The BBC is reanimating missing Doctor Who episodes. But a gap remains that will never be plugged

Something is missing, and I want it back.

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Fifty years ago this week, the makers of Doctor Who did something that, it’s no exaggeration to say, enabled it to still be on our screens half a century later: they recast its leading man. 

William Hartnell, who had been the Doctor since the beginning, left the show – ostensibly due to ill health, though it's entirely possible he was pushed out for being too expensive. The crotchety old man was replaced by a scruffy middle-aged one, Patrick Troughton. And though it wasn’t referred to as such at the time, the show had effectively invented “regeneration”, a concept that would allow it to continue for about as long as it wanted to.

As important as this is to the show's history, though, you can't actually see it. The episode in which the regeneration happens, Part Four of The Tenth Planet, no longer exists. Neither does Troughton's first story, The Power of the Daleks. If you want to watch the fallout from the show's first regeneration story, you're out of luck. 

Except that, as of this weekend, you’ll be able to do just that. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Power of the Daleks, the BBC has commissioned an animated version. Because apparently this is a thing that it is commercially viable to do in 2016.

DVDs have included animated episodes before, to plug holes in incomplete stories. But this is the first time there's been an official version of an entire story. There are rumours that it may not be the last, either.

And, despite being a 36-year-old man who, remarkably, is not even single, I'm quite excited about this.

***

I don't remember when I first became aware that there were missing episodes of Doctor Who. It seems to be the kind of thing I always knew.


The regeneration itself: shame we don't have the rest of the episode, really.

But, once upon a time, it didn't really bother me. I took my first steps towards geekdom back in the early Nineties, before the age of DVDs and the internet and the easy assumption that whatever media you wished to consume would be somehow available to you on demand. Back then, it was all out of reach: Doctor Who wasn't on television, relatively little of it was on video, and, more to the point, I was ten years old.

To me, the Doctor lived in books more than on television. So the fact certain episodes weren't just unavailable, but gone altogether, didn't seem like that big a deal. And anyway, the missing episodes were all in black and white. Why worry?

In this, the attitude of my younger self almost perfectly reflected the attitude of the BBC, at least until the late 1970s. Those missing episodes weren’t just mislaid: they were wiped, quite deliberately and – however weird it might seem now – rationally. Tape was expensive, and, before home video, there was no obvious market for old TV shows. And TV was in any case a throwaway medium, expected to be seen once and then forgotten. Nobody thought that these things would be of interest decades later. Nobody thought TV history would be something worth studying.

And so, for a long time, it was BBC policy to save themselves the expense and bother of storing this stuff by dumping it and re-using the tapes. Other shows were dumped too – Z Cars and Dad's Army, to name just two that you've actually heard of – and these, unlike Who, didn't have on-set photographs or off-air soundtracks to commemorate them. In many ways, Who got off lightly.

But the show's resurrection and the growth of its international audience means that, suddenly, there is a market for 50-year-old pulpy kids’ TV: the new animation is being part-funded by BBC America, which wants to broadcast the thing in part because there's no new series this year.

And the return of Who has coincided with the age of the permanent now. It no longer matters if you miss your favourite TV show: it's still there, and you can still get hold of it easily enough, whether by fair means or foul.

So those big, permanent holes in the show's earliest years have thus come to niggle away more and more. In 2013, when rumours began to fly that the TV archivist Philip Morris had found many, if not most, of the missing episodes, I found myself obsessed in a way I normally reserve for elections, and normal boys reserve for football: endlessly trawling ill-informed gossip forums, knowing full well that doing so wasn't going to increase the amount of information actually available to me.

Morris delivered the goods – nine episodes from 1967-8, all but completing two missing Troughton stories, and cutting the ranks of the missing from 106 to just 97. But I'd become so het up about rumours he'd found 45 or even 90 of the things that nine – the biggest find during my lifetime; more episodes than had been found in the previous quarter of a century – somehow seemed like a disappointment.

Which just goes to show what an entitled little git I've become.

***

Why does it bother me? I'm fully aware that a lot of old Doctor Who is, let's be honest about this, not that good. 

