With four months or so having passed since the announcement last October of the recovery of The Enemy of the World and (most of) The Web of Fear, and with Easter on the horizon (with much speculation passing around fandom of another announcement coming then), it seems that the forums have of late been getting pretty close to meltdown. The waiting to see what – if anything – else has been recovered is sending people stir crazy, with Twitter accounts going berserk, new podcasts arriving on an almost weekly basis, and forum threads filling up faster than the low lying fields of Somerset. There are but two questions on people’s minds: what else has Phil Morris found, and when are we going to find out?
There’s a lot of anger among fans pondering those two questions, and a lot of bickering resulting from the conversations. It’s very hard for people to understand why Morris, or the BBC, aren’t just being completely open about what they’re finding and when they’re finding it – assuming that anything else has been found at all, that is. There is also an assumption that Marco Polo, the only completely missing story from the first two years of Doctor Who, ought to have been revealed alongside The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, and will therefore almost certainly be next. I can’t vouch for Marco Polo (although like certain other people I would assume it’s the best candidate for having been recovered), although I can offer some possible explanations for both the silence and the delay.
It’s nearly a decade now since Phil Morris first got in touch with the Missing Episodes forum with regards to going to look in person in Africa. Prior to Morris making contact, the hunt for missing black and white Doctor Who had been a relatively low-key ongoing affair, with very few episodes turning up in the last couple of decades, and The Tomb of the Cybermen being the last complete story discovered, way back in the early 1990s. Since then, prior to Project Africa, only four full episodes had been recovered, so the announcement last October of nine newly found episodes comprising the better part of two complete stories was a revelation, something that should have been the cause for unmitigated celebration among Doctor Who fans. That the celebrations have been anything but, and that Phil Morris’ reputation is in any way open to question, is a demonstration of how people’s frustration with Project Africa has been growing ever since talk about the mission went public in the middle of last year.
Project Africa was never intended as a “secret” mission (Paul Vanezis, a man who has been at the heart of the BBC’s missing episodes programme from more or less the beginning, has posted regular if uninformative updates about its progress on his Missing Episodes forum, and so its existence was hardly clandestine), although the actual work being undertaken was of necessity carried out covertly. When you’re attempting to retrieve relatively valuable materials from people who aren’t really supposed to be still in possession of them, the last thing you would want to do is give them cause to either hold them hostage against a fortune you can’t afford to pay, or else imagine that by being in possession of them they might be in trouble and destroy the evidence instead. After all these years, the irony of the latter event would be heartbreaking.
So Phil Morris began his search of Africa and its television archives, and during the initial stages of his hunt was short of success. This is why TIEA (Television International Enterprises Archives) came into being; Morris realised that if you’re asking people for something, they’re far more likely to respond if you can offer them something in return. And so he formed a company that could help television archives in poorer nations upgrade their obsolete materials to formats that would make those old programmes playable once again. Morris founded a facility in the North-West of England to deal with these materials, and would periodically convey entire shipments of old film cans back to his premises to be worked on, before repatriating the materials to their original archives once work was complete.
Of course, if there were any episodes of Doctor Who – or other British archive television – in these consignments, so much the better for us. Thanks to the work Morris had been doing prior to beginning the search, he had a knowledge of the countries and their people that no one else who had ever been interested in finding missing Doctor Who could have had. He became, in fact, Our Best Hope.
And he was successful. We know he was successful, because of the October announcement. Those nine episodes he handed over to the BBC last May 31st added up to more Doctor Who than had been recovered in total in the previous quarter of a century. If Phil Morris finds nothing else, then that is still a sterling achievement.
But of course it belies logic to assume that a search of Africa and even further afield, lasting something like half a decade or more, and comprising the most ubiquitous and exhaustive search for such things that has ever been undertaken, would result in a single find of nine missing episodes comprising, just by coincidence, almost complete versions of two of the most sought-after missing Doctor Who stories, the legendary Web of Fear and Patrick Troughton’s famous double role in The Enemy of the World. Two stories that also happened to be consecutive and that dovetail into one another rather nicely, with a cliffhanger between the tales.
There is presumably a reason for Phil to have adopted “Expect the unexpected!” as a catchphrase, because after twenty years of no significant finds – no other complete stories, that is – it wouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that Morris was sitting on a treasure trove of previously-lost TV episodes. Whether he is or not, we shall have to wait and see.
