“Rather than doing the sensible thing of building a larger archive to hold all of the material, they basically said, ‘Well a lot of the black-and-white stuff we’re not going to get resale value on it and we’re not going to be showing it again, so let’s just destroy it’,” said Darran Jordan, vice-president of the Doctor Who Club of Australia and author of Whovian, The True Story of Btr and Doctor Who.
“So they were literally getting old episodes of Doctor Who, taping them up and burning them.”
But, just like the eccentric time traveller, these forgotten episodes would live on – and not just in the hearts and minds of Whovians.
In the same period, copies of the programs were sent around the world to other broadcasters (including the ABC). While the BBC had ordered they be returned or destroyed, over the years a variety of episodes thought to have been lost forever have resurfaced.
“It’s a very big deal in the sense that they are the Holy Grail. It’s what every fan longs to see,” Jordan said.
“These episodes were screened before I was born, so I’ve never had a chance to see them.”
Recovering a slice of history
In a storeroom in Jos, a little-known tourist town in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, Philip Morris’s heart skipped a beat.
As he wiped away the dust masking a collection of film canisters, two seemingly innocuous words appeared: Doctor Who.
It was 2013, and Morris, the director of Television International Enterprises Archive – a company that helps TV stations search for lost footage – had just stumbled upon a slice of history: Nine missing episodes of the iconic series, buried away in a local television relay station.
“He found those because there was an old shipping transcript that had said that the BBC had sent these episodes to Africa, but there was nothing to ever say they’d been returned,” Jordan said.
As the bona fide Whovian tells it, there was “one episode in particular” that Morris had made a point of photographing.
But when he arranged for the episodes to be returned to the BBC, it was nowhere to be found.
“Apparently once someone in Nigeria got wind there was potentially something of value there, it was taken by person or persons unknown,” Jordan said.
“So the theory is that it does exist, but it’s in a private collection somewhere.
Of the 50 episodes recovered since 1978, 15 have been reclaimed from Nigeria, while another 24 have been returned from broadcasters in countries including Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates and even Australia.
‘Australia has a big role to play’
Enter: Paul Vanezis, a freelance producer, director and archive consultant, who has worked on Doctor Who since the mid-1990s.
Based in the United Kingdom, Vanezis has been actively involved in the search for missing episodes – a quest also being undertaken in Australia.
“The thing you need to understand about Australia’s role in Doctor Who is that it was kind of the core market … If the ABC didn’t buy a particular series, the chances are the BBC wouldn’t sell it anywhere else,” he said.
“Australia has a big role to play in saving British TV, because a lot of those old recordings wouldn’t have survived if they didn’t get sent to Australia.”
Before these early episodes could be broadcast to local audiences, they were sent to the Film Censorship Board for classification and approval.
In many cases, the ABC was “a bit nervous about some of the scenes being too violent”, says Jordan, and they were “literally cut out of the film”.
For decades, the fate of these censored clips remained a mystery. That is, until 1996, when Vanezis’s colleague Damian Shanahan tracked them down to the National Archives of Australia.
“And that was very important, because those extracts were some of the only surviving examples for certain episodes for Doctor Who,” said Vanezis.
More than a decade later, another lost episode with ties to Australia would again resurface – this time in the hands of a film collector in the United Kingdom.
“It turned out to be the original ABC print that was returned by the ABC in 1975, and then thrown away by the BBC because it had been [censored],” Vanezis said.
‘We’ve now got to the bottom of what it is’
Australia’s role in the long-running series piqued Vanezis’s curiosity.
For two decades, he’d been aware of a mysterious film languishing in the National Archives, simply titled Doctor Who.
Not much was known apart from the clue it had been filmed in the 1970s. So last month, he decided to investigate.
While it wasn’t a missing episode, the footage – now being released by the ABC’s RetroFocus program – shows a young(ish) Tom Baker being interviewed by school children for an episode of Behind the News.
In front of a captive classroom audience, Baker – wearing his trademark grin – is asked whether he’s scared of monsters and how the TARDIS got its name.
“What Tom Baker is doing is cementing interest in the series to perpetuate sales of Doctor Who in Australia,” Vanezis said.
“But ultimately, that’s a complete side issue, because what you see is really happy kids meeting their hero for the first time.
“For the first time we’ve now got to the bottom of what it is, which is great.”
‘They might still be in Australia’
The rediscovery of this clip, some 40 years after it was filmed, begs the question: Could other long-lost episodes still be in Australia?
Vanezis points to the Dalek’s Master Plan, the mostly-missing third serial of Doctor Who, which aired in the UK from November 1965 to January 1966.
While the ABC had purchased the series, the Film Censorship Board recommended so many cuts “it would have rendered it unwatchable”.
And so, the episodes were relegated to a storage room at the ABC’s Gore Hill studio, which was sold in 2003.
“That was in 1967 or 1968 [that the series went into storage], and those films haven’t been seen since,” Vanezis said.
“They might still be in Australia.”
There are rumours that “there’s some out there in private collections that aren’t being shared,” Jordan said.
Morris, who continues to search for missing episodes, confirmed in April that at least six were known to be in the hands of private collectors, sending fans into a spin.
And while the fate of these films remains uncertain, Whovians hope they may one day re-emerge.
“The ethos of how extraordinary these episodes are has sort of grown over time as people who do remember them talk about how fabulous they were,” Jordan said.
“Those of us who have never had the opportunity to watch them get to fill in the gaps with their imagination.”