THE STILL MISSING EPISODES
We ponder what’s happening in the search for the lost BBC tapes.
It’s nearly two years now since the BBC announced the recovery and return of The Enemy of the World and (most of) The Web of Fear, amid a tornado of rumours claiming that the ‘Indiana Jones of episode hunting’ had tracked down and located almost all of the 106 episodes of Doctor Who that were then still missing from the BBC’s archives. The big question that everyone’s been asking since is, “Where are the other 97?” The truth is that most of them are probably in vintage TV heaven, having been junked back in the 1970s when the BBC sent out their destruction orders. So how did we come to believe that one man might be able to achieve what nobody else had been able to, and bring the number of lost episodes down from a three-figure number into almost single figures? What has Phil Morris, the man in question, been doing for the last two years – and why aren’t we hearing about it? The latter two questions are easy to answer; Morris is doing what he has been doing for the past decade, overturning as many stones as he can in his quest to make sure the BBC’s archives are as full as possible. It’s a single-minded venture, and necessarily so – after all, it isn’t like The Enemy of the World wasn’t sitting there in Nigeria waiting for somebody to find it, and yet in forty years nobody else had summoned up the wherewithal to go and look – and Morris is a single-minded man. The kind of person who, once he’s set himself a task, will focus on that task to the exclusion of most other things – including his personal wellbeing (he’s just recovering from a rather debilitating illness and yet he’s already overseas taking up the search once more). But he isn’t doing this entirely out of charity for vintage TV enthusiasts; the last decade’s undertakings will have cost Morris a small fortune, and he’d be mad not to expect at least some of that reimbursed. Morris is also the kind of man who wouldn’t want to do things prematurely, nor would he risk endangering his chances of increasing the number of his recoveries by advertising his achievements any more widely than necessary. He might have told us that “the wind is blowing in the right direction” following the October 2013 announcement, but if he’s confident of finding more lost television series (and we’re talking far more than simply episodes of Doctor Who) and thinks that by making further announcements he might jeopardise their recovery, he’ll wait until the time would appear to be right. The lack of any supplementary announcements isn’t entirely down to Morris, though. He might have been the man of the hour two years ago, but the content of those eleven film cans was under the ownership of the BBC, and it is within their province to decide when and where – and even if – to make any subsequent announcements. After half a decade of Licence Fee freezes, falling DVD sales and shifting internal politics, the BBC can’t afford to be as philanthropic as they might once have been. There’s also the question of who is in charge of Phil’s project; BBC Cardiff are responsible for Doctor Who as a brand, but, perhaps pertinently, BBC Worldwide control the programme’s now-concluded classic series DVD range. Apparently, it was the Production Office who supervised the handling of Morris back in 2012, but now it seems that responsibility has been relinquished to Worldwide. It would be hardly a surprise, then, if delays were to be incurred. That’s if ‘delay’ is the right word, of course. Neither the BBC nor Phil Morris – nor indeed Paul Vanezis, the missing episodes expert who was largely responsible for getting Morris’ search underway back in the late 2000s – have ever suggested when the most appropriate time for a further announcement, or for the termination of the project and the publication of its findings (whether those be additional films or merely the information that Morris has also been gathering) might be, or how far in the future. So how did Morris’ war cry of “Expect the unexpected” so quickly become an expectation that he’d managed the impossible, when nobody in any authority has ever given anything but the most
meagre and ambiguous of clues as to his achievements – and how has that euphoria so quickly evaporated?
The truth is that at some point before the eleven recovered episodes were returned from Nigeria, a leak within the BBC (and almost certainly not from one of the ‘professional fans’ who have been implicated within wider fandom) began a sequence of events that led to impossible expectations even before the corporation took possession of The Web of Fear. Morris’ search had begun visibly, with a series of posts on the Missing Episodes Forum and a couple of appearances on a radio show and a DVD commentary track, and in an example of the left hand misinforming the right, his apparent report that there was a possibility of discovering the whereabouts of up to 90 missing episodes was erroneously taken as confirmation that he had found as many, after news began to break amongst those in the know that he had indeed managed to recover previously lost Doctor Who. An ensuing combination of confirmation bias and the echo chamber effect soon put meat on the rumours’ bones.
The consequence of this was to make Morris’ job more difficult. It seems that in spite of returning those episodes (two of which the BBC already possessed) in time to make them available for Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, Morris had initially wanted his name kept off the news of the recovery in order that he might continue his search in relative anonymity – with a cover story concocted prior to the truth being revealed later on. Unfortunately, the emerging rumour storm erupted early in 2013, with Morris inextricably linked to the find, and the game was up. Since then, Morris has maintained a relatively low profile (his public appearances and social media activities feel more prolific than they actually are, thanks to the focus we place upon them), his concentration remaining devoted to his work. But the forums were soon buzzing with news of his achievement – and with all the speculation, hearsay and conjecture that went hand in hand with it.
To find is not always to possess, though, and while Marco Polo was initially as heavily rumoured as The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, two years later – and despite numerous instances of fans prematurely pre-announcing its imminent release – the William Hartnell story has yet to appear. It’s not unlikely that Marco Polo was mentioned during discussions regarding the return of the other episodes, but it’s equally as possible that negotiations to return it first into Morris’ hands were hampered by the events of 2013. Let us hope that if Morris was indeed on its trail, that inquiry is still open or perhaps even concluded. Thanks to nearly two years of apparent inactivity (doubtless any current developments are being very carefully screened), and after some admittedly unusual and possibly even questionable social media activity on Morris’ behalf, fandom is increasingly becoming disillusioned with the idea that any more Doctor Who might have been recovered – and this is probably for the best. There’s no doubt the waiting is set to continue, and the hysteria that followed October 2013 wasn’t benefitting anyone.
On the other hand, it seems unlikely that ten years of searching would have turned up only the two stories in the same location, so it’s still entirely possible that when the story of Morris’ search for missing television is told – as both Morris and Vanezis have assured us, both before and after that initial announcement, that it will be – it will come with further recoveries attached. But nobody knows what else Morris might have found, nor whether it really will include more Doctor Who, so for now we must simply be patient and allow him to continue his work, safe in the knowledge that he’s doing it for the benefit of us all.
“As myself and Philip have said in the past, the whole story will be told when the job is done and the job is not yet done.” Paul Vanezis, December 22nd 2013, Missing Episodes Forum