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Doctor Who: On audio, no-one can see the sets buckle

June 19, 2013


There’s been a recent flurry of online rumours regarding the discovery of a cache of lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s.

I wrote about these ‘missing’ episodes at some length for Civilian recently, but the potted version of the story is this: during the 60s and 70s, as the volume of transmitted material held in archive at the BBC increased, concerns over storage — and over the necessity of keeping hold of these old TV shows — prompted the corporation to have various reels of film “withdrawn, de-accessioned and junked”: thrown in the skip, to you and me. The logic was, with colour television becoming widespread, these old black-and-white shows — among them episodes of Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army and Doctor Who — had little re-screening value, or chance of being sold overseas; as for what we now think of as “merchandising”, the advent of home video was still several years off.  Doctor Who, broadcast in black-and-white from its inception in 1963 until the end of the 1969 season, was among the many shows to be treated in this way, and although several episodes were retained, and others recovered from overseas broadcasters’ archives or occasionally discovered in private collections, there are still, at time of writing, 106 25-minute 1960s episodes missing, presumed wiped (out of a total of 253 broadcast). Some multi-part stories remain complete; some have only a couple of episodes missing; others are represented by a single ‘orphan’ episode, a few seconds of footage, or nothing at all.

Audio recordings of all the missing episodes do exist, however; while home video recorders were a way off, some avid Who fans used to push their tape recorders close to their TV sets to record the episodes as they were broadcast. These recordings have all been commercially released, and in some cases have been used as the soundtrack to animated versions of episodes whose visuals are missing, thus “completing” stories for DVD release. (Results vary, but are, it’s generally agreed, better than nothing.)

Among the missing episodes are some of 1960s Who‘s most highly-regarded stories (though this is something of a chicken-and-egg situation; their scarcity makes these stories grow in stature). This makes rumours about the rediscovery of some of the missing material fairly commonplace; in fact, on average, one episode is rediscovered about every five years, and the last “major” haul was the discovery, in Hong Kong, of an entire four-part adventure, ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, 22 years ago. With 2013 being Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary, though, the rumour mill seems to have gone into overdrive. There are rumours, counter-rumours, denials, fans examining the denials for any weasel wording that could mean the denial is actually a corroboration, murmurs of up to 60 episodes “found”, and stories about an “eccentric engineer” who worked at, and smuggled vintage recordings out of, numerous TV stations in Africa. On the one hand, this is desperately romantic — we’re presented with an anonymous figure who goes around saving things in far-flung places, itself rather Doctorish behaviour — and on the other, the product of a naivety which could be charming if it weren’t, you know, borderline colonialist: Africa, you say? That generic country which changes scale to be at once so big that 60 or so missing episodes could be concealed there, and so small that one man could cycle around the place snaffling them up? (In a famous scene in ‘The Robots of Death’, the Doctor explains to his bewildered companion that the TARDIS’s vast interior exists in a different dimension from its ostensibly small exterior. You feel some people believe continents operate in the same way.) My feeling is that the current rumours are just that; the “critical mass” they’ve currently reached is derived partly from wishful thinking, partly from deliberate hoaxes designed by unscrupulous types who want to look like they’re superior to other fans, or even to exploit other fans. I’m with fan and writer Jonathan Morris on this.

To business, then: tempting fate, I recently acquired a bunch of soundtracks from missing stories — some Doctor Who I’d never experienced in this as-near-to-transmitted-form-as-possible format (I’ve read the books, though more than 20 years ago in most cases). As is often the way, the sets grow grander as you conjure these stories up in the mind’s eye; the effects dazzle; there are no peculiar costumes or dodgily constructed shots to distract from the story being told. In a way, these are the purest versions of these ten Doctor Who adventures as stories. So: how do they hold up?

 

The Daleks’ Masterplan

A twelve-part story broadcast between November 1965 and January 1966, ‘The Daleks’ Masterplan’ isn’t quite the longest Doctor Who story ever, but comes pretty close. It’s also remarkable for featuring a one-part “trailer” episode, ‘Mission to the Unknown’, which went out several weeks before this story’s first episode, and doesn’t feature any of the regular cast. The Daleks were a pretty big deal in 1965 — “Dalekmania” had gripped the nation with broadcast of the second Dalek story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, the previous year — so making this epic was a fairly inevitable decision. As epics do, it drifts along a bit, with some longeurs, but several straight runs of high drama: the Daleks’ plan to destroy the galaxy involves using an incredibly rare and valuable mineral which, in an early episode, the Doctor simply wanders in and steals, whereupon a chase across the universe ensues. (Like ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, there’s slightly the sense this chase could go on visiting random alien worlds almost indefinitely, or else be wound up instantly at any arbitrary point.) Its low points, now as fifty years ago, are episodes in which the Daleks fail to appear; Episode 7, broadcast on Christmas Day 1965, is a “light” episode in which our heroes are embroiled in some dismal pastiches (cop-movie capers, a silent movie set) which have long since lost what currency they once had. Peter Purves, who provides linking narration on these CDs when moments are too visual to be conveyed by the soundtrack alone, sounds weary when narrating the story, and, five decades ago, when he’s appearing in it.

