Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Doctor Who: 1987

Episode 654: Time and the Rani part 1
First broadcast: 7.35 pm, 7 September 1987
<< back to 1986
Time and the Rani part 1
The 1986 season of Doctor Who began with a thrilling special effects sequence: the camera panning across a vast spaceship as it catches the TARDIS in a beam of light. This model shot was some of the first visual effects work on the series by Mike Tucker – who is still working on Doctor Who today. (I hope to speak to Mike on this subject another time.)

The 1987 series of Doctor Who also began with a thrilling special effects sequence as the TARDIS tumbles out of control. But this was not a model shot: it was entirely computer-generated by Oliver Elmes and CAL Video – the same team that created the show's new CGI title sequence. Part 1 of Time and the Rani sees the Seventh Doctor's debut but it's also the first time the TARDIS appears as CGI.

I've been thinking a lot about the role of CGI recently, prompted by a comment made by writer Philip Reeve at the Phonicon convention earlier this year. Explaining how he came up with his extraordinary Mortal Engines, he spoke of trying to achieve “the Clangers aesthetic mixed up with an action movie”, and of how much he admired the “hand-made” feel of old children's telly.

On 20 August – 50 years to the day after the first studio session on Doctor Who had made wobbly bits of light for the title sequence – I asked Philip to expand on what he meant.

What sort of hand-made children's telly were you thinking of?
I grew up in the 70s so I'm thinking back to The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and things like that – quite simple children's television – and also Doctor Who in those days. In fact, if you look back at pretty much all television drama of that era, like Poldark or The Onedin Line, it's not trying to compete with film in the way that TV drama does now. It's theatre: filmed theatre. The scenes outside the windows are painted and it's very obvious that people are not sitting in real rooms but sets. That requires the audience to bring a certain amount of imagination to it, which is something that has gone from television now. It just tries to look real.

Is that the appeal of hand-made TV – that the audience is more active in watching it?
Hmm... Yeah, I think partly so. Of course, with children's stuff particularly there's an element of toys coming to life. Children do that all the time anyway with their toys, moving objects around and animating them in their own minds. So I think there's always an appeal to children of little things moving about as if by magic. They very quickly get across that barrier of thinking “This is made of plasticine but I accept it”. That is entirely good, using the imagination children have anyway.

So does CGI take away from that?
Lots of CGI stuff is great: the CGI animation is very good in something like Monsters Inc or whatever – as good as cell or stop-motion animation. It's just a different look. But I am tired of CGI stuff in science-fiction movies. Avatar, for all it's script problems, was extremely beautiful and the first CGI movie which actually convinced me. I just don't see where you go from there; I don't think there's much point pursuing that sort of pseudo-realism. Watching Pacific Rim made me think that I would much rather watch someone in a big monster suit trample nice models than see it being done in pixels.

Have you seen Moon, directed by Duncan Jones?
Yes, that's one of the few sci-fi movies of recent years that actually stands out – because he uses miniatures, I think. It's got this certain feel... When you look at the movies of my era – I'm thinking of Alien, Bladerunner and things like that – when the spaceships or whatever go by you know there's something there. You know it's a miniature but at least it's a real thing.

There's a tactile quality to it.
Yes, a quality of something actually being real. Of course, nobody watching the film thinks “Oh, that's really a spaceship going by”. You assume that some sort of trickery is employed. I just think that it makes it so much more visually interesting. Things like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies had a mixture of miniatures and CGI. I'm not entirely sure what they did but that explains why there's a certain grandeur to the cities and so on, a feeling of these being real things in front of you.

You talked about children animating things anyway, so how much did the tactile quality of old TV encourage you to write and draw stories yourself?
(Long pause) I don't know. It's hard to say, really, because you grow up surrounded by that stuff so I don't know how much it came from within and how much it came from inspiration. Certainly, if I rewatch something like The Goodies or Doctor Who I can see exactly why I thought I could go out and make movies on my dad's super-8 camera because they're very doable. There's a kind of feasibility about them. They haven't got casts of thousands or vast effects. I'm not talking about the special effects so much as the ordinary outdoor scenes of people doing stuff. It was all very achievable – or looked so to me at the age of nine or whatever. I was a movie-maker by the time I was 10 or 11 and I'm sure that was completely inspired by watching things on telly and thinking “Oh yeah, I could do that”. I couldn't – but I almost could.

So how much was your recent Doctor Who e-book, The Roots of Evil, written to have a hand-made feel?
I don't know. As a writer you simply describe things and you're never really sure what pictures will emerge in readers' imaginations. It's kind of a collaboration. I put down the raw materials and it's up to the reader to make it up in their mind. I'm not sure how good their special effects budget is. But in my mind, when I was writing it, I treated it as a nostalgia exercise. I tried to make it feel like the kind of story I would have expected to see in 1978. I tried to go for the achievable sets and effects of that era. I imagined it done with three old tree branches and not much else. But I don't know if that comes across and, to be honest, I don't think it matters. It's aimed at the children of today and I imagine they are brought up on far more sophisticated effects so have a far more impressive picture in their minds than I had in mine when I was writing it. (Laughs) That's fine.

Philip Reeve, thank you very much.

Next episode: 1988

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