How the Doctor Who missing episodes were saved

Sue Malden reveals how she saved hundreds of episodes of Doctor Who from destruction

Sue Malden rescued the first episode of the recently re-released Web Of Fear in 1978
Sue Malden rescued the first episode of the recently re-released Web Of Fear in 1978

Sue Malden was the BBC’s archive selector in the late 1970s and early 1980s and it was she who collated and catalogued the first real archive of past Doctor Who episodes at the BBC. From mid-1969 onwards every television episode of Doctor Who still survives largely because of Malden’s work during this period and because of devoted fans, such as Ian Levine, who took up the mission with staggering energy and enthusiasm.

When Malden first joined the BBC (on a student placement in the BBC film library) in the mid-1970s, there was no formal BBC videotape archive – only a working library of film material [the BBC film library], maintained for the use of current productions.

“There was quite a protracted, drawn-out discussion at the BBC, that eventually ended up with the merge of the film and videotape [collections],” she exclusively told SciFiNow. “I can’t exactly remember when that happened. It must have been about ’77/’78, something like that.

“Prior to that we’d just been the film library and that was because, in a way, all the film that was produced by the BBC was produced by film department and so the library looking after it was managed by film department. Videotape recordings were very much the province of VT engineers and the VT department. And the two didn’t have much to do with one another.

“Really, it was Anne Hanford from the [film] library who started pushing by saying: ‘Film and videotape is the BBC’s output. That’s what’s creating its library or its archive. They should really be managed together.’ But the VT side didn’t particularly see that. They saw themselves far more running a service for production – buying in recording tape and handling the wiping and junking of it.”

Episode 4 of The Celestial Toymaker was recovered in 1984
Episode 4 of The Celestial Toymaker was recovered in 1984

As the vast majority of BBC programming (including Doctor Who) was almost exclusively recorded on videotape, the lack of any properly thought-out preservation for tape was a particular problem. It was only when the BBC film library’s responsibilities grew to include videotape, that all major television productions (whether shot on film or tape) could finally be archived – with Malden charged with curating the new collections.

“I remember us getting printouts coming into the library, showing videotape that was being wiped. My boss at the time found out that this sort of thing was going on and managed to get into the loop so that these printouts came to us and we could then start marking them with stuff for retention – overriding the production department’s decision to get rid of it.

“For the first couple of times of us doing it nobody took any notice of our decisions, but eventually we got that going… I went and spoke to all the heads of production and engineering, explaining that now we were going to be keeping more videotape and I was going to have responsibility for that.

“I can certainly remember engineering people saying, ‘Well what on earth do you want do that for? Why on earth do you want to keep these tapes?’…The first part of the job was stopping the wiping, rather than actively going out and looking for things that were missing.”

The BBC had first started broadcasting programmes from videotape in the late 1950s. This meant that there had been around twenty years of VT output by the time of Malden’s appointment. For the first ten years of this period almost nothing still survived and holdings for the last ten years were patchy at best. Faced with such a vast number of ‘missing’ programmes, Malden elected to focus her efforts on just one specific programme.

All of the Pertwee era survives thanks to Malden's efforts, with The Sea Devils recovered in 1983
The Sea Devils was recovered in 1983

“I was beginning to realise that not everything that the BBC had transmitted had been kept on the tape side. So, I kind of thought it would be interesting to explore more about what happened, why it was like that and I thought it would be good to take a seminal series, check how many had been transmitted, see how many were left and work out what had happened to the others. That’s when I chose Doctor Who.

Doctor Who was my first sort of active series where I looked at specifically trying to analyse what had been transmitted, what still existed and what had been wiped. I wanted a long-running series and something that had touched more than one generation…I got this thing in my head about Doctor Who and started making my lists.”

The mid to late 1970s was a time of increasing appreciation for television as an art form in its own right. Acting as a focus for some of this was the British Film Institute (BFI) and its National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA).

“The National Film and Television Archive… had relatively recently expanded their brief from just National Film Archive, to National Film and Television Archive. I was working with Paul Madden there on a book he wanted to produce called Keeping Television Alive,” says Malden.