Fortunately, the story picks up pace, and a properly epic twelfth episode sees the Daleks’ time destructor device activated, with terrible consequences. Two major characters have already been killed off over the course of the serial, and a third, short-lived companion Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh, of Upstairs, Downstairs) perishes in horrible form in this final instalment, aged to death in front of her helpless allies. Unlike modern-day Who, death tends to be permanent in old Who, and the characters are properly horrified by their friend’s fate. Doctor Who stories frequently fall apart towards the end, as careful plotting has to be wound up in a single twenty-five minute episode (see ‘The Daemons’, ‘The Macra Terror’); this is a rare example of a story whose conclusion is so strong it almost overwhelms what’s come before.

 

The Celestial Toymaker

The final episode of this once highly regarded adventure is one of the ‘orphan’ episodes, the only remaining instalment of a four-part adventure set in the surreal world of the Toymaker, an extra-dimensional immortal who delights in ensnaring unwary travellers and making them play games for his entertainment. If they win, they regain their freedom; if they lose, they’re turned into toys and become part of his Celestial Toyroom forever. The problem here is not just the premise, which is very Star Trek (godlike being makes mortals fight one another for his amusement), but the way in which the characters gamely (sorry) go along with the Toymaker’s ploys. Companions Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) are put through a series of challenges against competitors who gleefully cheat their way through the deadly games; this serves to remove any tension whatsoever (it turns out fictional characters’ cheating is as annoying as real-life players’ would be), and forces Dodo, never a very well-served character, to be a total moron, constantly trusting that their slippery competitors won’t really cheat this time. You ache for a horrible fate to befall her; in this story, she’s less interesting than a talking playing card she shares some scenes with. Elsewhere, Doctor Who (William Hartnell) faces the titular character, played by a suave Michael Gough, over a board game. Some of the time the Doctor is invisible and/or mute (Hartnell is on holiday); as Hartnell was coming to the end of his contract — and behaving rather badly behind the scenes — there were discussions behind the scenes that when he reappears, he might be played by an entirely different actor. Thankfully, sense prevailed, and this slight story goes unburdened by any great importance to the series as it would go on.

This is a story which cheats on itself: the Trilogic game the Doctor plays must be completed in exactly 1,023 moves, which imposes a certain time-length on this story, until the Toymaker speeds it on — essentially, to hasten the end of the story. Maybe, apart from apparently being a racist caricature, the Toymaker isn’t actually all that bad. ‘The Time Monster’ is the worst Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen. ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ is the worst I’ve ever heard.

 

The Savages

Another almost dry-run at recasting the Doctor come here, where chief baddy Jano (Frederick Jaeger) attempts to drain “the traveller from beyond time” of his life force and instead gets something of a personality transplant, a process which leaves the Doctor himself seems close to death. It’s strange and magical listening to these stories (even ‘The Celestial Toymaker’), knowing with hindsight that the Doctor’s first ever regeneration (i.e. change of lead actor) is only a few stories away; it’s enticing to imagine viewers knowing the part was to be recast and wondering each story whether this would be the last time they’d see Hartnell. (In the event, I imagine, it must have been even more shocking to have had no idea what was going to come.)

The story is otherwise a fairly straightforward morality tale. Originally entitled ‘The White Savages’, the story was adjusted (thankfully!) before broadcast to pull it somewhat away from being an overtly appalling racist allegory where black characters are sophisticated, technologically advanced and benevolent, and the white characters the ‘savages’ — the show having just about got away with this sort of inversion in ‘Galaxy 4’ with the hackneyed sci-fi conceit of a race of emotionless, man-hating females. Doctor Who‘s track record around race isn’t great (there’s a documentary about it on the DVD of ‘The Mutants’ (1972)), and the period around 1965 is arguably the worst. Photographs from this story show Jago somewhat… well, bronzed up more than blacked up, which isn’t much better. Audio suits ‘The Savages’ very well, therefore. The scenes of the Doctor’s near-death experience, intercut with the eerie scenes of Jago realising his personality is not his own, are this story’s redeeming feature.

