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Doctor Who? Design Genius

By Fran Osborne


One of my earliest television memories — like many British children — is of a whirring blue box flashing erratically across the screen. I was four when the Doctor Who reboot aired on BBC One with Christopher Eccleston as the damaged and disillusioned Doctor and Billie Piper as his wide-eyed-pink-wearing companion. Having re-watched much of the series last year in anticipation of the 60th anniversary, I decided that the show is an ingenious feat of design unmatched by any other British television series.

 

Doctor Who was comprehensively a BBC production, thought up and brought to life by in-house creatives in 1963. Those at the helm were emblematic of a modern Britain with Verity Lambert being the first female producer at the BBC and Waris Hussein serving as the first British Asian director in the BBC drama department. A sense of modernity permeates the show, either through the storylines or the fabric of its design. The BBC had set out to build a new and exciting world, pulling together ideas pertinent to the swinging sixties and providing a new lens to look at history.


BBC/Doctor Who, TARDIS


Doctor Who’s Tardis is an enduring and quirky classic of British design, but its now iconic 1960s blue police box exterior came into being as a result of a tightly squeezed BBC budget. Initially the Tardis was intended to be a shapeshifting chameleon, able to change its outside to match or blend in with whatever time or space the Doctor ended up in. Naturally this would have required a huge budget to change the set every episode. So, the show’s creatives came up with an ingenious workaround. In the first storyline they hinted that something had gone awry as the Tardis battered through time to the Palaeolithic period and got stuck with its 1963 exterior… “It should have changed!” says Susan. “Wonder why it hasn’t happened this time?” She should have asked the BBC Accounts Department…

 

The Tardis’s most notable quality is that it is “bigger on the inside” so much so that we now use ‘tardis’ to describe things that, on first glance, are deceptively small. But the spacious interior usefully lends itself to decades of reinvention, creating a set that is perfectly timeless, while perpetually reflecting the concerns of its time. In every iteration it is a more or less circular space, fitted into a square footprint and with a hexagonal console in its centre. But within that template almost everything is subject to change.William Hartnell’s original console gives a space age spin to a World War II war room. The function of its various levers and buttons is mostly left unexplained unless and until they have a narrative purpose—and even then, they are disarmingly direct. In the 1963 episode ‘The Dead Planet,’ for example, a monitor labelled ‘Radiation’ flashes ominously to ‘DANGER’ as the Doctor and his companions make their landing. The year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems that the fear of nuclear destruction had found a toehold in the narratives and design of Doctor Who.


BBC/Doctor Who, TARDIS 1963.


The circular wall design which debuted in the first episode has also become iconic, brought to life and reimagined throughout the Doctor Who franchise. In 1961 and 1963, as the first man and woman flew out of our atmosphere into space, new technology was a marvel to behold and adore, and the Doctor Who design team did not hesitate to exploit the new decade’s fascination with it. The first iteration of the Tardis’s interior is as redolent of the 1960s as a Mary Quant dress or a Bridget Riley painting, its bright white plastic circles studding the inner walls.



  BBC/Doctor Who, TARDIS 1963/2005.


The Tardis has evolved over the years—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse—to mirror the regeneration of each Doctor. In that time, there have been some seriously questionable innovations in design: the fourth doctor, Tom Baker, for instance had a second control room of mahogany wooden panelling, whilst the 1980s techno-boom found expression in hard edges, bright colours and an increasingly plasticky feel to the console’s technology. For my own taste, the worst Tardis interior was that of the eighth Doctor; a Victorian inspired hexagonal library, with impractical candles and a central wooden control console. But this was the end of the 20th century Doctor Who era, culminating with an un-regarded 1996 TV movie with Paul McGann as the Doctor. The franchise appeared to have run out of steam.

 

In 2005 however, the spirit of the original show returned with a revamp under the direction of Russell T. Davis. And the designers were on form, because the new Tardis was perfect, lovingly reimagined for a decade that was much less interested in exploring the worlds beyond ours and increasingly concerned with an earthier dimension. They used organic and coral like motifs, mixed with steam punk bronze hexagonal shapes and a distinctly alien green control setting. The elements have morphed and changed since then but the overall design remains the same. Now as we welcome the 14th doctor, our first glimpse of the Tardis could have been imagined anew by Jony Ive — the Tardis meets Japandi meets Apple — with its bright white and extravagant technological interiors.


BBC/Doctor Who, TARDIS 2023.

