Monday, October 7, 2013

The Dead Doctor Scrolls: A Roundup of News About the Recent Found Episodes

On Sunday, the UK's Daily Mirror reported that 106 long-lost Doctor Who episodes had been found in Ethiopia at the Ethiopian Television and Radio Agency.  Fans immediately became skeptical, especially since similar rumors have been floating around for years and nothing has ever come from them.  Furthermore, the source that the Mirror quoted was someone who claimed to have heard the news from a friend.  Everything pointed toward some sort of hoax.  Then, it was confirmed that this news was at least partially true, and now the entire thing is steeped in confusion.  I'm going to try to provide everyone with a little background on this, as well as trying to work through some of the confusing and contradictory reports.

Now, for those of you who don't know, many early black and white episodes of Doctor Who have been lost for decades.  In the 1970's, the BBC showed a shocking lack of foresight when it taped over many old episodes of television shows in an attempt to save time and money. Apparently they didn't anticipate a future where people would pay good money to own such episodes for viewing in their own homes.  At the very least, you'd think they'd have the common sense to realize that these episodes would be useful to rebroadcast in the future.  Instead, many of the best BBC shows from before the 1970s are now lost, probably forever.  Doctor Who wasn't the only show to receive such shabby treatment, as BBC did this with many shows on hand at the time.  For example, many episodes of Til Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son--which were the basis for Norman Lear's brilliant American remakes All in the Family and Sanford and Son respectively--are now lost for the same reason.

Over time, lost episodes have turned up in the oddest of places.  Episodes from "The Dalek Masterplan," for example, turned up in a Mormon church in England which was on a property they bought from the BBC in the 1980s.  Imagine being the person cleaning up a freaking LDS church to find a copy of "The Dalek Masterplan"!  Private collectors seem to turn up a lot of them here and there.  Some episodes were sold overseas, meaning that the networks that aired the episodes in other countries have found old film reels of the episodes.  The first regeneration scene of the First Doctor into the Second Doctor only exists because a news program did a special interest story about the regeneration and they showed the footage on air.  While the episode in which the regeneration occurred was lost, someone miraculously saved the news report and got the footage from there.  You'd think that would be an episode someone would say "Hey, that's important enough to save!"

Only episodes from the black and white era--meaning only William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton episodes--remain lost.  While some Jon Pertwee episodes were wiped, black and white prints of the lost episodes remain, meaning that some episodes only exist in black and white, but all of them still exist.  Patrick Troughton got the short end of the stick on this one, as many more of his episodes were lost than Hartnell's.  It's a shame because, if we had to lose an entire Doctor's work, I'd rather it had been Hartnell's.  Troughton's performance as the Doctor was brilliant, and it's the main reason that the show has the longevity it now has.  Only 6 of Troughton's serials remain fully in tact.

Luckily for fans, every episode's audio still exists perfectly in tact.  This has led to a number of groups and individuals putting together what are known as "recons."  Recons are episodes that are reconstructed by combining the existing audio with still photos from the production, what little video remains, narration to explain gaps, and/or original footage to fill in for the lost footage.  These recons vary in quality a great deal.  The most well known company that does recons is Loose Cannon.  Loose Cannon's recons are a little overrated, though, and the fact that they refuse to sell any of their episodes in anything other than VHS quality means that the quality of the episodes suck.  The best recons come from this random dude named Richard who makes them with Windows Media Maker (which is a horrible program, but somehow he does a great job with them) and actually includes the assisting narration to the episodes that is fully available for free from the BBC!  Why nobody else ever thought to include this narration is a fucking mystery to me.

This is above average quality for a reconstruction.
Some of these are more painful to watch than that "Miracle of Life" video we all saw in high school
So what happened in Ethiopia?  Well, the Mirror's announcement that 106 episodes had been found seemed a little too good to be true, specifically because 106 is the exact number of episodes that remain lost.  The idea that every single episode could be available once again is a prospect that would make every Whovian orgasm simultaneously.  Therefore, we're all very weary of such promises.  The story on the Mirror's website was inundated with comments from fans who were all calling bullshit on this.  Some of them, understandably, had trouble with the fact that the article cited Doctor Who "expert" Stuart Kelly, whose first sentence of his quote began with "I was told by a friend..."  It's not something you normally hear in credible news reporting.  "An inside source at the White House today said that he heard from a friend who heard from a friend who heard from her cousin that Osama Bin Laden has been killed."

A commenter named Phil Cooper commented with great confidence:

Ethiopia only got 77 episodes, and didn't GET any Troughton stories, and it only got half of the Hartnell ones. The most we could hope for from Ethiopia is 11 missing episodes and 66 that we've already got."

I saw this same comment repeated on Facebook and it dashed my hopes for a while.  But while Stuart Kelly's "friend" is a fairly weak source, so is someone who's commenting on The Mirror's website.  I decided to wait and see what the newspapers said the next day and see if anything is confirmed.

When Radio Times confirmed the news, that's when people started to sit up and listen.  Radio Times was founded by the BBC and, up until 2 years ago, was still a part of the BBC.  Even if there's no official connection between the magazine and the BBC anymore, the magazine isn't likely to publish bullshit rumors about its former owner.

Radio Times, however, didn't say the exact same things that the Mirror had said.  For starters, it made no claims about all 106 episodes being found.  It simply stated that the BBC would be making some long-lost episodes available for purchase this week.  It said that they were rumored to be from a "haul" found in Africa, but that details were "sketchy."  It seems to strongly imply that they know that there are more episodes that have been found than the few that are being released this week, but it didn't have a number:

Asked by if there were around 90 missing episodes from the 1960s a BBC statement said: “There are always rumours and speculation about Doctor Who missing episodes being discovered – however we cannot confirm any new finds.”
A spokeswoman added: “We can’t confirm because it’s not true, as far as I’m aware."
Doctor Who Online said on their Twitter page that they could confirm that the episodes were found, but also stated that they have heard it is not as many as 100.

Less than 24 hours after their original story, The Mirror returned to the interwebs to defend their original report.  When they talk about the statements that have contradicted their original report, they claim that the BBC is very secretive about Doctor Who news, pointing to their report in 2012 that Matt Smith was leaving at the end of 2013, which turned out to be true.

So now their is a press conference on Tuesday with a screening, presumably of the lost episodes.  Journalists are supposed to learn which episodes exactly have been found.  However, there's one thing I'm very happy about:  Radio Times seems to be very certain that these are Troughton episodes that are being released this week, not Hartnells.  Bleeding Cool was told that they can expect the episodes to be from "Enemy of the World" and "The Web of Fear," both of which are episodes I'd absolutely love to watch in their entirety!

But how many more episodes have turned up?  The Mirror's blind optimism seems too good to be true, but I also have to remind myself that they're just applying my own Rule 1 (Moffat lies) to the entire BBC.  In other words, I can't make fun of them that much if they sound kind of like me.  I'd love to be pleasantly surprised to find that they were right.  While they make a good point about their report about Matt Smith leaving turned out to be true, it should be stated that it may have been a coincidence and that the decision for Matt Smith to leave could very well have been made after their report.

Either way, I'm going to be happy to see a few new Troughtons soon!  I'll try not to get my hopes up too much about what else is coming, because the truth is that the worst case scenario at this point is still very good news.  At the very least, we have a few more Patrick Troughton serials, most likely "The Web of Fear" and "Enemy of the World."  That's still means that, potentially, Patrick Troughton could come to be more appreciated by other Doctor Who fans.  No matter what is to come on Tuesday, that's still really good news!

"Chuck Norris ain't got shit on me!"

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