“Basically, the book was lists of television programmes that were in the National Film and Television Archive and he wanted me to check the accuracy of the BBC information. So, I started doing that and establishing whether what they had were copies or the original and then inputting into the BBC database if they were copies or the originals at the BFI, and then beginning a programme of getting back the programmes from the BFI.

“In the process of doing this, checking the holdings, I noticed that there were two or three Doctor Whos on the list that were not in the BBC archive and I couldn’t understand how that could happen and so I asked Paul where he’d got them from and he explained that a lady in [BBC] Enterprises was sending them to him when they were returned by companies that had bought licences; which it the first really that I knew of the whole process at Enterprises.”

By 1979, only Episode 1 of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs was missing from the Pertwee era.
By 1979, only Episode 1 of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs was missing from the Pertwee era.

BBC Enterprises (later renamed BBC Worldwide) was the BBC’s commercial arm and it was their job to manage the distribution of the BBC’s programmes to overseas broadcasters such as the CBC in Canada, the NZBC in New Zealand and PBS in America. Doctor Who had been one of their most profitable exports.

“I went along to see this woman,” continues Malden, “and found a whole other side of BBC activities, with Enterprises making masters or sub-masters of programmes which they licensed to different broadcasters She had a record of all the programmes which they’d licensed and a record of where they’d gone to… Once the license period was up another broadcaster would have to sign a certificate of destruction or return the prints that they had to Enterprises and then Enterprises junked them or, as it happened, gave one or two to the National Film and Television Archive.

“I explained to her that: ‘You don’t realise, but some of these titles aren’t actually in the main archive.’ …They’d got no idea… They assumed that the tape had survived. It wouldn’t have occurred them to think that this film recording was unique… This woman was flabbergasted when I told her [and] agreed to let me check out everything they got back; everything that was in their store and everything that was in their catalogue… So, that became a very fruitful period… Obviously there was some Doctor Who in that.”

Today, of the surviving 156 black and white episodes of Doctor Who that were broadcast in the 1960s, all bar seven exist as film recordings made by BBC Enterprises.

“I started to talk to Enterprises’ people asking them if they would communicate with their contacts to let them know that we’d prefer to have it back, rather than them wipe it or junk it… Sometimes they would give me lists of countries to who they knew they’d sold things and I suppose that then I was focussing specifically on Doctor Who – trying to trace specific countries where it had been sold…

“One thing I learnt was that it was no good just saying that we’re looking for lost BBC programmes, because that’s not how they stored things. You had to name specific titles. Again, Doctor Who started to become the obvious title to keep mentioning and it somebody found any of those, you’d ask them to look further for other things.

“I think there was a great sense of awareness – perhaps not initially – but as times gone on – that Doctor Who was being looked for. The other thing I did was that I was the BBC representative in an organisation called FIAT, which is the International Federation of Television Archives. And again, I contacted all of our contacts through that, saying: ‘We’re looking for lost BBC programmes. Let’s start with Doctor Who first of all and see if we’ve got any.’ And then I would expand it from there.”

Death To The Daleks Episode 1 was saved by Malden in 1979
Death To The Daleks Episode 1 was saved by Malden in 1979

With the popularity of archive Doctor Who episodes on DVD (and previously on VHS), the loss of the show’s missing episodes is, if anything, felt more keenly today than it ever was. However, Malden points out that the destruction of so much television history was never really malicious, but rather the result of a set of unfortunate circumstances that should be understood in the context of the time.

“The production departments main role was to make new productions and that was always what they were going to be driven to do,” she explains. “If you couldn’t repeat the programmes you had on tape because you’d used up the rights and videotape was costing something like probably £1000 a tape, a public service broadcaster that was accountable to how it spent the license fee would have probably looked very wasteful if they’d kept all these programmes that they can’t do anything with and were then regularly spending more and more money on videotape, that they could have reused.

“So, if you think yourself back into the attitudes there were at the time, they were behaving in what was thought to be the most responsible way possible and in terms of getting value for money for the license fee. Although, not what you’d agree with now.”

Doctor Who Series 8 will air August 2014 on BBC One. You can buy Doctor Who: The Day Of The Doctor on DVD for £9.99 at