Partly it's because it feels like we're missing an important chunk of the show. Most of the missing episodes come from the third to fifth seasons. The earliest bits of the show come from an era in which television was largely filmed live in single studios: those earliest episodes are basically plays someone pointed cameras at, which gives them an oddly stagey character. By 1968 that's all changed and, except for the fact it's in black and white, it looks and feels a lot like the show I grew up with. The fact we can't see the transition between those two states bugs me.

But partly too it's because of the sneaking sense that, in many cases, we're missing the good bits. Thanks to the efforts of the paleo-nerds of the 1960s, we still have the soundtracks for every missing episode. Many of them no doubt looked ghastly but it's enough to make clear that, in the scripts at least, there's a level of creativity and invention that came from the fact nobody yet had a settled idea of what Doctor Who was.

Consider the show's third series, broadcast in 1965-6. That run includes a historical story about the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which many thousands of French protestants were slaughtered for their religious beliefs; a story in which a bored god traps the Doctor and his companions in children's games for a giggle; one in which the TARDIS lands in ancient Troy, which starts like a Round the Horne film parody and ends like a tragedy; and a 12-part space opera about the Daleks, as well as its one episode prologue in which none of the regulars appear and everybody dies. There is not a story in that season I wouldn't love to see, but annoyingly little of that run still exists: 17 episodes out of 45. Of the ten stories in that season, we have complete copies of just three.

The show was already losing some of that creativity by the next season, but The Power of the Daleks is important as Troughton's first story, and more to the point has a bloody good script. It throws the new Doctor into a situation in which the Daleks are pretending to be harmless. And while he keeps warning that they're up to something, nobody believes him – except the audience. It's hard to think of a better way of getting hostile viewers onside with the bloke who'd just nicked Hartnell's job.

So, yes, partly I want these episodes back because at least some of them are good. But that's not the whole reason. If I'm honest, it's not even most of it. Partly, it's simply the urge to complete the picture. Even though I doubt I will ever have time or inclination to watch Doctor Who from beginning to end, the fact I cannot burns me.

Something is missing, and I want it back. 

And animated episodes get me very slightly closer to that.

***

I'm aware that this is ridiculous, in at least three different ways. It's ridiculous in the sense I care at all, of course – I mean, have you seen the world recently? And it's ridiculous in that animations aren't really the originals at all. Sure, you can watch a version of Power of the Daleks. But you can't watch the story the audience did in 1966, with decent performances and terrible effects, any more than you could last week. 

There's a third, more philosophical way in which I suspect this to be ridiculous, and it's this: Doctor Who is not meant to be complete anyway. Half the fun of it is that it's always pushing outwards, new stories, new companions, new Doctors, even. That sense comes partly from the nature of the series, both epic and episodic, and partly from the sheer size of it: there are now so many books and audios and comics and short stories and spin-offs, with new ones appearing with such ludicrous frequency, that I'm no longer sure it's even possible to go through it all. It's definitely not advisable. 


A screenshot from the new, animated Power of the Daleks. Image: BBC

So a key part of the appeal of Doctor Who is the fact that it is, to all intents and purposes, infinite. You can never finish it. You can never run out of it. 

Not being able to finish something helps to give it a mythic quality. So maybe trying to plug the gaps is to miss the point.

***

Except of course it isn’t. As much as I may try to convince myself I shouldn’t care about those gaps, that it’s a total waste of time and energy, I do.

It's possible, even probable, that more missing episodes will turn up one day. Other things have: just last month, an episode from the first season of The Avengers appeared after being missing for 55 years. Missing Who is worth vastly more to the BBC now than it was before the show became the international franchise it is today. Rumours fly all the time, and Morris, at least, is still searching. So maybe there won't always be 97 missing episodes.

But it's almost certain that there will always be some. And animating the missing ones can get us closer to the originals, but it can never get us all the way. Doctor Who will probably never be complete. 

More than that – there can be, at most, only a handful of people who are old enough and obsessed enough to have seen literally every episode of the show. (One of those who might have, pleasingly, is Peter Capaldi, who was a fan of Doctor Who decades before he starred in it.) At some point, even those people won’t be with us. It won’t just be that it’s no longer possible to see all of Doctor Who: it will be impossible to have ever seen it.

Deserved or otherwise, that does give those early episodes a certain mystique. But then again – what use is mystique if you’ve got 25 minutes to kill?

The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC store from Saturday 5 November, and on DVD from Monday 21 November.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.