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10 February 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Doctor Who is the world’s longest-running science fiction programme. Oh, sure, it’s not been in constant production for the whole time since An Unearthly Child first appeared on the nation’s screens, but it’s been around, in some shape and form, since 1963. Indomitable, as the Doctor might say. That’s a brilliant thing! Wonderful! Fifty years of time and space, all seen through the unique prism of our favourite time-travelling madman in a box.

But the sad fact of the programme running just so long is that, more and more, we’re going to be saying goodbye to those pioneers who’ve worked on the series on both sides of the cameras. It’s always the same when someone connected to Doctor Who passes away - whispers ripple out through fandom, and you all find yourselves stopped for a second while you think of all that a person has done to contribute to the ever-growing legacy of the series.

It was with sadness that today I was told of Christopher Barry’s death. As a director, his is one of the more well-known faces. Indeed, I only finished watching one of his stories, Robot, a few days ago. Barry really was an integral part of the programme’s life, from almost the very beginning. He was the second director to work on the fledgling series, coming in to direct episodes of The Daleks way back in 1963. He’s the man responsible for that iconic image of a plunger creeping into frame, backing Barbara against a wall as she becomes the first person to ever set eyes on a Dalek.

And it didn’t stop there! Christopher Barry returned to direct nine more Doctor Who serials over the years, notching up work with each of the first four Doctors. He was the creative vision behind The Rescue and The Romans in Season Two, The Savages in Season Three (still right up towards the top of my ‘most wanted’ list of recoveries - the telesnaps make the direction look stunning), The Dæmons, The Mutants, The Brain of Morbius, and The Creature from the Pit. Years later, he’d even return to helm the Great Intelligence’s third attempt at world domination in the spin off video Downtime.

But perhaps more crucially, he was the director for both The Power of the Daleks and Robot - two of the first three ‘first’ stories for a new Doctor. Throughout the various tributes and obituaries that have been popping up across the internet today, that’s the fact that people seem to be bringing up the most. It’s as though it’s taken us all by surprise - I’d certainly not really considered it before - this is the man who helped to ease in Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, two of the most popular Doctors ever.

It’s always a shame to say goodbye to someone who holds such a vital part in our favourite show’s history, and Barry has always seemed so alive in his appearances across various special features on the Who DVDs - a man filled with a real energy, and a genuine love for the work he did on the programme, even after all this time. I’ve still got several of his stories to go, so it’s not as though I’ll never see his work again, but for now, I’ll be raising a glass to one of Doctor Who’s true greats as I bid him a fond farewell.

Day 406: The Ark in Space, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Back when Character Options first started releasing a wide range of Doctor Who action figures, I used to be really in to taking photographs of them. I’d spend hours sorting out the lighting and posing them into scenes just to take that perfect shot. I even went as far as to commission a model TARDIS console room in the right scale, with light up walls, and a working scanner screen, just so that I could take some photos on there. But when I first started on this kind of thing, all my photos set the TARDIS down on some futuristic space station, where the Doctor and Rose were being menaced by some Cybermen (hey, they were the best figures available right at the beginning. They even travelled with K9 for a while in my images, simply because he was a great figure).

The types of sets that I built for those earliest photographs were all based around one simple template – the Nerva station from this story. It’s your traditional ‘sci-fi’ set, isn’t it? Lots of large, white, sterile spaces. Big banks of technical looking equipment, all of which really boiled down to a load of buttons arranged in neat little rows, or in blocks. It’s such a typical ‘space’ design, that even the TARDIS console used elements of it by the time you reach the mid-1980s.

And yet, I don’t think that Doctor Who has ever done it better than they do here with Nerva. It’s the same kind of style that the programme was fond of back in the 1960s (it brings to mind images of the Wheel), and returning here for this story suddenly feels like Doctor Who heading out into its old familiar territory. The crowning piece of the design has to be that curved corridor, with the big windows thorough which you can see out into space. Younger Will, on the commentary for this episode, describes it as ‘a typical Doctor Who corridor… but it really looks good’, and I have to confess that my opinion has never really changed about that. When I talk about making those little sets for my action figures to pose in, it’s this set that I was always trying to recreate, but instead of using any kind of ‘space’ backdrop, I used to use bright green paper to simulate a ‘green screen’ effect that I could key out later once the pictures were uploaded to the computer.

The only issue that I have with this set is that I’ve never quite figured out where it’s meant to be within the Nerva space ship model. For a long, long time, I assumed that it was that outer ‘ring’ that runs right the way round. But when you look closer, that clearly isn’t the case. A quick check of some images on Google highlights that it’s actually an inner ring, behind that large one on the outside… so then why don’t you see the larger ring through the great big windows? They just stare out into the starry image of space. The fact that they don’t quite match up irritates me more than it should, and I think that’s simply because both elements are so nicely designed in their own way.

Younger me goes on to point out just how great the Solar Stacks look in comparison to the rest of the set. On their own, there’s nothing really all that special about the set (although the use of different levels with the steps is quite nice), but it provides such a stark contrast to the rest of the station that it really does stand out. It feels just like the kind of run-down, rough setting that several of David Tennant’s futuristic stories are set in (I’m thinking especially of something like 42), and it helps to highlight just how much of an artifice the nice sterile effect really is. Young Will goes on to point out that it’s a shame the close-up of the creature trapped in the machinery - which actually looks quite good, even if it is a mass of writing bubble wrap with an eye in the centre - doesn’t match up with the longer shots of it seen while the Doctor, and later Noah, explore the area.

Quite apart from all the set design and the model work, I’m really liking the costume design for this one, too. It’s one of those occasions where everything feels really cohesive, and you get the impression that all the various design teams have really been communicating with each other. The beautiful white outfits fit in really well with their surroundings, and Sarah Jane looks rather wonderful in hers! I love that they’ve all got different colours built into them to denote rank - its a very Star Trek idea, but it works beautifully here.

Although we’ve had several instances before where all the elements of design on a story really pull together to make a great looking final product, I think this may be the best example that we’ve had to date. I can’t find a great deal to say negatively about the design aspects of this story, and that’s always a good thing.


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