Doctor Who and BBC iPlayer | The first episode controversy explained

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An Unearthly Child will be missing from the BBC’s Doctor Who collection on its iPlayer service – and we’ve been digging into why.

There are lots of reasons to be happy in the world of Doctor Who at the moment. The 60th anniversary specials are just around the corner, with Russell T Davies and David Tennant both returning to the show. There’s a whole new series in post-production that’s going to run in 2024. Plus, the delightful news that the BBC is putting over 800 episodes of the show on its iPlayer service from the start of November.

It’s really going for this too: not only will pretty much every episode of Doctor Who be available on the service, but efforts have also gone in to make them subtitled, and the plan is to build a central resource of Who episodes, with lots of behind the scenes stuff. Excellent.

Amid all this, there’s one minor fly in the ointment, and it’s been dominating a lot of Doctor Who chat this week. That is that the collection going on iPlayer won’t be entirely complete, as the first story – 1963’s An Unearthly Child – will be missing from the line-up. Starring William Hartnell, the story has been released on DVD previously, but for the time being at least, it isn’t exactly going cheap.

The story is, at the time of writing, available to stream as part of the BritBox service (we just checked), which was set up by ITV and the BBC. There are no known plans at the moment to remove it from BritBox, but it means there’s clearly precedent when it come to streaming the story. However, it’s definite that it’s not part of the iPlayer collection launch.

This was confirmed to the Radio Times by the BBC, stating: “This massive iPlayer back catalogue will be home to over 800 hours of Doctor Who content, making it the biggest ever collection of Doctor Who programming in one place but will not include the first four episodes as we do not have all the rights to those.”

william hartnell doctor who

Here’s William Hartnell, wondering where all his episodes have gone. (Credit: BBC)

An Unearthly Child: what happened?

There’s a very helpful Twitter thread on this from Eddie Robson, but to paraphrase, there’s a lot of legal wrangling that goes on behind the scenes of a deal like this.

As you can imagine for a show running for 60 years, not only has the way we’re watching TV changed irrevocably, but the way contracts are constructed has also significantly altered as well.

The BBC, unlike many modern channels, streamers and film studios, doesn’t actually own exclusive rights to all the material writers produce for it. It owns Doctor Who, sure – but if, say, Brenda Bloggs is brought on to write an episode about a time-travelling immortal zipping about in the court of the Earl of Denmark, the rights to that script are still theirs.

In practice, nowadays, this doesn’t mean all that much. As the BBC owns the rights to the character and the show, there’s not a whole lot a writer can do with their scripted material. Still, it means they get some actual ownership over the finished episode(s), which is no bad thing. Residuals are quite nice as well.

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1960s | The William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton years

Most contracts these days also include all sorts of bits and bobs accounting for streaming, podcast content, and so on. In 1963, when the first episodes of Doctor Who aired, though, streaming was more likely to refer to a small river than anything blaring out of one of those new-fangled telly-boxes.

As a result (and we’re not lawyers), it looks like at least some of the rights – or at least a potentially valid claim to them – for the first few episodes of Doctor Who belongs to the estate of the original writer, Anthony Coburn. The BBC hasn’t admitted so much specifically, issuing the simple acknowledgement to the Radio Times. Just imagine the meetings that took place to get to that stage. There’s enough of a worry, clearly, to exclude An Unearthly Child from the line-up.

The contract Coburn signed in the 1960s won’t have given any provisions for reusing the show in a different context, certainly not this one, and their descendants – specifically in this case, Coburn’s son – are under no obligation to let the BBC do anything with the show other than broadcast on terrestrial TV.

Stef Coburn, the son in question, has been very active on his Twitter/X/whatever-it’s-called-this-week account. Among his views on vaccinations and the BBC and other such matters, there’s this thread from earlier in October…

doctor who first episode tweets

It’s a shame, for sure, but in a way it’s surprising these seem to be in the minority here – with a very well-publicised “over 800 episodes” making their way to BBC iPlayer, many for the first time, it’s a bit of a miracle these few are the only ones caught up in a bit of legal red tape.

Obviously, we’re sure the BBC would rather they weren’t the very first (and, historically probably the most important) episodes that got stuck up there, but all things considered, that they’re the only well-publicised casualties is pretty astonishing. Yet casualities, for the time being, they clearly are.

What happens next?

Ah, that’s a good question.

Much of this appears – we’re not lawyers, don’t sue us – mired in grey areas that haven’t been tested in court. Whether any party will take it that far remains to be seen, but clearly the BBC has taken advice somewhere that it would be unwise to post the episodes on iPlayer. Against that, again, BritBox is still offering the story in question, so it’s not as if it’s not available to stream somewhere.

Also, it’s worth noting that this saga has been rumbling for much of the year.

Back in May 2023, Stef Coburn dared the BBC to take him to court. He also threatened, again on whatever Twitter’s called now, “should anything untoward happen to me, in the meantime, I have taken steps to bequeath all of my father’s Doctor Who related IPs to the Russian Federation, who can WELL afford to prosecute you till the cows come home. Hurt anyone I love, & I’ll simply ‘gift’ it to them, outright.”

It seems, then, that the safer option has been taken, although obviously we’re not privy to what’s gone on behind closed doors. Yet it’s the contention over the rights to An Unearthly Child that’s preventing it making an iPlayer appearance.

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