Only the Christmas special is standing between us and a very long Doctor Who drought in 2012. But while we won't be seeing any new episodes for a while, a couple of film buffs in Britain have brought us a welcome early Christmas present: a pair of Who episodes believed lost for more than 40 years.
Back in the '60s, when the good Doctor was just beginning his time-traveling adventures on the BBC, it was common practice for broadcasters to wipe tapes and reuse them for new programs. It made good economic sense at the time, but unfortunately it means that more than 100 of the 253 Doctor Who episodes aired between the series debut in 1963 and the end of the '60s are possibly gone forever.
The original BBC tapes are gone, but occasionally we get lucky and a copy surfaces, usually from a foreign distributor. In the case of these two episodes—one from the era of First Doctor William Hartnell and another from the era of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton—the prints were made by ABC (no, not that one; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), and even these prints were going to be destroyed before some thoughtful film buff rescued them.
The episodes are part three of a Hartnell adventure called "Galaxy 4" and part two of a Troughton story called "Underwater Menace." They went public at a special British Film Institute screening over the weekend thanks to the efforts of a Radio Times staffer and an amateur film preservationist who held on to the prints once he had them.
"A few months ago I spoke to Terry Burnett, who used to be an engineer at TVS [the former ITV franchise based in Southampton]. Somehow Doctor Who was mentioned in passing, and Terry said, 'Oh, actually I think I've got an old episode,'" said Ralph Montagu, head of heritage for Radio Times.
"I thought it was bound to be something we've got already. I tried not to get too excited, but he came back the next day and brought this spool with him. It had no label, so I had a look at the film leader and it said 'Air Lock.' I thought, 'What's that?' I checked online and saw that Air Lock was an episode of Galaxy 4—a missing Hartnell serial. So then I got very excited."
The pair met again later and Burnett revealed that he actually had a second Who episode in his stash: the "Underwater Menace" installment. It turns out he bought the prints in the mid-'80s, cleaned them up and placed them in his archive. They weren't exactly handled with care in their past life, so there are a few glitches. The "Galaxy 4" episode is missing 27 seconds of footage from its climactic sequence, and the "Underwater Menace" episode is missing 20 seconds of censored footage (of an injection, because apparently Australian broadcasters didn't like those). But apart from that, with a little more restoration work, we're left with some new bits of Who that we never would have seen otherwise.
So, what are they about? Well, the "Galaxy 4" episode is part of the story of several races of aliens fighting to leave a barren world about to collapse. The serial opened the show's third season in 1965, but if you're hoping to see the whole thing, you're still out of luck. The third part that Burnett had in his vaults is the only one we know exists. As for the "Underwater Menace" episode, it's now the earliest surviving Troughton adventure. The story involves the Doctor and company being captured by the last remaining survivors of Atlantis, and it aired in early 1967. It was only Troughton's third serial as the Doctor, but the footage apparently includes an early example of the Second Doctor playing the recorder that became a trademark of his character.
Sadly, we still only have the second and third parts of "Underwater Menace," so you can't see that story in its entirety either. There is a chance that you can see them in the comfort of your own home, though. Both of these episodes might end up in a new DVD volume of Lost in Time, a Who collection that gathers rarities and newly found bits.
So, two episodes of Doctor Who that were supposed to be wiped from the earth have surfaced. It's not the first time it's happened, but will it be the last? Montagu doesn't think so.
"Well, one or two other leads are being pursued at the moment," he said. "More than that I'm not saying!"