With its seminal science fiction show celebrating its 60th anniversary, the BBC announced that every episode of Doctor Who (including spin-offs and behind-the-scenes material) would soon be available for the first time in one place, on its streaming service, iPlayer. However, the broadcaster has revealed that the first four episodes—the series’ very first story—will not be available due to a rights dispute.

A broken business model

According to GlobalData in its Video Streaming report, the global market for subscription video on demand (SVoD), a type of video streaming service where viewers pay a monthly fee to access a library of content, was worth $103bn in 2022. It will grow to $155bn by 2027 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.5% between 2022 and 2027. However, the report argues that video streaming is a broken business model due to the enormous costs required. Streamers must spend increasingly large amounts of money to acquire content to keep up with one another. Disney alone spent $33bn on content in 2022.

The report states that, as a result, streamers are cutting costs, refreshing content libraries, and bundling content in an attempt to maintain their appeal. The BBC’s Doctor Who collection is just one example of this bundling, as it attempts to draw fans to what it describes as “the biggest ever collection of Doctor Who programming” and away from other services such as BritBox and ITVX, which currently stream parts of the show’s 60-year history.

A rights roadblock                                                

But in its push for exclusivity around all things Doctor Who, the BBC has hit a snag around copyright. The show’s first story, a four-part tale titled ‘An Unearthly Child’ that aired in 1963, was written by BBC staff writer Anthony Coburn. Coburn is credited with certain iconic elements of the show, such as the Time Lord’s signature police box, and he held the trademark to these first four episodes until his death in 2013, when the rights transferred to his son. Due to several reasons, including what he describes as “vengeance” against the BBC, Coburn’s son has rejected the BBC’s offer to relicense the episodes, taking to X (formerly Twitter) to air his grievances. This very public dispute means the episodes will be unavailable to new and long-time fans when the nearly 1,000 hours of Doctor Who programming hits iPlayer on 1 November.

With over 60 years of programming, the rights to certain elements of Doctor Who have long caused disputes. The rights to the Doctor’s robotic companion, K9, are still held by its original creators, as is the copyright for the famous Daleks. One-time ally to the Time Lord, Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, was also the subject of a rights dispute following the 2018 Christmas Special. This tangle of copyright and ownership has resulted in these characters appearing and disappearing throughout the show’s 60-year history, often alongside well-publicised disagreements. But the lack of the show’s first four episodes on the eve of such a significant anniversary is a big hit for the BBC in the age of the content wars. It is especially galling as these episodes are available, albeit via a paid subscription, on rival services ITVX and BritBox (for the time being).

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Spoiling the occasion

Arguably, the missing episodes are merely drops in the giant ocean that is Doctor Who. After all, many episodes of the show are still lost, with large gaps throughout its early years. It is a show that does not limit itself to a strict canon, with newcomers usually advised by fans to jump in where they like, with the incarnation and era that most suits their taste. But ‘An Unearthly Child’ introduces the character of The Doctor and is undeniably a pivotal moment in the show’s history. And unlike the missing episodes, this story still exists.

Ultimately, it is another worrying sign of where the streaming world is heading. Series and episodes are disappearing from providers across the board. Some are deleted for sensitivity reasons, whereas others are reportedly axed as cost-cutting measures. Though the missing Doctor Who episodes are currently available on other streaming services, many shows that have disappeared from Disney+ and HBO Max do not exist in any other form, making it impossible to watch these stories in their entirety. The Doctor Who example is an outlier, but the result is the same: incomplete collections and stories without resolutions. For the BBC and Doctor Who completists, the lack of the show’s very first story will surely put a damper on the upcoming 60th celebrations. The best bet now is to hold on to those old VHS and DVD collections.