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Chasing Shadows: The Adventures of an Episode Hunter
by Dave Wood, Spring 2001

I've always loved Doctor Who.  I grew up with the show when Tom Baker was at the height of his powers and whilst other obsessions (such as Star Wars) came and went, Doctor Who was always there and continues to stay with me.  I watched the show every week, even the end-of-season repeats.  I'd read the books and followed the weekly adventures in TV Comic and Doctor Who Weekly, but it wasn't until I saw An Unearthly Child during the Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat season that I became a true fan.  I had never before questioned why the TARDIS looked like a police box and I had never conceived that the Doctor could be anyone other than a gangling bohemian clown.

Perhaps it was the fuzzy black-and-white pictures that made it seem special and magical, or maybe it was the conviction of the cast and the crew that made these episodes so truly great.  Four weeks later I was watching another Doctor, a cosmic hobo who was equally engaging in very different ways.  It was a fairly brief exploration into unfamiliar territory, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It didn't occur to me that there might be any missing episodes of Doctor Who, until one bleak day when I read the Doctor Who Winter Special which had a lengthy report on the work of the BBC Archives and the gaps on their library shelves.

Every month I read the Doctor Who Magazine and sometimes there would be a great deal of excitement when another batch of previously lost episodes would be found in a foreign TV vault in Canada or Cyprus, etc., but since the episodes were unlikely to be repeated, the video releases hadn't started yet and there was always the annual batch of new episodes to look forward to, it didn't really seem to matter too much.  But then things started to change.

In the late 1980's we had the 18 month hiatus.  The show returned but somehow it didn't seem as good as it used to be.  Some people insisted that "the memory cheats."  But now we had the first few video releases to prove that the memory didn't cheat at all.  I was in awe of The Daleks and then spellbound by The War Games and The Seeds of Death, stories made years before I was born.

As the years progressed I managed to see more of the old shows.  I became involved with a local group and I was introduced to the world of pirate videos:  fuzzy, rolling, jumping copies of shows that had not been seen on TV for twenty years or more.  Imagine my excitement when I answered an advert in the local paper expecting to buy some nice Doctor Who presentation wall plates, and walked away an hour later with a box of VHS tapes including The Mind Robber, The Invasion 2,3,5,6,7 and 8, The War Games 10, The Tenth Planet 2, The Daleks' Master Plan 5 and 10, The Web of Fear 1, The Abominable Snowmen 2, The Daemons in colour (well, almost!), Robot, Earthshock and the unscreened Pilot episode (complete with countdown and both takes).  I felt the same excitement sometime later when someone lent me the newly discovered Evil of the Daleks 2 and The Faceless Ones 3.  Just a few months earlier these episodes were thought to be lost and gone forever.  It was probably at this point that the plight of the missing episodes really dawned on me.

I was much more excited the next time that Doctor Who Magazine announced the four episodes of The Ice Warriors had been found at the BBC.  I remember being in London for a collectors fair and I made a special trip to the NFT to try and get tickets to see the special screening.  I was out of luck, of course, the tickets having sold out long ago.  I had to console myself by returning home and listening to a muffled audio recording of the story at least until I obtained a pirate video copy a few weeks later.

It didn't take long to finish the Doctor Who video collection.  I soon had every surviving episode on VHS but there was no new Doctor Who to look forward to.  Survival had finished and maybe there wouldn't be any more Doctor Who - ever!  What could I do?  I turned my attention to the audio recordings of the lost stories.  They were pretty poor at first, until a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend happened to know someone who knew Graham Strong.  I had long stopped buying the Doctor Who Magazine by this point, until one day whilst browsing through the news stand I noticed a headline proclaiming that all four episodes of The Tomb of the Cybermen had been returned.  It was just like being a kid again and I couldn't wait until the video release later that year.

I could have kicked myself.  I used to go to car boot sales in the hope of finding Doctor Who books, toys and annuals.  It had never occurred to me to check for film prints as well.  There were plenty of people in the 1980's selling cans of 16mm film or 35mm film.  Who knows what treasures I might have missed.

