Refurbishing classic creatures for the Doctor Who Experience
Mike Tucker is very proud of his newly brushed-up Zygon. “Especially as it arrived at the workshop in three bin liners,” he points out.
Tucker, a special effects designer and mainstay of the BBC Visual FX department in its latter years, is recreating old monsters for the Doctor Who Experience that opens at Olympia 2 in London on 20 February. Since the BBC shut down its Visual FX department in 2001, he has created his own FX company, The Model Unit, and ultimately found himself back working on Doctor Who (he destroyed Big Ben and helped build the new Daleks among other things).
While the new series will obviously form the centrepiece attractions at the exhibition, Tucker is happy the classic show is going to have a major presence as well. “It would be very easy just to concentrate on the new and this nod to past is really quite nice.” And he’s the man making sure that the old looks as good as the new.
SFX: So, how did you become involved with The Doctor Who Experience and what is your role?
“I was contacted by BBC Worldwide last year and asked if I would be interested in pitching for the refurbishment of some of the props from the classic era of the show that had been on display in various places like Longleat and Blackpool over the years.
“So I went down to the store in Cardiff and took a look at some of the key items that they would like to refurbish. And I basically made the recommendation that the best way forward was to strip everything back down to its component parts and try to put them back together as close as possible to how they looked when they were last seen on screen.
“Now, some of these things are 40 years old, and at the time they were designed to last for, what – two a half weeks of filming? So some of them were in a reasonably poor condition.
“But obviously, with my background as a BBC visual effects designer and with a lot of my crew being ex-BBC staff, I was in a position to say to the Beeb, ‘Well, look, not only do I know how these things were put together, but in some cases I can use some of the designers and assistants who worked on them the first time around.’
“So they agreed to that. We came up with a list of certain items that they would like in this exhibition and we’ve been in the process of making them look better than they’ve ever done before.”
Was there any monster that was completely beyond hope?
“You’d be surprised. One of the items that we’ve been doing is the only surviving Zygon. Now, that had rotted to the point where literally all of the foam rubber was falling to dust. And the Latex had gone extremely crispy. Because they’ve had actors sweating inside them; they’ve had slime spread on them; and they’ve been stuck under studio lights. Plus, it was, what, ’75 when the Zygon was done.
“But because some components of it are fibreglass, and there is such good photo reference of it around, we were able to do quite a good job by taking out all the pieces that were still in a repairable state, and then taking moulds off other items that weren’t, and just looking at how it had originally been put together. Also I gave that project to Colin Mapson, who is one of the original BBC effects designers from the ’70s and worked on a lot of Doctor Whos. So he has actually recreated the Zygon from the ground up.”
So, how “original” is the Zygon you’ve turned out?
“I would say we are 80% original and then 20% new build. But it has been done in such a sympathetic way to how the originals were made, I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised how good that looks.”
“It’s been that sort of juggle. I mean, one of the items we’re doing is an Ice Warrior. Now the Ice Warrior itself – the sort of turtle shell torso – is fibreglass, and that has survived very well, given that it was built in ’67. So we took that off the mannequin that it was on, and we discovered that it’s still got Bernard Bresslaw’s name written on the back of it – he was the enormously tall actor from the Carry On films who played the first Ice Warrior. So we’ve established that it is the original one.
“The legs were in pretty poor condition but we were able to salvage one of them in such a way that we could take a mould off it. So we recreated the legs from the original prop. Then the head and the arms have been brand new sculpts. But having got the leg and torso there, we were able to match textures and colours. So there you’ve got something that is maybe 50% original and 50% new build. But hopefully nobody’s going to able to spot the joins.”
“The idea, though is, ‘don’t try to update them; try to make them as they would have been back in the era the things were made.’”
Doctor Who fans, being Doctor Who fans, will clearly read something into the fact that there are going to be Zygons and Ice Warriors in the Experience. Are the kids being prepped for their return in the new series?
“We haven’t been told anything our end about that. Obviously, if there is a masterplan about why they’ve picked certain monsters we’ve certainly not been made aware of it.
