It was TV’s razing of Alexandria – the BBC, in order to save money, decided that it would be a smart idea to wipe the masters of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army and Z-Cars. Logistically it makes a sort of sense – this was an age before VCRs and DVDs and MP4s, and TV was ephemeral, made to be viewed once and once only. Culturally, however, it was a crime.
It’sDoctor Who – analysed, examined, collated Doctor Who – where this loss is most keenly felt. We don’t have landmarks like William Hartnell’s last story, or the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, or most of Patrick Troughton’s run. There’s a 106 episode hole where the sixties should be.
That changed at midnight, officially at least: nine of those missing episodes have been found in Nigeria. It’s the great birthday surprise of the 50th anniversary, and it will be celebrated as a restoration of the show’s history, but it’s not that simple.
Among fandom the show’s core texts are known as the canon, but it’s a pre-Council of Trent canon where no-one’s entirely sure what counts. And, because so much is missing, received wisdom takes hold. Stories that haven’t been seen since older fans were watching grainy black and white broadcasts at the age of seven are known as classics because of a single memorable image, or because the novelisation made it into a lot of libraries, or because an actor cites it as a favourite.
This means that fan wisdom is mutable – stories are downgraded from classic status as various fans mature or lose their influence, or, in rare instances, when a lost story is found again. Everyone held up ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ as the awesomest thing ever until it showed up in Hong Kong and everyone got to watch it. Now the perception is very different.
So the discovery of ‘Web of Fear’ and ‘The Enemy of the World’ doesn’t just restore the show’s past, it helps secure its future. Doctor Who has a fantastic tradition of fan involvement and so the community, both the people making the show and those watching it, are going to be all over this; I already suspect the production team knew what was happening, based on a least one recent story decision. This discovery doesn’t lock history down or preserve it in amber; instead it’s going to inspire debate and discussion and arguments, blog posts and cosplay. We’re going to see nine new episodes, effectively; we thought we had them pegged but now we get to see them with new eyes.
It also gives hope that there are more discoveries still to be made. After all, yesterday there were 106 missing episodes; now we’re down to double digits. It may be overly optimistic to expect more, but Doctor Who has a weird habit of defying the odds.
So happy anniversary, everyone; now let’s get ready to enjoy Yeti in the Underground again.
(Shameless plug: I’ve got more posts on Doctor Who here…