'Doctor Who' missing episodes — why are there so many?

Doctor Who missing episodes.
Doctor Who missing episodes have haunted fans over the years. (Image credit: (Photo by Peter Stone/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images))

Doctor Who’s missing episodes are the holy grail for Who fans. But why are they missing? And where have the lost instalments of the sci-fi classic been rediscovered?

These legendary episodes – currently totalling 97 – have been the subject of worldwide search by the BBC and dedicated fans alike for four decades. And just when people think all might be lost, another episode pops up to keep the search – and the rumour mill – alive.

But why did the BBC ditch a whole archive-full of one of its longest running and most successful shows? And how does fan dedication and modern technology allow us to enjoy the lost episodes once more, 50 years on?

'Doctor Who' missing episodes — why didn’t the BBC keep them?

Well, these days you’d definitely assume so. But imagine a world with no streaming services, no DVDs, not even VHS videotapes (if you’re old enough to remember those). In the sixties and the seventies, once shows had been broadcast and then sold to any other countries who were interested in it, they were quickly considered redundant. Repeats out with a specific timeframe after their initial broadcast were costly for rights reasons, meanwhile, the home video recorder was but a twinkle in a JVC engineer’s eye over in Japan.

But getting rid of episodes seems a bit final?

Storing videotape and film took up valuable space. Plus, videotape was expensive back then, but it could be wiped and used again for other shows. It made perfect financial sense to do that. So, it was goodbye Doctor Who… hello Juke Box Jury. But within the mammoth BBC structure, many departments had little idea what the other was doing. So while many episodes were destroyed, many were still sat in shelves in various Beeb buildings, unloved for now…

When did the BBC realise they had made a mistake destroying 'Doctor Who' episodes?

The advent of home video in the late seventies made the BBC reconsider, realising there could be value in their archive. Plus, culturally we were beginning to regard TV as an art form in the way we hadn’t before, so there was a desire to catalogue and retain its history. But when the vault doors were opened, the cupboard was a little bare…

So, how many episodes of 'Doctor Who' are missing?

When the archive was first assessed, there were 156 missing episodes of Doctor Who, but over the years the BBC and fans have been on the trail of the Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti and Ice Warriors, meaning these days the missing total is 97, all from the sixties era of the first and second Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.

But if the BBC destroyed the missing episodes, how could they be found again?

Copies of almost all episodes were made to send to overseas broadcaster when they bought the rights to screen them. They were then supposed to return them to the BBC or destroy them. But often they did neither…

Where were the missing 'Doctor Who' episodes found?

TV stations all over the world were asked politely if they could check in the back of their cupboards. Hong Kong reopened The Tomb Of The Cybermen to us, Cyprus allowed us to face The Reign Of Terror once again, and a job lot were found in Nigeria.

But some hadn’t travelled so far. Two episodes of the William Hartnell classic The Daleks’ Masterplan were found in the basement of a Mormon church.

Fandoms like Doctor Who are always rife with speculation. What are the rumours surrounding the 'Doctor Who' missing episodes?

Oh, endless. After a quiet few years on the missing episode front, the biggest hall ever – nine in all from the Patrick Troughton stories The Enemy Of The World and The Web Of Fear – were found by Philip Morris, who had set up a company dedicated to tracking down lost archive material. This sent rumour into overdrive, speculating he had actually discovered many more, but was hanging onto them for some reason that was never quite clear.

More likely is the rumour that at least six missing episodes exist in the hands of private collectors, who are waiting for a higher offer from the BBC to return them.

There even been hoaxes over the years, where people claimed to have highly sought-after episodes, then go silent after financial deals and arrangements to return were made.

Are these episodes totally lost?

No… and yes. Never underestimate the ingenuity of the dedicated fan. Back in the day, fans recorded the audio of Doctor Who from their TVs, via the low-fi method of sticking a microphone by the TV speaker and recording onto their cassette recorder. But 50 odd years on, these crude recordings mean people can enjoy the missing episodes again. With the addition of linking narration from Doctor Who actors to explain the action – often ones who appeared in the original episodes – many of these recordings have been turned into audiobooks of sorts

How can I watch the 'Doctor Who' missing episodes?

The existence of still pictures from the episodes meant fans could crudely reconstruct each instalment by matching these pictures to the sound. But the big development came in 2006 when the Patrick Troughton story The Invasion was completed using animation. The two missing episodes of the eight-part story were animated (by Cosgrove Hall, creators of Count Duckula and Danger Mouse no less). Other stories with odd missing episodes had them filled in this way.

In 2016 The Power of The Daleks, the seven-part serial that debuted Patrick Troughton as the Doctor and is completely missing from the archive, had all seven episodes animated and was even released in Blu-ray. Several more stories have had the same treatment since.

You can stream most of these animated episodes on BritBox.

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Britbox is the No. 1 way to watch all your favorite British shows from the BBC and ITV. And you can watch it easily via Amazon Prime Video Channels. All your subscription and billing is handled through your Amazon account, allowing you to watch as much as you want for a single price.

Will we ever see any more missing 'Doctor Who' episodes turn up?

Despite the many rumours, as the years pass the likely avenues are beginning to become exhausted. But to coin a phrase… who knows?

Steven Murphy

Steven is a writer, editor, and commentator with a passion for popular TV and soap operas. He spent 20 years as the editor of Inside Soap magazine, documenting every punch-up and pucker-up in the Street, the Square and the village. As a feature writer, he’s covered TV crime dramas, period dramas and even some real-life star dramas. He’s been seen as a talking head on more TV clip shows than he cares to remember, has a life-long passion for TV sci-fi – the older and creakier the better – and is a slight obsessive about any reality show featuring hotels.