I am ashamed of myself. I have waited until just now, over twenty-five and a half years into my entire life, more than a third of the time I can expect to live, to start watching episodes of Classic Doctor Who. My repentance is late in coming, perhaps, but thorough nonetheless.
I started my journey as any clueless wanderer ought – by asking Wikipedia to list off the episodes in correct order. The explanatory material shocked me. Episodes gone missing? However could that have happened? A policy to destroy old episodes of shows? How barbaric. I was appalled, of course. A series popular enough to run for 26 seasons – yes, twenty-six of them – and the people responsible for its very creation and existence had a policy to destroy the older installments? I knew there had to be a reason, but what reason could they possibly have had which would make any logical sense? How could the destruction of such great material be justified?
As it turns out, though film and even broadcasting technologies weren’t exactly brand new, they were still, as the world transitioned from black-and-white to color, operating under the same contructs as the stage. If you wanted to broadcast a story, the players would perform it for you, allow you to record it for that broadcast, and expect you to rehire them for subsequent rebroadcasts. The ability of film to reduce the workload of everyone involved wasn’t entirely overlooked, however; time- and number-limited broadcasting licenses were usually attached to each piece, so it could be rebroadcast up to the set number of times within the set amount of time. This time period was generally fairly short, amounting to only a couple of years.
When these licenses expired, the film copy was no longer of any use to the purchaser, since they no longer had the rights to use it, so these were destroyed to make space for other, frequently newer films. If the originals were kept on tape instead of film – and many were – these tapes were erased and reused for other projects. This had the added effect of reducing overall costs, as the amount of storage space required was kept low, and what space there was remained free of old projects which could no longer see a profit.
The idea that broadcast television material might serve a cultural purpose rather than simply a financial one eventually caught hold enough that preserving these older recordings became the policy, even when the rebroadcasting rights had expired. There was, it had been determined, a cultural duty to preserve them. From then on, the hunt for destroyed episodes was on – not just for Doctor Who, but for every series that had met with this unfortunate end. Many such episodes had been sent overseas when broadcasting rights to them had been purchased there, though only copies were sent out; never originals. Over the next several years, continuing to the present, most of the missing episodes returned, and Doctor Who is (among) the most compeletely recovered of such series.
Doctor Who is also peculiar in that it is the only series of that era for which every single episode has survived in at least an audio form – thanks mostly to viewers who didn’t have VCRs (this is before VHS/Betamax had their now-legendary war), and so had to accept merely recording the audio component during various broadcasts. These audio versions are of course in varying states of quality and repair, but every episode’s audio still exists today, regardless of whether the video exists alongside it.
That bit of background absorbed, I then learned that each epsiode was generally considered merely part of a larger story, a “serial”. Essentially, Classic Doctor Who is a collection of mini-series tied together only by the common character of the Doctor (though many other characters can be considered recurring at various points throughout). I find this format to be fascinating, as it presents some interesting opportunities for storytelling. Still, this format choice meant that a single missing episode would effectively ruin several adjacent as well, at least to the point where a video version of the surrounding episodes would probably not be released until the missing one(s) were restored.
Armed with my list, I set to Netflix to watch them all in order. And discovered that the streaming service, at least, didn’t offer but a small handful of the full 155 serials originally broadcast, nor the 1996 TV movie which aired 6.5 years (approximate) after the last serial, and nearly 9 before the introduction of the Ninth Doctor in the presently-airing series. Still, the theme song had now been running through my head incessantly for at least a week by this point, so I dove into the earliest of these I could find – Doctor Who: The Aztecs, the sixth serial, which can be found in Season 1. I then proceeded chronologically by broadcast date through the paltry selection until arriving at Season 16, which is composed of six serials, themselves tied more closely together in a single arc called The Key To Time (if you find a DVD by that title, you have the entire 16th season of Classic Doctor Who in your hands). And discovered that four of the six stories were actually available, including one written by none other than Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker fame. Called The Pirate Planet, this is the serial which I have just finished. Downright amazing, and perhaps surprisingly coherent by Adams’s standards. Many of the concepts Adams brought to Doctor Who, especially if they never actually made it to the screen, were later reused in his published works.
The true tragedy, though, is that none of the serials available on Netflix have anything to do with the Daleks at all, despite the fact that Daleks are perhaps the true icons of the series – after the Tardis, of course. Still, the fact that any of these classic episodes are available to begin with is satisfying, so I can’t complain too loudly for too long.
Have you met the good Doctor yet? Have you braved the Classic series, or stayed safely in the confines of the modern version? So long as you expect material from the 1960s through the late 1980s, I suspect you’ll enjoy the Classic episodes just as thoroughly – and gain a greater insight into what’s really going on here. But you don’t have to take my word for it.