DESIGNING WHO: Streamlining And The Avant Garde


Recently, I was delighted to be invited to contribute to the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's publication Celestial Toyroom. The Doctor Who Appreciation Society, or DWAS, was founded in May 1976 and has since been organising local fan groups, conventions, social events, and publishing magazines on a regular basis. Celestial Toyroom is a publication distributed to their membership and is the longest running Doctor Who magazine in the world.

My contribution for the double issue 361/362 is the first in a series on the design of the television series, Designing Who and I'm pleased to republish the article here in a slightly expanded form. My thanks go to Tony Jordan, the editor, for his support and friendship in this endeavour.

Get yourself over to the DWAS website and sort yourself out a membership.

DESIGNING WHO : Streamlining And The Avant Garde
(c) 2008 Frank Collins. If you wish to quote from this article please ask the author's permission.

When we are children, the arrival of ‘something from the future’ fills our heads with such a sense of wonder at the world. The ‘future’ to me, as a child, was an awesome collision of real and imaginary worlds that were forged by fascinating encounters with technology and design, from the rather mundane local trains and buses my mother would escort me, excitedly, onto, to the glowing cathode ray tube in our front room. That screen would beguile all of us with visions of contemporary Britain and of alternate realities where the Tracy brothers flew in impossibly futuristic machines and an old man hid away a spaceship inside a police box parked in a London junkyard.

That intoxicating brew of the futuristic, both imaginary and real, the mash up of the ordinary and the extraordinary are key elements in Doctor Who. Its ability to subvert our expectations of the everyday is central, perhaps vital, to its continuing success. That this subversion is fashioned through storytelling, acting, characters, music, direction, editing and design is very clear and understanding the meanings that they contribute to the programme has been part of our enjoyment of it. The story and meaning of the design of Doctor Who is perhaps not as well examined as other aspects of the series construction and indeed design for television in itself is an area that has only just come under serious critical examination. I don’t propose for a moment to discuss the entire history of design in Doctor Who but I would like a brief opportunity to look at the beginning of the series and what impact design had on the series in 1963 and its enduring legacy since. It is also at this stage, where the original series came into being, that a number of specific contemporary events, design and pop culture influences and the work of particular individuals culminates to produce two indisputably iconic pieces of design for Doctor Who. I’m going to look at Peter Brachacki’s design of the interior of the TARDIS, and Ray Cusick’s design of the Daleks and I’ll be referencing the television series in relation to their work as well as many of the influences that informed their creations.
Where did it all come from?
So how did Peter Brachacki conjure up the interior of the TARDIS? Where did his ideas come from? What made Ray Cusick design the Daleks in that iconic fashion? To get a glimpse of the kind of influences on both designers I think it’s best to first understand a little about the traditional and modernist axes that intersect at the point when the designs were produced. Design for a science fiction programme of the kind that Doctor Who set out to be in 1963 is very much affected by the emergence of British society out of the austerity of the post-war years and into the boom years of late 1950s affluence. It was a time of both maintaining certain traditions and yet grasping for the thrill of modernity. The modernist approach to design and wider artistic culture in Britain had been stalled by the war whilst the USA had already embraced the modernist influence in all areas of the arts, from music and literature, through to product design and architecture. During the 1940s and 1950s, design was having a major impact on the consumer boom in America and modernist designers created products and architecture that would have a wide appeal, and that would cross divides in taste and class. In this way design was regarded as a unifying force, helping to create a fairer, socially just society, and producing iconic objects not subjected to trends and fashions. In Britain, a great deal of ‘catching up’ was required if the newly affluent society was to be given the opportunity of purchasing products fit for the modern age. This meant that British designers needed to reject traditional solutions in favour of new technologies and materials, imbued with a sense of abstraction and the metaphysical. In seeking to “express the ‘spirit of the age’ many designers would abandon the use of ornament and seek to unify and rationalise design solutions and produce products that transcended the messiness and subjectivity of everyday life in favour of a higher order of formal composition”.1

