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Burning Libraries: Episode Four of the Lost Planet January 19, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

cyberman

Dr Who, which began being aired in 1963, was Britain’s attempt to join the science fiction race. Though less famous than Star Trek, which it preceded by three years, a comparison tells you a lot about the differences between the two countries in the 1960s: the gung ho US and demoralised post-war Britain. Star Trek was made with big bucks and passable special effects. Much of Dr Who looks like it was shot in a British woodland or on a Midlands industrial estate (well actually…) and ‘the space ship’ was a telephone box (seriously), which saved a good deal while producing sets. Another difference was that while episodes of Star Trek were preserved, not least for their franchising potential, the BBC didn’t care about the fate of their own shot at the stars. Video tapes were wiped and 16mm film was lost. The result is that 106 Dr Who episodes are missing, one of the most notable televisual burning libraries of them all.

A few score episodes of a mediocre 1960s BBC show went missing. So what? Well, tell that to the Whovians, the passionate Dr Who fan base. For them the missing episodes would be like a fourth instalment of Lord of the Rings for a Tolkien nut: better, in short, than a male firstborn or a ‘No’ in a EU referendum.

Joe Public and the Whovians might disagree about the real merits of seeing Patrick Troughton – an early Doctor Who actor – running through some British hedgerows being pursued by the most unlikely science fiction villains of them all, the Daleks, ‘human-sized pepper shakers’. But the Whovians’ search for the missing episodes are not without hope. While the BBC took a cavalier approach to its archives, episodes were sold around the world and every so often one of the missing shows turns up in a basement of an old TV studio somewhere in the Commonwealth: Nigeria, Hong Kong etc There was celluloid in those colonies then and there may still be some treasures downstairs. Expect 106 to be reduced to 103 or 95 by the time we get to 2099.

The grail of the Whovians, the episode that to many matters almost as much as all the other 105 episodes put together, is episode 4 of the Lost Planet, set in distant 1986 (!), where the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell regenerates (technical Whovian term meaning taking on another body and personality) into Patrick Troughton, the second Dr Who actor while in Antarctica.

By great good fortune the clip where Hartnell becomes Troughton survives: it was excerpted and included in a children’s television programme. However, Whovians gratitude to Blue Peter, the children’s program in question, is limited, because, by some accounts, Blue Peter actually lost the damn thing. There is also an audio version because Whovians recorded the 1960s shows at home: the Whovians are the real heroes of this post.

The greater part of the episode is though vanished and it is very likely lost for ever. If you do happen to have a copy you have the equivalent of a kilo of gold bullion sitting in your attic or under your four-poster bed. After all, it is the only episode needed to complete The Lost Planet and there is, within it, the collapse of the Cybermen (pictured at the head of this post) as the planet of Mondas breaks apart! Science fiction can sound so silly sometimes…

Beach once came across an anti-Whovian whose hobby was suggesting to the faithful that he had a copy of the fourth episode. Anti would then lead them around cruelly till he didn’t turn up to the appointment where the video was to be handed over. These were in the days long before email, mobile phones, intranet, internet etc etc. and the hoaxing was all done by post. Wonder what happened to him? Beach feels a murder-mystery coming on.

Here is the missing episode four animated by an amateur: probably better than the original.

Other films or TV shows in the world’s burning libraries: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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22 Jan 2013: Tacitus from Detritus writes: Alas Beach, we have no surety that the missing Dr. Who episodes will ever turn up.  But neither are we without hope. In 1978 a bulldozer uncovered a cache of fragile but restoreable nitrate film reels of the silent movie era.  The place was Dawson City, Yukon.  Marvelously described as “the end of the distribution line” it was the place where, once the movies were shown there….they stayed there. The local library had quite the hoard until they were tossed out to help fill in an abandoned swimming pool. Preserved beneath the permafrost they live on.  Leaving us with the question….who has a swimming pool in the Yukon? A more comprehensive list of re-discovered films  Then the Count: You thought the loss of some old Doctor Who episodes (many of which were probably dreadful) was bad? Do you realize that the BBC actually wiped its coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landings?!? Because obviously nobody was ever going to watch that rubbish again, were they? Here’s a comprehensive list of stuff destroyed by the Beeb but still hopefully sought. And we haven’t even mentioned radio – notably a huge proportion of the early episodes of The Goon Show.Not sufficiently depressed yet? How about this list of lost movies, which I rather think is woefully incomplete… Then finally not a possessor but an eye-witness: And oh boy I happen to remember watching that particular episode of Doctor Who [in b/w if course] on a titchy little TV with a wire tied to a coat hanger for an aerial you had to move round the room whenever the picture began to drift.  I found the regeneration scene [a lot of flashing lights and agonised writhing if I recall correctly] somehow deeply unnerving and Troughton at first deeply disappointing but quite quickly his flute tooting manic depressive persona grew on me until I realised just how drab and dowdy William Hartnell’d been.  Oddly I never found the Daleks that frightening but the Cybermen and their little cybermats spooked the living crap out me so much so at times it was all I could do to maintain my affected nonchalance and not join my younger brother and sister hiding behind the couch.  The dandified Doctor Pertwee grew on me much quicker than Troughton but my all time favourite was fellow Scouser Tom Baker because he seemed as strange mysterious and quixotic as a real life Time Lord but also subversively humorous. Thanks Tacitus, AB and the Count!

16 Feb 2013: William writes in: A much more extreme case than what happened at the BBC was the fate of the shows broadcast on the DuMont Network.  The DuMont Network was one of America’s first TV networks, operating from 1946 to 1956.  In the Seventies, virtually the entire programming library of the DuMont Network was dumped in the Upper New York Bay (resulting in not a burning library but a drowning library (and here). In contrast to the BBC, which produced (and destroyed) beloved classics like Dr. Who, no one seems to care about or even remember the shows of the DuMont Network. Thanks William!