Top 5 missing episodes of Doctor Who

On December 31st 2020, to round a dreadful year off, all episodes of Doctor Who broadcast since 2005 were removed from Netflix. This is something many Doctor Who fans feared but expected as Britbox, who currently own all classic episodes of Doctor Who, had previously shown interest in owning the complete collection. Despite this purchase, neither Britbox nor the BBC have a collection of every Doctor Who episode to be made. Between the years 1967 to 1978 the BBC junked one hundred and thirty seven episodes of Doctor Who. All of these episodes span the show’s first six series and consist of adventures with the first, second and third Doctors. Thankfully forty of these one hundred and thirty seven episodes have been recovered and the current number now stands at ninety seven. Today we are looking at how five of these episodes returned to the BBC because their adventures could rival even the Doctor’s.

Before we begin the list there are several things we need to note. Firstly, although a modern day viewer would be used to Doctor Who episodes being stand alones or two parters, most episodes of classic Doctor Who were told in the form of serials. A serial was a story that would span several episodes, the shortest serial being four episodes and the longest being twelve. Secondly, the audio for all these missing episodes survive, as do some of the scripts and several still images. Fans know what these episodes contain even if they have not seen them for themselves. Finally we need to know the process of how an episode is made to understand how the one hundred and thirty seven episodes were lost.

An episode of Doctor Who was filmed directly onto a videotape. The post production team would add background music, titles and credits to the tape before it was broadcast by the BBC to viewers at home. After this broadcast, the videotape was sent to BBC Enterprises (now known as BBC Worldwide) who would transfer the contents onto a film which was sold to international broadcasters. Once the episode had been broadcast by the BBC and a film made, the original tape was then cleared so it could be re-used, similar to how you can record over footage on a VHR tape. This has often resulted in the films being the only surviving medium of the episodes. With the introduction of coloured television, interest in back and white episodes waned and if an international buyer could not be found the tapes were destroyed.

A current guide to lost Doctor Who episodes, taken from Tumblr.

1 – The Dalek’s Master Plan

The Dalek’s Master Plan was the fourth serial of series three and featured William Hartnell as the First Doctor, Adrienne Hill as companion Katarina and Jean Marsh as companion Sara Kingdom. In the serial, the Daleks build a weapon to destroy the fabric of time itself. Although The Daleks are eventually defeated both Katarina and Sara lost their lives with Katarina having the accolade of being the first ever companion to die during an adventure with The Doctor.

All twelve episodes of The Dalek’s Master Plan were recorded on videotape but only eleven episodes were transferred to film. Episode seven, a Christmas special titled The Feast Of Steven, was excluded for reasons unknown. The tapes of episodes 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 are listed among the first Doctor Who episodes to be wiped. This took place on 17th August 1967 and The Feast of Steven became the first episode to be lost forever. Episodes 3, 6, 10, 11 & 12 were wiped on 31st January 1969. By 1972 BBC Enterprises had failed to sell The Dalek’s Master Plan to any international buyers and four years after this, junked the films. The whole serial was considered lost to time…

In 1973 episode four was discovered in The BBC film library, despite the fact that the library never made a request to obtain the film. Despite this good fortune the film was lent to The BBC children’s show Blue Peter who wanted to use a clip of companion Katarina being killed. The film was never returned but the scene in question survives.

In 1983, nearly twenty years after the serial was first broadcast, an article appeared in Doctor Who monthly, reporting the finding of episodes 5 and 10. The magazine claimed that along with several other non Doctor Who related films, both episodes were found in the basement of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in Wandsworth, South London. Upon their discovery the two episodes were submitted to The BBC archives where they were verified and then added to the collection. However The Doctor Who Appreciation Society claimed that both episodes had been found in a Mormon Unification church in London while the book Doctor Who: 25 Glorious Years named a different church as the recovery site. To complicate matters further Steve Bryant, the manager of the BBC’s archives at the time, claimed he did not know what church had submitted the films but questioned how they had acquired them. Once produced the tapes should have been held by BBC Enterprises or sent to an international broadcaster. How a church in London gained several BBC films is a mystery. The current theory is that either a staff member at The BBC placed the films in the church but failed to retrieve them or that the church used to be a former BBC building.