Visions of the future
There are a number of landmark events, design movements, works and artefacts that pre-1963 I would consider directly influence the ideas of both Brachacki and Cusick. As Doctor Who in 1963 stood at the crossroads between traditionalism and modernism, then the work of Frank Hampson and the impact of the Dan Dare comic strip in The Eagle should first be taken into consideration. Dan Dare’s vision of the future, a British future to be sure, was espousing that technology and new design were going to be the solution to all our problems. Hampson’s drawings of spaceships, vehicles, cities, and landscapes were, at the time, considered the epitome of this bright, new, future and were born out of the machine age design of America in the 1930s and 1940s. The Eagle was full of drawings, not just Hampson’s retro-future for Dan Dare, but also of racing cars and jet fighters. The Eagle may now just be regarded as a nostalgic artefact, but at the time it clearly allowed its readers to believe that the future was British, that we still had an Empire and that we still had industrial power. Whilst all around him was of the modern world, Dan Dare himself remained a very traditional hero. Loyal, trustworthy, all for fair play, he was an Englishman not even remotely affected by the embarrassment of Suez.

The Festival Of Britain in 1951, concerning itself with the construction and reconstruction of national identity as expressed through cultural events, artefacts and buildings, is another huge influence on the early design of Doctor Who as well as some of the subtexts with which the programme surrounded itself. The Festival put forward an optimistic view of the future of Britain and Britishness and how a traditional nationhood could embrace the modernist world. With architecture as a main concern, the Festival was keen to demonstrate work that symbolised “strength, realism and imagination”.2 The futuristic Skylon, like a huge space rocket, perhaps most of all struck this futuristic note and pre-figured advancements in missile technology such as Blue Streak, Polaris as well as the Bluebird designs used by Donald Campbell in his land and water speed attempts. And like the mysterious émigré figure of the Doctor and, by extension, Polish designer Brachacki himself, it is ironic to note “that a considerable amount of work showcased on the South Bank in 1951 was by designers and artists who had escaped fascism and settled in England”.3

Alexander Korda’s film of H.G. Wells’ Things To Come, released in 1936, should also be regarded as an important pre-war visual influence on the design produced in the early years of Doctor Who. A compelling and visionary work of vast imagination and real optimism wherein science and technology are touted as mankind's salvation, it was designed by William Cameron Menzies. Wells, who had approval on all aspects of the production, also approached artist Fernand Léger, architect Le Corbusier and Bauhaus legend László Moholy-Nagy to produce designs for the film. Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe were the founding fathers of the Bauhaus and had a huge impact on modernist design, especially architecture, but also typography, interior and industrial design. Controversially, they espoused a “rejection of historical styles as a source of architectural form, adopted the principle that the materials and functional requirements determined the result, rejected ornamental and unnecessary detail, and epitomised the ‘form follows function’ school of thought”.4

Working at Denham Studios, Moholy-Nagy created kinetic sculptures and abstract light effects for Things To Come, but these were rejected and only some 90 seconds of his designs made the final cut. His abstract work could be said to have as much influence on the design of the TARDIS, for example, as the Bauhaus school. The Bauhaus became known for the versatility of its artists, and Moholy-Nagy was no exception. Throughout his career, he became proficient and innovative in the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, painting, and industrial design. It’s again ironic that Moholy-Nagy and Gropius left Berlin to escape the war and settled in England. Moholy-Nagy was also very aware of “the Russian suprematists Malevich and Lissitsky, with their visions of aerodromes and radio stations, an architecture of mass communication for a brave new world”.5
1. Designing Britain case study: Modernism (Andrew Jackson) - pages accessed 16/2/08 and 17/2/08
2. Designing Britain case study: Festival Of Britain (Gillian Whiteley) - pages accessed 16/2/08 and 17/2/08
3. Designing Britain case study: Festival Of Britain (Gillian Whiteley) - pages accessed 16/2/08 and 17/2/08
4. Modern Architecture’, ‘Moholy-Nagy’, ‘Walter Gropius’ – Wikipedia pages accessed 16/2/08 and 17/2/08

5. Guardian Unlimited ‘ Laszlo Moholy-Nagy ‘The fiery stimulator’ Special Report – Modernism (March 18, 2006 Fiona MacCarthy)

Go to Part Two
Go to Part Three

Technorati Tags:

2 Responses to “DESIGNING WHO: Streamlining And The Avant Garde”
  1. Anonymous says:

    You're a great writer Frank, and I look forward to *working* with you for a long time to come! :)

  2. Hello, Tony

    Very kind. I hope to continue to contribute to CT for some time to come. Now, how do you suggest I reduce the 10,000 words I've got for Sarah Jane Adventures to something more managable? Hmmm?

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2023 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.