Monday, November 10, 2008

Practical Effects

Hello everyone, the Historian here. There's still a fortnight or so until the Project begins, but I wanted to write a bit about something I don't think many people realize about early Doctor Who--indeed, about the series in the sixties and (to a certain extent) seventies in general. Too often, I see statements like this one (though admittedly, that example is an attempt to play for laughs) that dismiss old Doctor Who as "cheap." Now, of course, some things are a matter of taste, but I think taking that attitude betrays a certain misunderstanding of television production (especially in Britain) of the time. The fact of the matter is, in some ways, Doctor Who was often at the forefront of "special effects," which is all the more remarkable given both budget and production.

In this post-"Star Wars" era, people seem to forget that most special effects tended to be more practical in nature than not. In the early sixties, in fact, practical effects were a necessity. Essentially, these consisted of various things (small explosions, fires, whatever) that could actually be filmed in the studio as taping was going on. It's important to understand that Doctor Who in the sixties had, at best, minimal post-production time; there was a year, in fact, where the timing was so tight that studio recording took place only a week before the episode was due to be broadcast! Early on, studio scenes (and there was very little that was not shot in the studio) were filmed in order, allowing for minimal time needed for editing. (Evidence for this can easily be seen over Hartnell's tenure as the "Billy-fluffs" were often left in the final product.) Add to the production schedule the necessity to build entirely new sets every few weeks (if not every week) on the budget reserved for a "children's show," it's really quite remarkable what Doctor Who of the sixties achieved, in its average of forty-two episodes a year. (Contrast this with "Star Trek's" higher budget, shorter seasons and post production time and what Doctor Who achieved in comparison is even more remarkable.) There's the oft told story of a call to the production office in 1965 by Stanley Kubrick's 2001 team enquiring how they'd achieved a weightless effect seen in that week's episode. ("Counter-Plot," episode five of "The Dalek Master Plan.") The model work done for the series was also ahead of its time; not all of it worked, some of the manipulation was a bit naff, but a great deal of it was tremendously ahead of its time. (The final scenes of 1967's "Evil of the Daleks" look amazing, even today. I'm looking forward to getting to them in...a few years. I only wish more of it survived; there's amazing footage on the Lost in Time set of how the models were filmed.)

The scope of this blog is basically Doctor Who in the sixties, but the seventies continued the show's experimentation with effects, thanks to a shorter season and greater post-production time. It may look silly in our age of computer generated work, but Doctor Who's use of CSO (aka "Green Screen/Blue Screen," which was actually partially developed by the BBC) to expand the show's horizons past the painted backdrop anticipated effects seen in today's movies like 300, the Lord of the Rings, etc., etc. Did it all work? No, of course not. But to call it "cheap," or "terrible" or "primitive" shows a deep misunderstanding of not only how the show was made, but what was actually technologically possible at the time. In fact, Doctor Who of the sixties and early seventies was just as advanced as the show is today.

More to come, I'm sure, in anticipation of Doctor Who's big anniversary on the 23rd! As always, I remain


1 comment:

Alzarian said...

Well said. Watching a show from another time and another place does demand a certain willingness to embrace the "vocabulary", so to speak. Still, if one makes the effort, there are some great rewards in watching. After all, Shakespeare is still alive and well centuries after being first performed... and the more you understand the time it was written in, the more you benefit from it. Not that I'm saying Doctor Who is comparable to Shakespeare... or then again, maybe I am! ;-)