A couple of weeks ago, during a recording of Top Five, I made the prediction that in the next couple of years a stash of Doctor Who episodes once thought lost would be found. Since then, we’ve been inundated with people telling us of the newly discovered lost episodes from Nigeria. While some of you are once again claiming my prognostication record is better than Nostradamus, there is a better answer to this particular prediction than “Beware the Power of Stephen!”

Nothing is ever truly destroyed.


The law of conservation of mass states that mass can neither be created nor destroyed over time. Yes, I realize there is more to the law than that, but follow me for a moment. We misplace a lot of things, that doesn’t mean they have been destroyed completely. In this age of mass manufacturing, hundreds, thousands, and millions of copies of a widget are made and distributed throughout the world. While many of these widgets may indeed be tossed in the incinerator, eaten by the dog, or torn to pieces during an argument between siblings, a certain percentage of these items are going to be tucked away in a garage, placed in a safety deposit box, or stored under the bed. These items aren’t tracked. No one is telling their family about the collection of “junk” so there is little reason for anyone to be actively looking for the lost widget under the floorboards.

In the last five years, items once thought lost or extremely rare are turning up left and right.

  • More copies of Action Comics #1 are being uncovered every day. The most recent was found inside the walls of a dilapidated house going through renovations.
  • A stash of ultra rare cars (one of them valued at $35 million) was found in a vacant barn in Portugal.
  • A $3 million 1,000 year old Chinese Ding bowl was casually picked up at a garage sale in New York state earlier this year.
  • A scrimshaw engraved powdered horn from 1827 and a Steven Tyler signed acoustic guitar were dropped off at a Goodwill in Nashville in 2011.
  • A lost Leonardo da Vinci painting was uncovered in a bank vault in Switzerland last week.
  • 9 lost episodes of Doctor Who were recovered from a television station in Nigeria.

In the case of the recently found Doctor Who episodes, even though the BBC destroyed their videotape archive in the ‘60s, those shows were transferred to film for distribution internationally. With the 24 countries, and potentially thousands of television stations around the world who may have received copies of these films – not to mention the number of fans who may have made copies of these copies, the odds of 100-percent of those copies being destroyed is so high it almost guarantees episode four of The Tenth Planet is sitting in a dark dusty corner somewhere in the world.


The reason why so many lost items are being found these days is because of awareness of these items and their worth. When people learned that Pottery Barn looking vase could actually be worth millions of dollars, more people began rummaging through the attic looking for Aunt Sally’s heirlooms hoping to cash in. As television stations change ownership, technology pushes the new to the front and the old to the storage closet. Hard drives have replaced film chains, so that canister labeled DWS1E4 means little to the person worried about ones and zeros and the current ratings of the network’s big show. Though Matthew and I went to college 20 years ago, I recently uncovered a cache of videotapes featuring Mr. Peterson talking up local bands. I know these aren’t the only copies, as crew members made VHS copies of the show for their own demo reels, which means somewhere in China, a former student has those tapes just sitting in a box.

For Doctor Who, the number of people looking for these lost episodes is small, and the free time they have to scour the archives of every television and broadcast network around the world is even smaller. With the big anniversary just around the corner, awareness of the lost episodes is at an all time high, which means those who have lived long enough may be aware of a replay on their local PBS station, which could lead to someone opening up their cold storage vault to do a bit more digging and discovering that one episode of Marco Polo that hasn’t been seen in decades.

The more rare something is, the more money it is worth. If it were made known that William Hartnell’s regeneration episode was worth $1 million to the person that found it, the episode would turn up within the year. The number of Action Comics #1 issues hitting the auction blocks has soared once it became widely known that the issue could make the owner an overnight millionaire. If the BBC was really serious about hunting down all lost Doctor Who episodes, it would put a bounty on each episode and make it known they were paying top dollar. Historical significance doesn’t get people off their butts, but the promise of a valuable treasure worth a lot of money certainly is a motivator.

How much is The Reign of Terror worth to the BBC? I might I have a VHS copy sitting in my parent’s basement.


About Author

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment. You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...


  1. I think the important point you make is that it has to be financially worthwhile for somebody to recover or locate the lost items. About 20 years ago NPR announced that it had been discovered that movie theaters in the Yukon and Alaska had never returned movie reels because shipping was so expensive, so the film were tossed out into the musket where it sank into the mud and froze. There was an effort being made to recover, thaw and try to preserved what promised to be a treasure trove of lost footage dating back to the very beginnings of the motion picture industry. I haven’t heard a thing about it since, which leads me to believe that either nothing was recovered or nobody was willing to finance the recovery episodes. In theory, if you had a fast enough space ship you could zoom out into the galaxy and park at a certain distance and record all the old lost TV shows as your ship intercepts the signals. Not very practical, though.

    I have done research of a particular controversial early railroad project which went bankrupt in 1893. The receiver published a book about the railroad, including several supplemental volumes containing photographs and papers. I found out about this book in the mid-seventies and it turned out there were only two known copies of it in existence. I paid Harvard University to xerox their copy page by page (the second known copy of the book had been misplaced or stolen). I was never able to locate a copy of the original book for sale anywhere, but it has since been reprinted and posted on line. However, the two supplemental volumes, which would be invaluable to railroad historians, have never surfaces. Chances are good that a copy or two exists somewhere, in some archive or library or bank vault somewhere, but since nobody who cares about it has ever been able to afford to finance a global search for these missing books, they have never been uncovered.

    So, yes, I agree, if the BBC offered a couple hundred thousand dollars for each of the missing episodes, they’d probably be uncovered pretty quickly. But how practical an idea is that? Surely there must be some multi-millionare geeks out there who could undertake such a venture themselves?

  2. Now that we are finding them in Africa which was probably one of the last places to get the show, Perhaps more will be found there or even in Asia.

  3. Given the distribution chains of the episodes, each cache discovered makes finding more episodes less and less likely. The Nigerian find could have potentially been upwards of 60+ episodes in a best case scenario, but was only 9. Each small cache of episodes found in known links of the distribution chain decreases the likelihood of the existence of any large cache. Still very cool.

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