Breathing new life into Doctor Who’s oldest foes.
Monster-maker Mike Tucker goes back in time with entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE to talk about his work on the new Doctor Who Experience.
“IT’S a job I think most kids dream of doing,” says the experience’s visual effects supervisor Mike Tucker.
I’m 37 and would still love to do it I tell him as we talk about how he and his team at The Model Unit spent months refurbishing some of the show’s monsters and robots.
“I remember bumping into a colleague or an old school mate and he asked what I was doing; when I told him he looked askance at me and said ‘but that’s what you wanted to do when you were ten’. I was ‘yeah, I know’. I’m not sure how many people are lucky enough to do their dream job.”
Mike joined the BBC Visual Effects Department as a holiday relief assistant in 1985 and stayed until the department closed in 2005, which is when he set up The Model Unit at Ealing Film Studios
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It all began for Mike, who has also written Doctor Who and Merlin novels as well as a recent book on the history of the BBC VFX Department, after a visit to the department in the 1980s when it was making The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Advised to do a course in theatre design and he returned to work as an assistant on the original show during the Colin Baker doctor and Sylvester McCoy eras.
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“Building a model of the Tardis was one of the first jobs I ever had. It was for a Colin Baker story called Trial of the Time lord; there’s a big opening shot where the camera goes round a huge gothic space station and at the end of it the TARDIS gets sucked into a beam of light.
“That’s a quite nice, iconic thing to have been involved with. We did the usual sort of props and gadgets; guns, blasters, model spacecraft and buildings, pyrotechnics and I got to design a monster head for one of Sylvester’s very last stories. We covered the range of effects really; at that time we were expected to do the lot.”
When the show came back in 2005 he was the miniature effects supervisor for the Christopher Ecclestone series, carrying on into David Tennant’s run.
“For the first series, the most high profile thing we got involved with was the destruction of Big Ben [courtesy of a Slitheen spaceship] in one of the very early stories that’s the one that I think most people sort of recognise as being a big effects sequence.
“We did things like the barrage balloon Billy Piper hangs from over war torn London from The Empty Child and a model of the Dalek Emperor for Parting of the Ways. We were lucky enough to get to do the full size Daleks for the first season.”
His long history with both classic and new Who made Mike the perfect candidate to breath new life into the timelord’s old foes for the interactive experience.
He met up with Andrew Beech, the artefacts manager at BBC worldwide, who ran through what the experience was intended to be and what they wanted and Mike was then taken to the warehouse in Cardiff where the monsters from the old exhibitions are still in storage.
“I photographed and examined all those props, then basically gave them a time scale and a budget for what work would be needed to refurbish these things to a state they could be put back on display again.
“Some of these monsters are getting on for 40-45 years old. They were never designed to last that long; they were designed to get though two weeks filming in the TV studio so the fact anything survives is quite extraordinary.”
A number of key items were pinned down, including the Ice Warrior, Zygon and the K1 robot from Tom Baker’s first story, and everything was shipped to Mike’s workshop where the team used the same techniques and materials used the first time around so visitors didn’t feel their memories were being cheated.
“We’ve not using any sort of modern silicones or modern polyurethanes; we did it the old fashioned way. It’s plaster molds, old fashioned liquid latex and building them in a very sympathetic manner.
“I hope from the public’s point of view not only do they seem authentic in terms of the overall look, but they feel authentic as well. They’ve got all the same textures and materials and paint work that would have been done on them back in the 60s and the 70s.”
It was no easy task.
“The Zygon’s latex had rotted quite badly and the Ice Warrior - which goes back to 1968-69, the Patrick Troughton era - its legs and arms had rotted beyond all repair and the head was missing. It’s a question of finding photos from the archive and matching everything.
“We were also asked to do things like a set of Cyberman heads through the ages so in some cases we were taking props and just refurbishing them and giving them a new lick of paint, re-chroming them or adding new jug handle ears on them.
“With a lot of these things they have been well looked after and its just a question of cleaning off the dust, the dirt and the cobwebs and making sure that the mechanisms are put back in place again.
“With things like the [William] Hartnell era Cyberman heads nothing exists so we’re trying to re-create from scratch. We’re lucky in that there’s an awful lot of DVDs out there that we can use as reference and Andrew was able to provide us with images from the archives so we had really really good reference to work from.”
He’s right, it’s a cool job.
“Growing up watching shows like Blake’s 7 and Dr Who was what made me decide I wanted to become a special effects designer. To go on and work on the show that inspired you as a child is something I feel extremely lucky and privileged for having done,” says Mike.
“You do pinch yourself occasionally. Back in 1985 when I first joined the BBC it’s like ‘I wanted to do this when I was a kid and here I am building a TARDIS’. Twenty years later, to be standing on set next to Christopher Ecclestone radio operating the head control of a Dalek you think ‘hang on, here I am again. I wanted to do this as a kid and I’m still doing it’. It’s a great feeling.”