Doctor Who, Old and New

Paul R. Potts

Since I wrote this in 2007, a number of the lost episodes I mention have been located, and some have been released on home video. As of this writing, in June 2016, there are 97 episodes missing, not 108. At this rate, given the deterioration of old film and video, it seems unlikely that complete footage of all the remaining shows will ever be recovered, but one can dream.

In 2009, the BBC pulled a prank on its readers by announcing that a radio telescope had discovered broadcast television from the past, reflected from an unknown object about 25 light-years away:

After boosting and digital enhancement the resulting video signals are remarkably clear… A BBC team have been working closely with Dr Venn’s team to help recover the signals. BBC Television historian Peter Wells, explained “We now know these are original broadcasts. So far we have recovered about 7 weeks of old television signals from space. Every day in our lab is like traveling back in time. And speaking of which we have just started the digital recovery of signals that contain lost Doctor Who episodes.”

See this web page

Sadly, I briefly fell for that prank, reading the article with growing excitement, until I quickly realized that the idea of lost episodes of Doctor Who time-traveling back to us was just a little too perfectly ironic to be true. The story was dated April 1, 2009.

Oh, and we now know what happened to the Doctor after the expiration of his twelfth regeneration. While the Doctor is not immortal, exactly, the show is perhaps the closest thing to immortal that a television show ever has been, or perhaps, ever will be.

My son Isaac and I have been watching Doctor Who. To kick it off, we watched disc 1 of season 1 of the rebooted series that started in 2006. I was favorably impressed — while it still has that cheese factor and silly monsters that make the show what it is, the new series seems to have considerably higher production values. I like Christopher Eccleston as the ninth doctor. Billie Piper does a very credible job as his companion Rose Tyler, at least in the episodes we’ve seen so far. Apparently, Eccleston only lasted for one season, though, and they are now on doctor number ten. David Tenant has completed two seasons and signed on for more.

According to the show mythology, the Doctor only gets twelve regenerations, and so the thirteenth doctor seems destined to be the last. It will be interesting to see what happens if the show gets to that point and the show’s writers have to figure out what to do next. Maybe there is another Time Lord surviving somewhere in space and time? And, of course, there can be any number of spinoff stories.

To try to give Isaac a sense of what Doctor Who is all about, I also interleaved a series of old episodes in the queue. So immediately after the 2005 series we were watching the very first episodes with William Hartnell.

I was expecting the original episodes to be unbearably cheesy, looking more like a school play than a real television production, with horrendous audio and picture, but they surprised me. While there are some gaffes in the writing, the first episode really makes up for it with the strength of the acting. It is interesting to contemplate how these episodes were shot. They seem to be made up of very long continuous takes, where the camera rolls even through the transitions between sets. Is this because they were shot on film and they did not want to waste film by bringing the camera up to speed and re-synchronizing with the dialogue? I’m not really certain. But the effect is almost like a documentary shot by video steadicam, and more like watching a play than a modern show with constant cuts.

After the first episode, the next few episodes involve a tribe of cave-people on a quest for fire as their planet appears to be entering an ice age. This is a pretty weak story and drags quite a bit. There are a few scenes that are very much worth watching, though — there is a staged fight scene that seems to be lit entirely by a fire. It’s really stunning and quite well-choreographed. It is also very violent — in fact, it is quite surprising how violent some of the original Doctor Who material actually is.

We continued watching the 1963 Doctor Who. We received a disc from Netflix that had been filed in the wrong envelope. It was supposed to be “The Daleks.” It was actually the two-part serial called “The Edge of Destruction” and the disc was taken from a set called “The Lost Years,” also featuring Hartnell. The DVDs look very similar, so it is not a huge surprise that they were mixed up. Anyway, “The Edge of Destruction” was shot entirely inside the TARDIS, and has a very weak script; the TARDIS is malfunctioning because of a stuck button, and as a result is hurtling backwards and forwards through time and space and somehow making all of its inhabitants violently crazy. The device somehow knows it is malfunctioning — apparently it has an artificial intelligence — and all the disturbances are a result of it somehow attempting to communicate that it is in trouble. According to Wikipedia,

This story was written by story editor David Whitaker within two days. It was created as a hasty “filler” story so that the series would fit a thirteen episode run, which was all that had been granted at that stage. Budgetary restrictions meant that only the four regular actors and the TARDIS sets could be used for the filming. Perhaps as a result of this, this is the least expensive Doctor Who serial ever, and the second episode (“The Brink of Disaster”) is the cheapest episode ever. See the Wikipedia article on “The Edge of Destruction.”

It’s good to know that some things about low-budget television shows never change — it seems that there are always at least a few episodes that are really low budget, filler to squeeze a little more mileage out of the production dollars.

Sometimes “bottle episodes” (set in a confined space) can force the screenwriters to be creative, and result in some good work. But this one is as bad as you’d expect for a story written in two days. The laughably low budget really shows. There is a label on the TARDIS’ “fast return” button that is written by hand, in felt-tip pen. The events of these episodes have almost no long-term bearing on the story arc, except that it shows the characters that the Doctor can be a bit of an asshole.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. There are old Star Trek episodes that are worse. At least the Doctor keeps his shirt on.

Anyway, next up is disc two of the 2005 series, and the old shows that first introduced the Daleks. We’ll see how many of the old shows we can stand. There are a lot of them — nearly 750 episodes of Doctor Who have been broadcast. It is truly a science fiction soap opera.

Tragically, though, a lot of the early episodes are missing. For example, the serial after “The Daleks” is “Marco Polo,” which was a seven-part story set in the year 1289. None of the original footage exists. Again according to Wikipedia:

In all, 108 of 253 episodes produced during the first six years of the programme are not currently held in the BBC’s archives, although many more were thought missing in the past before episodes were recovered from a variety of sources, most notably overseas broadcasters.

See the Wikipedia article about the missing episodes.

The shows aren’t entirely lost; there are audio recordings of varied quality, and stills. Some shows have been reconstructed using animation. There are novelizations. So the storylines are not lost, but the shows can’t be seen as they were seen by their original audience. That’s a tremendous loss. Whether the shows are actually any good or not is beside the point; they are pieces of history. The people who worked on these shows, from actors to writers to editors to costume designers to set dressers, deserved a better legacy.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
August 8, 2007

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