Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Raiders of the lost archives

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Daleks beware! Doctor Who is making a spectacular return to television. To mark his reappearance, Colin Barron relates the extraordinary tale of the episodes which nearly vanished into the mists of time

THIS month British actor Paul McGann makes his American TV debut as the new Dr Who. On May 14, McGann will be the eighth actor to portray the character on television as he follows in the footsteps of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.

British viewers will have to wait until the May Bank Holiday weekend to see the latest adventures of their favourite Time Lord, although BBC Video will be releasing the new adventure the day after the American broadcast to prevent the sale of pirate video copies.

The production represents a victory for millions of fans worldwide who have campaigned for the return of the series ever since it was cancelled by the BBC in 1989. Although the new adventure is a one-off story, there are hopes that a new series could follow, leading to the opening of a new chapter in the programme's 33-year history.

There have been no new stories for seven years but Dr Who remains popular through videotapes and repeats on the UK Gold satellite TV channel. The video of Tomb of the Cybermen, released in 1992, was one of BBC Video's best-sellers with more than 40,000 copies sold in Britain alone.

More videos are planned but the number of stories available for release is limited, as many of the best ones - from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras - no longer exist, having been destroyed by the BBC in the seventies. Of 696 episodes made between 1963 and 1989, 107 are currently missing from the BBC's archives.

The story of how these episodes came to be junked, how many missing stories were eventually recovered and how the search for lost adventures continues, is one of the most interesting aspects of the programme's history.

The wholesale destruction of episodes started in the summer of 1972 when the BBC found it was running out of storage space for old videotapes and film cans. A fire inspector's report pointed out that old film cans and videotapes cluttering up the BBC's premises were a fire hazard.

As the BBC lacked the funds to construct new storage facilities with appropriate temperature and humidity control, they decided to destroy all recordings which were more than a few years old.

Dr Who was not the only programme involved - hundreds of episodes of classics like Maigret, Steptoe and Son, Hancock's Half Hour, and Out of the Unknown were junked.

It is hard to believe that such works of television art could be thrown away, but back in 1972 the BBC did not anticipate that anyone would want to see these programmes again. At that time the home video boom was still several years away and the only home video machines were largely experimental. No-one foresaw the development of satellite and cable television with dedicated archive channels.

There was also a contemporary agreement with the broadcasting unions which stated that repeats of programmes had to be limited and made within five years of the original broadcast.

So at that time old television programmes had little value and there was no incentive to preserve them. The destruction of the old Dr Who episodes continued until 1978 when the emerging Dr Who fan network learned of the purge and put pressure on the BBC to stop it. The scale of the problem became obvious when the main fan organisation, the Dr Who Appreciation Society, tried to screen an old story, Galaxy Four, at its first convention in 1978, only to be told it was no longer available as it had been destroyed the previous week.

Several fans were so appalled at this that they resolved to stop the scrapping of further episodes and track down any copies that existed elsewhere. A champion of this cause was a dedicated fan, record producer Ian Levine, regarded as one of the greatest experts on the series. Levine served as an uncredited adviser to the Dr Who production team during the early eighties.

One of the earliest successes occurred in the late seventies when he arrived at the BBC just in time to prevent the destruction of the first Dalek story. Since then Levine has led the hunt for missing episodes which has resulted in many finds from the four corners of the globe.

Although the BBC destroyed all the original videotapes of the Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell episodes, a number of copies were made for overseas use and these have formed the basis of the many recoveries of lost episodes. These copies were not made on videotape but were so-called tele-recordings; video images transferred to 16mm black-and-white cinema film.

Tele-recording is a system for storing live television broadcasts which was first used by the BBC in 1947 to record the wedding of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. To make such a recording a 16mm cine camera films a television image as it appears on a special flat-screen television.

This differs from video recording in which the electrical signal from a television camera is recorded on magnetic tape. Although universally employed nowadays, video recording was not used by the BBC until 1958 and it remained an expensive and complicated process until the late sixties.

