42 – Terror of the Vervoids (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 9 – 12)

If it was a shock that Robot featured in the top 50 ahead of The Seeds of Doom, this one will have fans choking on their beverages in disbelief. This is story is best (and most infamously) known as the one ‘with the monsters that are a bit rude.’ I guess it was inevitable after such efforts as the Cyber Controller and Alpha Centauri that eventually the special effects team would produce a costume that by-passed ‘hint of anatomy’ and went directly for a more than unfortunate resemblance.

Which is a huge pity, because I thoroughly enjoy this four part adventure. It is very much what a Patrick Troughton base-under-seige style adventure would have looked like had Troughton been plying his craft in the 1980s, containing all of the elements of the rather crusty base commander in the personage of the Commodore, the sinister unknown menace in the form of the Vervoids, and a whole host of characters with their own vested interests at play. Of all of the stories that feature in The Trial of a Timelord season, this one is the one that best stands in its own right as a standalone story, and arguably would have been even better if it hadn’t been interspersed with the trial scenes, or with the visual evidence being altered, making us unable to wholly trust what we were seeing.

The story also shows us a tantalising insight into what Season 24 could have looked like had Colin Baker had his contract honoured for a third season. In this adventure he is witty, brave, charming and urbane – drawing strong parallels to the kind of transformation Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has been going through in the most recent series. Even Mel shows promise in what was her debut appearance in Doctor Who, demonstrating what Bonnie Langford could have been capable of if she’d been given a more tangible role than ‘get into trouble and scream.’ The chemistry oddly worked, which makes the actual Season 24 all the more frustrating.

On top of all this, Terror of the Vervoids is a genuinely good adventure. There is little in the way of hammed up acting, the production values hold up surprisingly well, and while there are a healthy number of subplots at play to distract from the main threat of the Vervoids, at no stage does it become overbearing or overly complicated. The Vervoids themselves, phallic resemblance notwithstanding, are worthy foes – genetically created plant creatures intended to serve mankind as slave labour, but opposed to all animal kind by instinct. In that regard, it would be fantastic to see a future Doctor Who adventure featuring a link-up between the Krynoids and the Vervoids – what an adversary that would be!

So I unashamedly place Terror of the Vervoids well within my top 50. It is true that some of the stories below are more robust, but for simple and enjoyable story telling, this story gives me a surprisingly large amount of enjoyment!

#MissingEpisodesMonday: Why the BBC should animate Shada

It’s funny to reflect that a blog that began as a simple homage to the existing back catalogue of classic Doctor Who (and to get me back into writing on a daily basis …) has now becoming a long running commitment to getting the BBC to fill the gaps in the catalogue and bring back the missing episodes. It goes to show that one never quite knows what one is getting oneself into …

The latest on missing episodes is … that there is no latest. I’ve just bought myself The Nightmare Fair to delve into the episodes that would have been produced had Season 23 gone ahead as planned rather than gone on hiatus. I’m also trying to decide whether to invest in the TARGET novelisations of stories like Galaxy 4. In short – I’m resigning myself to being relatively patient.

I say relatively, because I still see no reason why the BBC should not proceed ahead with filling the gaps in the back catalogue, unless they have a reasonable prospect of getting the real thing back. We know they are willing to commission or receive animations of currently missing episodes, and I have set out a number of stories that could be the springboard for future animations: specifically The Smugglers, Marco Polo, and The Abominable Snowmen. We also know from the animation of lost Dad’s Army episode ‘A Stripe For Frazer’ that Philip Morris’ ongoing search for material has made the BBC reluctant to pursue animations that might become redundant.

So our tribute to missing episodes today poses a different question – why not animate a story that is missing because it was never created in the first place? This is in fact the logic used by Ian Levine, who commissioned a private project to animate Shada – the Tom Baker adventure intended to conclude Season 17, cancelled after a strike by BBC technicians interrupted filming. Levine’s logic is that with no material to be returned, it is a low risk investment to plug the gap – a similar logic to why he animated the lost episode Mission to the Unknown, which is believed to have been permanently wiped.

The 1992 VHS release of Shada, which features Tom Baker narrating the gaps between the survived studio and film material, has only increased fans’ enthusiasm to see this story as it would have been broadcast. The full animation is sadly no longer available online, but a youtube video shows trailers for several of the projects Levine’s team were working on, including Mission to the Unknown, and the currently missing Evil of the Daleks:

The reason the video is no longer available is for the simple reason of copyright – the BBC own the rights to Doctor Who, and the estate of Douglas Adams own the right to the story he has written. While the BBC did commission a replacement Shada in 2003, featuring Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor reuniting with Lalla Ward as Romana (now President of Gallifrey), it obviously was not the same as the recreation Ian Levine created.

