It’s a story almost as far-fetched as the one about the 1,000-year-old Gallifreyan with two hearts who travels through time and space in an old police box.
But, unlike the other-worldly fictional character at the centre of that seminal BBC sci-fi favourite, the long-fabled whispers about the unearthing of a massive cache of vintage, presumed-erased Doctor Who episodes might be slightly more grounded in reality.
Because, in a move that should thrill fans of the Time Lord’s epic adventures, series super fan Ian Levine has tweeted that reams of old film – about the existence of which he’d previously been sceptical – have finally been discovered in Nigeria, fuelling speculation that nearly 100 ‘lost’ episodes dating back to the William Hartnell era of the ’60s could be broadcast later this year to tie in with the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
“I am so speechless and have no idea how I am going to sleep tonight,” wrote Levine, one of a number of dedicated followers who’ve arduously scoured foreign television stations, overseas archives and numerous private film collections in an attempt to recover the classic rarities, hours upon hours of which were wiped decades ago prior to the Beeb setting up a comprehensive library system.
Posting that he’d heard from “an impeccable source”” that 8,000 BBC film cans containing the rare Doctor Who footage had been tracked down, he added, “I have just been given proof – three tons of evidence that backs up the entire story about 90 missing episodes being found. Saying no more. Apart from I am now a believer again.”
Apparently, so the tale goes, an engineer working for a broadcaster in Africa had copied and stored scores of episodes not seen since they were first aired and details of their shipment from the Port of Odudu to celebrated UK ‘Who hunter’ Philip Morris in 2011 had recently fallen into Levine’s hands.
If true, the find would take the tally of missing episodes down from 108 to just 16, with 1968 Cybermen saga The Wheel In Space and ’65’s The Daleks’ Master Plan still figuring among the elusive few outstanding.
And, as one of the biggest reclaimed treasure troves in TV history, it would also represent as huge coup for the BBC in what is a landmark year for the show, helping to introduce a whole new generation of Who fans to some of its seminal formative storylines.
However, while US TV and movie website Ain’t It Cool seemed to believe the revelations – only quibbling the exact number of transmissions found – DrWho-Online proved a little more cagey, admitting it had received testimonies from several high-profile sources both confirming and debunking the news.
On the other hand, Doctor Who Magazine refused to be drawn into the debate altogether, stating that no missing episodes had been recovered and returned to the BBC.
But David Llewellyn, the Pontypool author behind BBC Books’ Who spin-off novels such as Night of The Humans says that he hoped the rumblings were true.
“First of all, I love that fact that they were found in Africa because I have this mental image of the people who came across them dressing in pith helmets and having to hack their way through the jungle with machetes,” he said.
“As for the likelihood of them existing? I don’t know and, until there’s an official statement either way from the Beeb, then I can’t help but remain doubtful.
“Speaking as a fan though, it would be great to see some of those old shows again because, other than a rough outline of the plot, there’s not an awful lot known about them.”
And there’s one scene in particular that he’d love to see first hand.
“Legend has it that somewhere out there is the original footage of William Hartnell transforming into his successor Patrick Troughton – the Doctor’s very first regeneration. Wouldn’t that be great to see?”
Nevertheless, Llewellyn adds that he understood how the Doctor’s early outings has been allowed to slip into a broadcasting black hole.
“There were just a handful of channels in those days and, because nothing was really repeated, the programmes must have been churned out with a great degree of disposability,” he said.
“Home video was a long way off too, so the idea of people wanting copies of shows they could watch over and over probably seemed the stuff of science fiction in itself.
“That said, no one could have possibly foreseen the kind of cultural phenomenon Doctor Who would go on to become – otherwise they might have been a little less hasty deleting those master tapes.”