Although tele-recording is now obsolete, it was widely used from 1947 until the mid-seventies as 16mm film copies could be broadcast easily in other countries which used alternative television systems - such as the American NTSC format - without expensive electronic conversion. This explains why all of the missing Dr Who episodes recovered so far have been 16mm film copies.

Some have been found in the most unlikely places. An episode of The Daleks' Master Plan was discovered in the basement of a Mormon church along with several other vintage BBC programmes. Four episodes of the Patrick Troughton classic The Ice Warriors were found behind a filing cabinet at the BBC and two other episodes, from The Faceless Ones and Evil of the Daleks, were returned by a private collector.

The most dramatic recoveries have been from overseas. All four episodes of The War Machines, a 1966 William Hartnell story based on an outline by Doomwatch and Cyberman creator Dr Kit Pedler, were returned from Nigeria in 1984.

Eight years later one of the most fondly remembered missing stories, Tomb of the Cybermen, was found in pristine condition in the vaults of a Hong Kong TV station.

To Dr Who fans this event was like the discovery of a lost archaeological relic and a special screening of the story took place in London in April, 1992, arranged by the Dr Who Appreciation Society. Many of the cast and production crew attended this event, which was called Tombwatch in memory of the two writers, Pedler and Gerry Davis, who had died some years before after creating the famous Doomwatch series.

No further episodes have been found since Tomb of the Cybermen returned in 1992. However, using a remarkably simple technical process, some Jon Pertwee stories from the 1970s - which survived only as a black and white film copies - have been restored back to colour and released on video.

Although all the Jon Pertwee stories exist in some form, such as American off -the-air home video recordings in 525-line format, many of the original colour videotapes were destroyed in the purge of the seventies and only black and white 16mm film copies and home video copies remained in the BBC archives. A few years ago a couple of fans suggested that it might be possible to combine the colour signal from 525-line home video recordings with the black-and-white film image to produce a reasonable quality colour image. Although this process sounded too good to be true, modern computer technology made it work and three Jon Pertwee stories have been restored to full colour and released on video.

The technical process involved is different from the well-known American system of computerised colourisation which has been used to colour black-and -white films such as Laurel and Hardy classics. Although effective, this process is very expensive and produces a result rather like a hand-tinted photograph which is not always to everyone's liking.

It has been suggested this American system could be used to re-colour some Dr Who episodes which cannot be restored to colour with the simpler British method because no adequate colour home video copies exist. Unfortunately, the American process is still too expensive to be considered at present.

Meanwhile, the fans continue their hunt for the missing stories. Although it is unlikely that every missing episode will be recovered, some fans refuse to give up hope. They point to the example of the film The Mystery of The Wax Museum which was missing for about 30 years until a copy turned up in Czechoslovakia in the early seventies. More recently, a colour documentary about the Allied invasion of Europe by Hollywood director George Stevens was found after lying in a film vault for almost 40 years.

The popularity of archive material increases. The BBC has even released audio recordings of soundtracks from missing stories of the sixties produced using fans' contemporary off-the-air recordings on domestic tape recorders. The technical quality of these recordings is poor, for obvious reasons, but the popularity of Dr Who ensures they sell in large numbers.

As for the new Dr Who, what could be one of his first missions? Well he could go back in time and prevent the assassination of President Kennedy..... or even stop the BBC from junking his best adventures!

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  • APA 6th ed.: Barron, Colin (1996-05-04). Raiders of the lost archives. The Herald p. 2.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Barron, Colin. "Raiders of the lost archives." The Herald [add city] 1996-05-04, 2. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Barron, Colin. "Raiders of the lost archives." The Herald, edition, sec., 1996-05-04
  • Turabian: Barron, Colin. "Raiders of the lost archives." The Herald, 1996-05-04, section, 2 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Raiders of the lost archives | url= | work=The Herald | pages=2 | date=1996-05-04 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Raiders of the lost archives | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024}}</ref>