As excitement grows around the impending 50th anniversary of Doctor Who it’s a great opportunity for people who worked on the series – who have become separated if not quite by space, then certainly by time – to recall their involvement.
Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s when I was a young cameraman working on animation and special effects I had the pleasure of working many times with graphic designer Bernard Lodge, whose name always seemed to be followed, when mentioning him to someone new, by “he designed the Doctor Who titles”. It occurred to me, however, that even though this was held by many to be his main claim to fame (a bit narrow-minded given what he achieved later in his career), I’d never really sat down and spoken to him about his involvement. So, a few emails later and I was at his beautiful Sussex home, where he still has a studio, to chat about his part in the birth of the series and where things took him in the subsequent years.
How did you come to be involved in the first title sequence for Doctor Who?
I was working in the BBC graphics department, which in those days numbered over a 100 people. It wasn’t initially my job, but a colleague couldn’t do it for some reason and so knowing that I was interested in science fiction, he asked me to take it on. I met with [producer] Verity Lambert and she said she wanted me to take a look at this process called “howlaround”, which had been developed by a technician called Ben Palmer. She thought it might be incorporated into the opening titles. Well, we went along to Ealing Studios and when they ran the film it was amazing. These shapes; magic, just magic.
(“Howlaround” is similar to feedback with sound. When a microphone is pointed at a speaker it creates feedback. Similarly when a video camera is pointed at its own monitor it results in an abstract pattern of shapes)
I came up with the title and we found that the symmetrical lettering, too, created its own howlaround and we used this along with a pen torch to create more pattern. I thought it would be good to have the Doctor’s face coming out of the pattern, but Verity thought it would be too scary and I think she was right because when my kids saw just the shapes they were scared. Later on though when Patrick Troughton became the Doctor we plucked up courage and used his face in the new title sequence. That was a combination of the howlaround and a crumpled piece of polythene to break up the face as the light passed across it. We were very inventive in those days, always messing around and experimenting.
Given the nature of the process, how controllable was it and did the sequence take long to shoot?
Not very controllable in the beginning. And in those days there was no shooting onto tape. The BBC graphics department shot everything onto film. Usually this would be 16mm, but for this we decided it needed to be on 35mm. We probably spent about half a day in the studio shooting so we had cans of the stuff. Then I was involved in the editing, working with the composer Ron Grainer saying, “The title comes in at 20 seconds, so that’s the point you have to hit.”
Looking at Doctor Who generally, was there a feeling at the time that this was a landmark series and that we’d still be talking about it 50 years later?
No, it was very low budget. I think there were some people within the BBC who didn’t really want it made, who thought that science fiction was rubbish. Verity was the driving force behind it. She was a fantastic producer, Verity.
By the time colour arrived, and for Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor, you did away with the howlaround.
Yes, we then started using the slit-scan technique, which is when the rostrum camera tracks while exposing just one frame at a time rather than shooting a series of frames while tracking. It’s a complicated process of time exposures to build up a final image. It was first used by Douglas Trumbull on the film 2001: a Space Odyssey. The Doctor Who titles continued with variations on that process up to the Tom Baker series.
And that became your final involvement with Doctor Who and indeed your time at the BBC.
I’d been wanting to go out on my own for a while and I’d put together a showreel of my work, so decided it was a good time to do so. I worked for about two years and was then joined by my old BBC colleague Colin Cheeseman. That was when we formed Lodge-Cheeseman Productions.
And that was when you really started working a lot with the slit-scan process.
Yes, along with a camera and optical company called Filmfex Animation – which, of course, is where you and I met, Tony – we made a lot of successful commercials and title sequences, mostly using “scan”.
How did that lead to becoming involved with Ridley Scott and your work on Alien?
Through Filmfex really, but I’d first met Ridley at The Royal College of Art years earlier. He was two years below me and I think I saw him one day inking up a woodcut or doing a bit of typography. Then he joined the BBC as a production designer.
He’d nearly finished the live action on Alien and was looking for some sort of different effect for these warnings that came up on the computer screens. They’d had it done in America, but Ridley wasn’t happy so asked us to come up with something. It was the same with the explosion at the end. They’d had it shot in America, but it wasn’t really what he was looking for. We looked at some old film of the atomic bomb tests in the 50s and that smooth movement that the explosion has. We rigged up a piece of glass raised up on film bobbins, some tracing paper and black card and produced the explosion, animating it with small movements on the rostrum camera. It was a bit of a lash-up, but when Ridley saw it he said, “That’s it” and apart from adding a little bit of slit-scan, our first go is what you see in the film.
