Saving Doctor Who: Transience, Canon, and the Missing Episodes
Geekdom has spent much of this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which is one of the most prominent and long-lasting of all popular cultural fandoms. The impending regeneration of the 11th Doctor at year’s end and the November showing of Who’s 50th anniversary show have lent some elevated excitement to Who followers. Yet perhaps the most interesting development in Who fandom is the search for lost Doctor Who programs destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Television shows like Doctor Who were once destroyed as a standard practice, and the lost episodes have since become Who grail.
In an otherwise transient popular culture, Who fans hope to recover and breathe new complexity into an oeuvre that is already exceptionally complex. For various fans, the missing episodes may harbor some new insights into one of television’s most deconstructed series; for many the search itself and the scholarship on the lost episodes is a central dimension of Who’s committed fandom. The corporations seeking out the same episodes are eager to sustain fan interest in the missing programs (BBC had a “Treasure Hunt” program seeking lost shows), but corporate interests revolve around the profits such shows may harbor in a renewed lease on life as DVD’s and iTunes downloads. That question of what is meaningful is actually quite similar to the skepticism often directed at scholarship (including archaeology) that seeks out, preserves, and celebrates apparently mundane everyday life.
“Wiping” television episodes was common practice in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, when there were no concrete archival policies. Programs were destroyed to save storage space or to tape over existing programs, and there was no clear sense that they might have significance if not profitability beyond a single showing. For instance, only two of the first 26 episodes of The Avengers’ first season are preserved in their entirety (and the first act of the first episode); most of the first decade of the British Top of the Pops music show (including the Beatles’ only live TV performance) are lost; cult programs like BBC’s Doomwatch are missing many episodes; most soap operas and game shows (e.g., the long-running British soap Crossroads) were erased; and the whole archive of the Dumont Television Network (1946-1956, including early Jackie Gleason programming and series such as The Ernie Kovacs Show) was dumped into the Upper New York Bay in the early 1970’s. Most news programming was destroyed, including nearly all of the three British channels’ coverage of the 1969 lunar landing and most of Walter Cronkite’s newscasts. Sporting events well into the 1970’s were routinely wiped: Both NBC and CBS covered the first Super Bowl and destroyed the tapes afterward; most motor sports coverage on BBC and ITV has been destroyed; and the 1975 World Series is the first for which all games have been preserved.
The lost Doctor Who episodes are not at all unique in their fate, and in many ways the program is exceptionally well-preserved. Doctor Who master videotapes were first deleted in March, 1967 and through 1974 Who master videotapes were systematically discarded. In 1972, though, BBC still had a nearly complete collection of 16mm telerecordings, but those were destroyed between then and 1978.
After 1978 the BBC and a host of collectors began an increasingly concerted search for surviving versions of the show. In 1983, for instance, a collector happened to buy two 16 mm film cannisters labeled as Doctor Who, and they did indeed hold two missing episodes. Other viewing copies have been recovered outside the UK, including the 1991 recovery of “Tomb of the Cybermen” in Hong Kong. In October 2013 the BBC announced that the 1967-1968 serial “The Enemy of the World” and five of the six episodes of the 1968 serial “The Web of Fear” were recovered in Nigeria.
Who fans sometimes look at the missing shows as key elements of the canon; that is, canon is the creators’ master narrative, the fundamental stories developed by writers and show planners and performed by its stars. Later performances and texts can revise that canon, and some of the Doctor Who narratives like comics and novelizations are sometimes linked to core mythology, but filmed episodes of the show have the most significance in canon.
Canon in fandoms like Doctor Who, Star Wars, or Star Trek is the fundamental creators’ narratives, but fandoms interpret and dissect canon quite actively. Fandom interpretations of a series’ master narratives often involve active critique and even revision of the canon (compare Supernatural and Lost). Who fans very actively patrol the boundaries of canon, and this most often is reflected in assessing how new series shows articulate with or violate “classic” series canon. Such policing of master canon in Who fandom demands an astounding mastery of a complex range of Doctor Who narrative including a half-century of shows, audios, still visuals, and novels, among other things. Those devoted fans become significant arbiters of the canon’s interpretation; they are the interpreters, shapers, and populizers of canon (or, from a marketing standpoint, the brand; cf. Grant McKracken’s analysis of “multipliers”). Consequently, the caricature of the hyper-obsessed Who fan intensively studying the canonical texts and spreading the fandom faith is not without some reality in Who and similarly complex fandoms.
