Image Credit: Rory Salt – All Rights Reserved
Image Description: The Big Chief First Doctor Model
By Rory Salt
In the 2007 episode Utopia, the Doctor compares Captain Jack’s method of time-travel to a ‘space-hopper’ and his own TARDIS to a ‘sportscar’. In the world of Doctor Who merchandise, Big Chief Studios’ 1/6th scale replica figures are the ‘sportscar’ of the hobby. In every sense of the word too; expensive with a limited production, yet once in hand prove their worth. Even beyond this purely aesthetic level, the history of the company forms an interesting examination of the trials and tribulations that accompany the production of Doctor Who merchandise. As such, I decided to take a look at Big Chief Studios’ past, and its potential future.
The release of the 11th Doctor and Amy Pond marked the humble beginnings of the range in 2012. Now, Big Chief Studios produces figures that include a plethora of Doctors and companions from across the classic and new series, with a weeping angel to boot. My personal history with the company began with their First Doctor figure, revealed in 2013 to coincide with the 50th anniversary. It offers a truly unique collectible; an uncanny likeness to Hartnell with a huge variety of accessories. From the pipe of An Unearthly Child, to the walking stick of Marco Polo, to the fur karakul hat and cloak of The War Machines, the accessories are extensive to say the least! Furthermore, the package came complete with the signatures of Carol Ann Ford and William Russell. This in itself is a unique feature of the range, as often there is the opportunity, at extra cost, to gain the signature of the actor the figure was based on, be it Jenna Coleman, Matt Smith, David Tennant or even Jodie Whittaker. Big Chief’s First Doctor figure remains a pride of my ever growing collection, and displays what the range has to offer at its peak.
For a Birmingham-based small business having to liaise with Chinese manufacturers in times of economic uncertainty, there are always bound to be difficulties. Often cited across Big Chief’s Facebook page, and fan group, are their long delays on the production of certain figures, especially Rose and Clara. Announced in March 2016, it took over two years, until April 2018, for the figures to finally be released. While the delay would be infuriating for those who thought they would get the figures sooner, it must be put in context of the 1/6th scale collecting market. Other companies, such as Hot Toys, have had similar delays with figures – it is par for the course when dealing with items that require detailed paint work and tailoring. Yet what separates Big Chief is their generally excellent communication; on Facebook, the company readily answers questions from fans, no matter how many times people repeat the same ‘when are you making my favourite doctor’ or ‘the face of this figure doesn’t look right’ comments.
On that note, the likeness of Big Chief figures’ faces is perhaps the most important part of the package. Unlike the 5” figures by Character Options, the 1/6th scale means the head is not only larger, but needs to be more detailed. The aforementioned First Doctor possesses an excellent likeness, as do the series 7B Eleventh, and War, Doctor figures. In order to produce these detailed figures, an artist will sculpt the head, often independently of the work on the body, to produce a likeness that shows the wrinkles, hairs and lifelike eyes that miniaturise the character perfectly. Afterwards, the actor’s likeness needs to be approved, a daunting and potentially lengthy process. Once it is, then there is essentially no going back, or else you waste more time, money and resources on a product that a percentage of the audience will dislike. Some figures demonstrate the drawback of that; with the Rose, Clara and Amy Pond figures drawing criticism for their lacklustre likeness. Yet, as in the case of most of their figures, Big Chief provide excellent, uncanny likenesses that continue to impress.
The future of the range, like all current Doctor Who merchandise is uncertain. Gone are the days of 2008 when Toys R’ Us could stock a whole aisle with Doctor Who toys, or multiple pages of the Argos catalogue were filled with remote control daleks, plush adipose and Dalek Sec masks. The market has changed massively since then, not just for Doctor Who but even more generally. Times prove especially tough when Doctor Who is off the air for a year, as in 2016 and now. As interest dies down,sales across the broad church of merchandise are hit hard. For Big Chief, the range of fandoms they supply, such as Marvel, James Bond and Harry Potter, alleviate this somewhat, but it still leaves a funding hole, as the company relies on pre-orders to be able to fund production. Fortunately, new market trends have been able to provide greater stability and, hopefully, a brighter future for the company. In late 2018, Big Chief took advantage of crowdfunding by establishing ‘Launchpad’, where costs are kept down by fans guaranteeing payment, either in full or in instalments, as soon as a specified target is hit. The idea follows other companies doing the same for low quantity, high cost collectables, such as Hasbro’s ‘HasLab’ initiative which recently developed a 4ft long Jabba’s sail barge via crowdfunding to a resounding success.
The first ‘launch’ of the Doctor Who range is the Thirteenth Doctor figure, launched after over 350 people, including myself, pledged support earlier this year. This new way of selling products to consumers has several benefits; more can be offered to the consumer to incentivise quick and guaranteed payment in order to fund production. For the Thirteenth Doctor figure, Big Chief offered alternative costume colours, a second head in a different pose, a plaque signed by Jodie Whittaker, and even a Pting! The process itself further helps consumers, for there is more communication as the consumers directly influence whether a product gets made in the first place. Any problems arising from likeness or delays can be directly tackled due to this new direct-to-consumer method of sales. If Big Chief proves successful in this new frontier, then other Doctor Who merchandise producers might take note. While the future for the range looks hopeful, it is important to recognise the fabulous work the company has already done. Big Chief figures really are the sportscars of any collection, and deserve that recognition.