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The BBC’s big surprise

February 11, 2013

tenthI only recently learned that the BBC announced awhile back that there was going to be some surprise Doctor Who DVD release for the series 50th anniversary.  The implication of this announcement was that the BBC had access to a lost episode of the series that they had managed to keep a secret.  For those unfamiliar with the lost episodes of Doctor Who, we are not talking about the current series.  Doctor Who first began in 1963 and was shot on video tape.  As a cost saving measure during those years it was common for the BBC to reuse video tapes.  This would entail wiping the original material and using the same tape for some new production.  Living in the information age as we do today, this practice probably seems insane.  This happened for a number of reasons that are artifacts of the time period.  The first has to do with how early television was viewed, especially in Britain.  Early on most television went out live.  The switch over to broadcasting of pre-recorded material seems to have happened much more rapidly in America than the UK.  Because of the live nature of the medium, dramatic presentations seemed to be viewed more like going to a staged production.  When you go to a theatrical performance, you expect it to be a unique experience to that visit and this was how live tv performances were perceived in Britain.  In fact, the actor’s contracts of the day reflected this philosophy as well. So, the idea that anything would be saved for future generations was probably as alien a concept then as someone today not being able to immediately acquire a copy of whatever they want to watch on DVD or download.  Another reason was that the BBC had no idea that Doctor Who would be the success, especially the international one that it is today.  Early television was a very parochial affair.  It wouldn’t be until the late 60s or early 70s that the practice of selling local programming to foreign markets would become more common.  Finally, professional grade video tape was expensive.  As a result of all this, a number of the earliest Doctor Who episodes, and in some cases entire serials, are no longer available.  Occasionally, these do turn up from places like tv studios of countries that the BBC exported episodes to or from private film collectors.  Discoveries are becoming less frequent but recently two episodes were recovered from a collector in Britain who didn’t realize that the episodes he owned were not held by the BBC as well.

 

Getting back to the point of this post, given all of the above, the BBC’s announcement of the special 50th anniversary surprise being a recovered lost episode is not completely unreasonable.  In fact, as soon as I read about the announcement, I immediately had a guess as to what that recovered episode would be so I figured I would share.  My guess is that the special release is going to be the complete serial of The Tenth Planet.  This was the last story for the first Doctor William Hartnell, the first appearance of the Cybermen, and featured the first regeneration we would ever see in the series.  It is a four part story and the fourth and final episode is a lost, although we do still have the regeneration sequence thanks to its use in a talk show of the period.  The reasons for my guess are two-fold.  First, I have a friend named Dave who was into Doctor Who when I first moved to New Jersey.  He probably wasn’t as into it as I was but, at a local SF convention he saw a private showing of The Tenth Planet that included the fourth episode. He knew he saw the final episode because of the noticeable decrease in video quality of the final segment.  Dave described the video as, by his guess, at least an eighth generation copy that was borderline viewable but, the obvious implication was that someone somewhere had the master from which this Nth generation copy was made.  As a scientist I am well aware of the reliability of eye witness testimony (basically, ther is none) but, Dave isn’t the joking type and is not even prone to exaggeration.  So, I view his statement with a little less skepticism than most.  This viewing took place in the late 80s so, whoever owns the master was obviously keeping it very quiet as attempts to follow the trail of this copy went nowhere quickly.  The second reason sort of dovetails into this previous knowledge of mine.  Back when the BBC announced their goal of getting all of their existing Doctor Who material on DVD by the 50th anniversary, I started paying close attention to their release schedule.  Yeah, I know, I need a life.  Anyway, information from the BBC regarding the upcoming releases has been surprisingly forthcoming on all the as yet to be released material.  That is with one noteworthy exception.  This would be The Tenth Planet.  Unlike everything else, the BBC hasn’t even given a release date for this material.  It kind of makes me wonder whether this secretive owner of episode four of The Tenth Planet got in touch with the BBC, or vice versa, and some private arrangement was made for the recovery and distribution of the complete serial.  I’ll be the first to admit that this is all kind of a stretch and, time will ultimately tell whether my speculation is right.  I just wanted to throw my thoughts out there.  I hope that my guess is correct more for fellow fans of Doctor Who than myself as I’ve been wrong plenty of times before so this wouldn’t be a first.

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