A brief recap, for those not in the know. Back in the 1960s, the BBC made 50 stories, comprising 253 25-minute episodes, of Doctor Who starring first William Hartnell and then Patrick Troughton. These stories were mostly made on and broadcast from video tape, but because video tape was a fairly new format in those days, it was also rather costly, so the tapes were wiped and re-used. This has been dismissed, by some, as the BBC being rather shortsighted, but back in the day nobody had anticipated such things as extensive repeats on digisatcable channels, home video, or space age marvels such as DVD or Blu-Ray. In fairness, the BBC would normally keep the episodes for a couple of years at least before junking them. IIRC the last '60s serial to be wiped was Fury from the Deep, made in 1968 but not destroyed until 1974.
However, all was not lost. Most of the episodes were sold overseas to various broadcasters. Because of differences in broadcast formats between countries, the episodes were first transferred to 16mm film, a universal format which all broadcasters were capable of playing.
Back in the mid-to-late '70s, the emerging Doctor Who fandom came to realise that the BBC held in its archives very few episodes of Doctor Who (it's worth bearing in mind, though, that Doctor Who wasn't alone in this - Z-Cars, The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son, Top of the Pops and Not Only...But Also were, and in some cases still are, appallingly under-represented) - the actual Film and Videotape archive held hardly anything, whilst BBC Enterprises (latterly Worldwide), who sold the stories to overseas had a few, and more were returned from overseas broadcasters over the years; however, the two departments each seemed not to know what the other was doing or held, and episodes were junked seemingly on the assumption that the other might have them.
Eventually both the BBC archives and Doctor Who fans (including record producer and DJ Ian Levine) set about tracking down as many of the missing episodes as they could (and not junking any more), with the result that, as of a couple of years ago - with the discovery of episode 3 of Galaxy 4 and episode 2 of The Underwater Menace - we were down to a mere 106 episodes missing, which had turned up from various sources - foreign broadcasters, private collections, a church basement in south London...
All of the missing episodes are represented by audio recordings made by fans at the time of their original broadcast, many by off-screen pictures (Tele-Snaps) taken by a gentleman named John Cura, who offered his services to the BBC back in the '60s as a way of preserving programmes in the pre-video age), some by off-screen 8mm movie footage taken by an anonymous gentleman when the episodes aired in Australia, and some even by footage that was censored out of the episodes when they were broadcast by Australian and New Zealand broadcasters (who didn't keep the episodes themselves, but were obliged by their own laws to keep the censored footage; as at least commentator has observed, the resulting footage gives possibly an unrealistic portrayal of the episodes in question being rather violent/horrific/just plain scary...).
Recently, however, there have been...rumours.
There are always rumours. And it's worth bearing in mind that the most recent missing episode discoveries (that's "recent" as in "as far back as the discovery of all four episodes of Tomb of the Cybermen back in 1992"), were not preceded by any rumours. And such rumours, whatever their basis, are far easier to spread via the internet than back in "the day". And sometimes the rumours turn out to have been less "rumours" and more "cruel hoaxes" (such as one gentleman who persistently claimed to have the missing final episode of William Hartnell's last story, The Tenth Planet).
These latest rumours started a few months ago, and concerned the apparent discovery of a job lot of missing episodes from Sierra Leone, possibly as many as 90. Nothing seemed to come of these, although there were various reports that people had signed Non-Disclosure Agreements to prevent them telling anyone anything about the discovery, and two websites in particular continued to state that the episodes had been found and negotiations were ongoing to return them to the BBC.
And then, on Sunday, The People (a UK tabloid "news"paper) announced that 106 missing episodes had been found in Ethopia.
Now, with my fanboy pedantry hat on, there's a lot about the story that's patently rubbish, for example:
- 106 BBC programmes have been unearthed featuring the first two doctors... - no, Doctor Who is the programme. What has - allegedly - been discovered are 106 episodes
- But after months of detective work the tapes have been unearthed... - no, if the episodes have been discovered in any formats, they'll be on 16mm films, the tapes having long since been wiped and re-used.
- The recovered episodes from the 60s include much-loved scenes from The Crusade, The Enemy of the World and The Ice Warriors series. - This just looks really sloppy. "Much-loved scenes"? "The Ice Warriors series"?
Probably the biggest problem with the article is its statement that 106 missing episodes have been discovered. Because there are precisely 106 missing episodes all told. Many of them were not, as far as anyone is aware, ever sold to Ethiopia. In fairness, Ethiopia did buy the first two series of Doctor Who - which include such missing gems as episodes 4 and 5 of the French Revolution story The Reign of Terror, episodes 2 and 4 of The Crusade, which starred Julian Glover as Richard the Lionheart, and Marco Polo, the earliest missing story of which, despite being one of the most-sold of all Doctor Who stories, not a single frame of footage has ever been discovered (although six of its seven episodes are represented by John Cura's Tele-snaps).
