Reading between the lines: The BBC official responses

Interesting news broke earlier this week with the updating of the DVD Restoration Team’s website to include the most recently issued DVDs. I had previously speculated in my review of The Underwater Menace that the poor quality of the reconstructed lost episodes surely mandated their eventual animation. The RT report on this DVD reveals that the team were prepared to create an animation comparable to episode 3 of the Web of Fear – this would have involved using more dynamic animations (zooming in to pictures to create the sensation of movement) and using stills from the existing footage. Despite offering this at no additional cost, the BBC insisted that the reproduction should be only from the existing telesnaps, reported in strict order, with no repetition. Suffice to say, this is more than a little odd.

I’ve also been toying online with buying the Lost in Time DVD, not least to enjoy what little survives of The Crusade, given that it seems doomed not to follow in the footsteps of The Moonbase and The Underwater Menace in earning a solo DVD release despite 50% of its content surviving. The RT memo also notes that no explanation is forthcoming as to why this serial is not getting the same treatment as these serial. So, given that at least five episodes (Underwater 3, Moonbase 2 and 4, Enemy 3, Web 1) are redundant on the Lost in Time DVD, I figured I would find out from the BBC whether they had plans to release the orphaned episodes through the BBC Store.

Their initial reply read like this:

I will pass on your suggestion of a ‘Orphaned Doctor Who Adventures’ to our Editorial Team who may consider adding the feature to the store in the future.

Keep an eye out for any updates!

Now … this is a bit odd. Perhaps the person answering the email has a standard answer – but surely also the chaps at the BBC Store would have already considered putting every surviving episode online? Wouldn’t they? I followed up this point, soliciting the next response:

As Doctor Who is one of our most loved series I believe that every episode would have been considered. We have no access to editorial decisions so I am sorry but I am not able to give you any reasons why this has not been previously added to the BBC Store.

So we advance a little, and we discover that the Orphaned episodes have been considered, but they won’t reveal why they have not uploaded them. It may of course mean nothing, but if the answer was simply that they did not think they would make any money from orphaned episodes, they would just say so.

So, I went back to my dear friends at BBC DVD Enquiries, and asked them some cunning questions with regard to future releases both on DVD and via the BBC Store. The latter are rather important, because the successful sales of Enemy of the World and Web of Fear on iTunes have surely set out the model for how the BBC will release any future recovered missing episodes. I therefore asked them:

  1. Is the DVD range now being replaced by digital sales on BBC Store, or can we expect further releases on DVD?
  2. Are orphaned episodes (such as episodes 1 and 4 of the Crusades) going to be made available to download on the BBC Store?
  3. Are the BBC able to comment on why further animations are not being commissioned? I was pleased to see the release of a Dad’s Army animation, and also plans to animate lost sitcoms like Steptoe and Son. Can you share why Doctor Who is not currently being considered for further animations, given its mass popularity?

DVD Enquiries went to the BBC PR department, who dusted off the standard reply:

“We’re hoping to release more classic Doctor Who and we’ll let you know when we have news. We always let our fans know in advance of bringing out new titles. There will also always be a mix of Doctor Who releases on both DVD and EST.

Not satisfied, I asked my contact why the PR team hoped to release more classic Doctor Who, but were not either releasing details, nor able to explain why they were being so secretive. Their response was highly informative:

Maybe they don’t have finite details to share with the media/public yet? There’s certainly no titles on the 2016 DVD schedule yet (my emphasis added). Sorry we can’t help you further. Here’s hoping it’s worth waiting for ….

As always when discussing the missing episodes, there is a danger of reading into circumstantial evidence to see the patterns and proofs that you want to see. So I acknowledge from the start that it may just be extraordinarily poor PR management by the BBC. But it is, well, a bit odd. Ever since the video market emerged, the BBC has had relatively few qualms about finding new ways to sell old material – witness the multiple ways in which it is possible to own Spearhead from Space as the prime example! Even before the BBC ground out the final releases of The Moonbase and The Underwater Menace, the signs were that through Ark in Space, Inferno, The Visitation, The Aztecs and The Green Death they were determined to keep the DVD range going with re-releases. Given their past form, silence is therefore deeply suspicious.

Before I draw inferences, I’d like to highlight what I think are the key points from the responses I got from BBC Store and BBC DVD:

  1. They still expect to release more classic Doctor Who material on both DVD and digital online sales. Therefore, they must have some sort of new content in mind.
  2. They are being extremely secretive about this content. Unlike past projects, where the BBC were known to be colourising The Ambassadors of Death and The Mind of Evil, or trying to improve the quality of the Inferno prints, or animating the lost episodes of The Invasion, or producing special editions of The Talons of Weng Chiang – we have no word at all.
  3. The gatekeepers have been given a script. This in itself is noteworthy – you only give someone a script when you’re keen to make sure that they don’t say the wrong thing. It’s clearly not enough for them to brush people away – they are trying to avoid any attributable comment. That said …
  4. The gatekeepers are expectant. Isn’t it striking how the last email finished with the anticipation that DVDs may be confirmed for this year, and also expressed the hope that ‘it would be worth the wait.’ What wait? That sentence makes no sense for fans who already have a full catalogue of Doctor Who, that’s largely been as cleaned, restored, VidFired and upscaled as one could possibly manage.

I fear following the last releases we are no nearer to finding the proverbial ‘smoking gun’ that proves the BBC have recovered more material. However … no proof, is not quite the same as no evidence. We cannot use the points above to prove that the BBC anticipate releasing Power of the Daleks on its 50th Anniversary this November. We can use the points above to suggest that there is a better than 50 per cent probability that the BBC is in possession or anticipation of at least one previously missing Doctor Who adventure. I would go further, and suggest that the relative silence (especially given previous missing episode recoveries) is suggestive that we are not talking about one or two stories or orphaned episodes. If, for example, the BBC had Marco Polo, they would simply announce and be done. Silence means ongoing work. Silence, rather encouragingly, suggests that the BBC are puzzling over the logistics of more than one recovered classic adventure.

As ever, this is only speculation. I feel much more confident however, in saying that the only accurate part of the statement ‘there are currently 97 episodes of Doctor Who officially missing from the BBC archives’ is the word ‘officially.’ I’m not saying that they are all back … but I’m at the stage that, were I a betting man, I’d be prepared to take odds on a further release within the next five years. The big question is what has Philip Morris found?