Why should we have to wait? Now that the first announcement has been made and the story is very much in the public domain, what good will secrecy achieve? In all probability, any need that there might have been for concealment – any likelihood of publicity causing danger in the ongoing search – must be over. The answer to that question is “probably”; it has been speculated and probably entirely accurately that Phil Morris didn’t want to disclose any of his finds until the search was complete – for reasons that we’ll come to shortly – and that the negotiations to see those two stories released in time for the fiftieth anniversary were difficult and protracted. It’s not entirely unlikely that Morris didn’t want those episodes released at that time at all, perhaps because he saw the attendant publicity as possibly being damaging to his ongoing efforts. We will probably never know, but one thing that has become clear is that even once the gaff was blown, even once the nine episodes were in the public domain, there wasn’t going to be any more transparency about the rest of the search and whatever else Phil Morris might have found. It has even been suggested that some of the people that Morris relied upon in the early days of Project Africa, Paul Vanezis among them and perhaps even Steve Roberts of the DVD Restoration Team, have subsequently to the October announcement now been left out in the cold as to any further developments. It might be that Morris has deliberately shut up shop in order to continue and conclude his search with as much privacy as he can now that the spotlight is upon him.
In fact, while he seems happy to talk about the work of TIEA and be seen in public, having appeared at the ExCeL convention in November and granted interviews to both Starburst and the Radio Times, he always draws a very firm line in the sand at the hint of questions delving into TIEA’s deeper secrets, and any thought of discovering from the man himself what else might be lurking in his archive is quickly dismissed.
There’s a very good reason not to want to release any more stories until the search is completed, and The Web of Fear is a brilliant example of why. After nearly five decades, any materials Morris finds are likely to be in a poor state of repair, and it makes sense both financially and logistically to wait until you have assembled all of your assets before starting work on restoring and releasing anything. In fact it’s just common sense. The alternative is that you spend time and money repairing and restoring fragile materials using difficult and time-consuming processes, only for the possibility to exist that you would have to do it all over again should a better copy turn up. Worse still, you might release a story on iTunes or DVD in an incomplete state, perhaps with its third episode missing and represented as a slide show, when at some later date you might have a complete version of that story that you could have released instead. Nobody knows whether Morris is now in possession of The Web of Fear Part Three or not, but if he is, undoubtedly there will be much moaning about the release of the DVD without it. If only we’d waited until the search was over – but then, the idea of The Web of Fear taking a public bow during the anniversary celebrations was, it would appear, too delicious to ignore.
It seems the wait might not be too much longer anyway – although it perhaps won’t be as soon as Easter as some are predicting, and of course we won’t know until the next announcement is made whether we’re going to find out the results of Morris’ search piecemeal or all in one go. But when I spoke to Morris in November, he gave the impression that although TIEA’s work goes on, the part of the project that dealt with searching for missing UK TV was winding down. Indeed, Morris was looking to explore a new avenue in the hunt, targeting private collectors who might have episodes among their personal collections, and who might not have come forward before for one of any number of reasons. Not least of which the idea that prior to Project Africa, the BBC were unwilling to pay for the return of their own material (I’ve heard it suggested that the station in Hong Kong where The Tomb of the Cybermen was discovered had to fork out to have it returned to the BBC themselves); there are certain rules within the BBC Charter that prevent this. Fortunately BBC Worldwide have a more modern approach, and as an almost independent organisation are allowed to spend money in order to speculate against a profit. The time might be ripe for collectors to give up their collections, as Morris’ search might have rendered them rather less than unique anyway – another good reason for Morris not to spill the beans on his findings, lest a collector somewhere should discover that his copy of a particular episode might be the last one in existence and make whole an otherwise incomplete story – and price the episode out of the BBC’s pocket as a result.
There are probably two more compelling and more prosaic reasons why neither the BBC nor Phil Morris have been willing thus far to establish what if any further discoveries have been made. On the one hand, the BBC as an organisation might very well not know. Fans have speculated that the deal between Morris and the BBC might very well involve Morris completing a certain amount of repair and restoration on the episodes before they’re handed over, and with Morris being a practical man, he’s not going to spend time and resources restoring episodes that might yet be superseded by superior copies. So the chances are, he doesn’t have anything ready to give the BBC just yet. And while it would be unusual for him not to have made individuals within the organisation aware of what they might eventually expect, as a body the BBC would not be in possession of any of those materials, and wouldn’t therefore be qualified to make statements promising things that they haven’t yet acquired.