“But one of the things we’ve tried to do is, if the monsters have come back in the new show, is there the possibility of finding an older version of the prop to refurbish? So with the Cybermen, for example, there is going to be an exhibit of Cyberman heads. So they’ve obviously got the ones from the new series, and then we’ve got a number of casts of ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Revenge Of The Cybermen’ and ‘The Invasion’ and ‘The Moonbase’. But we’re also recreating a ‘Tenth Planet’ Cyberman, so you’ve got the evolution of the Cybermen right the way through.
“We’ve done a similar thing with the Sontarans. We’ve refurbished one of the 1980s costumes. And that’s going to be put alongside one of the new series ones to see how the thing has evolved.
“Daleks are the other ones. We’ve done the Special Weapons Dalek from ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’. And there’s going to be a progression of Dalek types from the ’60s to the present day. And whereas from the ’80s era, we’ve got existing props, we’re actually using replicas to recreate some of the ’60s one. In particular we’re doing ‘The Dead Planet’ and ‘Evil Of The Daleks’.”
How are they going to be displayed?
“What I’ve told my guys is let’s pose them dramatically, rather than having them standing there like shop window dummies. We’ve tried to give them poses that match some of the publicity photos that we’ve been given. We’ve posed the Ice Warrior in the classic arm-pointed-ready-with-sonic-ray.”
“I remember being a little bit disappointed seeing the Ice Warrior on display once because it seemed to be on such a short mannequin. So what we’ve done is put it on a mannequin much more akin to Bernard Bresslaw’s full height. And it has actually surprised all of us. Because for something that is actually quite a simple fibreglass and Latex costume from 1967, it still does have the power to dominate the room. So I’m hoping some of the younger kids who come to the show – the eight to ten year-olds – this thing will be, what, three times taller than them? I’m really hoping that that is going to give them quite a nice buzz for what the old show looked like.”
How do you think that an effects-literate generation of kids will react to the old monsters?
“I’m still biased in that I think work done by designers like John Friedlander on the original Sontaran actually stands up incredibly well considering how primitive they are actually made. The Zygon – when you look at the way the thing has been built – you have nothing but admiration for the team that put these things together in frighteningly short time spans, with practically zero budget.”
We take it you won’t be spending time refurbishing Erato or the Myrka?
“No. The, erm, less well thought-of monsters have obviously been put on the back burner. There was also a fair amount of discussion about – from the items that still exist, which ones get left maybe for another time, so that the exhibition can be constantly updated with new exhibits? Hopefully if there is a good reaction to the things we’ve done from the classic show, there will be a certain amount of thought as to, ‘Okay, what else can we now put back together?
Is it just monsters you’re doing?
“The item that we’ve got in the workshop at the moment that we are about to launch into is the ’80s TARDIS console. That’s been in relatively good storage over the years. It’s the one that’s was built for “The Five Doctors” and ran pretty much to the end of the original run. It’s been in private hands for the past few years and has been looked after very well. But we’re just having to do a little bit of a dust and a clean-up of the mechanism, and a check of the electrics, and replace any switches that have been taken by eager souvenir hunters over the years.”
How close are we going to be allowed to get the exhibits?
“I don’t believe that they’re going to be behind glass. I believe they’re going to be roped off. But I think, potentially, you’ll be able to get closer to these things than you have ever been before.”
Are there any monsters you’d especially like to tackle if you are asked to do more?
“The original Michael Wisher Davros would definitely be on my list. It’s such a classic piece of design. But the other one I think would be good for ten-year-olds is the Morbius monster. Big claw, a brain in a glass bowl, eyes on stalks – it’s such a great mish-mash of things. I think that could certainly do with a lick of paint and bit of new fur, but I’d love to do him.”
“I’d be really interested in trying to create some of the things that don’t exist at all any more. A Zarbi, or a Quark. Things from the Hartnell era that are long gone. Ooh, a Mechonoid is another one. I’d love to show people how big these ’60s props were. If there‘s a suggestions box at the exhibition write ‘Mechonoid’!”