Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Found Episodes Crisis

It is, of course, a commonly-known piece of Doctor Who lore that not every episode that was produced by the BBC can be seen today in its originally transmitted form. (See the previous essays for exact details on the many "lost episodes" of this long-running series.) But what is distinctly less known, and far more disquieting to some, is that certain episodes of Doctor Who were not, in fact, created by the BBC. These so-called "found episodes" created one of the biggest controversies in the history of the new series, and led to massive changes in the entire production of Doctor Who that still reverberate to this day.

The "found episodes crisis" began on Month DD, YYYY, late in the production run of Series Four. A series of production delays had caused massive disruption to the filming schedule; production documents indicate that the delay began when the make-up department ran out of styling gel, necessitating a costly stoppage of work as David Tennant's hair had reached the point where it could no longer hold up under its own weight. This stoppage, in turn, caused further disruptions as it meant that Catherine Tate became unavailable for shooting, as she had accepted a role in the soon-to-flop movie 'Gulliver's Travels', and needed to shed approximately 99% of her body mass in order to play her Lilliputian character. An attempt was made to create a CGI version of Donna Noble, but the budget for this expensive special effect had to be specially cleared by the BBC, and the Mill was already over-extended with their work on the highly elaborate "Billie Piper" sequences. (The actual Billie Piper had refused to return to the series, on the not-unreasonable grounds that it would mean going back to Cardiff again.) For the first time since Doctor Who had returned to the airwaves, it appeared that the two-part season finale would not be ready in time.

And yet, that evening, an episode did air. 'The Stolen Earth', as the title claimed, broadcast throughout Great Britain on Saturday night, to the absolute astonishment of everyone at BBC Wales. Frantic calls kept everyone in the production department awake late into the night, as they attempted to trace both the source of the broadcast and the source of the unexpected episode. Technicians at the BBC were utterly mystified--the show went out over their transmitters, but to this day they have not been able to determine how the episode was inserted into their archives. The entire cast has denied filming the episode, and although Davies has not made his original script available for perusal, he has made it clear to all concerned that even he wasn't about to bring the bloody Daleks back a third time in four seasons.

After a long meeting that took up most of Sunday, the top brass at the BBC agreed that they had no intention of publicly announcing that they took no responsibility for the most recent episode of their flagship series. It was decided that Davies would write a new script that followed on from the ending of 'The Stolen Earth', wrapping up the plotlines using as much footage as possible from the already-shot sequences of the season finale currently filming in Cardiff. Most of them had already been made aware of a potential delay in airing the episodes in question, and so a press release had already been prepared. It was modified to delete references to the "two-part season finale", and Davies sequestered himself in a hotel room in London to write the last episode of Season Four uninterrupted.

As with the original script for Part One of the season finale, Davies has never made the script for his version of Part Two available to the viewing public. Rumor has it, though, that it involved a hastily-invented “regenerative flux” to cover the fact that at that point, the Eleventh Doctor had not yet been cast. Davies planned to simply use special effects to “paint over” Tennant with a computerized regeneration effect for the entire episode, and was even looking into the possibility of reusing footage from previous stories to cover any odd gaps in scripting. The Mill was notified of the possible need to work extra hours to get the sequences done in time, and everyone prepared for several intensive nights of work. (Always mindful of the potential for leaks, Davies used his noted gift for understatement to inform the Mill of the problem with the code-phrase, “Trouble down’t the Mill.” The receptionist quoted Monty Python at him for a solid five minutes before Davies was able to get through to anyone who had actual decision-making power.) Thankfully for the BBC, the press release announcing the delays to Part Two went entirely unnoticed in the week that followed. If anyone in the media had actually been in the habit of reading the BBC’s press releases, they would no doubt have spent the following Sunday asking why the season finale of ‘Doctor Who’ had gone out exactly on schedule the evening of XXXXXX. This was certainly a question that network executives were asking, and not in polite terms, either. No less than the Director-General asked why exactly they felt the need to bring back Davros, pull yet another deus ex machina out of nowhere, and end the season with Rose getting her own pet Doctor to take home with her.

Davies protested that none of this had been his work, but many of those involved had their doubts. For one thing, the end of Season Three made it difficult to believe his protestations that he wouldn’t do something like that. For another, his name was on the finished product as broadcast, and a production like this would be difficult to mount without the resources of the BBC…and seemingly impossible without the actors involved. For a third reason, the end of Season One and the end of Season Two. The showrunner found himself in a very awkward position…as did the star.

