Only seen on our screens once before being wiped, a piece of lost television rises from the ashes in a new form, to be seen again, exactly 54 years to the very minute since its first broadcast.
For the first few decades of its existence, television was seen as being a disposable medium, something ephemeral, fleeting, meant only to live in memory. In the very early days, everything was done live, as there was no facility to pre-record things; similarly, there was also no way to make a copy of them as they were shown, so they were lost to the ether forever. Later on, it was possible to commit things to tape, but the magnetic stock was expensive, and so the tapes were often reused.
Many TV series on both the BBC and ITV were affected to varying degrees by this, with little thought having been given to keeping as much output as possible as a cultural record, and only selected pieces were preserved. Over the years, however, copies of missing shows have turned up from a variety of sources, from domestic recordings, to the vaults of collectors who had acquired prints and tapes. Some have even turned up behind filing cabinets, or in the basement of a Mormon church, of all places.
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One of the most notorious examples of the big archive purge has been Doctor Who: much of its black & white output (and, for a time, even some of the very early colour tales) were thought lost forever. Although there have been many recoveries, to date there are still 97 missing episodes. One of these is ‘Mission To The Unknown’, which is something of a curiosity piece, being a rather atypical example of the series. For starters, it was just a single episode story, rather than a multi-part adventure over a number of consecutive weeks.
It also happens to be the only example of a Doctor Who episode where none of the regular cast actually make an appearance, nor are they even referenced. ‘Mission To The Unknown’ was planned not only as a way of giving the Doctor and companions a much-needed break in real life (with the series being on air weekly virtually all the year round, so cast holidays were tricky to schedule), but also as a prelude to the epic 12-part tale ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’; this was to be a teaser, setting up the premise of what was to come a few weeks later.
The original tape was wiped, and none of the copies made for overseas sales have turned up as yet; all we have as a record are off-air recordings of the audio made by fans on original transmission. A few missing pieces of TV have been brought back to life in recent years by combining soundtrack recordings with animation, such as other Doctor Who tales (like ‘The Macra Terror‘), as well as a Dad’s Army, and a forthcoming release of an Adam Adamant Lives! animated episode.
There was even a fanmade animation of ‘Mission To The Unknown’ that emerged several years ago, and can still be found secreted away on the darkest recesses of the Internet. More recently, there’s been a move towards reenacting missing shows, with new live action versions being made. One of these was BBC Four’s series, Lost Sitcoms, and earlier this year, Gold gave us Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes. Now, thanks to the efforts of the University of Central Lancashire, we have a remake of ‘Mission To The Unknown’.
Every year, UCLan puts together a special large-scale production, via the Faculty of Culture and Creative Industries, in order to give students the experience of making a professional production. It has been a pet project of the Pro Vice-Chancellor Dr Andrew Ireland to film a recreation of a missing Doctor Who, and he’s put all of the legwork into getting permission from both the BBC and the estate of writer (and creator of the Daleks) Terry Nation, so he could bring us a 21st Century adaptation of ‘Mission To The Unknown’, keeping it as faithful to the original as possible.
In fact, there’s been very little in the way of concessions to any modern production standards – like the original, ‘Mission To The Unknown’ has been filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio (no widescreen here), and it was put together as a multi-camera piece, unlike the current trend for single camera dramas. Although shot in colour (which will presumably provide a nice extra for a potential future DVD or Blu-ray release), it’s been treated to make it black & white. They’ve even recreated the costume and set designs from way back in 1965, to give it an extra level of authenticity.
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The look of it is rather startling, in terms of just how much at times it appears like it was actually made over five decades ago. The use of black & white in productions like this hides a multitude of sins, and it certainly makes the hostile jungle world of Kembel seem quite realistic; the use of various alien sounds helps complete the illusion, and definitely gives a feeling of otherworldliness. Being shot in black & white also gives that period atmosphere, and the Daleks themselves (borrowed for this production from fans) have seldom looked better than they do here.
The limited resources available to what is essentially an amateur production do play into their favour with this project: 1960s Doctor Who looks cheap and cheerful to put modern eyes, so it’s easier to recreate the look and feel on a low budget, with a lot of creative flair. Having current voice of the Daleks Nicholas Briggs performing the same role here is a nice touch, and he perfectly captures the sound of the early Daleks. In fact, the two leads – Marc Cory (Marco Simioni) and Gordon Lowery (Dan Gilligan) – give wonderfully stiff upper-lipped, Received Pronunciation (or ‘BBC English’) turns.
It only goes a bit off-kilter when we get to the alien Delegates, when it gets a tad ‘am-dram’, particularly in the case of Malpha (Paul Stenton), who gives a rendition so wooden, they could’ve built the set using him. However, it almost feels churlish to criticise on those grounds, given that it’s not a professional setup, and we should be grateful to have this at all, given the loss of the original. It’s a brave enterprise, which pays off handsomely, and it leaves you wanting more of the same, which is surely huge testament to what a great job UCLan has done.
You can watch the recreation of ‘Mission to the Unknown’ on the official Doctor Who Youtube channel.