Image Credit: Rory Salt
Image Description: Rob Shearman, interviewed by Matthew Kilburn, before a packed crowd of WhoSoc members
Ian Bayley recalls the insights Rob Shearman, Mark Ayres, and Mike Tucker offered on their contributions to Doctor Who
This year, the Oxford Doctor Who Society has had the pleasure of hosting Dalek writer Rob Shearman; incidental music composer for Curse of Fenric Mark Ayres and model effects expert for The Time of the Doctor Mike Tucker. All three having dined with our members beforehand, they joined the rest of the Society at Corpus Christi, where, after sitting patiently while their story was screened to a packed seminar room, they discussed their contribution to the world of Who.
For Rob and Mike, this patient waiting was something of a novelty, as neither had watched their episodes recently. In particular, Rob had only watched Dalek twice before, both times alongside Moffat and Gatiss’ contributions to Series One. On these occasions, professional rivalry spoiled the experience for him a little bit as, rather than appreciating his own work, he was preoccupied with comparing it to that of his friends. This time, he enjoyed it a lot more, not having to make good on his jokey threat to slip out if he felt embarrassed.
Mark, meanwhile, had seen The Curse of Fenric many times, and as it turned out, it wasn’t even the only time he would be talking about the serial that week! His visit coincided with the thirtieth anniversary screening at the BFI two days later so, after a brief lull in the conversation, he launched into an enthusiastic celebration of the serial and its historical context. Though the Second World War had ended over fourty years previously, it was still within living memory for some at the time of broadcast, and remained somewhat sensitive as a topic. As a result, The Curse of Fenric had to be a mature portrayal of the era, leading to the inclusion of themes such as sexuality, faith and the “seductive power of evil.” Even Miss Hardaker, who seemed like a laughable stock character to some of the audience, was representing quite accurately how many people treated the evacuees. Further context was found in the political climate of the 1980s. When the serial began, the Berlin Wall was still standing, but would fall before part three was shown. The end of the Soviet Union was within sight; the Soviet troops became relics of a bygone age during its first transmission.
Russian history, albeit further back in time, also played a key role in inspiring Mark’s work. Thinking about the pagan subject matter of the story, he adapted a twelve-note figure from the opening bars of the Stravinsky ballet Firebird for his main theme. First heard as the invading Russian boats are spied upon by an underwater POV, looking past the bow of a sunken Viking dragonship, this motif provided him a starting point to score the rest of the episode; a technique also used by the great Dudley Simpson. Mark was fortunate to have been taught by another great composer for Who, Carey Blyton, just after the latter’s work as part of Revenge of the Cybermen had been broadcast.
For Rob, the starting point was more clear-cut. His initial brief was simply to adapt his Big Finish audio Jubilee, but it soon became clear that this idea was unworkable. Though his episode still owes a debt to his audio, Rob instead had to go in a different direction. He attributed to Russell T Davies the idea of the Dalek ascending to power from a position of weakness, acknowledging that this owed a lot to the success of the idea in Power of the Daleks. Rob was also interested in making use of the many quirks of the Dalek design, particularly those that had made them seem laughable to some, including his wife. As a result, there was a callback to Remembrance of the Daleks as the Dalek was seen to levitate up a flight of stairs when the target thought it had got stuck. Similarly, the comical-looking sink plunger was demonstrated to be a deadly weapon when used to kill a guard, while the Dalek’s sense globes were originally intended to be sentient mines. Finally, though not intended by Rob, the Dalek was shown to be capable of melting approaching bullets, since this was easier to depict than having them bounce off its armour.
Though there may sometimes be the impression that writers and artists are kept away from the front line of the production, I was surprised to hear that all three guests were more closely involved than I had expected. As a writer, Rob particularly appreciated Christopher Eccleston’s decision to devote time to private rehearsals with Nick Briggs, particularly for his delivery of the line “why don’t you just die!” It could have been delivered archly but Eccleston managed to avoid this trap, with his spittle-flecked enraged take considered so perfect that they decided not to reshoot it. Mark, as a composer, visited the barracks at Crowborough to see first-hand what the director Nicholas Mallett was doing, and so learn how he could score the scenes, even if he wasn’t able to visit Lulworth Cove.