(“It’s a bit of a lash-up” was one of Bernard’s favourite phrases. He would often come in with some black card, coloured gel and a few camera instructions apologising for it being a bit of a lash-up, but we learnt to trust that as long as we followed what he asked for something miraculous would come back from the lab the following morning)
And that led to the “Esper” sequence in Blade Runner
Ridley was in the UK shooting scenes that they couldn’t afford to do in Hollywood and asked me to direct the sequence where Deckard (Harrison Ford) uses this machine to actually get into and analyse a photograph. It was mainly set up by Ridley, but he wasn’t around much and so I spent about a week at the studio directing it. We had all sorts of problems trying to shoot at slow camera speeds, but we got there in the end.
All this technology-based work seems a far cry from children’s book illustration, which you later became involved with.
After Colin and I decided [quite amicably] to go our separate ways I spent five years at The Moving Picture Company, who were very much at the forefront of computer graphics at that time and were starting to produce fully-shaded images. I worked on some great jobs there (plus some not so great), but after five years I was becoming a bit bored.
Did you feel the craft had gone out of graphic design with the emphasis so much on computers?
I did a bit. I wanted to do something more creative. I was actually at a college in south London doing Italian lessons and I discovered they had a fantastic art department. I’d always wanted to try etching and they had a printing press, so I ended up going there one night a week while I was at the Moving Picture Company to do printing. You had to queue for the press though, so I decided to buy my own.
My wife [Maureen Roffey] was a successful children’s book illustrator so she was my contact into publishing. Over the next ten years I designed 12 books, illustrated mainly using woodcuts and linocuts, and wrote seven of them.
I’d enjoyed my time in publishing but decided that I wanted to produce editioned prints using woodcuts, linocuts and the Victorian printing press. So that’s where I am now.
And what do you think of the present state of television graphics and title sequences?
A lot of the good stuff now is coming out of America. HBO have produced some wonderful title sequences going back to The Sopranos, which was very slick. Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are very good, and I think the opening titles of Six Feet Under are fantastic.
This past Wednesday, many of us chatted about Steven Moffat‘s remarks concerning casting a female in the titular role of Doctor Who. It seemed like a good idea to delve into the opinions of other people who have been involved in the program, as well as some of those who’ve played the Time Lord hero who makes a habit of transforming his body in order to avoid death.
The idea of a female Doctor has been explored in non-canon comedy stories. Joanna Lumley played a female Fourteenth Doctor in a Red Nose Special in 1999, “The Curse of Fatal Death,” written by Moffat. The 2003 audio play Exile featured an alternate universe where the Third Doctor was female, played by Arabella Weir. David Tennant appeared in the same audio play as another Time Lord.
Some have said that the debate about whether or not a woman can play the Doctor rose above the level of occasional fan musings due to Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor. In 1981 it was announced that Baker would be leaving the title role of Doctor Who after playing it for seven years. When asked during an interview about what sort of man the Fifth Doctor might be, Baker remarked: “Well, you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man.”
Speculation began as to whether or not the remark should be taken seriously, and it’s been reported by different sources that then-producer John Nathan-Turner encouraged such speculation in order to help publicity. We know, of course, that the Fifth Doctor was indeed male. But since then, every announcement by the BBC that the Doctor would be recast has been quickly followed by news media asking if the next incarnation would be female. In recent years, the debate has shifted from “Is it possible?” to “Why hasn’t it happened yet?”
Before the casting of the Twelfth Doctor, actor Arthur Darvill (who played traveling companion Rory Williams) eagerly suggested Dame Helen Mirren for the role. Mirren herself said she would not be right for the part but said she believed it was time the Doctor’s gender was switched. While appearing on the show Daybreak, John Barrowman (who played Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood) also supported the gender swap, saying, “Give it a whirl. If it doesn’t work… she can always regenerate back to a man.” All the way back in 2011 he asked “If Captain Jack can be an omni-sexual time agent and an assistant to the doctor, why can’t we have a female doctor?”
When I was writing my book Doctor Who: A History, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa Bowerman. An actor, director, and photographer, she appeared in “Survival,” the last story of the classic Doctor Who program. After the show was cancelled, she became more well known to Whovians for playing the role of Prof. Bernice Surprise Summerfield. A hard-drinking, flirtatious archeologist who originally traveled with the Doctor in tie-in media, Benny thrilled readers so much that she got her own spin-off book series that included twenty-three novels. In 1999, Big Finish Productions started releasing new books featuring Benny, along with audio dramas starring Bowerman. She has now regularly played the part for fifteen years.