 

I became rather more diligent.  When Nicholas Courtney mentioned that a fan had given him a copy of The Invasion, but that the recording of episode 1 had no sound, I was straight away on the typewriter and I sent a letter to John Nathan-Turner at the Doctor Who office.  I received a nice letter back from John saying that he'd passed the information on to the BBC Film Library, and then another nice letter from Steve Bryant, the archive selector at the BBC, albeit to answer in the negative.

Last year, soon after the release of the rediscovered Crusade episode, I was flicking through a local free ads newspaper and I stumbled across an intriguing advert in the Bizarre Bazaar at the back.  It read, "Original BBC 16mm black-and-white film prints for sale" and gave a contact number.  I spent the whole afternoon at work trying to get through without success.  That night I logged on to the Doctor Who Restoration Team homepage and sent an e-mail to Steve Roberts.  Over the next couple of days they followed it up and Paul Vanezis sent me an update.

The seller claimed to have sold five film prints to a private collector in Camberley earlier that day, from memory they included the pilot episode of Dad's Army, an episode of Steptoe and Son, an episode of Oh, Brother and others that I can't remember.  No Doctor Who, but the back story that the guy told The Restoration Team was rather intriguing.

He claimed that he had once worked for a skip company who were contracted by the BBC to help clear out BBC Villiers House in the 1970's.  Twice a day for a two week period they had collected a skip full of film prints to go for final burial at a landfill site.  He claimed that although he had only the few film prints himself, other members of the firm also held back film prints and his boss had kept an attic full of stuff.  Unfortunately the boss was no longer alive and the skip firm had folded some years earlier.  Steve Roberts and Paul Vanezis were hoping to investigate the matter further, but it doesn't appear to have led to any recoveries.

I started following the Restoration Team's Technical Forum message page with interest, though I got quite angry at some of the defeatist or pig-headed know-it-all attitudes of some of the contributors.  It struck me that now is probably the best chance of finding stuff for years.  The Internet has given us a fantastic tool.  We can now make immediate and cheap contact with other collectors and TV stations all over the world.  Lots of TV archives are starting to list their contents online and there is a far greater knowledge amongst fans of what is missing and what avenues have already been explored.

Perhaps once there was a feeling that "It's okay, the BBC are on the case," but now it's very obvious how little has been searched and how sketchy the foreign sales records of these shows are.  It's only fans like Ian Levine, Steve Roberts and Damian Shanahan, etc., who have the dedication, knowledge and passion to (want to) make a difference.  There are plenty of other fans out there who would love to help in the search but wouldn't know where to search, or fear that they would just be treading over old ground.  You can't help but feel that the BBC don't really want the help of outsiders, just in case things turn up and fall into the hands of greedy collectors.

Out of curiosity I called up a list of "16mm" film collectors on my online search engine.  World-wide, it came up with something like 17,000 matches.  Rather more than the small Restoration Team could ever get a chance to search.  I started making contact with a few collectors and within just a few weeks I had unearthed a collector in Britain selling 16mm copies of The Web of Fear 1 and The Evil of the Daleks 2 for 150 pounds each.  I asked Steve Roberts for advice and he was already aware that the BBC episodes had been copied at some stage.  The same collector was also holding a "lost" episode from another TV drama serial, though asking around it seemed that no one was particularly bothered.  Another film collector offered me a lost BBC show from the 1960's with Tony Hart exploring the possibilities of space travel.  Whilst elsewhere on the Internet I found some Australian fans complaining about a greedy collector who was trying to sell 16mm prints of The Dalek Invasion of Earth for $150 each.  Elsewhere I saw a report of someone buying an 8mm print of The Wheel in Space 6 for 250 pounds.

Then one day, quite by accident, I stumbled across the homepage of the UCLA Film and TV archive.  This was a university in Los Angeles and I didn't expect to find anything more than a few old Shakespeare plays.  I checked to see if they had any Doctor Who and their site came back with one match, an incomplete print of the first Peter Cushing film, Doctor Who and the Daleks.  I tried another search using the name "BBC" and it threw back a couple of hundred matches.  I looked at the dates and was amazed to see that much of the stuff dated from the 50's, 60's and 70's.  I tried another search using the words "British TV" and it threw back a catalogue of several thousand items.

