So now New Who has been around for about as long as Doctor Who was when Sue Malden first did an audit and realized that the BBC no longer retained big hunks of the first eleven years of the show (many of which have since been filled in; many famously will likely never be). To get an idea of the insanity here, what would this look like if transposed to the modern era? Well, it wouldn’t be precise because of all the differences in production, episode length, episode count. We’ve got all these gap years as well. But, we can make a stab at it!
On first tally, much of the material from 2005-2016 would just be gone; no copies known to exist. That would be up through Peter Capaldi’s second series as the Doctor. After freaking out a little, we would later be able to fill the gaps from copies sold abroad or misfiled somewhere, albeit often in the wrong aspect, resolution, framerate—and for reasons, lots of episodes from 2011-2016 would now only exist in black-and-white, so we’d have to find a way to deal with that.
After pulling in all the favors and scouring the globe, we’d be able to lock down everything from series 6 (2011) on in some form or other, though much of it would need heavy restoration work. we’d have most of series 1, 2, and 5, but 3 and 4 would basically just be gone, the odd episode or fragment aside, and we’d only have half the 2009 specials. We would, however, have plenty of screenshots—and, curiously, complete audio for every episode, carefully reassembled from fan reaction videos on YouTube.
From series 1 (2005) we’d really only be missing the renowned early Slitheen story which all the kids remember being excited about at the time, and a middle segment of the finale, “Parting of the Ways.” From series 2, just half of “The Satan Pit” two-parter.
Series five (2010), we’d have in entirety except for this one dull-sounding story where the doctor shares a room with someone, that based on the synopsis and the available screenshots regularly comes in at the bottom of episode polls.
Perhaps the most frustrating loss is of 2009’s epic “The End of Time,” which fan circles generally recognize as the best Doctor Who serial ever on the basis of the pivotal material it covers and the fact that the description just sounds really cool you know—as well as the classic favorite “Planet of the Dead.”
Anyway, you see how insane it was when Ms. Malden bothered to look and realized, oh. you know. we just… threw all that away, huh. We wiped every copy, because by 21st-century standards we needed the hard drive space for ongoing episodes of Graham Norton.
See, you get all these apologists waxing about, well, they didn’t know any better back then; it was a different time. Yes they did, though! Other shows—look, the producer of Blue Peter put in an order that every single episode of her show be retained, in consideration of its long-term cultural value. We didn’t just invent basic foresight and reasoning capability in 1980. (Though we may yet find it someday!) Like any kind of garbage. in any given time period there are always people who knew better. When they did The Fucking Talons of Weng-Chiang, it was 1977. There were many people in 1977 who would have been capable of seeing the racial depictions in that serial and noticing that they were in fact Not Okay.
It’s complicated, right. as things will be. The purge was just this comedy of miscommunication, with some people assuming that of course someone would hang onto things in some other department, other people assuming of course they wouldn’t; people forgetting to put in orders of retention; other people misfiling, losing stuff. What we’ve managed to get back is this patchwork: some from the BBC Film Library, which asserted it wasn’t their responsibility to hold onto the show and that they very much shouldn’t have any copies at all actually; some from the Engineering Department, which only held onto tapes until they were needed for something else, which could be a matter of weeks after first broadcast (in the case of some late Jon Pertwee serials).
Most of what survives is a film prints made for foreign broadcast. Most of those were retained briefly by BBC Enterprises before getting burned to clear shelf space—since hey, they were just copies, right? Other prints made their way accidentally back to the Film Library or the National Film Archive, neither of which was supposed to hang onto them, but they were so disorganized that they didn’t bother to sort them out for disposal. Other prints were found abroad or in church basements or rummage sales, years later.
So yeah, the assertion that, nobody knew any better, nobody thought like this back then—that’s… not true. In the same way that it never is. Some people didn’t! Some very much did! The problem is that nobody talked to anyone, everyone just assuming their map of the world was the correct one.
And that problem, that’s… not one that’s gonna go away soon, huh.