This isn’t really about Doctor Who. But in a way, it sort of is.
If you’ve been following what I do for a while, it can hardly have escaped your attention that one of my major obsessions is Doctor Who’s early black and white years – and in particular the ninety seven episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1969 that no longer exist in any form. Putting it in very simple terms – as I’m more than aware that my readership is split roughly equally between people who have followed me here from something impenetrably Doctor Who-related and others who have never heard of Ian and Barbara or The Shrivenzale and are in no particular hurry to address that – the BBC, until relatively recently, didn’t really tend to keep programmes after broadcast. It was a different time, when repeats were unlikely, technology was rapidly changing, and on-demand home entertainment seemed so remote a possibility it was rarely discussed outside dense academic broadsides, and regardless of how the practice may look to us now, keeping hold of large numbers of expensive and bulky videotape spools when they could simply be recorded over with something else made very little practical or financial sense. From A Madhouse On Castle Street and On The Margin to The Tennis Elbow Foot Game and R.3, hundreds of thousands of hours of television from the fifties and sixties and even the early seventies are lost and more than likely gone forever, era-defining heavyweight drama and blokes behind trestle tables explaining how to use watering cans alike.
There are many more significant gaps in the archives than Doctor Who, but somehow those ninety seven episodes seem to carry more weight than any other. It’s an enormous percentage of a long-running and massively successful series, and in a way that makes it feel more substantial a loss than, say, a single series sitcom now only represented by one episode out of six. What’s more, largely due to tedious accidents of paperwork, the gaps tend to correspond with the most interesting, controversial or just plain overambitious corners of those early years; and that’s what fascinates me so much. There are audio recordings of every transmitted episode, scraps of clips and footage here and there, photographs, scripts, ‘Telesnaps’ – a genuine service that used to exist where a professional photographer took off-screen photographs for cast and crew in the absence of any other option – and other assorted bits and pieces, and some enterprising individuals have done their best to cobble them all together into some sort of approximation of what viewers might actually have seen on their tiny black and white televisions on Saturday afternoons way back when. It’s not the same, though, and there are so many tantalising questions still unanswered – or at least unknowable – about what you can’t see. Every time a previously lost episode has been found it’s surprised everyone with something visual they could never even have guessed at, and there are still so many more we have absolutely no idea about. Where others might scrutinise the football league tables, I spend long hours wondering how Sentreal looked on screen, how creepy the dancing dolls game was, what was actually happening at any point in the last seven or eight minutes of The Massacre, and over and above everything else, why Polly suddenly has The Doctor’s hat on at the end of The Underwater Menace. I can watch – and enjoy – the few visual clues we have matched up with the sounds and dialogue that originally went with them, but it’s hardly the same. I want to know what was once on that long-erased videotape, and I’ve only got the power of thought and research to get me even part of the way there.
And, well, that’s pretty much how real life is right now. It’s a virtual world of Zoom calls, ‘Challenge’ photographs, hearing people on podcasts who you haven’t seen in person in months, and pointlessly querying why some people message you all the time and others not at all in a way that wouldn’t seem remotely important if the world was still going on at a regular pace. You can kid yourself that keeping up with everyone online while you’re sat on the couch rewatching Agent Carter and Fist Of Fun for the umpteenth time is roughly equatable to normality, but in all honesty it really is like looking at what you would normally be doing as a series of ‘Telesnaps’, or indeed listening back to audio recordings and trying to remember what the visuals were like. It might well only be a couple of months since you were at Isobel Campbell’s comeback gig, doing racketeering-themed immersive theatre, attending a fairly controversial discussion at the BFI and generally having the best immediate pre-lockdown weekend you could have hoped for, yet it all seems like another reality altogether right now. So much so that The Toymaker is probably setting one of his fiendish puzzles up in it, but we’d only have some photos and an audio recording of it to go on.
True, right now I can devote as much time as I like to trying to work out why Polly had that hat on, but it’s no compensation for the things that I miss. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss escalators. I miss trains. I miss people I used to see on the train every day that I have no idea of the names of. I miss overpriced richness-deficient coffee served in a paper cup by a barista who forgot to put the extra card thing around it to stop your hand from scalding. I miss aimlessly wandering around bookshops for no good reason, looking at books I already own just because I love books so much. I miss London. I miss the Tube. I miss a group of friends I’ve argued with about Doctor Who and David Bowie every Tuesday night for three decades without a single week missed until circumstances dictated a temporary pause. I miss the cinema. I miss buying a VIP ticket for the latest Marvel movie on the day of release, and liking it so much that I pointlessly go back and do the exact same thing for the exact same cost the next day. I miss Post-Punk nights for ageing Post-Punks in Ramones and Bowie t-shirts. I miss lazy Sunday mornings when they were both an option and in company. I miss so many things that this is starting to sound like a despondent version of the opening narration from Mary, Mungo And Midge. Like so many others, I’ve had genuine emergencies to contend with while missing all of this, but have always found a way to address them while staying within the sensible and reasonable guidelines set out for our collective benefit. Which is why it’s such a frustrating reflection of the world we’ve found ourselves in that those who have advised us to follow these guidelines are incapable of adhering to them themselves. Over and above everything else, I miss having dull but capable and reliable people in charge of making the decisions that you and I are logistically and strategically unable to make for ourselves. Say what you like about the BBC wiping the tapes of very old programmes, but at least it was a rational decision that they made and they stuck to it, and in all honesty if they hadn’t then I might actually have slightly less keeping me sane right now.
It’s hard to truly miss something that you never actually saw in the first place, which is why what did or didn’t happen in The Daleks’ Master Plan back in late 1965 and early 1966 will always be something of a tantalising escapist fantasy dream world and one that is admittedly coming in quite handy at the moment. It’s not so long ago, though, that we weren’t finding ourselves at the mercy of ‘colourful’ ‘characters’ who have been voted in for a laugh or because they confirmed some boneheaded prejudice based on lies – or worse still, weren’t voted in but were handed an almighty amount of power because one of their mates was – and it isn’t just ‘Telesnaps’ and audio recordings we have to prove that. It’s actual, tangible living memory, and perhaps it’s about time we ‘reconstructed’ that.
Buy A Book!
You can find much more of my writing about Doctor Who‘s missing years in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
All We Do Is Stand Around is a look at one early Doctor Who story that did survive but nobody really much cared – The Space Museum; you can find it here.
You can hear me talking to Mitch Benn about some of my recommendations of what to watch, read, listen to and do during lockdown in Confined To Barracks here.
You can hear me on The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics in Doctor Who and why those early years were more progressive than a lot of people appear to think here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.