Doctor Who and the Changing Value of Television

“The TRUTH!” I hear you cry, “of what happened to 97 missing Doctor Who episodes”… well look no further – Dr Richard Wallace from the University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, has the answers.

In a thorough, readable article he explores the history of how television content was handled by the BBC from the end of WWII onwards. Technology, the beaurocracy of a public broadcaster and the value ascribed to television content all play a part in why so much pre-1970 Who went missing and why some of it is turning up in exotic corners of the globe.

“Of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who produced by the BBC between 1963 and 1969, 97 are missing. This number had stood at 106, until the news broke early last month (October 2013) that nine lost episodes had been returned to the BBC after being located in Nigeria. The find represents the largest discovery of missing episodes ever and made front-page news; ‘THE LOST DOCTOR’ screamed the front page of the Daily Mirror on 11 October 2013. Dr Richard Wallace explains how the episodes came to be lost in space and time.”

Of particular interest is the way Dr Wallace examines how value can be measured and that the practice of wiping video tape in the 1960s to use it for another programme meant,

“Clearly the BBC felt that the programmes that it was making were worth far less than the video tape that they were made on.’

Wallace draws a distinction between commercial value, where something is seen as able to make money, and cultural value where it’s seen as valuable in its own right regardless of how much it costs. He asks the interesting question of what motivated the BBC’s heavy coverage of the discovery of 9 episodes of missing Doctor Who from 45 years ago.

“…the announcement of the return of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear was not timed to break the news of their recovery, as has generally been the case with previous missing episodes, but to announce their scheduling as DVD releases and their availability to download immediately via iTunes.”

Of course this ultimately begs the question of how we can distinguish cultural from commercial value at all – if someone values something for cultural reason (whether it’s music, football or the Mona Lisa) it will have market value and be commercially valuable to someone else. It depends who you’re asking…

Markets and Television Studies aside, Wallace does focus in on one staggering fact – that so much more attention was paid to these 9 episodes now than would have been five, let alone forty-five years ago.  Clearly this is, in part, to do with the current status of Doctor Who as an intrinsically valued product, and the focus on its historical legacy prompted by the 50th celebrations. I’d also suggest that the mystery and intrigue surrounding the idea of missing episodes contributes a great deal to the excitement around recovered material. Absence making the heart(s) grow fonder…

Either way, Wallace gives a concise and engaging history of telly and its journey from studio, to screen, to film canister, to the exotic ends of the Earth. Take a look and tell us what you think. Is Doctor Who valued by the BBC for cultural reasons or for the money it can make? And is there any difference? And WHY was there SO much excitement around the discovery of 45 year old, black and white tea-time terror and HOW did it top the download charts in several countries?…

(With thanks to Gareth J)
“Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes and the Changing Value of Television” by Dr Richard Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at


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