However, all the parties involved in the project are well aware that in order to have made this all worthwhile, then a return on the investment made by Morris and TIEA, and subsequently by the BBC, would be expected – and while they make for very nice headlines and pages and pages of forum posts, the missing episodes business isn’t quite as lucrative as some might imagine. I’ve seen speculation that the BBC and Phil Morris stand to make “millions” out of the discoveries, but the fact is that classic Doctor Who – especially black and white Doctor Who, regardless of whether it was missing until recently or not – doesn’t sell anything like as strongly as we might believe. In spite of the iTunes charts success (charts that are compiled several times a day rather than once a week, remember), it’s rather more likely that the October stories were downloaded by the thousands rather than the tens – and certainly not the hundreds – of thousands. Numbers like that are not going to make anyone a millionaire overnight, especially when actors’ residuals, writers’ royalties, the price of restoring the episodes and the cut that Apple takes are taken into account. Don’t get me wrong, the episodes do well enough to make them worth finding – of course they do – but they aren’t anything like as valuable as we as fans might like to think they are.
And the episodes aren’t going to sell well enough on word of mouth to recoup the costs of finding and restoring them. As fans, we might think of them as our “cultural heritage”, but frankly they make up only around a third of black and white Doctor Who (and significantly less of classic Doctor Who as a whole), and to the general public they’re of considerably less importance than they are to us. The same few hundred people filling up page after page of forum speculation – in some cases the same few dozen people – don’t comprise a market big enough to fund Project Africa and the releases of its results. The release of any recovered episodes is something that needs to be targeted further afield than fan-orientated forums and niche-specific news websites.
So publicity is a massive factor in making the hunt for these episodes worthwhile. While fans might be waiting for another out-of-the-blue midnight announcement, the BBC have already set a precedent for calling a press conference beforehand, embargoing the results of that meeting until the date changes to the one in which the newspapers will be carrying the news. And those involved will have signed non-disclosure agreements in the interim, meaning that people like Phil Morris (and yes, Paul Vanezis and Peter Crocker and the rest) wouldn’t be allowed to talk about what further discoveries have been made, what subsequent episodes have been worked on and restored, until the embargo is lifted. Those expecting Morris to suddenly change the habit of the first five years of his project and start idly chatting about what stories he might have picked up, those expecting Peter Crocker to reveal that he’s working on Doctor Who in a random tweet, are going to be sorely disappointed.
The upshot is: we’ll find out what the results of the project are once the project is over, and the news won’t come as a surprise announcement when it comes.
And that is actually brilliant, a Really Good Thing. Because without the people who’ve been working on Project Africa doing it their way, without the secrecy and news embargoes and the NDAs, without the search being allowed to continue behind closed doors, and without Phil Morris, we wouldn’t be looking at the possibility of there being any further episode recoveries at all. Certainly not the enticing prospect of further complete stories – and if the rumours are to be believed, almost all of them.
Indeed, if Project Africa hadn’t been conducted in the way it has been, we’d still be looking at a total of 106 episodes still missing from the archives, and the only two discoveries in the last ten years would have been a single episode each of Galaxy Four and The Underwater Menace. We should be grateful to Paul Vanezis and Phil Morris (and Jon Preddle and Damian Shanahan – and many others who have been involved at various degrees, but who have yet to receive the recognition they deserve), rather than questioning their motives and complaining about their methods. Even the “little white lies” that one or two of them have been coerced into telling will prove to be massively insignificant once the project is over and all anyone can see are the recovered episodes themselves.
And we should also be grateful to Ian Levine, who in spite of his recent anxieties about the way Project Africa might have been going, is the man who stopped the destruction of the black and white episodes in the first place, and who in doing so saved any number from destruction and was instrumental in starting the search for those that might still be out there, way back when.
There are only heroes in this. All we need to do is sit back and let the professionals get on with their jobs, and the rewards will be ours. We know that those people know what they’re doing; we’ve seen the results for ourselves. We can be assured that they have our best interests at heart (they really do, you know) and we can be guaranteed that if anything else has been found, then we’ll get to see it in the fullness of time. All we need do is be patient. And let the magicians do their conjuring in the best way they know how.