Doctor Who: Lost in Time. The Fear of the Vintage TV fan Reinforced
I realise I have posted quite a lot about the impact on the cult TV fan of the wholesale junking of much of the TV of the 1960s. If the TV shows you live are fifty years old, it is natural that you will fear that there is either nothing, or nothing of quality, left to be discovered or for you to discover. What if, goes the argument, my current collection of TV shows is the final collection that I will be left with for the rest of my life? This situation would present an interesting challenge to me, by way of being almost a canon as in scriptural terms, of approved television. Since I first posted on that fear, my fears were somewhat assuaged by the discovery of another new series that I had never seen, which is what my recent post about Special Branch, is about.
I realise that in my post today I am going to ruffle feathers in the Whovian blogosphere, because I have finally obtained the Doctor Who Lost in Time boxed set of 'orphaned' episodes from the first three doctors. I have actually had my eye on this set for ages but never got round to getting it. This of course indicates my stature as an ambivalent Whovian. Of course I watch Doctor Who – I have posted about him here – what cult TV fan doesn't? But I'm not a Whovian completist by any stretch of the imagination. I am also a Whovian heretic, since my own personal favourite Doctor is Peter Cushing, who doesn't get a number of his own. I'm already out on a wing.
The mere existence of this boxed set indicates a difference in distribution and hence preservation, of Doctor Who compared to some other 1960s shows. Any further discoveries of Doctor Who are certain to be abroad, since in reality the master tapes were junked by the BBC, as was the policy among TV stations at the time, but were also exported to Africa and other places, which shows such as The Avengers were not, hence once they were junked that was the series gone, and it is less likely to be discovered again. The deciding factor here is merely whether the shows were originally exported, it is not a value judgement in any way. Ironically, given that South Africa had the only radio series of The Avengers in the 1970s, at that time they didn't have national TV yet (the National Party government disapproved) and so South Africa didn't see The Avengers on TV and only heard it on the radio.
You may feel that I've introduced an element of doubt into my judgement on these oddments from lost shows. In many ways they are exactly what you would expect – the more theatrical feel of 1960s TV is there aplenty. The first doctor episodes bear the heavy mark of the intended didactic purpose of Doctor Who – they feel much more 'worthy' than later Doctor Who shows. I find, on reading through my posts on early Doctor Who episodes, that I have been less impressed with them than perhaps I ought to have been. I find I am never quite that critical about early Avengers shows, even when the general critical opinion seems to be that it is a dud, so perhaps it's just personal taste, but these shows really did not make a good first impression on me. I found them at best plodding, and that my attention tended to wander when watching them.
But then I found my approach to them subtly changed. Considering I'm always banging on about how the whole approach to TV in the 1960s was different to now, I realise that I was approaching them with a viewpoint formed by my immediate previous viewing of The Prisoner and the later series of Special Branch. It is difficult to realise how – literally – alien the title sequence to Doctor Who must have been in the 1960s. It is difficult to think how the kids of the time would have approached it. It is difficult to think back into the mindset of the 1960s, in other words the exact mindset which informed almost all the TV shows I write about here, and I am embarrassed to forget that mindset, since it's another thing I'm always banging on about here.
It changed for me somewhat in the first episode I saw featuring the daleks. For me my own attachment with Doctor Who was reignited: I think the previous shows had failed to do that because I don't get on very well with period dramas of any description, and certainly a setting of mediaeval Earth wouldn't be one I would be terribly sympathetic to.
I have a feeling that my own changeable response to the shows in this boxed set may be reflected by anyone who is not a fanatical Whovian, and for the same reason. I think there are justifiable criticisms of the shows. This is Doctor Who, kids, but not as you know it. The plots feel very slow in the early days – clearly they feel much more like stage plays than television ever would nowadays. The plots are however interesting if you want to watch everything that is left of Doctor Who. If you have a personal weakness for Daleks, like I do for example, then certain shows will appeal to you more than others. A major difference between Doctor Who then, and Doctor Who now, is in the production values, which unfortunately tend to be the first thing that hits you. The costumes look home-made. I have no idea what the budget was for Doctor Who, but it must have been fantastically difficult to make effective aliens, monsters, etc, and not have them look like they'd been run up at home. Similarly with the scenes. I can't place which episode it was in at this point, but there is an alien space ship papered with flock wallpaper at one point. Big mistake.
I think I should also warn readers that the restoration of these shows does not make them as good quality as, say, restorations of The Prisoner or The Avengers. The picture is never as clear as I could wish it to be, and of course the shows suffer from the common problem of the time of variations in quality of picture between different scenes, cameras, and so on. I actually find I feel quite bad saying this, and so must remind myself in mitigation that in addition to being fifty years old, these shows come from films exported to so-called 'developing' countries, where surely preservation would be more difficult, with presumably less consistent resources to do so, and thus must result in a more difficult restoration process.
Who is therefore the natural audience for this boxed set? Well, it must be a fairly sizeable one, of people who want to watch every Doctor Who episode they can lay their hands on. Bearing in mind that there isn't one whole series in this boxed set, it would require the viewer to be sympathetic to the difficult process of locating these films and restoring them. This is therefore a boxed set which I personally would recommend to the Whovian or sixties TV fanatic only.
Unfortunately, as far as my own anxieties that there is no more decent TV (at least of the 60s era) out there to be discovered, this set does little or nothing to reassure me. It is merely by a chance of export and preservation at the time that these fragmentary shows are in existence, just as it is only be chance that one reel of Hot Snow still exists. Frankly, it's making me think that probably the best we can expect from now on is chance discoveries of fragments of shows, which will probably not be of very good quality. Sorry. I'm just in one of those moods.
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