In 1972 Francis Watson an engineer at the BBC was told to clean out a room of “junk” at Ealing Studios. While doing so he found another film of episode 5 of The Dalek’s Master Plan along with episode 2. Watson was a film enthusiast but failed to recognise the two episodes for their rarity and for twenty years kept them at his house, at one point storing them on a coat hook! It wasn’t until 2004, one year before the Doctor Who reboot was launched did he realise their significant and returned them to the BBC.

2 – The Faceless Ones

The Faceless Ones was a six episode long serial in the show’s fourth series and the second to last serial to star Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor. It marks the last appearance of Michael Craze as Ben Jackson and Anneke Wills as Polly Wright as both companions chose to leave the TARDIS at the end of the episode. In the serial, The Doctor, Ben and Polly investigate aliens known as The Chameleons who have taken refuge at Gatwick airport and steal the identities of humans.

The Faceless Ones was first broadcast in 1967 and was considered lost until 1985. The organisers of the Panopticon Convention, a convention made by Doctor Who fans, were approached by an individual called Saied Marham who claimed to be working for an anonymous third party. The third party in question claimed to have episode 6 of The Faceless Ones and episode 2 of Evil of The Daleks and offered to organise a screening of both episodes for a fee. The organisers were doubtful of these claims but agreed to show the episodes on two conditions.

  1. The films be submitted to the convention for verification.
  2. A guarantee that the films be returned to the BBC after the screening.

Saied Marham was unable to agree to the terms and the screening was later cancelled. Many dismissed Marham’s claims of owning the two missing episodes until the identity of the third party was revealed. Gordon Hendry, another film enthusiast owned the two episode tapes and similar to Francis Watson, had been unaware of their significance. He had lent them to Marham who, unknown to Hendry at the time, had tried to make a profit. Saied Marham tried to sell the episodes back to the BBC but because he did not technically own the episodes they were unable to accept his proposal. Gordon Hendry did not wish to sell the two tapes but somewhat surprisingly continue to lend them to Marham. Marham later struck up a friendship with Paul Vanezis who was organising a television convention and wanted a Patrick Troughton episode to show, as the famous actor had recently passed away. Marham loaned the episode to Vanezis who screened the lost episode on a surprised and delighted audience. The buzz this created forced Gordon Hendry to sell the two episodes back to the BBC.

3 – The Wheel in Space

The Wheel in Space was the final serial of the fifth series of Doctor Who. Across the six episodes, the second Doctor and companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) discover a Cyberman plot to destroy Earth. Aside from being the final serial in a series it also introduced Wendy Padbury as companion Zoe Heriot. The BBC were able to save episode six but was unable to find tapes or films of the first five episodes.

The Second Doctor faces off against two Cybermen

In April 1984 an anonymous letter was published in The Doctor Who Monthly Magazine issue 87 claiming that a fan in the Portsmouth area was in possession of episode 3 of The Wheel in Space. The letter was followed by images of a Cybermatt which had appeared in the episode. Ian Devine, whom we shall discuss later, deduced that the letter was referring to David Stead, a well known Doctor Who fan who lived on the south coast. Devine’s deductions was correct and although Stead was unwilling to part with the tape, he was happy to make copies of it. Soon the episode was being shared in fan circles and David Stead was known as the distributor.

A second letter was published, this time by Gary Russell who would later work on Doctor Who Magazine, Big Finish Productions and as a script editor for Torchwood. Russell complained that it was unfair that the episode was being shared by fans and not with the general public or with the BBC. Although Russell later expressed regret about publishing the letter it succeeded into shaming David Stead into submitting his tape to the BBC. Stead explained that had acquired the tape after placing an advert in the local newspaper.

There are still several mysteries behind episode 3 of The Wheel in Space. Who published the first letter? Some accuse Ian Levine of publishing the letter in order to smoke David Stead out so he could receive a copy of the episode. If David Stead really acquired the videotape from a newspaper advert, why weren’t the BBC able to receive a copy when they launched a vast marketing campaign for the lost episodes? How was David able to secure a videotape of episode 3 rather than a film? It is likely that these questions will forever remain unanswered…

4 – The Time Meddler

The Time Meddler is the final serial of Doctor Who’s second series. It stars William Hartnell as the first Doctor and his companions Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien). In the four episodes the trio meet fellow time traveller The Monk who is attempting to prevent the Norman Conquest of England by destroying King Harald Hardrada’s invasion fleet with neutron bombs. All episodes of the serial was lost to the UK but turned up in the most unexpected place… Nigeria.