 

The Smugglers

Adventures in history, originally meant to be as numerous as science-fiction stories, would grow scarcer in Doctor Who as the series went on; this story is one of the last, and unlike its predecessors isn’t set in a specific, resonant historical context (such as the Crusades or the French Revolution). Instead it’s a seafaring spy story in which all the characters undercut and double-cross one another in their attempt to find the treasure of a legendary pirate, Avery. It’s the first full story for companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills, who also narrates the audio version), and as they’re among my favourite pairs of companions, they really sell this story for me. Otherwise, it’s so full of betrayals and counterplots that it grows hard to follow. No-one’s up to much good in this story, so there’s a nice sense that one of the villains is going unpunished largely because even the characters can’t follow the plot they’re in.

 

The Power of the Daleks

If this rumour — which has grown, in the few days I’ve been composing this posting, from a few scraps of film being found to a staggering 90 of the 106 missing episodes, hidden in tons upon tons of hoarded film reels — were to be true, ‘The Power of the Daleks’ would be near the top of my most wanted list. The newly regenerated Doctor (Patrick Troughton), accompanied by Ben and Polly, faces up against his oldest enemies, in what is perhaps surprisingly the only time the Daleks have featured in any Doctor’s first story (oh, all right, except the TV Movie, but that doesn’t really count in this context). It’s a genius idea to ‘sell’ the new incarnation of the lead character: while his companions struggle to work out whether this really is the same man in a new body, mirroring the audience’s no doubt startled reaction, the Daleks move straight in there, identifying their old enemy straight away. It’s a clever trick that exploits ‘Dalekmania’ and the fact that, for a large part of the casual audience, this show is thought of as Doctor Who and the Daleks; who cares what the companions who’ve only been around a few weeks think, when the aliens which represent and summarise the show itself have the answer?

In David Whitaker’s suspenseful, demoniacally plotted script, they are weak, down to only three units, and forced to be as cunning and manipulative as they’ve ever been seen. The humans on the colony on Vulcan, engaged in power struggles of their own, are blind to the Doctor’s warnings, until of course it’s far too late. Episode 2, in which the human scientists believe they’re reactivating a Dalek of their own volition, is the ultimate in making you shout at the screen/your headphones, ‘Don’t do it!’ And Troughton’s mercurial Doctor — himself seemingly unsure of his identity at times — leaves enough ambiguity for the audience to wonder almost throughout who this new man is, and whether he can defeat his nemeses. Of course, he does; with a brilliant new leading man, and featuring some of the series’ most iconic and resonant set pieces (the Dalek production line; the Daleks feigning subservience to their human dupes) this is, even on audio only, a masterpiece of Doctor Who.

 

The Highlanders

And now for something completely different. The last ‘pure’ historical in many years is, like ‘The Smugglers’, set in a Boy’s Own adventure story, with pirates (again), redcoats versus Jacobites, and wily Englishmen defeated by even more wily proletariat (represented by 60s chick Polly, and her new friend Kirsty, played by television’s Hannah Gordon). This is only Patrick Troughton’s second story; writer Gerry Davis doesn’t know what to do with him other than make him as un-Hartnellish as possible, and so we have the new Doctor dressing up as an elderly wench or an unorthodox European medical doctor (Doctor von Wer), each disguise necessitating putting on a silly voice. He’s also very violent, though it’s sold as farcical comedy rather than anything brutal. By this stage, you’d listen to Troughton reading the phonebook, strange accent or none; that none of these characteristics really persisted after this story — beyond an enduring liking for hats, which would resurface in the Eleventh Doctor’s fondness for a fez — makes it a weird side-step into a Who where this sort of thing would have happened week in, week out.

What saves the story from total curio status is that it introduces Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), a new companion, a Highlander from 1746 who would stay at the Doctor’s side throughout the rest of his second incarnation. Unswervingly loyal, mostly completely bewildered by what’s going on around him, Jamie is an entirely charming companion — even if, in this debut adventure, he doesn’t do anything terribly distinguished to earn him companion status. At the end, he more or less just wanders aboard the TARDIS to be whisked off to destinations unknown.

 

