Lost in Time: how the BBC recovered 9 missing Doctor Who episodes

Globetrotting fan recovers missing 1960s TV in African archive
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear

Nine missing episodes of 1960s Doctor Who are set to materialise on iTunes, after they were returned to the BBC by an intrepid fan.

The episodes, starring Patrick Troughton as the titular time traveller, include five episodes from 1967's The Enemy of The World, and four episodes from 1968's The Web of Fear – completing the former story, and leaving just one episode missing from the latter.

Doctor Who fan Philip Morris discovered the episodes, "just sitting there on the shelf" of an archive in Nigeria – through his work with archive recovery organisation TIEA.

But how did the BBC misplace its best-loved sci-fi series in the first place? To get the answer to that, we'll have to embark on our own journey into the past…

"Great chunks of my past, detaching themselves like melting icebergs…"

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear

Back in the 1960s, the BBC recorded most of its shows on videotape. Because it was bulky, expensive and - crucially - reusable, those tapes were routinely wiped. Programmes had limited resale value back then - there was no home video market, so overseas sales were the only opportunity to extend the life of a programme.

Since overseas broadcasters didn't usually have the facilities to screen programmes on video tape, the BBC made telerecordings; an engineer would point a film camera at a screen playing the programme, then ship the film to broadcasters around the world.

Those films, then, are the only record of many programmes from the 1960s - but the BBC ordered them destroyed after use.

By the late 1970s, when the BBC stopped junking its archives, vast tracts of TV history - Dad's Army, Not Only… But Also and, of course, Doctor Who - were lost forever. Or so it seemed.

"If something can be remembered, it can come back."

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear
Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World

Fans, film collectors and the BBC have been looking for missing 1960s TV shows for years - with some success. Because overseas broadcasters kept patchy records, and often didn't destroy their films when they were told to do so, Doctor Who has been coming back in dribs and drabs (most notably, two episodes were recovered from the basement of a Mormon church in London – no-one's quite sure how they ended up there).

As director of TIEA, Philip Morris' work takes him to archives all around the world – and it was in one of them that he made his discovery. “The tapes had been left gathering dust in a store room at a television relay station in Nigeria," Morris says. "I remember wiping the dust off the masking tape on the canisters and my heart missed a beat as I saw the words ‘Doctor Who’. When I read the story code I realised I’d found something pretty special." The film cans, it turns out, had originally been sold to Hong Kong before being shipped on to Nigeria – and they've now been safely returned to the BBC, restored and prepared for release on-demand and on DVD.

Where to watch

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear
Doctor Who DVDs

Fortunately, nowadays we can simply download archive programmes to watch whenever we want, thanks to the likes of the newly-announced BBC Store and BFI Player. Both recovered Doctor Who stories will be available to buy from www.itunes.com/doctorwho from 11 October, ahead of their DVD releases – The Enemy of the World will hit DVD on 25 November, with The Web of Fear following in 2014.

Of course, the question on everyone's lips is: what else is out there? Rumour has it that as many as 90 episodes of Doctor Who have been recovered, though TIEA and the BBC are keeping schtum on that point – with Morris simply saying, "I hope our paths will soon cross again."

And remember - if you've got an old can of film lurking in the attic, contact the BBC or the BFI - it might have treasure inside.