 

Creatures, monsters or aliens were also subject to imaginative design inspiration. There isn’t room to talk about all of them but no item about designing Who can overlook those quintessential enemies—the Daleks and the Cybermen. Daleks were the brainchild of screen writer and novelist Terry Nation, but he did not design their appearance. That honour fell to an in-house designer at the BBC named Raymond Cusick, whose design for them is both comical —with their pepper pot body and sink plunger weapon—but also imbued with such a creepy and predatory inhumanity that they spark fear not only in British children but in the alien hearts of the Doctor as well.


BBC/Doctor Who, Dalek concept art.

 

It is with the Daleks that we see the post-war legacy so clearly in the show’s design. Terry Nation grew up during the Second World War, and it’s not hard to imagine his Daleks as a representation of the Nazis, with all the good human emotions removed and an unadulterated desire for death and destruction of anything non-Dalek left behind. Their design is military, with their tank like heads and heavily armoured metal bodies. As creatures they are nearly indestructible, able to deflect human weapons and kill with an — at times manic — immortal cry: ‘EXTERMINATE.’  Throughout the series they seem to be omnipresent and omniscient with a killer instinct to match, but their physical appearance has remained largely the same over the last 60 years. Occasionally tarted up, perhaps sometimes with different colours to denote hierarchy, but ultimately, the same iconic design — hey why change a good thing?


BBC/Doctor Who, Daleks, 1964.

 

But if the Daleks are essentially unchanged since their 1963 debut, their implacable foes, the Cybermen, have been through many permutations over the years. Introduced in 1966 in ‘The Tenth Planet’, the ‘Mondasian Cybermen’ are a still evolving race, their design a combination of recognisably human parts such as the hands with robotic adornments and what look like giant headlamps on the top of their heads. I found it hard to imagine 60s kids being frightened of them; with their wrinkled stocking faces and their slightly camp Eton educated accents. All the same, the origin of their design is quite interesting, with mid-century anxieties over how the 'white heat of technology’ might begin to replace humans in the workforce, and perhaps also a preoccupation with cosmetic surgery. Where does the ability to rebuild and re-sculpt the human body stop? The Cybermen — who theoretically were once human — have removed the ability to process and feel pain; like the Daleks they have got rid of what they believe makes them weak such as frail human bodies and emotions. And here, there is an interesting dichotomy: the armoured Daleks are frightening because they don’t bear any resemblance to human beings; the Cybermen are scary because they do.


BBC/Doctor Who, Cybermen 1966.

 

Over time Cybermen design has evolved to match the creepiness of their initial concept. In 1968, when the season storyline launched a full-scale cyber invasion of London, kids across the city would have been forgiven for worrying that a Cyberman might at any moment pop out of a manhole cover to join a metal army marching on the Thames. By this time, the prototypes had found a much more menacing shape. Marching in union, their bodies are more robotic in design, encased in silver with a full-face metal helmet that no longer resembles skin-coloured tights. (They were not immune to BBC budget constraints however, as upon close inspection, these menacingly metal men seem to be wearing lace up metallic Doc Martens and zip up sports jackets.)


BBC/Doctor Who, Cybermen, 1968.


For kids growing up in the noughties, the Cybermen introduced during David Tennant’s tenure adopted an altogether more terrifying guise. Their metal shells now made them giant men, thunderous as they marched together, the sound of their feet ricocheting around London streets. Though the shadow of the previous designs remained, the new Cybermen were a perfect 21st century expression of human anxieties around technology and androids, given a particularly sharp edge in their ability to control the human population through their earphones.


BBC/Doctor Who, Cybermen, 2007.

 

Whole books could be written on the various aspects of Doctor Who design history. I of course have merely scratched the surface, but the genius of Doctor Who is that regeneration is built into its genesis. As the Time Lord shape shifts into new bodies, so does the show itself, with morphing Tardises, a blend of iconic and new creatures and enemies, and costumes to reflect the various times in which the Doctor and his companions land. Our modern life seeps into the design of Doctor Who; perhaps this is why it is so enduring, like the chameleon Tardis moving with the times. I felt this watching the new Tardis in 2023 reveal a disabled access ramp. Having watched the trailer of the new series I am unsure whether the spirit of the old show remains, as it becomes more and more Marvelesque and computer generated. Part of the charm for me was knowing there was a face under the prosthetics. It has the chance though to change and change again as new minds come together to reimagine a British cult classic.

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