Why Did 'Doctor Who' Episodes Go Missing In The First Place?

You might be hearing that some “long lost” Doctor Who episodes have been found in Ethiopia and will be available for sale this Wednesday. We’ve heard these claims before, but it’s starting to look like at least a few episodes have been found and will be made available.

But fans new to the show might be wondering why, precisely, any episodes are missing in the first place. To explain that, you need to understand that essentially, until recently, the BBC literally did not know what it had.

It’s bizarre on the face of it that any Doctor Who is missing at all, let alone that 106 episodes of one of the longest running science fiction series ever are incomplete. Believe it or not, dedicated fans have pieced together all 106 episodes as audio recordings. So what the hell happened? A fire at the BBC? A bitter showrunner stole all the tapes? Gremlins?

Nope. What killed the Doctor’s early history was straight-up bureaucratic stupidity and short-sightedness. Essentially, the BBC and other British networks saw videotapes as valuable resources to be repeatedly wiped and reused, and film stock was a fire risk that needed to be disposed of. Doctor Who is just the most prominent example; quite literally dozens of shows, sometimes the entire run of popular programs, got flushed because the Beeb was too cheap to buy new tapes. Not to mention major news reportage: If you were wondering what the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo 11 mission was like, tough, it’s gone for good.

It’s worth noting that the idea of home video being any source of revenue was at best science fiction before the late 1970s. There was no interest, so why keep this stuff around when budgets are tight? And even after that became clear, there were some terrifying near-misses: Monty Python’s Flying Circus nearly got completely erased. The original episodes only survive because Terry Gillam was given the heads-up… and promptly stole them.

The BBC finally put an archive policy in place in 1978, and since then they’ve been trying to reconstruct whatever they can find. And this wouldn’t be the first time Who episodes have turned up; two episodes were found in a private collection in 2011. And more and more it’s looking like the BBC has something to announce. Still, if you were ever wondering just how badly a beloved SF television franchise can be mistreated, you’ll have to dig pretty deep to top this.