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.