I thought it had to be another hoax when I read last week that long-lost copies of perhaps as many as 100 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been found in Ethiopia. You hear about obscure Doctor Whos popping up in remote places sometimes, but there’s rarely fire under all the smoke. Well there’s fire this time, albeit more of a cigarette lighter than a mighty conflagration. The rumors were way off on the number and country, but nine missing episodes of Doctor Who from 1967 and 1968 have been found in a cupboard in the Nigerian city of Jos.
The find was made by Philip Morris, director of a company called Television International Enterprises Archive.
Mr Morris said: “The tapes had been left gathering dust in a storeroom at a television relay station in Nigeria. I remember wiping the dust off the masking tape on the canisters and my heart missed a beat as I saw the words, Doctor Who. When I read the story code I realised I’d found something pretty special.”
He said it had been a “lucky” find given the high temperatures in the African country. “Fortunately they had been kept in the optimum condition.”
They still needed remastering, though. Lots of dirt, dust, scratches marred the film surface.
Phillip Morris describes his discovery of the film cans in Nigeria and how they got there:
The newly-rediscovered episodes star Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, Frazer Hines as Jamie and Deborah Watling as Victoria in two classic six-parters: The Enemy of the World, which is unique in that the Troughton plays both the Doctor and his main enemy, Salamander, and The Web of Fear which introduced the character of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, aka the Brigadier. There was only one episode of The Enemy of the World known to have survived in the BBC archive, episode three. The Nigerian finds include episodes one, two, four, five and six, thus completing the series. The Web of Fear only had episode one extant. Now we can add episodes two, four, fix and six to the tally. Episode three has yet to be found, but it has been reconstructed from stills and audio, which is actually kind of bearable. They do that with silent pictures all the time, and they don’t have any dialogue to make it easier to follow.
All of this is necessary because the BBC had an unfortunately short-sighted policy of destroying the original transmission tapes of its television programming from the 1960s and 1970s. They did this regularly back then, purging the records of what was deemed excess baggage to free up room and so they could reuse the tape. There was also a contract with the actors’ union which stipulated that the fees paid to performers would skyrocket after a certain number of airings. When a program’s repeat rights expired, airing it again became prohibitively expensive so why keep old copies and have to pay for storage on something that can’t be shown? Besides, back then, few people cared in principle about film and television preservation, least of all the makers of said films and television shows.
As a result of this cultural blind spot, a great many early programs only exist now in stills and occasional sound recordings. The reason so many nerds can recite Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches by heart at top volume is that Terry Gilliam got wind of the BBC’s plans and bought the masters before they could be wiped. He was lucky. When Peter Cook tried to save the original recordings of Not Only… But Also, a groundbreaking sketch comedy show he co-created, co-wrote and co-starred in with Dudley Moore, BBC “red tape,” as the Beeb describes it today with understated chagrin, got in the way. Not Only… But Also was wiped.
Doctor Who was no different. Of the 253 episodes that aired in the first six years of the show (that’s a crazy number of episodes in such a short time, btw; British TV sure isn’t like that anymore), 106 were thought lost. Here’s a list of missing episodes (not updated yet to reflect the Nigerian find). The Doctor’s saving grace has been a rare episode cropping up in a random attic or two, and episodes that were copied and sold to foreign broadcasters. They’ve turned up before but this is the largest group found at one time since the destruction of original masters stopped.
The digitally remastered episodes can be purchased on iTunes right now. The Enemy of the World will be released on DVD on November 25th, 2013, The Web of Fear on February 24th, 2014. Collector’s editions will be available on the BBC website. Meanwhile, here are a few previews, some of which include spoilers, just in case a 45-year-old episode of television still needs spoiler warnings, which in this case it actually may because these episodes have not been seen since they first aired.
The Enemy of the World, episode 1 – 23 December 1967
The Enemy of the World, episode 4 – 13 January 1968
The Web of Fear, episode 5 – 2 March 1968:
The Web of Fear, episode 6 – 9 March 1968: