DESIGNING WHO 2: A Swinging Time - Part 3

Part 3 / Pop Art Sets And Star Gates

Modish spectaculars
As the costume design for Doctor Who heartily reflected the fashion explosion of the 1960s, other forces were also at work as the series’ set designers became ever more ambitious. Designers including Colin Shaw (The Moonbase) Chris Thompson (The Evil Of the Daleks) Martin Johnson (The Tomb Of The Cybermen) Peter Kindred (Fury From The Deep), and Roger Cheveley (The War Games) all created signature set designs for the series. At the heart of many of these designs – from the Emperor Dalek’s throne room, the honeycomb like cells of the ice tombs on Telos, to the Pop Art minimalism of the War Room – was an attempt to widen the visual scale of the programme, to infuse a sense of awe and power into the look of the series albeit on a very modest budget. Once again, the design of the series was influenced by the advances in industrial and computer design, the use of new materials and techniques and by the work of other production designers, particularly in the science fiction and spy film genres.

A key designer who epitomised the modernist vernacular in design was Ken Adam. His work on the Bond films was highly inventive, crammed with gadgetry, angular Expressionism and smooth, cold surfaces. It was a mixture of the truly exotic and overt consumption, nowhere more so than in his ‘gold cathedral’ designs for Fort Knox in Goldfinger and the volcano base in You Only Live Twice. He grabbed onto new materials, revelling in ‘space age’ plastics and steel, bright, pure colours as an intentional statement of the ‘futuristic’ and ‘modern’. His German upbringing found equal expression in the way he used vast spaces, strange angles and shapes. The interrogation chamber in Dr. No is redolent of this dynamic with its barred circular skylight casting warped shadows into the space, and its cold space dominating the human figures that populated it.

On television it was the work of Harry Pottle and Wilfred Shingleton that captured the 1960s love affair with the spy genre, modernism and Edwardian and Victorian eccentricity. Pottle and Shingleton created the look of the filmed Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers, where the design was a collision between Mod, Futurism and the Edwardian. In a similar way to Doctor Who, Pottle and Shingleton tended to imply spaces, rather than elaborately build them, probably for budgetary reasons, and their realisation of fantastical landscapes and interiors embraced a simplistic Pop Art vibe.

If you compare the sets for The House That Jack Built episode of The Avengers, which featured an automated house with revolving rooms and changing corridors, to the sets for The Evil Of The Daleks and The War Games for example they have a similar economy of design, mixing futuristic machinery with Mod and Expressionist aesthetics, and in the Dalek throne room a bit of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome designs and loads of blacked out spaces. As stated in Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who by Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker, “Pottle created a flexible idiom in which generic conventions as diverse as gothic horror and drawing-room comedy could appear to be natural bedfellows”. Pottle’s subtle wedding of Victoriana and futurism is elegantly captured in Chris Thompson’s work on The Evil Of The Daleks which uses his counterpoising of styles to define the Victorian haunted house themes provoked by the episodes set in Maxtible’s home and laboratory and the clean futurism of the Dalek city on Skaro.

Shingleton’s work follows a similar trajectory, full of intricate whimsy and surrealism, and his legacy continued to shine in The Fearless Vampire Killers, the Mod spy thriller Sebastian and television’s Strange Report. His mix of Pop Art and Edwardiana can be seen as an influence on Peter Kindred’s designs in Fury From The Deep (Maggie’s pad is so, so groovy), Thompson’s previously mentioned work on The Evil Of The Daleks, Christopher Pemsel’s homage to the spy vibe created on television by Shingleton and Pottle in The Enemy Of The World and Roger Cheveley’s mix of Ken Adam, Bridget Riley and the nightclub UFO for The War Games’ futuristic Modness. Cheveley in particular layered in a psychedelic palette to the designs of the War Room, the interrogation chambers and the SIDRAT embarkation areas. A big influence here was Peter Wynne Willson, an internationally renowned lighting designer and inventor who worked with Pink Floyd between 1966 and 1968 when he created light shows for their performances at UFO and the Roundhouse.

On the subject of Pink Lloyd’s lighting effects, it’s also important to flag up an important relationship between Doctor Who and the BBC’s then flagship music programme Top Of The Pops. Both programmes shared a ‘suck it and see’ wild experimentation with set design, happy accidents with camera trickery, with TOTP embracing Bernard Lodge’s idea of using the feedback from a camera pointed at a TV monitor, and often testing out ideas with lighting and new fangled processes such as Chroma-Key. The sparse set designs, back projections, loopy camera tricks (see Maggie’s suffocation in Fury From The Deep for an example) visual feedbacks and strange solarisation effects became part of the tripped out aesthetic of both shows. The relationship that started between these shows in the late 1960s very much informed the keyed up industrial psychedelia and the pop video aesthetic respectively of the Jon Pertwee and early Peter Davison eras of the show. 

Beyond The Infinite
The ultimate statement in high modernism and psychedelia emerged in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film, along with the 1960s fascination with the ‘space age’, definitively set the standard for much of the realistic science fiction cinema to come and supplanted the kitsch retro looks of 1950s B movies with design informed by spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange.

