If it wasn’t such a frustrating waste, the junking of those Doctor Who episodes in the sixties and seventies might be viewed as a marvelous opportunity. Firstly, because it sent fans and the BBC on a global, decades-long, unpredictable scavenger hunt – those are always fun – and secondly, because it offered up moments like today. Moments that, if you’ll indulge the notion, are as close to time-travel as you’re likely to come amidst a herd of journalists eating crustless sandwiches in the basement of a posh London hotel.
Back in 1968, somebody at the BBC, a technician perhaps, maybe a runner, closed a canister that was sent around the world. Sealed in the air of late-sixties London, it was reopened in Hong Kong, and then at some point, in Nigeria, where it was discovered forty-odd years after leaving the UK, on a shelf, its contents written on a masking tape label: Doctor Who.
Fans of Hammer horror might picture the moment the canister was first reopened like the unsealing of Tutankhamen’s tomb. In a shaft of dust-mote-speckled light, a gasp of patchouli, BBC canteen cabbage and Patrick Troughton’s shampoo-scented air escaped from inside, where sat a reel of story not seen for over four decades.
Now brushed up and shining like a copper kettle, part of that story was played for us today in the basement of that posh London hotel, on equipment evolved far beyond anything in existence when it was first stowed. A day later, that same story is pinging off on multiple world trips thanks to technology that would indeed have seemed indistinguishable from magic when it was first tucked away in that case.
Between those two fixed switch in time – lid goes on and lid comes off – a complex, fizzing glut of life and death and wonder and stuff has happened. We’ve had nine further Doctors for a start (ten if you count… oh, let’s not get into all that now). Doctor Who went from being new to being well-loved to being a classic. Then it went away, and then, just like these episodes, it came back. Hurray, incidentally, for things coming back.
There were people at today’s screening who’d seen the episodes we were shown – number one in The Enemy of the World, and number two in The Web of Fear – as kids. Having returned from their almost half-century disappearing act, scenes that had been first watched cross-legged on the living room carpet were watched for a second time in that London hotel, whooshing their viewers back through a tunnel, or, why not, a time vortex.
Two of the people in that basement, Deborah Watling and Frazer Hines (Troughton Companions Victoria and Jamie), had acted in the episodes we saw. The return of the stories didn’t evoke childhood memories, but those of their early careers. Time spent jumping into helicopters on freezing beaches, and being affectionately called little shits by ‘Pat’, a man both agree was a very fine actor with a defining sense of humor.
Decades after the fact, seeing the episode nudged awake latent memories of lines spoken and stunts performed for Watling and Hines. Asked if it was like looking at a foreign country, Watling told us, “It’s not foreign. No. The music started, there was Pat’s face, etc. etc., and we went into the scene and I knew it. It’s extraordinary after all these years. At one point when Victoria was talking, I knew the next line she was going to say, now that is eerie.” After some friendly ribbing about learning lines, Hines agrees, “It’s amazing that forty-five years has just gone like that”. See? Time travel.
For Watling, there was a more personal connection even than that. The Web of Fear didn’t only revive her recollections of being a young actress, but also of her late father Jack Watling, or as we’d know him, Professor Travers. Asked about her reaction to watching The Web of Fear she answered, “Saw my dad again on the screen, that’s brilliant. Lovely”.
The rest of us don’t need to have had a dad on the screen to feel that familial connection to Who. The bond never really goes away. It’s why the first question Who fans ask each other is, “Who’s your Doctor?”. Not, who’s the best? (that comes later), or Whose stories do you prefer? but who is the one that belongs to you? If I’m getting sentimental that’s because this is sentimental stuff. Memory, youth, ghosts, the whole human shebang.
You’ll have noticed by now that what you’re reading is nothing like a review of the episodes we saw today. There are a couple of reasons for that, the first being that wholly more qualified and talented people are waiting in the wings to perform that complex operation, and the second, that we wanted to – awkwardly, mawkishly probably – put into words a bit of what today’s event meant. There’ll be plenty of time to chew over the nerdy details together once everybody’s had a chance to join in the fun.
Mark Gatiss’ response to the recovered episodes says it best, from one lifelong Who fan to the rest of us. Here’s what he had to say after the screening, “I’m overwhelmed really. I never thought I’d live to see the day. Particularly The Web of Fear, I think it’s thrilling, and The Enemy of the World obviously is going to be such an exciting story to see. It’s sort of lost and unknown even as a story in a way, so I’m very excited about that. I can’t really believe it. [The canister] looks so mundane in that strange sort of way, but to think that it was just gathering dust on a shelf. It does, as Frazer says, give you hope that somewhere out there… Every single avenue seemed to have been absolutely exhausted and then every now and then something turns up. To have two virtually complete stories out of the blue is absolutely incredible.”
If we could be sure all of the episodes would turn up at some point, this whole scavenger hunt might even be worth the bother. Because when one is discovered at a car trunk sale, in a storage basement, or at the back of a dusty closet, thrilling is exactly the word for it.
You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, goes the old song. Maybe, but you certainly know when you get it back again. Who fans understand that better than anyone.
Read more about the recovered Doctor Who episodes, here, and come back tomorrow for more from today’s Q&A.