Click here to return to the main site.

Book Review

Book Cover

Wiped! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes


Author: Richard Molesworth
Telos Publishing
RRP: £15.99, US $29.95, Cdn $31.95, Aus $35.00
ISBN: 978 1 84583 037 3
Available 15 October 2010

For the first time, this book looks in detail at how so many episodes of the cult science fiction show Doctor Who came to be missing, and examines how the BBC, along with dedicated fans of the series, tracked down copies of as many of these instalments as possible. The arduous search covered BBC sales vaults, foreign television stations, overseas archives, and numerous networks of private film collectors. The people involved in the recovery of these lost slices of Doctor Who’s past tell their stories in candid detail, many of them for the very first time. No more rumours, no more misinformation, no more fan gossip - the truth about Doctor Who’s missing episodes can now be told in full...

Whatever you thought you knew about Doctor Who’s missing episodes, the truth is probably more complicated than that.

The BBC didn’t wipe its master tapes simply out of carelessness or spite - it had compelling practical and financial reasons to do so, which make sense in historical context. When methods of recording television programmes were first developed, they were seen as ways of easing the process of broadcasting shows that would otherwise have had to be performed live, rather than as a means of creating a permanent archive. Even in the 1970s, videotapes were extremely expensive, so the Corporation needed to wipe and reuse them in order to maximise its investment. Until the 1980s, television was largely seen as an ephemeral medium, like theatre (no one is up in arms about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “failure” to preserve all of its many productions), rather than a more lasting art form, such as cinema.

I have come to feel that we should be grateful for what has been saved: 145 of the 253 episodes that were produced and screened in the 1960s, starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, with no episodes missing from subsequent decades. Of the 108 missing episodes, at least their soundtracks survive, and often tele-snaps (off-screen stills) as well. This is remarkable when you consider that, by 1975, the Corporation had wiped its master tapes of all the 1960s episodes, and that more than half of Jon Pertwee’s episodes shown between 1970 and 1974 had their colour masters erased within two years of transmission.

Over the course of 480 pages, author Richard Molesworth takes a highly detailed look at what materials were held where and when, when they were wiped or junked, and how missing material has been recovered. He cites copious documentary and anecdotal evidence, including BBC paperwork and interviews with the people involved, but he admits whenever certain details are simply not known and must remain a mystery. He sometimes theorises in the midst of scant or contradictory evidence, but always states when he is doing so, never presenting theory as fact. Numerous myths about missing episodes are debunked along the way, including the alleged role of the children’s magazine programme Blue Peter in the loss of the final instalment of The Tenth Planet.

The structure of the book takes a broadly historical approach, beginning with the formation of the BBC; the development of technologies such as telerecording (recording television output on to film) and videotaping; the wiping of transmission tapes; the evolving roles of departments such as BBC Enterprises (which made copies of episodes for overseas sales) and the BBC Film Library; the move towards preservation during the 1970s; the return of missing episodes; their subsequent restoration; and the colour recovery of many Jon Pertwee episodes. The survival of fragments such as clips, production films, off-air soundtrack recordings and tele-snaps is also covered. Two chapters and an appendix detail precisely what is known about when overseas broadcasters acquired currently missing episodes, when they broadcast the shows, and whether they sent the films on to another country or destroyed them. A further appendix lists exactly what materials are known to exist today, and in what format, for every story produced between 1963 and 1989, including clips, off-air soundtracks and stills, studio footage and 71 edits (that run longer than the broadcast episodes).

I thought I knew quite a bit about Doctor Who’s missing episodes, but I’ve learned a lot more while reading this book. For instance, now I know the difference between suppressed field and stored field telerecordings - which is the reason why the first three episodes of The Reign of Terror released on VHS are of poorer quality than the final instalment. I’ve learned why more Hartnell episodes than Troughton episodes have survived - which is partly due to the fact that the Hartnell episodes were exported more widely than Troughton’s; partly due to the decline in demand for black-and-white programmes in the late 1960s and 1970s; but largely due to sheer dumb luck, both good and bad.

For example, it’s good luck that Algeria purchased many Season 1 and 2 episodes in 1973 - which may be the only reason why these episodes survive. It’s good luck that BBC Enterprises happened to donate its telerecordings of several Season 6 episodes to the BFI rather than junking them, otherwise there would be far fewer complete Troughton stories in existence today. It’s fortunate that Sue Malden, the BBC’s first Archive Selector, chose Doctor Who as her case study for understanding why certain programmes had been retained while others had not. It’s fortunate that dedicated fan Ian Levine showed an interest in purchasing copies of old programmes when he did - which almost certainly saved the Daleks’ first story from extermination.

However, it’s unfortunate that Levine didn’t get there sooner, or that the BBC’s archiving processes didn’t kick in just a few years earlier. As I have said, I have come to feel that we should be grateful for what has been preserved, rather than fixate upon what has been lost. Nevertheless, it is saddening to read that, as late as 1972, BBC Enterprises still held all but one of the 1960s episodes as 16mm telerecordings. It’s also annoying to read how Terry Nation’s plans to launch a Dalek spin-off series restricted Enterprises’ rights to sell the Troughton stories The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks, the former of which introduced Troughton’s incarnation of the Doctor, effectively rendering the rest of his era, especially his first season, less marketable and therefore less widely sold.

In the midst of so much detailed and balanced information, Molesworth barely mentions the fan-made reconstructions that have been produced in recent years using stills, clips and off-air soundtracks, and on one occasion he erroneously indicates that no tele-snaps survive for the fifth episode of Marco Polo, whereas in fact it’s the fourth episode that lacks off-air stills. However, these are my only criticisms of this exhaustively researched and fascinating book.

Wipe away your tears for the loss of so much classic Who and go stick your nose in a copy of Wiped!


Richard McGinlay

Buy this item online

We compare prices online so you get the cheapest deal
Click on the logo of the desired store below to purchase this item.

£15.19 (
£15.99 (
£15.19 (

All prices correct at time of going to press.