With that in mind, I was curious what the actor/director thought about casting a female as the Doctor. Bowerman said, “I don’t think there’s a good reason the Doctor can’t be a woman. I don’t think we should fixate on it, either. We shouldn’t cast someone just to have a woman Doctor or a black Doctor or an Asian Doctor. If it works well dramatically and it’s the right person, then, yes, why not cast that person? If it’s a woman that time, cast a woman. You’d probably lose half of fandom, as people can be very loyal to their ideas, but you have to have confidence in your conviction. If you have something appear on television, in the story, then that legitimizes it. The Doctor can be anything except—and I don’t mean this to be offensive—anything other than British in character, atmosphere and sensibility.”
Excellent points. But what do the Doctors of Doctor Who think?
Peter Davison played the Fifth Doctor on the classic program and decades later starred in a mini-episode alongside Tennant’s Tenth Doctor (who became Davison’s son-in-law a couple of years later). Davison’s daughter Georgia Moffett auditioned for the role of Rose Tyler and years later starred as Jenny in “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In a Q&A feature on the BBC America website, Peter Davison said, “I’ve never quite liked the idea of a female Doctor. I think they’ve found a perfect situation now [in the modern show] where they have the slightly faulted Doctor with all his mad genius, and you have the strong woman as the companion. I think that works very well. If you reversed it, it would be difficult because you’d have the woman as the mad genius, but is she vulnerable? And then you just have a strong man as the companion. And somehow that doesn’t work well to me.”
In July 2013 the website blastr interviewed Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, and asked about the possibility of a female Doctor. The actor said, “There’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be female.” He then added jokingly, “If the Doctor has twelve incarnations, surely he must be in touch with his feminine side to a certain extent.”
Baker was asked about the Doctor being played by a woman again at the Radio Times Covers Party on January 28, 2014. This time he said, “There should [be a female Doctor.] It won’t happen because [the BBC] are too timid, but there should be.”
My research for Doctor Who: A History also involved an interview with Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor. I brought up my own opinion that I think we’re overdue to see a good and talented female taking on the Doctor’s role. McCoy responded, “I wonder sometimes if Doctor Who would lose some fans with a woman in the role. But we need more equality among the sexes because it isn’t there yet. We don’t give women enough credit. Women can be heroic in science fiction and can be intelligent, complex characters, of course. If the Doctor can change from looking like Colin Baker to looking like me and change yet again so he looks like the not-as-handsome Paul McGann, then turning into a woman doesn’t seem much stranger. It’d be interesting and they should try it.”
Eighth Doctor actor Paul McGann has said on multiple occasions that he would like to see a female Doctor and doesn’t think there’s any good reason to prevent such casting. When fans have brought up that they’re not sure Time Lords are able to swap gender, McGann has enthusiastically responded “It’s science fiction!” At the Armageddon Convention in New Zealand in 2010, he even had a suggestion for who could play the female Doctor: “Tilda Swinton as Doctor Who, can you imagine that? Tell me you wouldn’t watch that. You would. You know you would!”
Despite all this, I know that there are people who insist that it doesn’t matter what any actor, writer, director, producer or BBC Controller thinks. These folks believe that since the Doctor was created as a male then the character must stay male and that to do otherwise would go against the core of the story. But you know who didn’t think the Doctor had to be a male forever and always? Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman.
In the 1980s, BBC Controller Michael Grade attempted to cancel Doctor Who but then rescinded the decision after international fan outcry. Despite this, he was very public in saying he didn’t like the show and thought it was embarrassing. Although it had been decided (temporarily) that Doctor Who would have another chance, there was still the feeling that the show needed a serious shake-up to make it interesting and fresh again. In 1987, Grade reached out to Newman and asked for advice.
Newman wrote back with a few suggested changes, on the condition that he return as showrunner to implement them. Those suggestions included that the Doctor get two new companions who were siblings, a 12-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy. These siblings would travel with the Doctor for a few adventures and then, just as they were getting used to him, they would witness his regeneration into a female incarnation. As had been done with previous traveling companions who stayed after an incarnation, the story would feature characters adjusting to the fact that this was the same hero they had known before, even if the outward details were new.
Michael Grade didn’t care for these changes and dismissed Newman’s suggestions. But it doesn’t change a simple fact: The creator of Doctor Who was not only OK with the idea of the Doctor being played by a woman, he was ready to have it happen in 1987.
Seems like we’re overdue.
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and writer who moonlights as a geek consultant and comic book historian.He is the author of Doctor Who: A History. Paul McGann is his Doctor.
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