I knew precious little about other "lost" shows, except Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour, so I turned to my online pal Mike Long for advice.  Within minutes he wrote back and proclaimed that we'd found a lost Avengers episode, Girl on a Trapeze.  I had seen The Avengers episodes listed there.  There were a couple of others, including one that I had watched called The Frighteners and I just didn't imagine that there were any missing Avengers episodes.  I made contact with the archive coordinator at UCLA, and the BBC to advise them that there was a wealth of material that they might like to check.  Unfortunately I didn't know the copyright owner of The Avengers and rather stupidly I emailed a posting on the Missing Episodes Online Forum site to try and get some advice.  All Hell suddenly seemed to break loose with interested parties contacting UCLA, the BBC, etc., and I think there was a real worry at the time that the Avengers print might vanish into the wrong hands before the rightful owners even knew that it had been found.  I also made contact with the British Film Institute and the National Film Theatre to try and get recovery proceedings underway.  It took quite an effort to find someone who was interested and knowledgeable enough to want to get it back.  Fortunately, things have settled down a bit now and the National Film Theatre is on the case, negotiating with UCLA and the copyright holders in order to obtain a copy of the film print.

This taught me several things.  Firstly that I wasn't entirely wasting my time.  In the space of just three weeks and a few hundred online sites I had found several lost shows.  I may have even been looking at others and not even realised it.  Secondly, it also proves how parochial we all are.  We fans know and love Doctor Who and could name each and every one of the 109 missing Doctor Who episodes, and we automatically assume that everyone else in the film and TV industry does too, which is obviously not the case.  If a Doctor Who fan can stumble upon a lost Avengers print and not realise it, then it is quite likely that an Avengers, Hancock or Steptoe fan could probably see a missing Doctor Who print and not know its significance either.  I also feel that what with the initial disinterest that I experienced from large organisations like the BFI and the NFT, any collector who wanted to donate their own film collections might be put off from doing so.

 
There have not been any significant Doctor Who finds for a little while now, though in the last decade we have seen one returned episode, lots of clips, better audio recordings and better film prints of some already extant episodes such as The Moonbase 4, Death to the Daleks 1 and The Dominators.

I don't think we will ever see a complete set of Doctor Who episodes in the TV archives, but I do feel that it is only a matter of time before something else turns up.  Doctor Who was sold all over the world, and the world is a very big place to search.  Now that there is a large market for old shows on satellite repeats, as well as on video and DVD releases, it seems that TV companies are more willing to go back and catalogue their film stores.  There is a new openness with collectors and TV stations starting to list their catalogues online and the nature of the Internet means that vast amounts of information can be checked quicker and cheaper than ever before.  TV companies seem to be more willing to co-operate with each other these days.  They tend to contact the country of origin before junking their unwanted, imported programmes these days.

There may be a few episodes hiding in forgotten corners of TV and film libraries as well.  The obvious places have been checked, so maybe it's time to contact the less obvious places such as film laboratories and college and university archives (In addition to the find at UCLA I also found another university in the Los Angeles area that claimed to have copies of The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Daemons, though it's unclear if these were film prints or just copies of the BBC Worldwide videos.  To date they haven't responded to my email).  I still think it is more likely that material will turn up from private collectors than from TV film libraries.

On the downside we do know that there were very few film prints made of the Doctor Who episodes, the most prolific story being Marco Polo, which may have had up to 19 copies made of each of its seven episodes.  As the years tick by, the chances of material surviving damage or junking gets less and less likely, so now is the time (now that we have the knowledge and better, cheaper means to carry out the search) to make a concerted effort to try and get stuff back before it is too late.  I'd love to relive the excitement that I used to experience when I opened up Doctor Who Monthly to see that more film prints had been found.  Maybe soon I'll go to WHSmiths and read the headline "Shanahan finds Fury!"  Fingers crossed, eh?