As of today, 97 of the 253 episodes from the show’s first six years remain missing (compare Richard Molesworth’s 1997 Doctor Who Magazine piece on the missing episodes). Nevertheless, audio exists for every Doctor Who episode aired: Who fandom proudly heralds that the very earliest Who followers made audio recordings from its first episodes. Seventeen of the 26 Who serials missing some or all episodes have partial clips from Australian and New Zealand censors; fan-recorded scenes have been recovered; and some episodes are represented by clips shown during other programs. A scatter of other visuals remain, such as tele-snaps (i.e., off-screen pictures taken during filming, some of which have been used by the BBC to reconstruct missing episodes, though many tele-snap pictures were themselves destroyed in the 1970’s); there are also some off-air pictures, and there are novelisations of many of the missing episodes.
The deletion of so much programming attests to the widespread assumption that popular culture is transient entertainment. Programmers did not necessarily have a philosophical epiphany in the late 1970′s about archival curation and the consequence of television shows. The emergence of home videotaping began to make programs potentially profitable beyond their original airing in the late 1970′s, and Doctor Who VHS tapes began to appear in 1983. Video recording was one of the most systematic challenges to the notion of television programs as momentary entertainment. Meaningful practices and symbols are routinely cast as “permanent” and rational, whereas momentary and insignificant emotional diversions are considered transient; much of popular culture has routinely been consigned to the latter dimensions of our everyday lives. However, taping underscored fans’ intensive sustained engagement with popular texts, and some Who fans had indeed been audio and video recording the show from the very outset.
Any recovered episodes will ascend to Who canon, but few surprises are likely harbored in the lost programs. On one hand, the fevered search for the missing episodes is perhaps more consequential than the episodes themselves. The sustained search for lost Who programs has been spearheaded by exceptionally devoted fans, and for many Who fans that search and commitment to its most sacred texts separates them from the ranks of more recent fandoms. Contemporary participatory fandoms are now created by television programmers nearly from the outset, fandoms that for some Who fans seems orchestrated by shows’ creators; in contrast, Doctor Who fandom emerged nearly instantly and was always especially devoted. For instance, Richard Molesworth’s encyclopedic Wiped! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes dissects the disposition of the missing Who episodes and the subsequent search with a depth that is obsessive even by Who fan standards. The tome is definitive research, but in some ways it also is significant as a rhetorical form displaying the depth of Who fan thought. An SFX reviewer implied that such a depth of appreciation and scholarly commitment could only come from a genuine fan, arguing that “unlike various ‘academic’ Who tomes liberally spouting deconstructionist nonsense about Derrida and Foucault, at least this one’s propped up by hard facts; a labour of love that’s clearly involved an immense amount of painstaking research, it is, in its own small way, quietly heroic.”
On the other hand, the missing episodes would provide essential visual performances that are critical to television fandom. The stories of the missing episodes are well-known to fans, and many have been reconstructed in animations, audio recordings, and still images, but the show itself remains the fundamental text defining authentic canon. The visual performance of an episode contains subtleties that for fans simply cannot be captured with any of the remaining archival resources. For instance, one of the most feverishly sought-out (and re-imagined and animated) missing episodes is “The Tenth Planet,” which includes the first regeneration, when the First Doctor transformed into the Second Doctor. Only a still image and some partial video survives from William Hartnell’s transformation into Patrick Troughton. The regenerations are visual performances more than narrative storylines, moments when the new actor portraying the Doctor established a physical presence, so the regeneration transitions are critical performative moments. Theories of fan canon tend to focus on the narrowly defined textual narratives of fandom (e.g., storylines, characterization of recurring characters like Daleks, etc), but much of the authenticity of particular Doctors and the episodes themselves revolve around the literal physical performance of the cast.
At the end of November the latest excitement in the Who search came when rumors surfaced that the 1964 serial “Marco Polo” had been recovered from a fans’ 16-mm filming of the seven episodes. The BBC has been silent on the stories that it had restored the silent films and is preparing them for market. When the BBC announced the nine episodes found in Nigeria, the “Enemy of the World” serial and surviving “Web of Fear” episodes were immediately offered for sale on iTunes the same day last October (and a DVD of “Enemy of the World” followed in November). Consequently, some fans are nervously optimistic the tales are indeed true and more of the missing canon will be soon ready for download. In the meantime, the search for the missing episodes and fans’ imagination of the canon may be more consequential than finding the remaining 97 episodes, and even if those episodes reach fans’ hands they will remain contested canonical texts.
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“The Enemy of the World” image from Wikimedia
“The Evil of the Daleks” film can image from Wikimedia
William Hartnell regeneration image from Wikimedia