How the missing episodes took over my life
by Anthony Carroll, journalist and Dr Who fan (goes without saying)
There’s a number I think of everyday: ninety-seven.
There are ninety-seven episodes of our favourite show missing. Ninety-seven of poor Bill Hartnell’s and Pat Troughton’s stories and episodes seemingly consigned to the great archive in the sky.
Sooner or later, life and growing up got in the way, and I became something of a ‘lapsed fan’ from the 1990s, giving little thought to the missing episodes. The reboot of the show somewhat reignited my interest in the show, but I was not one to study every episode in detail and read about developments in DWM.
Like all fans of a certain age, I was stunned in 1981 when the Doctor Who Monthly Winter Special listed all the missing episodes of my favourite show. It was at a point of my life in which I’d devour every Target novel and clunky VHS releases that I could, to gain even a glimpse into the Doctor’s past – but the sudden realisation that large parts of the show’s history may never flicker onto a screen again hit me, and hit me hard.
And then October 2013 happened.
It was a month that changed everything for me, Doctor Who-wise. Philip Morris of TIEA had found nine missing episodes: Four of Web of Fear and five from The Enemy of the World.
Just before the official announcement I had stumbled upon a BBC news website story that said something was rumbling in the missing episode world. Up until that fateful day I had never even been on a forum of any sort and been a passive Twitter user, but after a few Google searches and Twitter checks it appeared that something seismic was about to happen – and it was with the nine episodes making their way to iTunes, a glorious event.
But be careful what you wish for. I was, of course, not the only one making such searches. And while those multiple searches revealed little more information, they did instead give rise to something which started with mild Missing-Episode Madness and went on to cause Twitter spats and forum rants and countless hours of rumination, argument and (on occasion) death threat: the Ominrumour.
Could it be true that the other 97 missing episodes had been found by Mr Morris? Was this to be the golden age for Doctor Who fans? For months the speculation rumbled on – release schedules, ‘source kings’ and (excuse me Mr McGuigan) even talks of a dreadnought.
The whole thing became (and I am sure I am not alone) a bit of an obsession. I spent my time constantly checking forums and Twitter, trying to get to the bottom of the Missing Episode saga. And I suppose some of my posts or retweeting may even have stirred up hopes and caused more confusion. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I was more hopeful and more confused than anyone.
Each passing month saw hopes dashed, swirls of excitement over cryptic posts and poring over articles on the bicycling chain. Sadly nothing seemed to transpire.
And here we are now: it’s 2021, and the dreadnought appears to have been sunk without a trace. Sadly, there is no sign of a Holy Grail of a secret archive stuffed with TV goodies awaiting us fans.
This article is a personal view of what went on, and I don’t want to get into choppy legal waters. But it would be remiss not to mention that, to this day, people have alluded to things, with rumours of a secret haul popping their heads over the parapet from time to time. There have even been rows over the affair – an affair which I sadly think will not have the happy ending we all really crave (although I will, of course, keep hoping).
Even though goodwill seems to have evaporated somewhat since October 2013, I still check the forums a couple of times a day, keeping the Planet Mondas and Gallifreybase servers busy. Luckily the moderators seem to like me. I am always on the hunt for clues on Twitter and Facebook as well, and one positive to come out of this obsession is a connection I have forged with fellow fans, online friends who share theories about the MEs as much as general Who news and gossip. And thanks to the Omnirumour I also discovered the joy of podcasts, now essential in the lockdown to help preserve my sanity.
I have even discovered the bittersweet ‘joys’ of being trolled online – and now I know what a sock puppet is.
But so the question remains What has happened to the ninety-seven? Are they in an archive somewhere or a location that can not be accessed? Have they all been junked and long gone? And of course Web of Fear 3 won;t go away: was it stolen to order by a super fan? Was it ever there?
Recent developments have seen talk of six episodes in the hand of collectors, a claim made by Mr Morris. For all we know maybe conservations and negotiations are taking place right now to secure the missing episodes. The more desperate of us (hello!) cling on to whatever meagre ME hope we can scrape: a 60th anniversary release of missing episodes, anyone?? Who really knows? And as my friends outside of fandom would say, who cares?
So reflecting on more than seven years of my contact with the Omnirumour, I suppose the words obsession and hope sum up my feelings best. Because despite all the evidence that no more are forthcoming, I still have hope. Hope that something will show up, that they’re not all gone forever. Hope that Mr Morris can repeat his glorious reveal of 2013 (although he does seem focussed on suggesting changes to the current series at the moment).
It’s the hope that kills you.
There is, of course, disappointment we never saw a flood of releases; and maybe twinge of guilt for stirring things up on forums and the Twittersphere. But most of all I am glad to have made good friends through this, and also to rediscover a new love for my favourite show, looking at telesnaps and reconstructions again and listening to the 97. At least there’s that.
So here’s to the ninety-seven, wherever they may be – come on Phil, surprise us soon! Until he does, I’m back on my journeys through lockdown. Some may be working from home, other home-schooling their kids. Me? I’m off to the forums and Twitter to check if, while I have been writing this, I may not have missed an announcement of dreadnought-sized proportions, or at least, may it please the gods, Web of Fear 3.
(Written in memory of fellow fan and friend Adrian Last)