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Inside Doctor Who

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Daleks, Giant Spiders, And A Time Travelling Police Box Called The Tardis

Dr. Who is the world's longest running TV Sci-Fi series. Ever since 1964 it has been thrilling British viewers with its own unique worlds of the past and the future. Now its ratings have never been higher and it appears as if the time-travelling Doctor will go on forever. TV SCI-FI's Don Andrews travelled to the BBC's White City studio in London to talk to one of the Dr. Who visual effects men Mat Irvine ...

There are many reasons why the Doctor and his time-travelling Tardis have captured viewers' imaginations For a start the Dr. Who stories have always been as thoughtful as they have been exciting, dealing intelligently with the many questions time travel throws up. Although there have now been four actors playing Dr. Who over the years — as the Doctor is an immortal Time Lord, his human appearance undergoes physical changes every so often each actor has added a new piece to his personality, so that now the Doctor is as complete and real to Dr. Who fans as the person next door.

But probably the greatest factor in the series' success is the incredible array of aliens and enemies which cross the screen each year, together with the spectacular special effects their appearance generates.

Mat Irvine has been working as a BBC special effects man for the past five years and has contributed to four Dr. Who series, including the one currently in production — Catacombes of Death. Although the BBC employs about 45 visual effects staff, Mat says that as there are so many programmes to be produced that time and space place restrictions on the crew — together with the usual tight television budget. As such, Dr. Who will never have the lavish effects and models of Space:1999. However, for ingenuity, Dr. Who is hard to beat.

Special visual effects for Dr. Who can be divided into roughly three groups, says Mat ....special props, the models and the monsters. First, the monsters "The aliens are usually a combination of talents from the Visual Effects, Costume and Make-Up departments. Because of the tendancy for actors to be human shaped, most monsters end up basically humanoid in appearance. However, over the years the most popular monsters have been those which are totally non-humanoid. Not surprisingly, the Daleks still top the list, closely followed by the Giant Spiders of Metabilis."

TV SCI-FI readers will need no introduction to the Daleks (Issue No. 1), the race of evil machines bent on world domination. The Spiders — from the series 'Planet of the Spiders' — were equally ingenious from an effects point of view. "Some were made as puppets," recalls Mat, "strung from very line nylon lines. Others were purely 'dummy' for the background scenes, with a single line so they would twitch. Special attention was paid to the Queen Spider as she did most of the talking. Wires and cables enabled mandibles and legs to move, and specially made stand meant she could be moved from her palaquin to her throne with an effects man beneath to operate her."

But the star spider was not the Queen but 'Boris', a member of the council chamber of spiders. "Boris' claim to fame was that he was completely self contained, complete with motor and batteries, and he could be used in shots where strings, wires and other animation devices were impractical."

Humanoid aliens are made by creating a clay mask of the features, then taking a plaster cast copy and moulding latex faces from it.

Special features can he built onto this in the case of Davros, the Dalek creator (see TV S-F issue 1), an electric circuit was built into the mask to control his 'eye'. Hands and feet are made in a similar fashion, and 'skin is made flat and then wrapped around a frame

Special props for any science fiction programme demand high imagination and superb technical skills if they are to succeed. But with Dr. Who, props often become major headaches. Whereas Star Trek and Space:1999 have a range of permanent props which appear regularly in almost every single episode — phasers, communicators etc. — only two items have survived the passage of time with the Doctor:. the sonic screw-driver and the Tardis key. Everything has to be built from scratch each episode. "The headaches come when one tries to design a different looking gun or radio from that which has gone before: says Mat.

Many of the Who props are incredibly complex, containing electronic circuits to make them perform. One example was the 'Marconiscope' a device to 'receive transmission from the stars' which was featured in the story 'The Pyramids of Mars'. It was fitted with four motors, a special 'glowing' valve, various lights and three sets of pyrotechnics to allow it to 'explode'. The control box needed for all this ended up looking just as complicated as the Marconiscone itself!.

Mat Irvine's speciality is model making. "The building of the models is really a specialist subject in itself, but suffice it to say that the craft are made out of practically anything and everything. A rocket will materialise out of an old piece of plastic drainpipe and an alien craft from a block of balsa. Commercial kit parts are used, but not normally as a basis for the model, usually for dressing the final design. However, detailing need not be all that great; upturned saucepans and plastic lampshades make very passable lunar buildings at a distance. 'Earth' can be made from a simple mixture of sawdust, flour and poster-paint colouring scattered loosely over a basic landscape shape."

Filming the model sequences is very different from live' action. To smooth out any bumps and jerks from the models, they are invariably filmed at high speed (anything up to 120 frames per second) and then projected at normal speed (25 fps for television). The models themselves are quite tiny. For instance, the Doctor's famour time-travelling Tardis stands just seven inches tall. Most of the inside is jammed with batteries and electronics to make the light on top flash. For space shots, the models are 'flown' on very fine metal or nylon wires.

"Explosions are another effect that are performed in miniature and filmed fast," explains Mat. "This spreads the "bang" over a greater period of time and brings it more into line with its full size counterpart. An even greater length of time for a model explosion can be obtained by firing not one, but several charges rapidly, one after the Aber, on a rotary switch. The was the way the Pyramids and Mummies were finally dispatched in 'The Pyramids of Mars.'

Although special effects are a major part of Dr. Who - taking anything up to two months for each series — Mat says that they alone cannot make a science fiction programme. This is the reason why he prefers to watch Star Trek to Space:1999 , even though the latter's effects are undoubtedly the best in the business. "Obviously the Anderson stuff is incredible," he says, "but the trouble is you do rather tend to see the same sort of thing over and over. It's like some forms of sci-fi art ... you get a bit whelmed by it. You can't make a series just out of special effects."

Hopefully, with the second series of Space:1999 looming on the horizon, the show's scripts will match up to its special effects. And with Mat and the rest of the 45-man special effects team at White City perfecting their art every series, Dr. Who I should be more of a joy to watch every episode.

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  • APA 6th ed.: (issue 4 (1976)). Inside Doctor Who. TV Sci-Fi Monthly p. 14.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Inside Doctor Who | url= | work=TV Sci-Fi Monthly | pages=14 | date=issue 4 (1976) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=24 March 2023 }}</ref>
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