So...not only did Ethiopia not buy all the missing episodes, but two stories - the 12-episode epic The Daleks Masterplan and its single-episode preview Mission to the Unknown - were never shown abroad at all, and are extremely unlikely to ever be found at all. (Paradoxically, that hasn't stopped three of the thirteen episodes from turning up...even so, they were all in London, one specifically from the BBC itself and two in the basement of a church in Wandsworth or Clapham which might, depending on which version of the story you believe, have been previously BBC property, and it's really really unlikely that the missing nine would be in Ethiopia).
Realistically, then - and sadly - it's most likely that the "106 episodes discovered" story is a load of tosh (although it's possible that there may be some sort of kernel of truth to it, maybe linked to the "90 episodes from Sierra Leone" story. OTOH, Ethiopia =/= Sierra Leone, as any atlas will tell you...).
But that hasn't stopped another couple of stories being announced in the last day or so.
Firstly, there was this article in the Mirror, claiming that missing episodes will be unveiled this week at a BBC press conference/screening, taking place on Tuesday 8th October. There are problems with this too. The Mirror article describes in detail the invitation to the event - it "had the event details written inside the screen of an old-fashioned sixties style television set, complete with a dial to tune in the channels, seeming to hint at the type of news to come." However, no such press screening seems to be imminent according to the Press Association media schedule. There is this launch of the personalised iPlayer by BBC Director General Tony Hall. Is it possible that the Mirror may have got its wires crossed somewhere along the line? Or even - given that only the Mirror seems to be reporting on this "press screening" and the details of the invitation - that there's a hoax involved? Possibly by the Mirror itself, or possibly by someone trying to hoax the Mirror? Certainly, the rather predictable anonymous "senior BBC source" is quoted as saying "there will be big news this Tuesday regarding lost Doctor Who episodes," but...what's an anonymous source worth?
However, then there's this article by the Radio Times. Originally it suggested just two missing episodes, but now it's been revised to say that simply "missing episodes" will be released for sale digitally on platforms such as iPlayer. When it was simply "two missing episodes," it was just about possible to believe it was a case of crossed wires, and it was referring to the earlier mentioned episodes of Galaxy 4 part 3 and The Underwater Menace part 2 (the latter of which has still yet to be released on DVD). But now, it's hard to say. One would hope that the Radio Times would be reliable in its reporting; however, it's no longer a BBC publication, and it's impossible to rule out the possibility of crossed wires, or of it simply being wrong. It ties in the "newly discovered" episodes to the African mega-haul, although whether this is the previously rumoured 90 episodes from Sierra Leone, the People's 106 episodes from Ethiopia, or something else entirely, is unclear. Both the Mirror and the Radio Times refer to BBC debunking of the 90 episode rumour back in June, but that was four months ago - time enough any necessary negotiations to have borne fruit, possibly.
I still remain unconvinced. With the release of The Tenth Planet this November, all the extant episodes bar The Underwater Menace part 2 will have been released on DVD (the plan, apparently, is for that one to be paired up with The Moonbase, whose existing episodes 2 and 4 have already been released, but will be released again with animation filling in the missing episodes, as has already been the case with some of the other missing episodes). This seems to have been the plan all along, and there has been some joking in fandom that, no doubt, just as the final episodes are being prepared for release - and the Doctor Who Restoration Team, who have been painstakingly remastering the picture and sound quality of the extant episodes for VHS and DVD release for the past 20 years, are getting ready for a well-earned rest - a job lot of missing episodes will re-surface. There have even been whispers that such a job-lot has been found, and that the BBC has been sitting on it, waiting to make an announcement until the time of the 50th anniversary. Is this latest round of tittle-tattle just a new version of that joke/rumour in slightly different form? Don't get me wrong, I'd love for just a few missing episodes to be found - to be able to actually see Marco Polo would be amazing (and heck, it may be less of a snooze-fest than the CD release of the soundtrack...), The Myth Makers sounds like an absolute gem, and I will freely admit that I already love The Power of the Daleks just on the basis of the soundtrack - if the actual pictures were to turn up too, I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven (particularly as it was Patrick Troughton's first story, and he's my favourite Doctor, but so little of his stuff has survived). But...Gareth Roberts, who's written several episodes for the BBC Wales revival of the series, once described Doctor Who fans as living in a perpetual state of anticipointment. I guess we'll find out in a couple of days - if there is is or isn't a press screening of missing episodes, if some of them do or don't end up on iTunes - whether this is more of the same or something really exciting. I just don't want to get my hopes up, only to have them dashed...