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 …

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2 thoughts on “Review: WIPED! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes

  1. Pingback: #MissingEpisodesMonday – is this the truth behind the #omnirumour? |

  2. Pingback: 35 – The Mind of Evil |

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