So, while we are waiting for the results of Philip Morris’ search to be made known, and the BBC are unwilling to commit resources to animate Marco Polo, I think the BBC ought to commission an animation for Shada – because it is missing, never to be returned, and so there is no risk in producing a resource that could become redundant without warning. The success of the Shada animation could then become the catalyst for subsequent animations, both of existing missing episodes, but also of stories that were never broadcast like The Nightmare Fair.

So it’s over to 2Entertain, the BBC Store, and BBC Worldwide. What do you think guys?

#MissingEpisodesMonday – is this the truth behind the #omnirumour?

Happy #MissingEpisodesMonday folks! It’s been a while, but we’re still holding out in hope that the gaps will eventually be filled in the Doctor Who back catalogue. Some encouraging news is that the animation of lost Dad’s Army episode ‘A Stripe for Fraser’ has seemingly been the catalyst for a new wave of animations of lost British sitcoms, including Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part to be animated for a new series, The Lost Sitcoms. It confirms that the BBC are willing to explore animations for classic material, and again makes us revisit the crucial point: why not the remaining missing episodes of Doctor Who?

Well, off the back of yesterday’s post on the excellent missing episodes book WIPED!, I would now like to advance a theory. It is only a theory, it is partially borrowed from ideas I have read on Planet Mondas, and is not based upon any hard fact, inside knowledge, or particularly ingenious reasoning. It is, however, a plausible explanation of what may be going on.

If we assume that Philip Morris has told us the truth about the discovery and loss of Web of Fear episode 3, an assumption which I think is entirely fair, then we know he discovered painfully that he has to be discreet when tracking down episodes. Hard though it is for us to fathom, there are individuals (rather like in City of Death) who would get a kick out of having something that no-one else can have.

We also know from WIPED! that this also makes recovery something of a cat and mouse game. Ian Levine purposefully withheld news that he had recovered episode 1 of The Time Meddler in the early 1980s – not because he wished to keep it for himself, but recognising that it may be necessary to trade a supposedly missing episode for a different missing episode. It means that even if Phil is sitting on quite a few missing episodes, it doesn’t do to reveal how much he has, lest he need to negotiate the return of an episode he cannot recover by other means. Web episode 3 is a good example of this; if the Nigeria print was the last one in existence and it now rests with a private collector, it may well require the exchange of a currently missing story to secure its return.

Another interesting aspect from WIPED! however, is that we’re not absolutely sure what happened to all of the prints that were sent overseas. We know that the BBC looked to keep costs down by ‘bicycling’ the prints from one country to another, so it is not simply a case of one print per country. We also know that some prints that ought to have been returned were not – by virtue of the fact that fans currently have the likes of Tomb of the Cybermen, Enemy of the World and Web of Fear sitting on their bookshelves! Until now, it has been assumed that all of the prints can be accounted for as either lost or destroyed, but it seems that there are two challenges to this assumption:

  1. As the Web/Enemy recovery shows, it seems that the paper trail was never followed up in person, merely by long distance communication. This is a huge pity, as if someone had been able to call on the Sierra Leone archives before the civil war commenced in 1991, they may well have found and recovered the five Hartnell prints believed to have been sitting there.
  2. It seems that the paper trail itself is neither 100% clear, nor 100% exhaustive. In WIPED! Richard Molesworth has had to use some commendably impressive deduction to figure out which prints went where; even to the extent of trying to work out how the recovered prints of Tomb of the Cybermen came to be in Hong Kong. But by the nature of the surviving paperwork, it must be deduction rather than repetition of definite fact.

In view of the above, I propose that the following theory may account for why the BBC have been so reluctant to explain why they have been saying: “We expect to release more classic Doctor Who“, and why the expected #omnirumour dreadnought has been delayed for so long. Please take note that we begin with a speculation made by a member of Planet Mondas Forum, Douglas Wulf. He firmly believes in a mass recovery, so we must take his words with an extra large pinch of salt – I must repeat: this is not a fact, and I have no evidence to support this supposition.

The supposition is this. Philip Morris has publicly praised Pamela Nash for her work in the 1970s, despite the fact that sections of Doctor Who fandom hold her in very low regard for allowing the purge of Doctor Who from the film archives (incidently, this is a very unfair judgement – by the time the prints were destroyed, the BBC had no legal right to sell them. With painful hindsight we can see the video market was less than 10 years away, but then we didn’t see the iPhone coming in 1995 …) Morris’ praise seems odd therefore, unless it is possible that the concurrent action Nash took of sending audition prints overseas, means that there is a better chance that stories currently missing have survived. This forms the core of the theory: that there is at least one set of audition prints covering the Hartnell and Troughton era that have previously not been accounted for.