Mike, meanwhile,was glad to be able to influence the design of the Christmas village buildings somewhat, so that he could later model them at 1:6 scale. These buildings were blown up by the invading Daleks at the climax of The Time of the Doctor; a lengthy sequence of shots he is particularly proud of. The models could easily be reassembled so that alternative shots could be filmed from different angles. The Dalek saucer being shouted at by the Eleventh Doctor was also his, and assembled via the process of ‘kit-bashing,’ where suitable, aesthetically-pleasing, elements are found from expected places like Airfix kits, as well as unexpected ones such as, in this case, a Nerf gun water pistol. These are then combined and spray-painted to a uniform colour, producing the models we see on screen. There are even, if you look closely, very tiny toy Daleks in the windows of the saucer! To complete the shot, toy model Daleks bought online, and even a model TARDIS, had to be filmed being blasted by an air cannon, but it turned out the gusts it made were too powerful, so everything had to be tied in place.
Watching these episodes again can also remind these creative talents of the missed opportunities they had, which can surprise fans who greatly enjoyed the finished product. Rob kept thinking, on his rewatch, of the many plot threads that were excised from the main draft, although, given we found out a month later that he was working on a novelisation of Dalek, this is perhaps unsurprising. The original version was closer in darkness to Jubilee, with the Dalek originally being tortured into singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Van Statten, who was originally to be called Will Fences, a play on Bill Gates. It would also have been a family affair, with his wife running the company and Adam Mitchell as their son. However, all of these elements were removed, as were many jokes, the only one of which survived being the Doctor rifling through three possible weapons in Adam’s workshop and judging them to be “Broken! Broken! Hairdryer!”.
However, he has no regrets having not written for Doctor Who again despite the eleven series which have since passed. He has achieved a childhood dream of writing for the show and struck it lucky because Dalek became a fan favourite. He is especially fortunate because Dalek is not only a triumph, but a disaster averted. The Terry Nation estate initially blocked the use of the Daleks, and so Absence of the Daleks, as it was jokingly called, would have been made with a big black sphere as the antagonist, an idea that was later reused as the Toclafane. This sphere would instead have been the destroyer of Gallifrey, a new villain for a new series. Or, maybe it wouldn’t have been made at all. Having been at the centre of events, the sole victim in a national news story, was a very stressful time for him, and so he believes that trying again would be to tempt fate.
For Mark, his regrets were due to budgetary constraints. During the attack on the church in Part Three, there was originally intended to be a choral piece, rather than full of synthesized stabs, but the choir would have been too expensive. Of course, little was he to know that only three episodes after Fenric had aired, these financial constraints would become absolute when the plug was pulled on the Classic series. This proved a tremendous shock to Mark, especially after attending a wrap party for Season Twenty Six where everyone fully expected there to be a Season Twenty Seven. He would have stayed on as composer, alongside Dominic Glynn, while Andrew Cartmel had already started commissioning. Doctor Who was newly resurgent after its mid-80s wobble, but cut down too soon. As far as Mark could see, the only good reason for cancelling it was to get rid of JNT, something which also didn’t quite work, given he stayed on as producer until 1992.
Mike’s main regret was that, with the exception of a one second sequence for Thin Ice, The Time of the Doctor was the last time he did model work for a new episode of Doctor Who. Indeed, Mike is prouder of his work on The Time of the Doctor than The Day of the Doctor for which he won his BAFTA. He found Day was more of a learning exercise that enabled his team to achieve greater excellence in its follow-up, even if his company was misspelt in the credits as The Modelo Unit. As a worker in practical models, he has seen the rise of computer graphics, which have now become the default choice for many directors nowadays, with some honourable exceptions such as J.J Abrams. Another exception is Douglas Mackinnon who, after directing Cold War, re-commissioned Mike’s submarine in that episode for Good Omens. Mike pointed out that whereas computer graphics are costed by the second, he was able to put a submarine in a tank and give them “forty minutes of footage” from a range of angles. He is sad to see the loss of large models from productions, some of his favourites being the Jagaroth spaceship from City of Death and the Sandminer from Robots of Death. Mike pointed out that these are crucial establishing shots beginning both much-loved stories, but that modern Doctor Who is too fast-paced for those kinds of shots nowadays.
Although the talks with Rob, Mark and Mike are now over, and we’re all stuck indoors for the near future, it was a thrill to speak to the people behind three gems of Doctor Who history. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to enjoy their contributions again this year, with Rob novelising Dalek, Mike having co-written At Childhood’s End with Sophie Aldred, and Mark having assisted with the sound restoration for The Faceless Ones. I look forward to seeing more of their work in the coming years.