If you are anything like me, your day now includes an eager visit to the home pages of your favourite Doctor Who websites, or the relevant Doctor Who chat rooms, to catch up with the very latest rumours around the missing episodes of Doctor Who that have been recovered or recorded in miraculous circumstances. The 1964 adventure Marco Polo recorded off-air! The 1966 adventure The Massacre found in a TIE distribution hub! The legendary 1966 adventure The Power of the Daleks recovered!
For these last few months have been like no other in fandom’s memory. Practically every missing episode of Doctor Who has been rumoured to have been recovered in one way or another and whereas in the past we would have quickly quashed such rumours as highly unlikely to be true (however much we prayed they were), now the mood music has changed. Such was the brilliant surprise of the news that Philip Morris has been able to recover in one go nine episodes of Doctor Who that we feared had been destroyed forever that we now seem to give credence to the rumours that we once dismissed. Even The Feast of Steven – the Doctor Who episode that was destroyed earliest – is being said to exist and fans are giving the rumour the time of day. Forum chat rooms are so frantic with discussion of these rumours that some have been closed down. How things have changed!
So, let’s imagine for one moment that the rumours are right and that a significant haul of Doctor Who missing episodes have been found and will be released to eager fans over coming weeks and months. Extraordinary news! But what then? Could the recovery of Doctor Who’s lost past mean that we view our beloved series in a different way?
Clearly the recovery of any episodes will give cause for a reassessment of the stories themselves. The discovery of The Tomb of the Cybermen in 1992 led to a down-grade in that story’s status among fans. What was once considered as a classic, is now seen as being above average. I watched the recently recovered The Enemy of the World for the first time on DVD yesterday and I now rate that story much more highly than before when I just had the soundtrack and its pedestrian third episode to rely upon. Such reassessment is a natural and quite proper process.
But I’m talking about something more than that. Would the recovery of all of Doctor Who’s past lead us to view the series as a whole as something less special? At present there are over ninety episodes of Doctor Who that we can really only imagine. We can only imagine how brilliant Douglas Camfield’s direction of The Nightmare Begins must be, how sinister William Hartnell’s interpretation of the Abbot of Amboise is, or how radical Patrick Troughton’s debut as the Second Doctor might be. Just think how many of the pillar stones of Doctor Who are built from our imaginations: the first companions to die do so in missing episodes that we now have to imagine, the first regeneration happens in a missing episode that we have to imagine, the first appearance of the Yeti is in a missing episode that we have to imagine, the first proper appearance of The Ice Warriors is in a missing episode that we have to imagine. And I think these moments are special because we can’t see them. We have to work to access these moments: listen to soundtracks, watch tele-snaps, read the novelisations, and then dream. Those missing episodes feel mythical as a consequence. And part of Doctor Who’s strength is that mythical status. It is the show that can’t die.. an idea that can’t be withdrawn, de-accessioned, and junked. Destroy the episodes if you will, but the ideas remain. Cancel the show if you dare, but the ideas continue to thrive. I think that this makes Doctor Who really special. As fans, we all carry this hugely special set of ideas with us. In today’s Wikipedia culture where everything is available at the touch of a button, Doctor Who stands out because it is never completely obtainable.
Don’t misunderstand me, I fervently hope the rumours that so many lost episodes have been recovered are true. I can’t wait to see anything that’s been found. But I also wonder whether in regaining these treasures, we might also lose something of the magic of our show too.