Doctor Who missing episodes should be free to watch on TV in the 50th anniversary year

Happy 50th birthday Doctor Who fans! That'll be 20 quid, please...


What fantastic news! Nine long-lost episodes of Doctor Who – completing (almost) two full Patrick Troughton adventures – have been acquired by the BBC, cleaned up and are now available to watch. A lovely 50th anniversary present for fans.


Well, sort of…

As the clock struck midnight last night, the two newly-discovered second-Doctor serials – The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear – magically materialised on iTunes, available to download for anyone who wanted them… at £9.99 a pop. They won’t be showing on TV any time soon – they’re set to be released on DVD next – so if you do want to see them, you’re going to have to pay for the priviledge…

Surely, in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year, these pieces of television history, providing a new insight into one of the longest-running shows of all time, should be seen by as many people as possible – and covered by their licence fees – as a celebration of Doctor Who, the BBC and it’s audience.

I’m not expecting a primetime slot on BBC1 like David Tennant and Matt Smith will get when they unite for the 50th Anniversary Special, but some space in the BBC4 schedule doesn’t seem too much to ask.

The BBC might well argue that there were costs involved in tracking down the lost episodes and restoring them to their former glory, and that these need to be re-couped. But the BBC is constantly making programmes with budgets that must massively outstrip those expenses – not least the celebratory Doctor Who documentaries set to air later this year. Surely two original serials from the show itself, believed lost for more than four decades, are worth at least as much in terms of the history of Doctor Who?

The Corporation might also argue that the profits made by its commerical arm, BBC Worldwide, from download and DVD sales are ploughed back into programme making. Quite right, but not the point in this case. DVDs are usually the moneyspinner that comes after a show has been aired on TV and, given that the last screening of these episodes was over 40 years ago (before DVDs had even been invented), it would seem a little petty to claim this is following the usual procedure. 

At this point the BBC would like to remind you of the great programming they do have in store as the 50th anniversary approaches, saying: “The Day of the Doctor is nearly here, with a star studded adventure and lots of additional programmes to look forward to exploring the history of Who.”

They’re also keen to point you towards all the other classic episodes you can buy online: “For those who want to see first-hand the adventures the Doctor used to get up to, lots of classic episodes, including these first broadcast on BBC1 in the 1960s, can be easily accessed on iTunes.”

In the absence of any classic episodes available free-to-air (with the exciting exception of the forthcoming re-mastered version of first adventure An Unearthly Child) fans won’t have much choice but to go to iTunes – and don’t get me wrong, buying Doctor Who episodes to own is a good idea.

But this isn’t just about die-hard Who fans. In this 50th anniversary year, nothing would have better exemplified the BBC’s public service remit than giving the wider viewing public a chance to enjoy a slice of the show’s history, and introducing a new generation of fans to one of the Doctors who paved the way for Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. 

Smith won’t be around for much longer but the Doctor is 50 years old – and the Doctor will go on…