Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who: Now You See It…

Shamefully, I never thought I’d get back to this. And maybe I still won’t (my reviews elsewhere have fallen off rather, too). But just in case you’ve happened to come by this way, here’s a little bit of Bill Hartnell fun. I was so utterly delighted to see him in prime time, palely colourised and all, in The Name of the Doctor a fortnight ago that I popped on An Unearthly Child straight afterwards. Then The Daleks (Richard being away for the weekend). And I enjoyed them enormously. The Edge of Destruction, too, and Marco Polo since.

Marco Polo, though, is something very different to those three.

It’s the first Doctor Who story that you can buy on CD.

You know, you can buy two-thirds of all the William Hartnell stories on CD – and all but three of those in which Patrick Troughton stars as the Doctor. So what, you might ask, has the BBC got against those left out, and especially those first three stories that I’ve told you are so brilliant?

Well, if you’re reading this obscure blog, you almost certainly know the answer already – that it’s nothing the BBC has against those three terrific stories I’ve already written about here, but that it’s got next to nothing of many of the rest of the Sixties. More than one in eight of all Doctor Who episodes made to this day – specifically, nearly half of those made in the ’60s, and more than half of those starring Patrick Troughton – no longer exist in most meaningful senses, which is why you can buy the first three stories on DVD but the fourth is primarily available on CD instead.

There were 253 episodes of Doctor Who made and broadcast in the 1960s. Only 148 still exist as TV episodes. Out of the six Doctor Who seasons starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, three are almost but not quite complete; three are skeletal wrecks with the vast majority of their episodes “lost”. Accounts of this distressing phenomenon tend to use the euphemisms “lost” or “missing”, particularly accounts from the BBC, when more accurate words might be “burnt” or “taped over”. In fact, the original video of every single 1960s episode was taped over, though that’s marginally less appalling than it sounds. For a more in-depth account, I recommend Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition 34: The Missing Episodes – The First Doctor, which was released a couple of months ago and copies of which can still be found in some shops (or, inevitably but less visually, Wikipedia). For my partial account of the strange and wonderful ways of experiencing what’s left, read on.

Why 1960s Doctor Who Was Destroyed

It wasn’t just Doctor Who. The BBC’s archiving policy with many pieces of great television from the 1960s was literally to toss them into a skip and burn them. Film was thrown away or torched, while video was wiped over. In the days when there were just three TV channels, an actors’ union dead-set against repeats and videotape highly expensive (and long before home video), as well as many TV bosses seeing their medium as an ephemeral one of no lasting artistic significance, it’s easy to see why so much early television was destroyed, though to understand the terrible mixture of snobbery, false economy and lack of foresight that led to such mass vandalism is not to excuse it. The simplest way was just to re-use the huge and hugely expensive videotape spools again to record new programmes. And that’s why no Doctor Who episode from the ’60s exists in its crisp, first-generation original format. It wasn’t until Tom Baker’s first season in 1975 that every episode’s master tape was kept.

The good news is that a surprising number of other formats – official and unofficial – mean that a surprising number of episodes survive, even if none survive precisely as they started. The biggest reason is that the BBC made film copies of almost every episode for overseas sales. While these didn’t quite capture the full picture or frame rate of the originals, there were a great many more copies struck: film was the international standard, and Doctor Who was successful enough to be exported to more than sixty countries. These copies were also in black and white – most countries’ TV stations not switching over to full colour until well in the ’70s – which is why for many years several episodes starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor could only be seen in monochrome, despite all of them having been made in colour. Thanks to finds, technological advances and sometimes painstaking and expensive hard work, now all of them are back to at least watchable if not perfect colour: on Monday, the last of these, The Mind of Evil, will be released on DVD and those like me who weren’t born when it was broadcast in 1971 will be able to see it in colour for the first time.

Many episodes were “lost” for a second and final time when the BBC helpfully insisted that all export copies were destroyed once the rental period was up. Thankfully, some were kept in the BBC’s own film archive and others have since turned up in TV stations and far more peculiar places all over the world. Since the BBC changed their policy and started keeping rather than destroying their television archive in the late 1970s, more than thirty episodes have been recovered, though with fewer than ten of those turning up in the last twenty years, each discovery seems like it might be the last.

If you know any film collectors with mysterious cans of any pre-1970s television programmes, the hunt is still on: this Radio Times article tells you how to get in touch in the unlikely but blessed event that you think you’ve found any “lost” Doctor Who or other piece of TV history.

The Survivors and the Ghosts: From CDs To Censors, Reading To Recons

When I was growing up, you got to see Doctor Who once – perhaps twice, with a couple of lucky stories from each year repeated the following summer – and that was it. The only two ways to experience a story again were, as I’ve written before, nightmares and Target Books, both thrilling if only partially reliable recreations of Doctor Who on TV. Almost every TV Doctor Who story from the original 1963 to 1989 run was novelised, which immediately put the series way ahead of most television. But even without the filmed copies held, or not, by TV stations which were as far as anyone knew never to be seen again, there were strange underground multimedia alternatives.

