Is the wind blowing the right way?

Regular readers will note my fondness for referring to my roots as a historian – and it is to this theme I return today as I ponder the ongoing #zombierumour saga – the undead life of the missing episodes omnirumour! You see, my studies don’t just reflect my appetite for learning about the past, but also a methodology and approach to life – one understands where one is now by understanding how one got there, and one determines the way forward by looking at past actions and consequences. As was said by (I think) former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont: “It is unwise to prophesy, especially when their fulfilment is so close at hand” – but I shall disregard his sage advice to apply some historiography to the missing episode saga.

The catalyst is of course that more hints are in the air that we are approaching favourable circumstances for more missing episodes to be returned to the BBC. Quite what these circumstances are, I honestly do not know, but I think most fans would be grateful for some indication either that it is definitely as useless as whistling in the wind … or else that a lot of fans are about to be very happy indeed.

But first of all, what are we looking to assess? I would summarise the question as follows: What can we learn from past missing episode recoveries that can give us some indication whether “the wind is blowing in the right direction” and more episodes are set for release?

There are no shortage of excellent summaries of why so many episodes of 60s Doctor Who were junked, and in turn how episodes were subsequently recovered. But for the purposes of my discussion I am relying upon this excellent infographic provided by Kasterborous. Most striking is the bottom-most section “EPISODE RECOVERY TIMELINE 1979-2013” which helpfully illustrates which episodes were recovered after the junkings were stopped. Now, the key thing we are looking to do is to establish if the past gives us any clue as to what may or may not be happening if there are more prints. For our purposes I would break down this timeline in the following ways:

  1. There was a massive trawl in the 1980s, as fans scavanged everywhere for lost prints – this is how we ended up with the bulk of the recovered catalogue. The nearest we have to a recovery on the scale of Tomb of the Cybermen or Web/Enemy was the recovery of two thirds of The Ice Warriors in 1988. On the whole, I am minded to discount these episodes for learning useful lessons – the VHS brand was slowly being developed at this point and there doesn’t appear to have been anything comparable to a major release.
  2. From 1990 to date there have been a number of ‘orphaned findings’ – and in each case there appears to have been a straightforward strategem of making a big headline from it, partly as an excuse to remind people that there were still over 100 episodes that Doctor Who fans would be very grafeful to see returned, and partly because news of any findings is newsworthy. Indeed, I remember reading an article similar to this, and lamenting that only orphaned episodes had been recovered.
  3. Aside of from these two general trends, there were two major and undoubted highlights – the recovery and release of Tomb of the Cybermen in 1992, and the Philip Morris findings of 2013. Let’s begin with the obvious similarities in these cases – the BBC recognised the massive potential of both recoveries and sought to capitalise that potential quickly. In 1992 this meant clearing the decks to rush-release Tomb, while in 2013 it meant releasing both serials immediately on iTunes so that fans did not have to wait for the DVD versions (and most probably would buy both). In both cases (though I only have the word of others for the Tomb recovery, being only aged 6 when it was recovered!) there was a fresh wave of optimism that maybe this was the tip of the wave and more was on its way – followed by the bitter wash of disappointment.
    But now let’s consider the striking difference – we know what happened when Tomb of the Cybermen was recovered. A great deal of capital was made of the recovery, and of the story – and we knew what that story was (I’m largely going by this feature from Doctor Who Worldwide). We cannot really say this with the same confidence of Philip Morris’ discovery. We have, if you like, the sanitised version that went to the press, of ‘wiping off the dust and seeing the production code’ – but a surprising lack of detail as to how his team stumbled upon the prints, or why other leads proved unfruitful or otherwise.
    In a similar vein, we have no idea of the timeframes involved with the Morris recovery. The 1992 recovery was a straightforward case of “How do we get this thing onto ten thousand video cassettes quickly?” The 2013 recovery was speculated upon from June that year (potentially earlier, but I have not delved too deeply into this!) and when know that the recovery was known from at least 2012 as Steven Moffat wrote the return of the Great Intelligence in the 2012 Christmas special knowing that The Web of Fear had been recovered. The biggest difference seems to have been a greater willingness by the BBC to keep a recovery concealed until they were quite ready to do something with it. Tomb was announced as soon as it was found, then released later. In 2013 announcement was virtually concurrent with release – in fairness, partially because the vehicle of instant release through iTunes was then available.

So what does the historian in me say? Principally that the one variable that has not changed in each circumstance is the BBC’s determination to maximise profit. In the 1980s they were looking to sort out the back catalogue, and had no shortage of material that could be released in the meantime while waiting for odd recoveries to drip by. It is largely similar for orphaned recoveries since then – the BBC, at least until the classic catalogue was completely released, could release any newly recovered material at their leisure, and with the intent of maximising profit. Where there was a major recovery, as typified by Tomb the BBC machine proved very effective at turning potential profit into actual money.

It is also evident that any announcements and releases fit in with that overall strategy. The 2011 recoveries made the news quickly but have been released very slowly – looking to capitalise on interest generated by the recoveries (who knows – it might have hastened Mr Morris mentioning to the Beeb that he might have hit the proverbial motherlode …) while not rushing to release stories that either might have additional material recovered, or make a substantial loss if released singly. Both the 1992 and 2013 recoveries were released as soon as the BBC was ready to announce when fans would actually put a fistful of sterling in their hands – while the publicity was helpful, their number one priority was making their bottom line substantively healthier. There was therefore no rush to confirm a finding.

I would however make one (hopefully pertinent!) suggestion. In 1992 Tomb was released relatively quickly – it stood alone and there were no complications. In 2013 Enemy of the World and Web of Fear were released at least 12 months after recovery, for reasons that we still do not understand (although the 50th Anniversary celebrations may have been a factor, but it would be a bit lame if that was the sole reason!) That to me implies that there is a background story – and that after Bleeding Cool ran their sensation causing splash of last June the BBC decided to shut up shop tight on any further details.

I have speculated before what on earth is going on with BBC Worldwide. I think history however tells us the following lessons:

  1. if it wasn’t complicated, we’d have the prints by now, and the BBC would be cackling all the way to the bank.
  2. If only a few odd orphaned prints had been recovered, we would know about it by now – the BBC would use the oxygen of publicity to attract attention to themselves, give fans hope, and keep the hunt alive for any missing footage (not just Doctor Who)
  3. Silence is not a reliable barometer. It might mean nothing has been found, or it might mean they aren’t ready to announce anything (given their enigmatic replies to fan emails, I am more inclined to the latter view)
  4. When they do decide to announce, there will be a short turnaround between news and action. While it seems to take the Beeb a small ice age to get themselves in gear, they don’t dally once they have determined their course of action.
  5. Leaks are inevitable – perhaps. Speculation has surrounded every major find before confirmation. The question we cannot be certain of, is whether Bleeding Cool’s piece (and other insider remarks) persuaded the BBC to go deeply covert and plug all of the leaks.

So it is difficult to tell if idle speculation (this being a prime example) is an example of option 5 – proof that the BBC are gearing up and have found it impossible to quash leaks. The sad lesson of history is that until the BBC call a news conference, we’re all equally in the dark – but that when that news does break, we should pay at least a little attention to what news has previously broken.

Expect the unexpected perhaps …?

On a different note – I will be on an extended break from this blog for the next three weeks until the General Election is concluded – the joys of being on my local party Executive and trying to get our candidate elected! See you all on Friday 8th May – unless I have collapsed in a heap of despair!