Event Review: Doctor Who - Lost Episodes Screened!

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

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Starburst braves torrential Cardiff rain to get the inside skinny on the first full public screening of two 1960s Doctor Who episodes thought lost forever...

You could have heard a pin drop. Literally. In the crowded Cinema 1 in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts centre, dozens of hardcore Doctor Who fans sat in silence in nervous anticipation as the lights went down and the screen went blank. Seconds later the original version of the most famous and evocative television theme tune in the world crackled over the speakers and a familiar title sequence flickered onto the screen. This was it. The assembled horde was about to watch, as Steven Moffat was to later put it, “new Doctor Who from the 1960s!” And the atmosphere was electric…

Last December Doctor Who fandom’s gob was severely smacked by the news, announced at a BFI event in London, that two long-lost black-and-white Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s had been recovered in the hands of a private collector. The story of the BBC’s astonishing early 1970s purging of its entire Doctor Who archive has been well-documented elsewhere, as have the remarkable and tireless efforts of a group of dedicated fans who have, over the years, managed to track down prints and copies of many of these lost treasures. But with the last old-episode recovery having occurred way back in 2004 most fans had resigned themselves to the fact that it was looking as if the show’s archive (and worse, their personal collections) would be forever missing 108 of its early instalments starring William Hartnell and his successor Patrick Troughton. The BFI announcement of the recovery of two further episodes was as astonishing as it was unsuspected and whilst the episodes themselves - ‘Air Lock’, the third episode of 1965 Hartnell story ‘Galaxy Four’ and episode two of the 1967 Troughton adventure ‘The Underwater Menace’ -  won’t have been high on any fan’s “I-wish-they’d-find” list, the news of their return was a very pleasant early Christmas gift for the show’s devotees. At the BFI event only a few minutes of ‘Airlock’ were shown followed by the entire Troughton episode - itself a significant find, incidentally, as it becomes the earliest Troughton episode now in the BBC Archives.

It fell to Bafta Cymru Wales, from the current series’ production home in Cardiff, to arrange screenings of both ‘Air Lock’ in its entirety for the first time in nearly 50 years and, most excitingly, the first screening of the Troughton episode in its newly-restored form, rushed across the Severn Bridge by the Restoration Team who do such spectacular work in tidying up scratchy old Doctor Who tapes and making them look shiny and brand new for DVD release. In attendance for this momentous screening were Moffat and his fellow executive producer Caroline Skinner and stars Peter Purves (Steven in ’Airlock’) and Frazer Hines and Anneke Wills (Jamie and Polly in ‘The Underwater Menace.’)

The episodes? Great, great fun. Classic Doctor Who? Probably not. Neither ‘Galaxy Four’ or ‘The Underwater Menace’ have ever been held in especially high regard by the fan community, but that’s more than likely because both stories haven’t been well served visually with only random clips existing from the former and just one episode from the latter. ‘Galaxy Four’ sees the Doctor (Hartnell) and his companions, astronaut Steven Taylor and space orphan Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) on a doomed and hostile planet where the occupants of two crashed spacecraft are antagonising one another. The Drahvins are powerful, beautiful yet war faring women and the Rills are ugly, gas-breathing walrus-type beasts with a bunch of whirring, buzzing robots dubbed ’Chumblies’ by Vicki as their servants. ’Air Lock’ rattles along at a right old clip and whilst its production values are desperately primitive by today’s standards - Vicki trapped behind by a wobbling security gate with holes so huge she could easily clamber through it got a bit of a chuckle form the crowd as did the Drahvin soldier who nods off whilst on guard duty - it remains terrifically entertaining. Actress Stephanie Bidmead impressed as Maaga, leader of the Drahvins, as she makes an impassioned soliloquy - in one take, apparently - on the deficiencies of her race as soldiers. Hartnell himself looks less out of his depth than usual in a sci-fi setting but then he has the support of the brilliant Maureen O’Brien who gives proceedings a real lift as she disarms a Drahvin and marches about carrying her huge space-gun like a 1960’s Sigourney Weaver. The Chumblies, with their weird whirring humming and discreetly flashing lights, are surprisingly effective too - although it’s no huge surprise that they weren’t able to replace the Daleks in the affections of the show’s 1960s viewers.

‘The Underwater Menace’ sees the new Doctor and his companions Jamie, Polly and Ben (the late Michael Craze) in Atlantis battling to thwart the plans of barking mad Professor Zaroff (Joseph Furst) who intends to raise Atlantis by draining one of the world’s oceans into the core of the Earth. The Doctor reasons that the super-heated steam created will cause the whole planet to crack open. Silly, pulpy stuff full of people in outlandish costumes speaking with silly accents - but Troughton’s performance is a joy. This is classic second Doctor stuff, Troughton looking innocent and baffled as he tampers with Zaroff’s equipment and indulging in some wonderfully-subtle comic asides as the Doctor gets enthusiastic about dressing up in a silly costume and makes hugely disparaging remarks about his adversary’s sanity. He even gets to ask Zaroff the question heroes never think to ask villains with similar world-destroying ambitions: “Why do you want to blow up the world?” I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in attendance who could have done with seeing the next episode as the credits rolled…

Following the screening new series former script-editor and novelist Gary Russell took to the stage to introduce the guests and to moderate a relaxed, entertaining and informative sixty-odd minute discussion and Q&A with the crowd. Purves was especially thoughtful and erudite, sharing his memories of working with Hartnell and the frustrations of recording episodes of Doctor Who ‘as live’ with allowances made for only three recording breaks during taping. Frazer Hines was typically playful, chiding his colleagues and recalling his early days working on the show and “keeping his head down” amongst his more experienced contemporaries. Anneke Wills fizzed with enthusiasm for the show and her part in its history and, with Hines, recalled working on ‘The Underwater Menace’ with surprising clarity. Steven Moffat was on hand to enthuse about the joy of old Doctor Who and suggested that Patrick Troughton, the contribution of Hartnell notwithstanding, was the first actor to really ‘act’ the character and to define who and what the Doctor is, drawing obvious parallels with current incumbent Matt Smith. Moffat blanched at the idea of a ‘live’ episode of Doctor Who - “it’s not going to bloody happen” - and marvelled at how the 1960s production teams were able to create episodes as ambitious as these in tiny studios and with next to no money.

The screening over, Moffat and the actors mingled with the fans in the busy Chapter Bar. Here’s where it goes a bit fuzzy…   Restoration work continues on these two lost episodes which are likely to be made commercially available later this year. Let’s hope it’s not too long before BAFTA Cymru are able to organise a similar event to celebrate the return of yet more lost-forever Doctor Who classics. They’re out there somewhere…


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