The BBC is preparing to unveil the largest digital archive of Doctor Who episodes in existence. This coincides with the 60th anniversary of the series’ first episode. Yet despite the collection, there are still nearly 100 missing shows from the Doctor’s earliest adventures. These lost episodes do not exist in any video format.
How the Lost Episodes of Doctor Who Were Lost
The first two decades of Doctor Who coincided with lean years for the BBC. The publicly funded television network was under constant pressure to cut costs and keep expenses down. At the time, it was rare for even popular television series in England to be rerun extensively after the initial broadcast. This was also before video recorders made the home video market possible, much less profitable. As such, the BBC had no reason to hold on to old recordings for the future.
Between 1967 and 1978, the master recordings of many great television series were scrapped due to a lack of storage space and blank tape. Doctor Who was not alone in suffering in this regard. For instance, the first two seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were scheduled for erasure in 1971. Someone at the BBC contacted the troupe, who dispatched Terry Gilliam to buy the tapes outright. Had this not happened, the Pythons’ earliest works would be lost forever.
As of October 2023, 97 of the 256 episodes making up the first six seasons of Doctor Who are missing. Originally, 156 of the episodes recorded from 1967 to 1974 were declared lost. Thankfully, many of them have been recovered over the years, from private collectors and overseas broadcasters. While all of the original master tapes were erased, many copies on 16mm film survived.
How the Fans Saved Doctor Who’s Legacy
Despite this, Doctor Who is in better shape than most lost BBC series. While video recorders were not commercially available at that time, audio recorders were. Many fans recorded the show on audio tape, so they could listen to favorite episodes later.
This enabled the BBC to assemble a complete audio archive of all the lost episodes years later. It also enabled them to get clearer audio tracks for those lost episodes where the video was clear but the audio was not. Today, every episode of Doctor Who is commercially available in an audio format. There is some irony that this was only possible thanks to fans pirating the show.
How Some Lost Doctor Who Episodes Were Restored
The recovered audio tracks have enabled the BBC to restore some of the lost Doctor Who episodes in another way. Pairing the audio with existing production photos, the BBC have released animated versions of many lost episodes. While these animated movies take some liberties with the original action, they do replicate as many of the original shots as possible.
As of October 2023, there are no plans for the BBC to try and create animated editions of all of the lost Doctor Who episodes. Despite the fan interest, the DVD collections produced to date have not been best-sellers. Given that, there is no guarantee that there will ever be a complete set of Doctor Who episodes on video, even in an animated format.
However, the BBC recently announced that the next lost episode to be animated will be the four-part episode that introduced the Celestial Toymaker. This new video will coincide with the reintroduction of the classic villain in the new Doctor Who series. Given that, the BBC seems open to continuing to restore the classic episodes, even if it is not a major cash cow.
Doctor Who is now streaming on BBC iplayer. It will begin streaming on Disney+ on November 25, 2023.