The Meddling Monk, also known as The Mad Monk

The name Ian Levine is well known among classic Doctor Who fans. Levine is considered a Doctor Who super fan and personally spearheaded the return of several lost episodes to The BBC archives. However Levine is also linked to controversy as we will see shortly. Levine contacted workers at several international broadcasters whom the BBC had sold to and asked them to search their archives for any Doctor Who episodes. One of Levine’s contacts, Victoria Ezeokoli the Director of Programming for the Nigerian Television Authority, confirmed after a month of searching that they were in procession of fourteen Doctor Who episodes, six of which were missing from the BBC archives. Among these was the complete serial of The Time Meddler.

Unfortunately, returning the episodes to the BBC was harder than anticipated. In 1984, the former minister of the Nigerian Government Umaru Dikko was kidnapped from outside his London home and later found in a crate at Gatwick airport. This international incident soured relationships between the United Kingdom and Nigeria and the flight of the fourteen tapes back to the UK was delayed by several years. When they finally arrived it was noted that the Nigerian authorities had made cuts to the episodes before broadcasting them. It also came to light that Ian Levine was already in procession of episode 1 and episode 3 of the Time Meddler but had failed to return them to The BBC. He explained that he acquired them from a contact at the Alexandra Palace who have saved the tapes from junking. This was the third time that Levine was caught with episodes he had yet to return as he was previous caught with episode 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and episode 2 of The Abominable Snowman. When questioned Levine explained that there was a black market in lost BBC episodes and he had planned to use the episodes he possessed as bargaining chips to obtain different episodes. Many suspect that Levine intended to keep the episodes for his own personal pleasure.

5 – The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror is a six episode long arc that is notable for several reasons. It is the final serial of the first series, making it the first ever series finale. It features the original TARDIS crew of The First Doctor, his Granddaughter Susan and her teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright and it is the third historical serial, in which the only science fiction elements in the story are the travellers and the TARDIS itself. It was the first serial to film on location and the first time in the show’s history that a child actor spoke on camera. It is also the first time that the audience saw the TARDIS materialising on screen. Interestingly, it features The Doctor wearing a Plume, something the Thirteenth Doctor would also do and Susan mentions that the French Revolution is The Doctor’s favourite period of Earth History, something future show runners would reflect in the Tenth Doctor. During the episodes our heroes become trapped in the French Revolution and must avoid execution.

The tapes for episodes 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 were wiped on 17th August 1967. Strangely the tape for episode 4 was wiped two years later in 1969. The films of all six episodes were destroyed by the BBC in 1972. We have already encountered Paul Vanezis before, he was the individual who had hosted a screening of The Faceless Ones in the 1980’s but his obsession with Doctor Who started long before this. When he was nineteen years old Vanezis began his search for lost Doctor Who episodes. He contacted his family in Cyprus who confirmed that the show had been broadcast in their country and with this knowledge Vanezis sent a letter to Cyprus Broadcasting Cooperation on the off chance that they still held tapes of lost episodes. To Vanezis surprise the CBC confirmed that they did indeed hold three lost Doctor Who episodes, episodes 1, 2 and 3 of The Reign of Terror. Vanezis explained the situation to his father who offered to buy the episodes off the CBC but was refused as they could only sell the tapes back to their rightful owner.

By chance Ian Levine was also researching Cyprus as a potential location for lost episodes and heard about the situation. He informed the BBC of the discovery who brought the episodes back from CBC and returned them to the archives. Sadly CBC confirmed that although they had owned the tapes of episode 4 and episode 5 they were destroyed by a bomb during the Cyprus Civil War.

Due to the actions of long time fans and enthusiasts, forty episodes of Doctor Who have been saved from the jaws of time. This is an incredible achievement especially when you consider the fact that all episodes of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the third Doctor, have been salvaged, effectively saving an era of the show. This incredible act raises an interesting question, will more lost episodes be found?

Yes, I think it is incredibly likely that episodes will continue to be discovered although I think they will be found in different locations. Old BBC buildings and international broadcasters have long since surrendered any treasures they held. I think that a majority of surviving lost episodes now dwell in the hand of private collectors and won’t be released until after their deaths. Of course, some episodes may still be found in attics and basements across the world. If you find a film can in your loft… make sure you give it a second glance.

Thank you for reading and I’ll see you next time.

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