Salamander. And it brings the number of missing episodes down from 106 to 97, below the all-important triple-figure threshold that has haunted the show for decades.
The episodes are unveiled in the run-up to Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary (Photo: Adrian Rogers – BBC)
There have been rumours about a return for months, with Morris pinpointed as a possible source after zealous fans started to track cargo shipments of film materials from Africa. There were sealed lips from everybody who ought to have been in the know, but the denials were never 100% categoric, leaving enough of a gap for conspiracy theories to spread. Some claimed as many as 90 of the 106 missing episodes were found, a piece of gossip which became known affectionately as the “omni-rumour”. But the more credible claims zeroed in on Enemy and Web (plus, initially, the missing William Hartnell adventure, Marco Polo: what’s happened to that particular story?).
With the show’s 50th anniversary in November looming, there was a widespread feeling that any announcement would have to come soon. What better news in such a landmark year, than to learn that episodes from the show’s first decade might re-appear?
The most vocal rebuttal from the sceptics and naysayers was that, if the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, was to launch a surprise DVD release, then the fans would receive early warning from the BBFC, which by law must categorise every release and publish the certification details. The BBFC website has often been the first place to leak DVD news, and fandom has been trained to anticipate future DVD releases using this method. Yet, and here’s where things get fiendishly clever, iTunes downloads aren’t covered – yet – by the BBFC. It’s a loophole the BBC has exploited to ensure a co-ordinated marketing blitz, with the downloads going on sale at the same time as the official press statements… notwithstanding that the identity of the returning episodes has been an open secret for several weeks, if not months.
Using iTunes is a masterstroke, but it’s arguable the BBC missed a trick by not applying the same method to the two missing episodes discovered in 2011: Galaxy 4 Episode 3 and The Underwater Menace Episode 2. The former was included as an extra on the special edition of previously released story The Aztecs; the latter is still pending while the story’s first and last episodes, still missing, are animated as per other incomplete stories in the range.
The BBC could easily have launched both episodes onto iTunes in 2011, but the market for a single, out-of-context episode is marginal. But two (near complete) stories? That’s a different matter, and the ideal opportunity to trial a new way of making the finds public. Yes, The Web Of Fear is still missing its third episode, but it’s also the far more sought after story of the two, so the BBC will no doubt think that the critical mass from positive word-of-mouth will ensure healthy sales.
(Incidentally, the third episode has been made available as a “recon”, which serves as a great primer into how fans have been “watching” these missing stories over the past decade. Right from the start, a number of fans in the 1960s had the foresight to record the audio of Doctor Who stories off-air; meanwhile, an entrepreneurial photographer called John Cura invented a new business called ‘telesnaps,’ taking dozens of photos of the on-screen action with a view to selling the prints to actors to put into their C.V.s. By combining the soundtrack with the still photographs, it is possible to reconstruct the finished products – and that’s what the BBC is releasing in the case of Web’s missing episode.)
Of course, the BBC isn’t stupid, and realises that a) not everybody wants to use iTunes and b) Who fans tend to be completists. So DVDs will follow – The Enemy Of The World in November, The Web Of Fear in the new year. Some will no doubt grumble about double-dipping, but those are the same fans who have now bought five copies (2 x VHS, 2 x DVD, 1 x Blu-ray) of Spearhead From Space over the years. The Web of Fear is #1 in the UK iTunes Store “Top Series” chart, while The Enemy of the World is #2.
The UK iTunes Top TV Series chart this weekend
Instead, the BBC has pioneered a means of democratising the good news. For fans, this is your birthday and Christmas rolled into one, and should further missing episodes be discovered (and there are already plenty of conspiracy theories suggesting that this is exactly the case) then a precedent has been set.
It’s also a breathtaking time-lapse snapshot of the history of television, a real-life trip aboard the TARDIS, from 1968 (when a story, once broadcast, was deemed to have fulfilled its function) to 2013, when we have everything at the click of a mouse.
Well, not everything, but we’re now nine episodes of Doctor Who closer to completion than we were a week ago.
VODzilla.co will review The Enemy Of The World and The Web Of Fear at a later date. They are available on iTunes for £9.99 each.