From The Archives: How Doctor Who Magazine Broke The Story Of The Missing Episodes

It’s a story most fans are depressingly familiar with now – how a short-sighted approach to archive material combined with the costs involved in storing recordings resulted in the junking of whole swathes of Doctor Who’s past. But back in 1981 it certainly wasn’t common knowledge and those who were aware that early material was missing wouldn’t have known exactly which stories had been cast into the vortex.

So it fell to Doctor Who Magazine (or Doctor Who Monthly as it was back then), then still a relatively new publication but one which was for many their primary and perhaps only source of news about the programme, to tell fans in detail about just how episodes had come to be junked, together with a guide to what remained in the BBC archives. They did this in their Doctor Who Winter Special of 1981 (sadly, the magazine has lost the habit of assigning a season to its special issues) and it’s since gone down in fan lore as something of a ‘ground zero’ for the missing episodes, being the first time a mass publication had made us aware of the scale of what had been lost.

The information is presented rather starkly in a one-page list which gives chapter and verse on the status of what was left in the archives and what was gone (although DWM later issued a correction to the list, using Matrix Data Bank – a very handy Q&A feature in the pre-internet era – to tell readers that Wheel in Space Part Six did exist but The Invasion Part Four didn’t). Many long-term fans can recall to this day their sense of shock when they first learned that a whopping 136 episodes (roughly a quarter of the total number transmitted up to that date) were missing. Classic stories from the show’s early years were gone in their entirety and just the odd episode or two was left from many others. Even the colour era hadn’t escaped the purge, with several Jon Pertwee episodes stored only in black and white and Part One of Invasion of the Dinosaurs unfairly singled out and falling victim to a mistaken dumping.

In truth, the magazine rather underplays the despair that its editor must have known would be felt by the readership at learning the grim news. As a licensed publication DWM would have been reluctant to indulge in criticism of the BBC, and the magazine seeks to explain rather than condemn the circumstances that led to this sad state of affairs. An interview with Sue Malden, then Archive Selector for the BBC’s Film Library and one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who’s long history, gives a detailed overview of how the episodes came to be lost in the first place before turning to more positive matters (‘Since taking up her post… Sue Malden has made the hunt for missing Doctor Whos something of a pet project’). The interview concludes with a very understated rallying cry to readers to pass on any leads that may enable missing material to be returned, with Sue taking care to stress that no payment could be made.

One of the joys of reading the special now, of course, is to do so knowing that the grim toll of missing episodes is now considerably shorter (97 at the last count) with the intervening years having seen an impressive effort to recover the programme’s past by following trails both at home and overseas. And the creative work done to fill in the gaps in the programme’s history via soundtracks, colourisation, animation, and all manner of technical wizardry to clean up and restore ageing archive material would have been unthinkable back in 1981, before any stories had been released on video and when the best hope of watching archive Doctor Who was via very rare repeat screenings such as The Five Faces of Doctor Who season, coincidentally trailed in the introduction to Sue Malden’s interview in the magazine.

Doctor Who Magazine has certainly played its part in the recovery process, not least via publishing the 1960s telesnaps, even if they did give us a terrible shock back in 1981.

  • bmacdonald

    I’m curious — when did watching old episodes become possible for UK viewers? According to wiki, the VHS releases started in 1983, but they only released a handful each year. If you didn’t have access to them, then…what? Did people just not know anything about older eras of the show? Did they fill in with the Target novelizations?

    In the US, at least when I started watching in 1983, the stories were shown edited together to make a single episode, usually 90 minutes. So you could watch a season’s worth of stories in just six weeks. When a station caught up to the “present,” they’d just loop around and start over, usually starting with “Robot” or “Spearhead from Space,” but at least one station would go all the way back to “Unearthly Child.” I happened to live in an area where I could receive three different stations, each at a different point in the cycle. So I’d seen most of the still-existing stories within a couple of years of starting to watch.

    • bar is in-console-able

      There were occasional repreats on BBC2, but those who didn’t read the Target books and couldn’t afford the early VHS (like me) just had people who told us about the earlier ones, and our own imagination/faith/sheerbloodymindedness to keep it alive till they started bringing out DVDs. ‘Head canon’ may be a new word, but it’s an old concept!
      I’m sure the legions of American fans who grew up on such a rich seam of Who were a big part in the BBC bringing it back – they had evidence someone, somewhere was watching. So thank you!

      • bmacdonald

        I should point out that PBS, or “public television” is not a ratings juggernaut in the US, and mostly consisted of excellent children’s programming (primarily Sesame Street), plus a lot of British imports…”Upstairs, Downstairs,” Miss Marple, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, and for some reason, more “Are You Being Served?” than I can possibly believe. Did they just film that 52 weeks a year for 20 years or something? It definitely wasn’t something the cool kids watched. Most people I grew up with had never heard of Doctor Who unless I personally introduced them to it. So while I appreciate the shout-out, I don’t think the American fans had much to do with bringing the show back. If there had been more of us, the 1996 TV Movie would have been successful, and we’d be debating the best episodes from Paul McGann’s five-year run as the Doctor.

        • bar is in-console-able

          instead we get to debate the best eps from his 20-year run, and counting! But I never take for granted what a few dedicated people in pockets of nerd-dom all over the world have done for 54 years to keep the dream alive.

    • Planet of the Deaf

      Until VHS recorders became popular, even watching a current episode was impossible if you were out!

      Very different days, TV was considered much more “disposable” I guess…

      • Ranger

        I can remember the anguish of my loving parents taking me on holiday to a caravan site that had no TV and having to miss Meglos. I believe I whinged and whined.

        Having subsequently seen Meglos, all I can say is thank heaven it was that story I missed!

    • James Lomond

      Yup you read the novels and looked at photos in DWM… though lots of the Classic series was re-run on UK Gold in the 90s similar to PBS

  • ColeBox

    That issue of the Doctor Who Winter Special brings back even further memories; that the issue didn’t appear to get released in my area and I thought I’d missed it. I did eventually manage to track an issue down, months later and a bit dog-eared, at a newspaper kiosk in Tooting Bec underground station (no Yetis on loos).

    I also recall seeing the photo of Sue Malden, handling a large video-tape reel, and it made me wonder (back then) how the BBC were going to find the space to keep every reel of videotape for every programme that they made!