The Macra Terror

Set in a futuristic holiday camp, ‘The Macra Terror’ was notorious for featuring the series’ biggest and most expensive prop so far: the titular Macra, a vast crab from outer space, which cost the same as a small car. I’d wanted to hear this story for quite some time, but found myself disappointed. It’s a great conceit for a story: the parasitic Macra are secret overseers of the colony, whose denizens are brainwashed into mining the gas the Macra need to survive. But the set-up isn’t well described; at some stage we shade from its being a slightly OTT Butlins-in-space to it being a labour camp, without there being much of a sense of who among the staff or colonists knows what. Do people come to the camp expecting a holiday and end up working there? Why are the entertainments still laid on: to ensnare new visitors? The story also suffers from having the same cliffhanger at the end of each episode (a Macra attacks!), and a very rushed resolution in which everything is just blown up when the Doctor, effectively, presses a button or two. On the plus side, there’s some nice interaction between companions Ben and James, which really sells them as time-travelling mates fond of one another despite their very different backgrounds (this is the only time, until ‘Boom Town’ forty years later we have two male companions among the regular TARDIS team). It’s clear that audio favours the Macra in a way that moving images mightn’t — it was so static a prop that characters “attacked” by it would likely have to throw themselves into its claws — but it doesn’t do this story many other favours. Worst of all, it highlights the most appalling incidental music I’ve ever heard in Doctor Who, an atonal jingling that adheres to no known time signature (or key) and made me wish very much I too could be brainwashed into not hearing it.

 

The Enemy of the World

A total gem, this — a six-part story I remembered (from the book) almost nothing about, except that it’s The One Where Patrick Troughton Also Plays the Villain. Salamander, a Mexican despot in a near-future world of continental zones and streamlined political blocs, is played with great relish by Troughton: I think he’s using the relish to flavour the scenery he’s chewing on. It’s an irresistible performance, and a subtle one; when the Doctor is forced to mimic his doppelganger, Troughton gives this ersatz Salamander a distinctly different air from the ‘real’ one. The plot, which starts off like a gritty James Bond story, goes off the rails towards the end, as six-parters often do; writer David Whitaker would later recycle elements of it for his 1974 story ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, and what you feel the lack of here are the dinosaurs, or some other monster. Salamander, who seems to want to hold the world to ransom and/or destroy it, has found a way of causing volcanoes to spontaneously erupt or earthquakes to strike out of nowhere. It makes for a bombastic, high-stakes plot against which a spy story plays out — but it’s so cartoony that even dinosaurs would be more plausible. That aside, Whitaker was one of 60s Who‘s best writers, and this is a knockout story, one I went into with no great expectations and emerged totally won over.

The Wheel in Space

More even than the Daleks, the Cybermen are the Patrick Troughton monster (although their first appearance is in the final adventure of the William Hartnell Doctor). The third of their four stories during his era, ‘The Wheel in Space’ is a slowish and rather oddly plotted story in which the monsters attempt to take over the eponymous space station, to an end which is never really satisfactorily explained. The Cybermen are never really that great with a plan; here they come equipped with a boss known variously as the Cyber Planner or the Cyber Co-ordinator, whose voice, a largely unintelligible buzzle, may go some way to explaining that. The budget stretches to only two Cybermen here, though this isn’t such a problem on audio; a wonderfully eerie electronic pulsing fills your speakers whenever the Cybermen turn up in a scene, distracting from their relative uselessness as a threat. (It takes them two episodes to arrive in the story, then an additional forever to actually invade the Wheel.) An odd highlight is the first episode, which is largely a two-hander for the Doctor and Jamie (Frazer Hines), only the second time the Doctor has a lone companion for a while — the last instance, at the opening of ‘The Evil of the Daleks’, was also scripted by David Whitaker. It’s an old-fashioned, enthralling opener as the pair land on a mysterious spacecraft and set about exploring at much the same pace as the audience does, though it has the sense somewhat of killing time before the story proper actually begins. That’s ‘The Wheel in Space’: rich on atmosphere, thin on plot.

 

The Space Pirates

A six-episode  story, with one ‘orphan’ episode known to exist, ‘The Space Pirates’ has long had a pretty bad reputation. It’s certainly too long — there’s a lot of toing and froing between locations at great length, with talk of ‘maximum boost’ speed only drawing attention to the slow pace of this space opera. Writer Robert Holmes would go on to craft many classic Who stories, and there are glimmers of that here, though the story’s most distinctive character, a space buccaneer improbably named Milo Clancy, is so for all the wrong reasons; an accent part George W Bush, partly methamphetamine-addicted lobotomy patient, strained this listener’s patience. It’s a great relief when he doesn’t appear. Elsewhere, the titular pirates have a stupid plan, their duped colleague is conveniently stupid enough to trust them and/or turn on them at all the appropriate moments, and 196-s cult TV fans have a treat when the very distinctive boom of Adam Adamant Lives!‘s Jack May overenunciates his way through the episodes as General Hermack. One plus point: a brilliant bit of Doctorish business made me laugh out loud here. Having fallen down a trench, the Doctor initially appears worse-injured than the companions who tumbled down with him. It transpires he has been carrying a packet of drawing pins in his pocket.

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One Comment
  1. A most excellent article. I’m glad I’ve discovered your blog. I’m blogging about my own marathon on WordPress – 50 Years in 50 Weeks. You can view my blog at http://doctorwhomindrobber.wordpress.com/

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