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Oops! How The BBC Purged All Of Their Old Doctor Who Episodes

Oops! How The BBC Purged All Of Their Old Doctor Who Episodes

With the ubiquity of the Doctor Who Christmas Special in modern pop culture, it seems like a great time to reflect on the history of the good Doctor, except it seems that there is a huge chunk of it missing from the first six years of the show’s run.

And that’s because the BBC junked them all. The BBC destroyed, wiped or (unintentionally) let deteriorate beyond broadcast quality the first six years of the show. To further punctuate this: There are no episodes of Dr. Who from the 1960s that exist on their original master tapes. To this day, 97 episodes of Dr. Who remain missing (we’ll talk about that too.)

How did this happen? How could such an iconic show, produced by a public broadcaster (read: made with British taxpayer money) get wiped off the face of the planet? It wasn’t Cybermen, that’s for sure.

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There’s a few things you need to understand before we can get to the why this happened. First, the decision wasn’t motivated by poor ratings. As a matter of fact, despite the premiere of the show airing at the same time John F. Kennedy was assassinated (and thus having rather terrible ratings the first time it aired), the show quickly captured the imagination of an entire audience, with as many as 12 million fans tuning in. Make no mistake: Doctor Who was a successful show during those first six years (and on).

Second, the need to cull tapes of programs was a decision based on practicality, and the impracticality of retaining these and many other programs.

To start, in the 1950s the performers union pressed against the taping of shows, as prior, most shows aired were essentially live-performed plays that were broadcast, thus rebroadcasting required the re-hiring of the actors to re-perform the show. When taping became a practicality, the union representing actors pushed back and created agreements for how many times any given taped performance could be rebroadcast.

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Further, during that era there was significant technological improvements to television, including the widespread use of color. The BBC (and many other broadcasters of the time) didn’t see value in keeping black and white shows, and deemed old black and white tapes or tapes intended for broadcast at 425 lines (think resolution) obsolete in an era of 650 line broadcast standards and/or color. Moreover, the tape itself was very expensive. Because it was tape, and not like film, they could be wiped and recorded over (like old VHS tapes). Given the cost of £100 per 2″ cassette tape in the 1960s (translating to approximately $3000 in modern day value) it makes economic sense to reuse tape, wiping what was originally on it.

Finally, there really was no demand to watch the show at home during that era (Betamax & VHS weren’t available to consumers until the mid 1970s) and as such most people didn’t consume shows after their airing during that era.

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Third, there was a great deal of bureaucratic failures between the different departments of the BBC who created and kept programming.  BBC Enterprises, who created the content would tape episodes (literally meaning the episode was recorded on 2″ tape). Those episodes would be recorded onto 16mm film which was shipped around the world for international broadcast (as film circumvented any limitations of differing technology standards of overseas broadcasters.)

BBC Enterprises (who produced the content) kept tapes of broadcasts provided they could still rebroadcast them (based on contractual obligations.) BBC’s Engineering division, who kept the tapes for rebroadcast, and would discard them when BBC Enterprises didn’t need them anymore because rebroadcasting rights were exhausted or the tape became obsolete.

The BBC does have a Film Library, which is responsible for curating and keeping anything the BBC creates originating on film, but because the original Doctor Who episodes were taped and transferred to film, those at the Film Library didn’t think they were mandated to keep the episodes of Doctor Who which had been transferred to film. The result was every master video tape of the first 253 episodes being wiped or destroyed, and the Film Library only ending up having 47 of the first 253 episodes in their library. Oops.

All in all, it was a mess that lead to the junking of those Doctor Who episodes. Thankfully the BBC straightened out its wiping policy in 1978, just as consumers were getting Betamax and VHS players in their homes. Someone finally clued in that perhaps programs from the BBC should be archived for historical and cultural posterity, meaning all the episodes of Doctor Who are now being archived. You can actually see how the BBC preserves television programs on the (ironically archived) BBC Archive site.

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That’s not the only good news. We mentioned that only 97 episodes are still missing to date, and that’s because of the work of the BBC as well as fans to try to recover many of those purged episodes. For some, the BBC was able to recover many from foreign broadcasters who had kept film (like the nine episodes recovered from Nigeria), or more ironically, had film cut due to local censorship laws (thus ultimately preserving elements of the show they had wanted to not show.) Fans who saved the audio also helped in the reconstruction efforts, with episodes being released by the BBC for consumers as VHS tapes of reconstructed episodes or in CD form, like audio dramas.

The hunt is still on to recover more of the lost episodes, so before you go and delete those old tapes you find in the attic, give them a peek. Maybe someone in your family ended up unintentionally preserving one of those lost episodes out of personal devotion, to the benefit of all Whovians worldwide.

Feature Image & Blog Photo Credits: BBC (Screencap by Teri Litorco)


Teri Litorco wishes for a TARDIS so she can see friends over the holidays without the hassle of airports, and maybe go back and time and shop for gifts like she had foresight. At this point, her fallback gift to friends is her book, The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming. She overshares on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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