Friday, April 05, 2013

Doctor Who: 1965

Episode 97: The Feast of Steven
First broadcast: 6.35 pm on Saturday, 25 December 1965
<< back to 1964
Screen shot by Robert Jewell, taken from
The Destruction of Time website
The very first Christmas episode of Doctor Who is an odd one: a light-hearted trip to what's effectively another popular TV show of the time, then a chase through a silent comedy - all told in intertitles - before the Doctor hands his companions some Champagne. Just to underline that we're not meant to take it very seriously, he turns to the viewer at home to wish us a merry Christmas.

Not that I've seen the episode. The Feast of Steven is one of the 106* episodes of Doctor Who missing from the BBC archive.

[*Since I first wrote this, more episodes have been found.]

I am haunted by the Doctor Who that isn't there. More than one-eighth of all of Doctor Who's 791 episodes (up to and including Saturday's The Bells of St John) is missing. More episodes are lost than have been broadcast since the series returned eight years ago.

(Okay, the missing episodes are shorter than the ones broadcast today, so how about this: the missing minutes and seconds of Doctor Who last for longer than the minutes and seconds of all of David Tennant's time as the Doctor. Bothering, isn't it?)

We can at least listen to the 106 missing episodes as soundtracks exist for all of them. There are various clips, too, and "tele-snaps" - photos taken by John Cura of his TV screen as the episodes were broadcast. There are also novelisations of all the missing stories. But these things only serve to make the missing episodes more tantalising.

Of all the missing episodes, The Feast of Steven is likely to be the oddest. It's technically part seven of a bleak and brilliant 12-part story about the Daleks trying to fit together an ultimate weapon. Two companions die in it (yes, I count them both as bona fide companions). That wasn't exactly festive, so this episode is a fun, silly interlude, away from the main adventure. The Daleks don't appear in it at all and when the story was sold abroad, this episode wasn't included - foreign stations just skipped from episode 6 to episode 8. That means it's the episode least likely to be returned to the archive from overseas. It was made to be disregarded.

It's also the hardest to judge from what little remains. As clever Jonathan Morris says in his introduction to Doctor Who Magazine's special The Missing Episodes - The First Doctor (out in all good magazine shops now), the "virtually incomprehensible soundtrack" gives little sense of the tone. How slapstick and silly was it? How broad did everyone play it? How far did they push what they could do?

The DWM special, which publishes all John Cura's tele-snaps of missing First Doctor stories, doesn't include the above picture of the Doctor toasting his audience. I was curious why, and so - in preparation for this post - last week I asked Jonny if he could explain. He said the picture isn't technically a tele-snap as it wasn't taken by John Cura but by Robert Jewell, an actor who appeared in the story. Jonny directed me to the extraordinary The Destruction of Time website where I could see the other 19 images from the episode.

There are times when ZOMG!!1! does not adequately cover it. I'd only seen two images from The Feast of Steven episode before. And there, concisely annotated, with context and background, are 18 all-new glimpses of this most unlikely of episodes. Truly, we live in an age of wonders. Though of course I only want to see the missing episode all the more.

Incidentally, there are those who are quite bothered about the Doctor turning to camera and ruining the otherwise perfectly maintained realism of our beloved TV nonsense. I don't mind this one-off gag at all, and it's easy enough to explain within the fiction of the series. We know from an earlier story (The Chase) that the Doctor can watch any moment in history on his TV-like space-time visualiser. So why wouldn't the Doctor assume that he himself is being watched?

But perhaps it's even more pointed than that. He's started to take a more active role in the times and places he visits - toppling tyrants and muddling up the machinations of monsters - so he even knows who will be watching. The Time Lords take a dim view of interference, as we'll see much later in the series. And that's why this traveller who we know isn't from Earth says, "A merry Christmas to all of you at home..."

Next episode: 1966.

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