As detailed by George DeMet, “IBM, Honeywell, Boeing, General Dynamics, Grumman, Bell Telephone, and General Electric all provided copious amounts of documentation and hardware prototypes free of charge in return for "product placements" in the completed film. Lange was responsible for designing much of the hardware seen in the film. While earlier science fiction films had aimed for a streamlined "futuristic" look, 2001's production design was intended to be as technically credible as possible. Production designer Anthony Masters was responsible for making Harry Lange's design concepts a reality. For greater authenticity, production of many of the film's props, such as spacesuits and instrument panels, was outsourced to various aerospace and engineering companies.”

10th May 1968 was the London premiere of the film, the day before the third episode of The Wheel In Space was transmitted. The series’ designers would certainly have been aware of the production’s attempt at complete realism in the way interiors were designed and constructed and the way that the film’s special model effects would set a high benchmark. It clearly informed the BBC model unit’s efforts to produce the very slick work for The Space Pirates and generally the standard of effects work improved vastly when the series went into colour. 

Ironically, the relationship between Doctor Who and 2001 involved the two production teams swapping ideas and influences. In 1965, when the film was in pre-production, and The Daleks' Master Plan was being screened, the then producer John Wiles received a call from MGM's studios at Borehamwood, North London. As Peter Haining’s The Key To Time noted, “The Visual Effects team, headed by Wally Veevers and Douglas Trumbull, are intrigued by the Doctor Who crew's achievements... both in the illusion of weightlessness - as seen with the death of Katarina in episode four - and in matter transportation, demonstrated when the Doctor, Sara and Steven are projected to the planet Mira. Giving credit to director Douglas Camfield, Wiles explains that the space-travel scenes were accomplished by techniques involving the use of special transparencies and video-effects generators, and that the weightless shots were done simply by aiming a camera vertically upwards at an actress suspended immediately above by a wire from the studio ceiling. Curiously enough, when 2001 is eventually released in 1968, permutations of those same techniques, pioneered by Camfield in Doctor Who, are clearly in evidence."

The favour was returned some eight years later, in 1973, as Haining reported in The Key To Time, "A new season of Doctor Who...introduces...a new set of title graphics, again designed and executed by graphics specialist Bernard Lodge but this time using rostrum camera animation for the 'time tunnel' background...Lodge confesses to being influenced by Douglas Trumbull's 'Star Gate' effects in 2001, and to using the same technique to create the patterns which swirl out of nowhere and past the camera for the Doctor Who titles."

As the ‘star gate’ trip in 2001: A Space Odyssey came to an end so did the optimism of the mid-1960s. Doctor Who re-emerged in 1970 with a new leading actor, initially an earthbound setting and an emphasis on realism. The counter-culture of the late 1960s also undertook a critique of the design it both plundered and influenced. Design, particularly fashion, became part of a tactic of bricolage and of self-sufficient living on the margins of capitalism, as an opposition to the wastefulness of the consumer society. As well as a distancing from the futuristic couture of the mid-1960s, the political concerns of diverse movements of the period brought various forms of dress from exotic cultures into Western fashion, in an attempt - perhaps contradictory - to celebrate rather than exploit the Third World.

How this style and this cultural change impressed itself on the production of Doctor Who is…well…another story.
Designing Who 2 (c) 2009 Frank Collins. If you wish to quote from this article please ask the author's permission. Hey, why don't you commission me to write some more!

< Part 2: Mods On The Moon
< Part 1: Cyber Suits You, Sir!

Doctor Who - The Key To Time (Peter Haining, W H Allen 1984)

About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who: 1966-1969: Seasons 4 to 6 (Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, Mad Norwegian Press 2006)

Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who (Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker, University of Texas Press 2003)

Fear And Fashion In The Cold War (Jane Pavitt, V & A Publishing 2008)

Cold War Modern – Design 1945 to 1970 (Edited by Jane Pavitt and David Crowley, V & A Publishing 2008) - V&A’s 1960s Fashion And Textiles features - Second Doctor Archives, galleries and episode guides - 1960s Spy Style. Accessed features ‘Set For Adventure’ and ‘Mods To Moongirls’. Thanks to Jason Whiton for his superb website. - Retro Candy For Your Eyes And Ears. Accessed articles on Paco Rabanne, Andres Courreges, John Bates and Pierre Cardin. Thanks to Will Kane for the incredibly rich visual material on his website. - 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Research Archive - The Special Effects of "2001: A Space Odyssey" by George D. DeMet, originally published in DFX, July 1999 - Boxcutters – It’s Television Dissected. Accessed Ep.177 dated 12th April 2009, of their podcast for the interview with Alexandra Tynan.

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One Response to “DESIGNING WHO 2: A Swinging Time - Part 3”
  1. KAOS says:

    Excellent article - as a young 'un, my imagination was sparked by DWM pictorial spreads of the sets used in Tomb of the Cybermen and The Moonbase.

    The design, and fantastic sets of Doctor Who are so often overlooked, or mired by tedious tabloid myths of "wobbly sets made from egg boxes."

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