Publicly, the BBC announced a hiatus in order to allow Tennant to perform in ‘Hamlet’. Privately, they began a comprehensive investigation into the entire incident, locking down the BBC Wales production facilities to prevent any further unauthorized production of the series until such time as they had satisfied themselves that all transmissions would be of stories that met with management approval. Sir Patrick Stewart was retained, at no small expense, to watch Tennant twenty-four hours a day until the cloud of suspicion was lifted. (He posed as a member of the company performing ‘Hamlet’ with Tennant, since at the time, it was not commonly known that service to the BBC’s internal investigations division was a condition of knighthood. It was not until two years later that Sir Elton John’s shocking exposé blew the lid off of that particular state secret.)

For his part, Davies cooperated fully with the investigations; having seen the finished product that appeared onscreen, he had every reason to want to prove that he was not responsible for it. He provided the BBC with all the raw footage they asked for, as well as internal documentation of the entire creative process from start to finish for his entire time on the series. While this did appear to exonerate him from any blame for the mystery episodes, it did expose as a lie his claim that he was in a coma during the production of ‘Daleks in Manhattan’. As a result, the BBC began to look for a new showrunner.

A more immediate concern, however, was the question of what to do in place of the Christmas special. With Davies under virtual house arrest, and Tennant exiled to the stage, there was no chance of being able to continue the tradition of a Doctor Who Christmas story. John Barrowman was contacted in the hopes of getting a one-off variety show out of him, but he was unfortunately booked up with every other television series in existence, as well as a number of guest-spots in film, conventions, stage shows, and personally introducing himself to the entire population of Germany. Reluctantly, the BBC scheduled a re-run of the previous Christmas special, ‘Voyage of the Damned’.

But as most of you are already aware, that was not what aired on December 25th, XXXX. Instead, ‘The Next Doctor’ was seen by much of Great Britain that day, sending the BBC into a panic and changing the course of Doctor Who history. Because, as we can now reveal, David Morrissey was by that point already deep in negotiations with the BBC to take on the role of the Eleventh Doctor, with only a few details remaining in the negotiation over the character’s wardrobe. (Morrissey favored an eyepatch as part of the Doctor’s costume, for some strange reason.) Needless to say, the actor’s apparent involvement in what was rapidly becoming the strangest and most infuriating scandal in the programme’s history scotched any chance of him actually being the Next Doctor. His career at the BBC finished, he took his eyepatch and went to America.

The Christmas debacle proved to be the point at which the BBC officially lost patience with Davies and Tennant. Despite their denials, it was assumed by all concerned that they had somehow managed to stage a number of “guerilla productions” designed to reduce public confidence in the series at a pivotal point in the BBC’s relations with the British government. Many assumed that Davies had been paid off by Michael Grade, who had harbored a deep grudge against the series ever since a production mishap in the 1970s ended with the TARDIS running over his dog. The two ensuing specials, ‘Planet of the Dead’ and ‘The Waters of Mars’, only served to cement the ire of senior management. (Although, off the record, many of them agreed that they would have approved of Catherine Tate in a leather catsuit if the idea had been presented to them.)

Steven Moffat was approached to act as showrunner, and began production on a new series with relative unknown Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. Moffat carefully scripted his season opener, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, in such a way as to accommodate virtually any kind of storyline that led into it. “I don’t care if it’s got the Doctor’s mum playing bloody peekaboo,” he famously stated. “Ours will work just fine.”

Nonetheless, the transmission of ‘The End of Time’ proved a shock to all concerned. The BBC spent much of the Christmas Day broadcast attempting to trace the use of their signal, but the only thing they could determine was that it came from within the BBC studios itself. Giving up on hopes of catching the culprit, they instead decided to spend the intervening week beating the mysterious pranksters at their own game, creating an audacious plan for a regeneration sequence that would go out “live”, breaking into the pirate signal with a pirate signal of their own.

At first, it seemed that this scheme was doomed to failure. With only a brief window of time between the beginning of the mysterious broadcast and the regeneration, they had little hopes of actually being able to interrupt the signal. However, luck was on their side. The pre-regeneration sequences of the Tenth Doctor visiting his former companions, one by one, took such an extraordinary length of time that not only were they able to film the regeneration sequence (with a cooperative Tennant reprising his role), they were also able to do a sound mix, a post-production edit, add full special effects, and do an elaborate wrap party with appearances by many of Britain’s best-loved celebrities. Then, after a leisurely dinner and a break to learn macramé, they proceeded to break into the signal with Matt Smith’s first appearance as the Doctor. And the rest, as they say, is television history.

To this day, nobody has come forward to take responsibility for the episodes produced in XXXX. They remain one of the enduring mysteries of a series that, though well-known, still has a few surprises about it.