Watch this first.
There’s a bit about a third of the way through the first episode of ‘The Mind of Evil’ that more or less encapsulates Doctor Who as it was in the 1970s. The Doctor is attending a demonstration of a new machine that purports to suck the evil out of men’s minds. When the Doctor raises valid ethical concerns, the egotistical professor in charge asks what he could possibly find objectionable. Pertwee adopts a theatrical flourish in his response. “UNIT, sir, was set up to deal with new and unusual menaces to mankind,” he says. “And in my view, this machine of yours is JUST THAT!”
[DRAMATIC MOOG MUSIC AS THE DOCTOR STOMPS AWAY]
If you’re so inclined you can watch it here. Skip to the eight minute mark.
Anyway, Emily and I were watching this very episode a number of weeks ago, and when this happened we both roared with laughter.
“What I’d really like,” said Emily, “is for them to do a modern episode of Doctor Who that plays like one of these. Maybe he gets stranded in time and winds up in 1980s U.N.I.T. And they have wobbly sets and weird special effects and a funky score.”
Just because the Doctor gets to leap around in time, it doesn’t mean the show doesn’t age. The problem with any episode of a programme about time travel is that whenever it’s set historically, it’s always going to be aesthetically bound by the period in which it was filmed. In other words, if you shoot a story that’s set in medieval Italy, but do so in the 70s, it’s still going to have that visual style attached to it, even if your costumes are authentic. Likewise, if you shoot a story on a distant alien planet, but fill the background music with orchestral hits and Korg samples, it’ll come across as being very 80s. Big explosion? Drop in a white-out. Someone’s having their mind probed? Put swirly effects all over the screen. And don’t forget the facial zooms, the sort of thing that Mike Myers and Dana Carvey would later parody extensively on Saturday Night Live.
This was standard practice, of course. There were certain things you did back then, simply because everyone else did. I couldn’t find a decent version on YouTube, but anyone who’s seen the first Superman film will remember the moment when Christopher Reeve discovers Margot Kidder’s car with her lifeless corpse inside: his reaction as he takes in the scene is filmed from multiple angles, and while it might seem old hat now, it heightens the emotional pathos no end. Or there’s the scene in Carrie where John Travolta and Nancy Allen approach the blood-soaked titular teenager on her way home from the prom, and Carrie’s acts of telekinetic revenge are preceded by jerky zooms. Watch it and not only will you see what I mean, you’ll also recall you’ve seen a hundred things from the same period that did things this way. Fast forward a quarter of a century, of course, and every action film post-Matrix features tedious bullet time camerawork and excessive use of slow motion, with the refreshing (and intentional) exception of The Expendables.
This is not a criticism. Not really. You’re tied to what’s perceived as cutting edge. It’s become very fashionable to sneer at the stop-motion used in the likes of Robocop and Ghostbusters. But I do wonder if we’ll look back in twenty years at episodes like ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and laugh at them as naff and silly. And I can’t help thinking that this will be futile. The point is that while sneering at the Thunderbirds effects at the end of ‘State of Decay’ may make for an amusing documentary soundbite, it ignores the fact that at the time they never let plastic doors and rickety staircases stop them telling a good story. It’s common knowledge that the ‘cheap production values’ of Doctor Who were laughed at even back in the 70s in the wake of Star Trek and Star Wars, but by and large the people cracking the jokes today are the very same people who were hiding behind the sofa during the likes of ‘Earthshock’. Or, as Colin Baker puts it, “I get a bit impatient when people say ‘I loved watching Doctor Who because of the shaky sets’. No you didn’t, you liar. You loved watching because you believed it and you were scared.”
In any case, Emily’s ruminations on contemporary Who filmed in a 70s style got me thinking. We might call it a parody. But it needn’t be. Part of the appeal of Hot Fuzz (a film you really should see, if you haven’t already) is that while it takes the conventions of the action blockbuster and changes the setting to a sleepy English market town, it works precisely because it refuses to send up the genre it’s referencing – it’s a tribute, rather than a parody. (The same cannot be said of Scary Movie, a sneering, puerile effort that fails partly because it sends up a film that was itself a parody, although the main reason it doesn’t work is that it simply isn’t funny.)
So it’s a fine line to walk. Still, the idea of reworking modern Doctor Who and changing it a little bit was an appealing one. ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ has dated in many ways (giant rats, anyone?) but the episode five cliffhanger in which Leela pulls off Magnus Greel’s mask to reveal a hideous, deformed face underneath is one of the great episode endings, right up there with the ascending Dalek and, well, this:
Second rate story, but oh my.
Anyway: when it came to actually picking an episode, ‘Hide’ seemed the obvious choice. It’s structurally flawed, but it has some lovely Doctor / Clara moments, is appropriately scary at given points, and it has Jessica Raine. The Doctor’s hop through time is a gratuitous use of the CG budget, but the monster is reasonably convincing, and the National Trust property they used for the mansion’s interior could have come straight out of the Baker / Pertwee era.
I’ll try not to bore you too long with the technical stuff, but here it is. The trickiest stage was choosing a suitable clip, because so many of them are riddled with fancy camera angles and quick jump-cuts, so that they’d still look contemporary even if you changed everything old. In the end I plumped for a scene about halfway through where the Doctor and Clara get a scare on the landing, before the ‘ghost’ appears downstairs, accompanied by a spinning black disc. It builds in intensity, without being too effects-heavy. I stripped out the score and replaced it, and then re-sequenced things so that the jokes were gone and the spinning disc formed the cliffhanger. After that it was a question of filtering to death – I think I used about three different filters, stretched and reprocessed across two software packages – in order to make it look as if it were shot under the harsh lighting of an old studio. The ‘effects’ – polarising filters, a spontaneous zoom at a crucial moment and one of those grainy things that break up the picture at the end – were the last thing to be added.
In case you were wondering, the score samples used are (in order):
- The Mutants (from ‘The Mutants’)
- The Axons Approach (from ‘The Claws of Axos’)
- Keller Machine Appears and Vanishes (from ‘The Mind of Evil’ – this was the pulsing effect used in the last forty seconds)
Does it work? More or less. The filtering isn’t as I’d have liked it, and I’m sure that someone with more technical expertise could have improved the processing. But even if it doesn’t really look like an old episode of Doctor Who, it does at least look a little bit like a new episode that’s purposely trying to look old. Which was the entire point, so I guess we can call that a win.