Doctor Who is only a television series. But it’s only a television series in the sense that The Beatles are only a band. It means a great deal to a lot of people. A lot of different people, as it happens, from many walks of life. It’s earned its critical stripes over the last fifty years, despite the odd foray into pantomime and self-parody, and in Britain (with the possible exception of a ‘lost generation’ of children in the ‘90s) each new generation have embraced their own era of the programme. Rather like recalling which Blue Peter presenters we grew up with, many fifty somethings will cite Troughton, Frazer Hines (Jamie) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) as their TARDIS crew (or perhaps Troughton with Hines and Deborah Watling, but you get the idea). In the same way thirty or forty-somethings might recall Tom Baker with anyone from Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter through to Lalla Ward and K9, and there will be teenagers now who wax lyrical about Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.
So imagine the excitement amongst millions of kids and kids at heart this week. For some time now there has been increasingly fervent suggestion that a treasure trove of lost Who episodes had been found in some far flung location (Nigeria apparently), and the canisters were on their way back to the BBC. For those not in the know, the systematic junking of old television shows was standard practice in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with many classic series such as Steptoe and Son, Top of the Pops and That Was the Week That Was missing many of their earlier episodes. Often as a cost saving exercise the BBC reused their professional video tape, rather than utilise fresh stock, and no one saw the potential in old television being watched by future generations. That may be a short sighted view from a modern perspective, in an age of on-demand telly, DVD and blu-ray box sets, but fifty years ago TV was viewed as a much more ephemeral medium. If you didn’t see it on transmission, you probably would never see it, unless you got a repeat. Pity ‘60s Doctor Who fans then, who had one repeated serial in the whole of the 1960s. That was such a rare occurrence that the repeated story (The Evil of the Daleks), was included in the on-going narrative of the then current season by means of a character flashback. Being the show’s first ever repeated story, history’s ironic joke is that The Evil of the Daleks can’t be seen ever again as most of its episodes are missing. So the BBC allowed us to see it twice, and that was them being really generous.
What has actually happened then isn’t that the lost 106 episodes of Doctor Who have been found and returned, as more inaccurate areas of the media were reporting. Nowhere near in actual fact. Original Doctor William Hartnell has a fair few episodes missing, but as Hartnell appeared in so many episodes in three years, at least half of his output is fully intact. Poor Patrick Troughton though, a much more modern style Doctor, saw practically all of his second season destroyed until all four episodes of The Tomb of the Cybermen were found in 1991, giving just us one full story for season five….until now.
Fortunately, although only 9 episodes appear to have been recovered, they’re good ones. And they’re Troughton episodes. All but one episode of The Web of Fear, and the entire of The Enemy of the World are now back in BBC hands, meaning almost three complete stories from the previously sparse season five. The Web of Fear is particularly significant, as it’s long been a fan-favourite (based on the opinions of those who remember), and its iconic images of the Yeti in the London Underground became ingrained in a generations’ young consciousness. Arguably the series first all-out foray into the genre of horror, often resembling a monochrome version of Hammer, it also introduced pivotal supporting character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (here still a Corporal), played by the late Nicholas Courtney and the return of the ethereal Great Intelligence (recently returned to the series and facing off against Matt Smith’s Doctor). Also taking into account its great TARDIS crew, direction from talented veteran Douglas Camfield and a script from Mervyn Haisman, who also wrote the prequel The Abominable Snowmen, and it looks like it might deliver. From the look of the trailer, if you were in any doubt about why ‘60s children hid behind sofas and wet the bed, here is Exhibit A (hell, on this evidence I’d let them off if they needed toilet paper at the side of the bed). The horror aspect is notable, as later production teams would go for this approach in a much less subtle manner than suggested in the Web trailer. Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe’s three year tenure in the mid ‘70s channelled ‘gothic horror’ and upset Mary Whitehouse greatly, so Hinchcliffe must have been doing something right. Plus he had Tom Baker as his leading man, fresh in the role, so who was going to pay serious attention to Whitehouse?
So I’m a fan of Doctor Who, but even for those who are not, this is still a notable find, as it connects us with an era of imaginative television that we’re lucky to view. It’s an era fondly remembered and has had such a warm nostalgic influence on subsequent writers, directors and the like. Mark Gattis heaped praise on The Web of Fear earlier this week, reminiscing about the Target books novelisation that brought the story to life in the pre-video and DVD days of the ’70s. For a story to work in such different formats is possibly testament to the great ideas and script writing involved, and the ease with which the likes of author and former script writer Terrance Dicks could translate them to short novel format.
But there’s nothing like the real thing. So The Web of Fear is back, along with its slightly less regarded but equally welcome season-mate The Enemy of the World. Both are proof positive that good story telling and uncanny horrors are not new to Doctor Who or any other fantasy television series. They are eternal elements of many tales well told. But if you’re faint of heart, these black and white episodes of robot Yeti in gloomy tunnels may still unnerve you when viewed in a darkened room. But just keep telling yourself, it’s only a television series….it’s only a television series…