By the early 1990s, at last we could read novels of every 1960s Doctor Who story, including the “lost” ones. More surprisingly, by the early ’90s we were able to start hearing them, too. Doctor Who had so gripped the imagination of some viewers from the very first that they wanted to experience it again and again, and these home entertainment pioneers put microphones to their tellies and recorded the soundtracks. Between several different people’s collections later supplied to a BBC that decided it did want them after all, every single story exists at least in sound from – again putting Doctor Who in a far more fortunate position than many other TV series of the period. And over the last twenty years, all those soundtracks have been released.

There’s a curious crossover between the first and second waves of mainstream, purchasable versions of the missing stories, and it’s for me the best of all “lost” stories – The Evil of the Daleks. It was the final Target novelisation, released in 1993; in 1992, it was also the joint first release of a complete “missing” soundtrack. I recently wrote about The Evil of the Daleks on my main blog, having guest-reviewed it for a friend; by an odd quirk, the other soundtrack released with it was The Macra Terror, which also became a firm favourite and which between them are arguably the series’ most strongly Liberal stories. And it’s as part of my review of The Macra Terror that I first wrote about its rather fabulous Reconstruction and just what that phenomenon means, of which more shortly.

The first commercial soundtrack releases from the BBC were of ropy quality, on cassette, and were given both sparse and eccentric linking narration to explain what was going on in the absent pictures. I still have a great fondness for them, though I can no longer play my dusty cassettes – if anyone has decent MP3s of 1992’s first four cassette releases, please do get in touch – but today’s comprehensive CD collection is of far greater quality. The soundtracks have been painstakingly restored by cross-matching multiple sources and remastering each of them; the narration is considerably more precise, if sometimes intrusively verbose; and the discs themselves are a far clearer listening experience than the cassettes ever were. Though most of them are available as single releases, I recommend the five-box series Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection, which collects all the missing stories into boxed sets (shop around for the best deal).

Though the soundtracks are the most accessible and comprehensive representations of the 106 “lost” episodes, they’re far from the only ones. A man called John Cura made a living by photographing early TV programmes and selling them on to the likes of BBC directors so they could have records of their work – as a result, around 60 Tele-snaps per episode rather than 25 frames per second exist for the majority of the Doctor Who stories where the moving pictures were junked. You can see Tele-snaps assembled into perfunctory photonovels on the BBC website for stories such as, again, The Evil of the Daleks and The Macra Terror.

At the less officially sanctioned end, a few tiny film clips exist from people with wind-up cine-cameras, though no full episodes (or even full minutes!) were recorded in the same way that the soundtracks were. Most ironically and hilariously, some of the ‘scarier’ scenes survive because the censors in New Zealand cut them out before stories were transmitted over there, but being good bureaucrats, carefully stored the ‘unsuitable’ bits. So all we now have of some stories are the bits they didn’t want us to see. One DVD release, Doctor Who – Lost In Time, is entirely a collection of ‘orphaned’ episodes, film clips and censored fragments where some but not all of the story exists.

The most ambitious recreations of the missing episodes are cartoon animations paired to the soundtracks, now available on DVD to supplement the existing episodes of The Invasion and The Reign of Terror – expensive and exciting, these return the complete stories to moving pictures, and there are more on the way.

The next most ambitious recreations of the missing episodes are back to that less officially sanctioned end – the Reconstructions. These fabulous labours of love match the soundtracks to the Tele-snaps, and more recently film clips, CGI and anything else to hand, with occasional explanatory captions, for a strange but compelling experience somewhere between the audio drama of a soundtrack alone and a TV show. Some Recons are essentially slide shows; others mount ambitious CGI sequences, such as highly effective animated Daleks or unintentionally comical juddering Yeti. And not only are these available for free, they must be available for free: the BBC appear to turn a blind eye to them as long as they don’t use the remastered CD soundtracks and as long as no-one makes a penny from them, so don’t let anyone charge you for them.

The best and most comprehensive range of Recons are made by Loose Cannon, and you can find their website here. Their work offers increasingly ambitious approximations of missing sequences and a remarkable array of extra features, particularly interviews with actors and others who worked on the stories they’re aiming to reconstruct.

To finish by returning to my opening flipped point of view, there are other Doctor Who CDs available than just the “lost” adventures. Quite a few stories which exist in their entirely have also been released on narrated soundtrack CD, particularly as the DVD range has taken a long while to bring everything out, not least by painstakingly restoring each story to the best quality they can. As a result, the audio range jumped ahead to make several stories available on CD before they were out on DVD, with the result that even though there are still a handful of DVD releases to come, every ’60s Doctor Who story has now been available for quite some time on at least one variety of shiny silver disc, and most of them on both (last year’s DVD release of Planet of Giants, perhaps ignored on CD for its very visual nature, belatedly completing the decade three years after all the others). The colour episodes from the ’70s on have taken slightly longer to catch up but, excitingly, after Monday’s release of The Mind of Evil, there will be only one story broadcast to date from 1970 to 2013 still to come on DVD, either*.

