By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
It has become a sad reality that the audiences of today have become somewhat spoilt. What with their CGI improvements, CGI sets, CGI characters, everything seems so alive and seamless. We now have living breathing dinosaurs by the dozen. I was there when the T- Rex blasted out of the cinema screens for the first time in Jurassic Park and we stared in awe as the brontosaurus jumped on its hind legs to grab a leafy branch before an a astounded Alan Grant. And it truly was one of cinema’s magic moments.
And what really struck me was how the new Doctor Who era benefits more than any other show from the new digital age. When people compare the new to the old, they talk of the wobbly sets and cardboard monsters and how laughable they were.
Hang on a minute.
If it hadn’t been for those wobbly sets we wouldn’t have the plethora of shows we have today like digital effect coated candies compared to the rotten old coffee flavour sweet in a box of chocolates that’s always left behind.
And it simply isn’t true that all the sets wobbled; I’ve seen more wobbly sets in Crossroads and Neighbours compared to Who. Though I have to say my favourite is the Six Million Dollar Man story the Return of Bigfoot which remains a personal favourite of mine from that seventies bionic feast. Steve, on the run from the OSI and his friends because they think he’s turned traitor, has a battle with Sasquatch himself where Steve is thrown into a series of metal barrels. Such is the force of the impact being thrown into them by the big man, that Steve smashes into the obviously solid barrels and a lid comes flying off which hits him in the head. Unfortunately it’s made of rubber as it literally folds about his head leaving him rubberised ie at death’s door.
In Star Trek the nacelles of the Enterprise become see through in certain effect scenes later corrected in the updated CGI improved DVD releases which also added new effects and crisper, cleaner versions of the Enterprise. Some say we don’t need it but I can live it. Thing is, when I was a kid and watched them the first time round it never bothered me because I was captured by the stories themselves. Yet there is this snobbery about the old days and awful effects. I disagree. The old days were brilliant. These were people making low budget shows with little money, pushing boundaries and experimenting with new special effects like CSO which if the actor wore the wrong colour ended up like the Enterprise’s nacelles. However if it hadn’t been for these trail blazers we would none of the effects we have today which feel now like they were always there. One case in point recently brought up was painting bubble wrap green as an alien hand in the 1974 Doctor Who adventure the Ark in Space where the fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane and harry Sullivan faced the insect Wirrn in what is regarded as one of the show’s classics and showcases Tom Baker’s Doctor via his humans are indomitable speech. Here the Wirrn infect their hosts transforming the poor unfortunate into one of them. In a scene that was trimmed for being too horrific, the commander of space station Nerva begins to mutate. Noah, played by Christopher Masters, pulls his hand out from under his uniform and it is gone, replaced by an alien one. It is obviously bubblewrap painted green but not to me at the time. It was a horrible sight and terrified me because this man was becoming an alien. He was in pain and agony and there was nothing to be done for him. It is laughed at now but at the time bubblewrap was a brand new invention and something the special effects crew latched onto as something that could be used to create something never seen before.
But perhaps the greatest instance of wobbly sets and special effects was the 1964 Doctor Who adventure The Web Planet. The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell and his companions are forced onto a mysterious world populated by giant ants, the Zarbi, giant mothmen, the Menoptera and the alien consciousness controlling them all the Animus. I saw this for the first time in an audience at a convention where they laughed and chuckled as the Zarbi wandered about on screen banging into the sets and each other. But they were missing the point. The Web Planet for me imbues the determination and fire of the people making it. While the 1960s technology could barely create what the writer had in mind, it was the sheer scale of the story that caught me. Often it is too easy to dress actors up in blue skin and white hair and make them alien but here was a real attempt to create an alien world which for the most part succeeded but was let down by the execution especially the Zarbi where the poor guys in the suits couldn’t see where they were going. And despite the fact the producers probably groaned as they read the script and wondered how they were going to put it on screen with limited money and time, they did it. It was like a low budget Starship Troopers with giant alien insects no where near as agile as their CGI counterparts of late years. But it worked and while sets may be cardboard and plywood, the burning idea behind these stories, to constantly push the boundaries of television. It is one of man’s greatest traits that when he is told he can’t do something, he finds a way. If they had shelved this story then other stretches would never have happened. Other monsters may never have seen the light of day but with all these shows it is a credit to the writers, producers and special effects guys that what they did laid the foundation for what we have today. They were trying to push the boundaries of what science fiction could be on television and aiming for higher and higher concepts to make the universe more alien because they knew people would bore of men with funny skin and funky hairdos to portray the future and the audiences had, and still do, have an insatiable taste for new and clever aliens. If they didn’t always succeed it didn’t matter as long as the story was strong eg the appalling dinosaur model work in the Jon Pertwee story Invasion of the Dinosaurs and the ropey Loch Ness Monster in the classic gem Terror of the Zygons. As a kid I never noticed, I only saw giant monsters and let’s face it, in the Blake’s 7 last ever episode Blake, did David Collins, playing Deva, one of Blake’s new crew, being shot and crashing into a giant cardboard tube masquerading as a power conduit take away from the viewer’s enjoyment? No, because they were enthralled by the confrontation between Blake and Avon played by Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow in what was to their final meeting, seconds before the entire cast is shot by the Federation and we are left forever wondering did Avon die in those final moments before the screen went black and gunshots were heard? No because the ambition of the storytelling eclipsed all else. Nor do we care about metal drums made of rubber because the Six Million Dollar Man was fighting Bigfoot! How brilliant of an idea was that? It’s so good it remains a much fondly remembered classic to this day. And for every quarry in Doctor Who, there was the jungle set in the fourth Doctor 1975 story Planet of Evil which stands up to this day.
So forget the fact Star Trek had the same props from story to story, forget Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who shared sets and props (the most famous being the appearance of third Doctor adversary a Sea Devil in Blake’s 7 season four opener Rescue) and forget that some ships were literally built from egg boxes and washing up liquid bottles, see these stories for what they are. Wobbly sets are not to be laughed at; they have to be see as breathless, stunning leaps of imagination that stand testament to the best of human determination to make the impossible possible; to paraphrase Shakespeare, the story’s the thing.