When we consider missing Doctor Who episodes, most of us think of the First and Second Doctor – those black and white gems from the 1960s, lost to the sands of time. It’s easy to forget that, at one point in history, the Third Doctor’s era was also absent from the BBC archive. At least in part.
In the early ’70s, when Jon Pertwee was at the controls of the TARDIS, dedicated Who fans – and some BBC employees – were becoming aware of significant gaps in Doctor Who’s history. At this time, the Beeb was still routinely junking the programmes that it felt had no further value. And this included shows that were still relatively new.
Indeed, some of the Third Doctor’s adventures were barely in the can before their master tapes were consigned to the rubbish dump, or re-used to save money. Video tape, after all, was an expensive luxury, and it made sound economic sense to wipe the tapes that outlived their usefulness. They could hardly have imagined that, one day, there would be a booming VHS/ DVD/ Blu-ray market to cater to. And it’s also fair to say that – in some circles – TV was still seen as theatre: a one-off, unrepeatable event.
So even when Jon Pertwee was the incumbent Time Lord, there wasn’t a complete set of his episodes at the BBC. Indeed, at one point, only eight episodes from his first three seasons had been retained by Aunty Beeb – and half of these (the four episodes that made up Spearhead from Space) were only kept because they had been shot on film. This was rare for late ’60s TV, and the story was considered to be of historical significance.
Only when the corporation stopped the junking of old programmes in 1975 did people start to take stock of the glaring gaps, and make moves to preserve as much of the back catalogue as possible. The BBC’s archive selector Sue Malden was at the forefront of this movement, and she was responsible for the recovery of a great number of Third Doctor stories.
Admittedly, in the majority of cases she was able to stroll across the road to BBC Enterprise’s film vault and snag the black and white cans that had been returned from overseas. At the time, many foreign broadcasters preferred this format, as a number of them were not yet transmitting in colour. As such, many of the Third Doctor’s adventures were copied onto black and white film for overseas distribution, and these are the ones that Malden recovered – and indeed, these make up a significant portion of what resides in the BBC archive today.
Even then, though, there were some worrying gaps. Staggeringly, the first episode of Death to the Daleks (1974) was absent from the archive for a number of years. It was returned from Australia in 1981, but a number of censor cuts had been made. It wasn’t until 1991 that the BBC finally managed to get its hands on an uncut videotape, which had been returned from a broadcaster in Dubai.
And this completed the collection. The Third Doctor’s era now existed – in its entirety – on the shelves of Aunty Beeb.
Panic over, right? Well – not quite. The BBC still didn’t have the complete set of Jon Pertwee stories in their original colour, and technically speaking this is still true to this day… despite the fact that these episodes are available, in colour, on Blu-ray and DVD. They have been restored by a number of bizarre processes to bring them back to a form that closely matches the original transmission tapes.
And this has been done to varying degrees of success. For example, if you were to look at Planet of the Daleks episode two, you would never believe that this was restored from a black and white film print. There was considerable frame-by-frame hand restoration applied to the footage to return the episode to its original shades.
But Planet of the Daleks also benefitted from a magical process known as chroma dot recovery. And what is chroma dot recovery, I hear you ask? Well, when the original Jon Pertwee episodes were transferred to black and white film, some of the colour information was inadvertently transferred at the same time, manifesting in the print as a series of chroma dots. This means that – when the monochromatic footage is run through a special computer program – the dots can be ‘decoded’ and re-applied to the black and white frames, giving us a full episode of colourised loveliness.
It’s not perfect, though. Manual intervention is often needed, as in the case of Planet of the Daleks part three. And even though this technique was applied to The Ambassadors of Death to return the story to full colour, the result is a bit patchy in places; there are noticeable flickers, colour dips, and blurs throughout. Similarly, it has not yet been possible to return Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode one to its original glory, owing to the fact that some of the relevant colour information is missing from the chroma dots.
Other endeavours, however, have been more successful. Take a look at Doctor Who and the Silurians, Terror of the Autons, or The Dæmons and you will see the restoration work at its very best. These commercially-released copies are, in fact, composites; they merge the sharp black and white films with blurry off-air video recordings (captured in colour) to bring the adventures back to their original look.
And don’t get me wrong: I think all of the restoration endeavours that have been undertaken are excellent. The Ambassadors of Death may look a bit frayed around the edges, but I love the fact that someone has used mind-bending technology to try and return this story to its original condition.
But technically, The Ambassadors of Death is still (mostly) a missing Third Doctor story, in terms of the original colour. As is The Mind of Evil, Planet of the Daleks episode two, and Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode one. There may be others that I’m forgetting. Now I’m not saying we should cry into our Blu-rays and lose sleep over the loss, or pour millions of pounds into a worldwide treasure hunt, vowing to keep going until every last TV archive and garden shed has been checked for missing Pertwees.
But would I be a tiny bit excited if someone told me they had just found an unadulterated, colour copy of The Mind of Evil? Or a pristine version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs part one, or the complete Ambassadors of Death? You bet I would. Shut up and take my Zeiton. These are still technically missing Third Doctor adventures, and whilst I am delighted to have them in some form on my Doctor Who shelf, I do hold out hope that – one day – somebody will lay their hands on some shiny colour films.
There’s no harm in looking, right?
And for more on how The Mind of Evil was returned to colour, check out my post on the Lovarzi blog.