If this is true, then how do the 2013 recoveries fit in to this theory?  2013 was absolutely huge for Doctor Who as the 50th Anniversary – it was strongly rumoured that the BBC asked Philip Morris if he had any material that could be released especially for the anniversary year. In following up all of the paper trails, I believe Morris found the Nigerian prints exactly as he said (side note – and there may even be other prints in the Nigerian find, not as yet released). However, it is possible that this find is not the main recovery at all.

Let us suppose that Philip Morris is tracking down lost prints. He makes the Nigerian discovery, but gets his fingers burnt with the loss of Web 3. He’s bitterly disappointed, but not overly so, because he’s hot on the scent of the proverbial motherlode – and who knows – perhaps Web 3 would be in this master set? Perhaps he has already tracked down many of the prints, or perhaps he is close but not yet to the point of having the cans in his hands. The BBC phone, aware of his search, and asking if he can release something. He could tell them about the big find – and maybe he would be tempted to if he had recovered something as highly sought after as Power of the Daleks. But then he would have to explain how he found the prints – and with his search incomplete, that would put the remaining prints in danger of private collectors getting there first. Indeed, with the Mirror splashing that all 106 missing episodes had been found in Ethiopia, perhaps he decided that he needed to take the heat off the public asking what he was up to.

Which leaves us with a plausible explanation for where we are at just now. With the Nigerian prints an isolated find, Phil figures there can be little harm in returning Enemy of the World and Web of Fear. Whatever loose end he followed to that particular point is now a dead end, and puts no further prints at risk. This leaves him free to follow his trail as far as it will go, do his best to get there before the private collectors, and perhaps even to barter with known private collectors.

I finish with the same note of caution I expressed at the start: this is only a theory. At present we cannot prove or disprove it, and we will only know if it is true once Philip Morris is in the position that he can reveal where he searched, and what he found. It does cover all of the established facts thus far however , and account for why the so called omnirumour came to exist, yet not be fulfilled as immediately as anticipated.

So where does that leave us? Well, if it’s untrue then we’re whistling in the wind (nothing new there). If it is true on the other hand, it encouragingly and excitingly suggests that we should not expect the return of the odd orphaned episode, but instead can look forward to one or more complete adventures. As ever, we can only sit and wait – and expect the unexpected!

Review: WIPED! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes

As a birthday treat, I invested in a book that’s been on my wish list for a while now; Richard Molesworth’s seminal work WIPED! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes.

Wiped

I should begin by saying that I absolutely loved the book – I finished it in two days. As a historian I appreciated the thoroughness of Molesworth’s research. The first part of the book ensures that the reader fully appeciates how we came to be in the position that so much of Doctor Who’s original run came to be missing. While those who wish to cut to the chase may find it tedious to read about the origins of the BBC and their associated outposts (especially BBC Enterprises and the Film Archive), it’s both very interesting to read, and hugely helpful for understanding why the material was both lost and found. It leaves us thankful that BBC Enterprises displayed enough entrepreneurial nous to send prints of Doctor Who all of the globe, as without these unreturned prints we would have significantly less of the back catalogue available to enjoy today.

I will not of course repeat the whole of the book here (do go and buy a copy instead!), but there are some very interesting points to take from my read. The first is that you should be prepared to have your heartstrings tugged powerfully. There will be moments when you will read of the BBC holding a complete set of a currently missing prints, and you hope against hope that maybe they will survive. One such moment relates to a set of prints that paperwork indicates survived as late as 1999 in Sierra Leone:

Many of the Hartnell episodes that SLBS (the broadcaster in Sierra Leone) purchased in the 1960s were still in the SLBS film vault in the 1990s. However, Civil War broke out in the country in 1991, and peace wasn’t resumed until 2001. During the war, SLBS’s television station, including its film vault, was totally destroyed in 1999. Paperwork indicates that it still held film prints of Galaxy 4, The Myth Makers, The Massacre, The Savages and The Celestial Toymaker at the time.

One also shudders to read of how the original Dalek adventure was literally days, if not hours, from being lost forever but for Ian Levine’s quick thinking, and wonder in astonishment how the ingenuity of creating prints in Arabic for the Algerian market may well be the reason why we are able to enjoy so much of Hartnell’s first two seasons.

Molesworth also explains in some depth (and with copious lists!) where episodes were sent abroad to, and endeavours to explain where recovered material came from. The second is of particular interest for the very obvious reason that if the source had one episode, it might be the beginning of a trail to other episodes. It becomes more evident now why large scale recoveries in the style of Tomb of the Cybermen or the 2013 recoveries spark such optimism that perhaps a larger cache of material has been found. The broad point is this: orphaned episodes are usually the result of an individual taking one of the cans marked for destruction before it could be destroyed, hence they are usually alone. Conversely, whole stories mean that a set of commercial prints made their way to the location for broadcast, and it is therefore likely that there is a complete set.