The most recent new form of making Doctor Who stories available combines two of the oldest: talking books of the Target novels, available on CD and download. Most of them are rather marvellous, and taken with the soundtrack releases mean that many stories from the “lost” decade of the ’60s are now officially available in three quite different formats (and, for many missing stories, two official ones and the Recons that you’re not supposed to mention). Taking the audiobooks of the Target novels into account, only one Patrick Troughton story is so unloved as not to be available on CD so far – The Seeds of Death does, however, have two separate DVD releases (and, way back in the 1980s, one of the first videos) to its credit. At present, four William Hartnell stories are in the same boat, though as this is an ever-expanding range, it was announced last week that one of them is on its way later this year. The very first story, An Unearthly Child, is to have an audiobook release to celebrate the series’ fiftieth anniversary. It will also be only the third Doctor Who story to have two separate official novelisations, as this will not be a reading of Terrance Dicks’ 1981 book but of a newly commissioned one by Nigel Robinson. Perhaps if demand for Doctor Who CDs continues, one day for completism’s sake there will not only be a narrated soundtrack but a reading of the ‘retro’ novelisation, so you can enjoy it not only on DVD but on CD, CD and CD. I’d buy them.

Next Time…?

For me, the most marvellous Recon I’ve yet seen isn’t quite the two much-adored stories I’ve mentioned several times above, but one made up only of old-fashioned photographs and text captions, and not even any Tele-snaps… Yet they’re photographs with a difference. They’re not in pale, fuzzy colours but bold, glorious colour throughout, and it never fails to excite me to see the only story starring William Hartnell as the Doctor that doesn’t exist in full… But does exist in full colour.

Should I ever return here properly, it’s on next. Should I not, I’ve just enjoyed it all over again and by going to this site, so can you.

*The sole Doctor Who story which, after Monday, will still not be available on shiny silver disc is 1975’s Terror of the Zygons, which despite a recent reissue of its novelisation (a massive childhood favourite of mine for personal reasons) hasn’t even had its own audiobook yet. Except… That it does have the esoteric distinction of having been among only a handful of Doctor Who stories to be released on each of two other sorts of shiny silver discs that I’ve not mentioned yet. No, not Blu-rays. We have in our obsessively completist collection not the soundtrack in the sense I’ve used it above – the complete sounds originally broadcast along with the visuals to a story – but in the more conventional for a movie but unusual for a Doctor Who story sense of the Doctor Who – Terror of the Zygons Official Sound Track. Yes, it has a music CD. Still more rarely and improbably, as well as being one of the first video releases in the ’80s, it was one of the only laserdisc releases. So we have it on silver disc that is not only shiny, but enormous.

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And You Said… (2)

Anonymous Holly said…

Perfectly timed for us; Andrew just bought one of the Lost in Time box sets, so I've heard parts of Power of the Daleks and The Moonbase. I haven't been well enough to follow the stories properly and will have to go back and listen to them again, but it's lovely to finally get an idea of what Patrick Troughton is like (Andrew's been telling me for years I'd really like his Doctor but I haven't had much chance to find out).

As I lamented lately, Doctor Who has become in recent years mostly an audio phenomenon for me, as I find the TV show patchy at best but have years' worth of Andrew's Big Finish subscription to discover. It's radically changed how I think about Doctor Who -- to the point where I am worried about what Moffat will do for the TV anniversary special and annoyed none of the old Doctors were asked back, but giddy at the idea of how many of them (and how many companions!) will be on the Big Finish version. And of course, being a bit blind, I like radio plays and audio books anyway because I can listen more often than I can read or watch. So audio versions of the "lost" stories don't seem to me like something I have to settle for; they seem perfectly good in their own right.

That said, I had the same "so utterly delighted to see Hartnell in prime time, palely colourised and all" reaction. So lovely to see him again. (He's my favorite, you know.)

7:37 am, June 03, 2013  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Oh, thank you!

I'm mildly amazed you even found it... I was so embarrassed at the complete lack of reviews on here for years that I didn't even plug it anywhere, and this blog usually gets about a thirtieth the pageviews of my other one ;)

I'm sorry you've been so unwell, but hopefully you'll enjoy them more before long. Volume 4 of those boxed sets is my favourites, and for me it's where Troughton really gets cracking as the Doctor (my view is that he has three main phases - excitedly experimenting, nailing it perfectly, then getting a bit bored and doing schtick, but that's all to come).

You know Billy's my favourite Doctor, too...

11:18 am, June 06, 2013  

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