Doctor Who from 2005 onwards hasn’t often had to worry too much about poor special effects. Given a devoted teams at The Mill and Millennium FX and a decent, if not exactly lavish, budget from the BBC, most of the time whatever Russell T. Davies and now Steven Moffat and co can dream up, the rest of the team can convincingly realise. But it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s, the budget was around £2000 an episode and many recordings were attempted in the tiny Lime Grove studios. Small wonder that several special effects shots fell short of the mark, even by the standards of the day.
But despite the willingness of modern, and usually snide, TV companies to mockingly reshow these embarrassing old clips, the fact is that from 1963-1989, Doctor Who created some innovative images which completely defied the microscopic budgets they were working with. In this article, I want to celebrate those early pioneers and their amazing work.
1. The Titles 1963-1973
Created by Bernard Lodge and a small team of BBC engineers, the original titles for Doctor Who were unlike anything else ever seen before on TV. They were created by pointing a TV camera at the monitor showing its own output. The weird patterns generated as the circuitry struggled with the feedback loop – known as “Howlround” – were endlessly recorded and played with, the “Doctor Who” logo being fed-in from another source at one point, and then Lodge and his team took snippets of the most interesting patterns and edited them together in sync with Delia Derbyshire’s astonishing realisation of Ron Grainer’s signature tune to create 28 seconds of pure magic.
The same technique was used, with Patrick Troughton’s face added, from The Macra Terror onwards, until Jon Pertwee took over, when it was used again, but the black-and-white Howlround shapes were given colour tints in the film-processing lab.
2. The First Regeneration 1966
Although not called a “regeneration”, the first time we ever saw one Doctor becoming another was a beautiful piece of electronic trickery for the time. Vision mixer Shirley Coward prevented a malfunctioning mixing desk from being repaired and carefully lined up a shot of William Hartnell with another of Patrick Troughton, on the other side of the studio. As she overlaid one image on top of another, the picture began to distort and white-out with the result that although you can clearly see Troughton’s distinctive features as the effect fades, you aren’t quite sure when or how the transition occurred.
It wasn’t until Peter Davison’s final story The Caves of Androzani in 1984 that any regeneration even came close to the elegance and impact of this first hand-over.
3. The Drashigs 1973
Left to its own devices, the BBC model unit was capable of some pretty impressive stuff. The Drashigs, fairly generic monsters which menace The Doctor and Jo in Carnival of Monsters, are amazingly designed and in particular brilliantly shot. Designing a Loch Ness Monster kind of beast meant that they just had to puppeteer the mouth and the neck, and not worry about making it walk.
Unfortunately, producer Barry Letts was so encouraged by these creatures that he commissioned Invasion of the Dinosaurs the following year – a story which has no place in this list!
4. The Titles 1974-1980
When Barry Letts wanted to refresh the titles after four years of Jon Pertwee, he summoned Bernard Lodge again. Lodge had been knocked out by Douglas Trumbull’s work on 2001 A Space Odyssey (as had the rest of the world) and had read about the “Slitscan” process used to create the astonishing Stargate effects at the end of the film. Trumbull had spent millions of dollars of MGM’s money and shot for month with mammoth rigs.
Lodge used the same technique but with only a few weeks available and a standard rostrum camera. The refreshed version featuring Tom Baker which debuted a year later was used for six years and is the iconic version of the titles.
5. Meglos, 1980
Make-up effects in Doctor Who tended to be fairly limited in the 1960s and 1970s. Most monster faces were just inflexible rubber masks shoved over the actors’ shoulders. A few times, such as with the Ogrons and especially the Zygons, make-up and costume worked together to create a truly alien physiognomy. But, maybe because it was apparently the Doctor himself who was affected, the sight of the cactus-clone of the Doctor festooned with spikes has become etched on the brains of many viewers.
Designed by Cecile Hay-Arthur, it was a painstaking job, but the results are amazing.
6. Cyberman-Bulkhead Interface 1982
Peter Grimwade’s muscular camerawork was a great fit for Eric Saward’s macho script, and Earthshock was the hit of the 1982 Doctor Who season, with its great episode one cliffhanger reveal of the Cybermen and the shocking death of companion Adric in the final instalment.
Earthshock Part7 by tardismedia
7. Time Lord Space Station 1986
The 14-part epic The Trial of a Time Lord opens with what was at the time the most complex computer-controlled camera shot ever attempted in the UK. The station appears in the distance, then the viewer swoops down low over it, before a hatch opens and beam of brilliant light emerges. Captured in the beam is a familiar blue box – the TARDIS. As the Doctor’s ship is dragged inside, the camera soars above it and pivots down as the screen finally whites-out 60 seconds later, without a cut.
Trial of a Timelord Part1 by tardismedia
8. The Rani’s Bubble Traps 1987
Time and The Rani was a difficult story for the new Doctor to find his feet, with a flood of over-written dialogue, a second-hand plot and a lot of irrelevant narrative cul-de-sacs. The Rani’s bubble traps don’t really make any narrative sense at all, but they are never less than completely convincing and hugely impressive to look at, whether they are springing into existence, carrying supporting characters across the forbidding landscape or detonating in the usual BBC shower of sparks, the new Paintbox technology works superbly well throughout and – for once! – has been carefully integrated with practical effects on location.
What do you remember impressing you about these stories when you first saw them as a kid? Or catching up with them more recently on DVD? Let us know in the comments.