The least special effects

Featured image from the Doctor Who episode ‘Robot’ with annotations by España Sheriff

The least special effects are the best ones. Fight me.

Even as a youth, when I was newly captivated with the deeply mysterious world of a flamboyant man with a scarf, a ready quip and a magical blue box, there was one sticking point that threatened to derail the whole business.

My first experience with Doctor Who was ‘Robot’, Tom Baker’s first episode. For the most part, it’s an exemplary outing for one of our most iconic Doctors, with great dialogue and a madcap performance from Baker. And oh yes, it also has an eight foot tall robot with emotional issues and a serious stomping problem.

The robot is where most of the not-we (call them what you will; civilians, non-fans, The Big Bang Theory viewers) get off the Who train and on with their lives. Not because the robot costume looks cheap; it doesn’t. It’s actually a fairly impressive and complicated prop which doubtless took no shortage of skill to navigate around a cramped BBC studio.

No, the point at which the uninitiated give up is a sequence where, due to some plot jiggery-pokery and a bucket of red glop, the robot swells to an enormous size and starts smashing the English countryside like a somewhat more polite King Kong.

One could make the argument that the original King Kong looked just as unrealistic, but that film was a pioneering work of stop motion photography and mixing of live action and model elements. The giant robot…isn’t.

But let’s stop there for a second. As a Television Professional of Little Renown, I can tell you that the fundamental difference between King Kong and ‘Robot’ is simple. King Kong, and countless other effects-driven movies were shot on film. Classic Who was shot on behemoth tube cameras which at the time were performing a minor miracle by reproducing colors.

This phenomenon extends beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. Allow me to digress for a moment and I’ll tell you the tale of The Starlost, a show composed of good ideas, tons of behind the scenes talent, and a legendary track record of failure.

The Starlost was the brainchild of sci-fi authors Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, and had none less than 2001’s visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull as a producer and the main force behind the visual effects. It even starred Keir Dullea from the same film! And yet it was a complete flop.

Why? It gets complicated. The show was filmed in Toronto, which meant a low budget and a much more shallow talent pool both in front of behind the camera than if it were made in Los Angeles. As a Canadian it pains me to write that, but it was the truth back in those days (less so now). Harlan Ellison famously clashed with the production team and was forced to work with a team of Canadian writers who were… less than versed in television production.

But we’re here to talk about visual effects, and The Starlost had that in spades. In fact the original plan was to use early bluescreen technology to superimpose the actors into detailed models. Using motion control, the actors would interact with the models in ways never before seen on television, which would both save money on sets and allow for visuals that complimented the ambitious ideas of the series.

There was only one problem, which was that none of it worked. The effects looked awful, the already stiff acting was thrown into sharp relief against obvious bluescreen effects, and the spectre of videotape loomed large, adding the extra patina of failure that only electrons bouncing off a cathode ray tube can provide. In the end, The Starlost only lasted 17 episodes.

Why do I mention this completely irrelevant Canadian televisual disaster, you ask? Because Doctor Who did this dance for 26 years, you ungrateful bastards! It succeeded where The Starlost failed, and it fought the good fight for bad effects when lesser, weaker series threw in the towel out of shame.

Yeah, the new series blew away the old for visual effects. We’re not talking about that right now. And besides, everything on television looks good these days. Cop shows and hospital dramas are stuffed with invisible effects, and the number one drama on television is about swords, dragons and incest.

Hell, even a show like Ugly Betty was almost all greenscreen. It took an American knockoff of a telenovela to fulfil the virtual production dream of The Starlost. Make of that what you will.

What I’m saying is it takes a certain amount of grit and determination to know going in that your effects are going to look patently ridiculous and then do it anyway. More to the point, it’s a fundamentally British thing to do.

The makers of The Starlost didn’t expect their effects to be an unmitigated disaster, they expected it to be a revolution in TV production. Expensive American shows like Battlestar Galactica spent all their money on the first two episodes and just reused footage rather than admit defeat. But British TV shows just blithely pushed forward, even if all they had to work with was a rolled up ball of tin foil and milk carton.

Don’t laugh, that’s the sum total of the effects materials on ‘The Invisible Enemy’.

Other shows like the The Tripods, Blake’s 7 and Threads (sorry, just seeing if you’re paying attention) had bad effects, but Doctor Who is the one that gets singled out by the not-we for ridicule, precisely because it shows pride in its crappiness.

And let’s not forget, the BBC doled out approximately £0 an episode to the effects department. This was less of a problem in the 1960s and early 1970s, when everything except the aforementioned 2001 looked awful, but once Star Wars hit screens in 1977, viewers expected more. And the BBC was happy to thwart those expectations at every turn.

That’s not the fault of the effects department, and they did their damndest to work with what they had to put something, anything on screen. During the making of ‘Underworld’, a Tom Baker adventure with tenuous links to Greek mythology and a bunch of dodgy robots, they even went the all-greenscreen route. Not because they wanted to, but because a strike meant they couldn’t use any actual sets so the model-makers had to create caves for the actors to pretend to explore. And they did, damnit! They didn’t tout their genius like Douglas Trumbull, cash a check and go home, they just got the job done.

Honestly, what are the visual effects sequences that have gone down in fannish history over the last half century? Other than the amazing model shot opening of ‘Trial of a Time Lord’, it’s the bad effects that earn our enduring affection. Cranky spiders hopping at Jon Pertwee, a silly robot smashing fake houses and dangling a sub-par Sarah Jane doll, and the piece de resistance, the clams from ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ having a munch on Harry Sullivan’s leg. Not to mention all the times a laser gun appeared to produce nothing but smoke and a stock sound effect, or the wobbly sets, or…well, you get the idea.

So the next time you queue up for the latest Marvel pixel punchfest or even the anamorphic adventures of our newest Time Lord friend, spare a thought for the effects of yesteryear. Like your parents, they may not have been good at their job but they did the best they could with what they had because they loved you.

And that’s enough.

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