Molesworth’s work makes abundantly clear how difficult it is to work out exactly how many 16mm film prints were sent overseas. While there are quite good records of which countries showed Doctor Who (and of which specific stories they showed), Molesworth has had to guess exactly which prints went where, and when they may have returned to the BBC. We are able to guess that prints that began being broadcast in Australia may have then been sent on to New Zealand, Singapore, or Hong Kong for example. But as the records are not perfect, we cannot tell for sure exactly where the prints went to – hence prints could show up in Hong Kong or Nigeria that were assumed to be already returned or destroyed.

The book also offers incredible hope however, as it finishes with this paragraph (my emphasis added in bold):

The final truth is simple this. There are 106 episodes of Doctor Who that are missing. As much as we wish that some or all of them might survive out there, somewhere, the fact of the matter is that they probably don’t. We could have already reached the point where everything that can be found, has been found. But we will never know for certain. And that is why we keep on hoping and dreaming and wishing. And perhaps, one day I’ll get to write a third edition of this very book, with wildly differing conclusions in the final chapter …

This edition of WIPED! was published in February 2013, by which point The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear had already been recovered. That first statement in bold (unknown to the author) was already wrong at the time the book was published. But he himself recognised that the situation could change at any stage, and I daresay hoped that he would be proven wrong. We are all waiting to find out what Dave Hoskin will say in his book; we already hope that perhaps a third edition of this book will emerge in due course, perhaps even entitled SAVED! rather than WIPED! – in the meantime, this is well worth reading while we wait for new developments.

And check back tomorrow for my latest theory on where we are at with the recovery of the #missingepisodes …

Source: “More material to come”

Quite excitingly, one of my Twitter followers sent me a tip off recently! By no means exclusive to me, but still exciting to be pointed to some interesting material.

The background relates to Dave Hoskin, an Australian journalist and author of the forthcoming tome Chasing Shadows from Obverse Books which focuses on the infamous ‘Omnirumour.’ My source (a fellow Twitter traveller @ClassicDrWho) pointed me to an interview Dave gave with with 42 to Doomsday podcast, in which he spoke about the book. Dave has done his best to research exactly what went on during the whole process of Philip Morris hunting for lost Doctor Who and then finding The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. He promises that the forthcoming book will shed light on why the omnirumour exploded as it did, but also made the following highly interesting remark:

I also discovered that there is missing material waiting to be returned to the archives… but I’m afraid if you want to know the full story on that, you’ll have to buy the book. 😉 Yeah, shocking tease, I know.

First of all – let us allow ourselves to be excited. There’s more Doctor Who out there! Even if that’s just five minutes of The Space Pirates, that’s five minutes we currently don’t have, and maybe might get to enjoy in future. Secondly, let’s enjoy the fact that we may get to find out the full story of why the prints ended up where they did, and how Phil managed to track them down. Just by itself, this is a story worth hearing.

We do however have to ask the pertinent question: if there is indeed more material out there, why hasn’t it been released?

Readers of this blog will know I am a cautious chap (!) so I cautiously advance the following thoughts:

  1. We have known all along that Philip Morris might know where the prints are, but not necessarily be able to get access to them. The experience of Web of Fear 3 suggests there may be good reasons for caution from the recovery team until they actually have any prints locked securely where nobody can reach them.
  2. Even if the prints are in hand, it is strongly rumoured that they may not be salvagable. The phrase ‘waiting to be returned to the archives’ does rather imply they are not in hand, but may be broad enough to mean that they are in hand, but are not considered ‘archived’ because they have not yet been salvaged.
  3. There may be all manner of complications. Whether this is the estates of older actors wanting a cut of the profit, Morris seeking appropriate recompense from Auntie Beeb, or any other kind of human ingenuity – we can but speculate!
  4. It adds more proof (alongside the weird non-denials of the BBC) to the suggestion that more is out there. While we can be dubious about the extent of the recovery, it seems beyond question that more material is out there.

In some regards this news doesn’t advance our speculations too much. I will however hazard one prediction – if more material does indeed exist (which now seems a given) and the BBC anticipate that they are able to release it (which their words strongly imply), it means that there must be at least one story either complete or nearly complete, and presumably viable enough that the BBC can speak of ‘hope’ rather than dismiss it out of hand. It suggests to me that there may well be one crucial barrier to release, but that things have the potential to move very quickly indeed if that barrier is overcome …