The classic series of Doctor Who, has always been lovingly derided – for its lack of quality visual effects.
However, within this – a paradox exists, in that; Doctor Who actually pushed the boundaries of what was possible on television and pioneered (or created) new technologies, along the way.
The unique opening time-tunnel effect, was created by feeding a camera image back through the same camera, creating feedback – known as “howling”.
When the show began in 1963, the cutting/editing of one scene into another, was the height of the options available – to production staff. So the show concentrated on producing detailed and quality modelwork effects, instead.
The BBC Visual Effects department were initially contracted to make models for the show but to ease the burden, Shawcraft Models were sub-contracted to help meet the demanding deadlines on the production.
The Dalek city on Skaro, in The Daleks – 1963 was among many memorable model shots produced.
Where the budget didn’t stretch, model shots were also used to visualize large backdrops; such as the beach and temple scenes in Keys Of Marinus – 1964.
The first true visual effect to be utilised, was called “inlay” and involved the combination of two static TV pictures – into one. The actors overlayed with either the dalek city model in The Daleks – 1963, or the crashed ship model in – The Rescue – 1965, was an example of this effect.
This effect would be utilised many times in the show, to afford the sometimes necessary sense of scale. It wasn’t until Troughton’s Evil Of The Daleks – 1967 however, that the show finally employed a dedicated Special Effects Designer; with further help from The ‘Bill King Trading Post’ company.
The next leap in visual effects, came with the colour era of Pertwee and ‘Colour Seperation Overlay’ – (CSO) or ‘Chromakey’. This allowed additional elements to be shot against a neutral colouring (like blue or green screen) and then overlayed on a live action scene.
CSO would become the staple effect of the show, for the next 10 years. It was useful, as it could be used to combine actors – against static model shots (as inlay had), or to even overlay smaller effects shots onto live action.
An example of this – done well, was the invisible Spiridon creatures from Planet Of The Daleks, in which the invisible Spirodon interacted with the environment, such as picking up an object and moving it around. This was much more effective, than using physical wires, which would have been noticable.
The only problem with CSO, was a slightly hazing which was sometimes visible around the inserted plate; which betrayed the foreground element against the background footage.
The next big leap (in the JNT era of Doctor Who) was a digital video package, called ‘Quantel’. Which allowed images to be seamlessly combined and overlayed and for areas to be digitally painted out.
Hence, the Tardis could now dynamically materialise into a moving ‘live action’scene, for the first time. Rather than the previous staple of a static cut-scene between the Tardis being present and then disappearing – with little to no background movement; which might betray the fast-cut.
The early digital effects didn’t end there, as ‘Scene-Sync’ was also introduced, which meant that a model overlay could be filmed and tracked at the same time as a live action scene.
Which meant that the model backdrop could move dynamically, with the studio environment. Elements of this were successfully used in Tom Baker’s Meglos – 1980, as the Doctor walked around Meglos’ giant superweapon complex – which was a model.
As the 1980’s drew to a close, Doctor Who experimented with early digital CGI – ‘Paintbox’ and ‘Amplex Digital Optics’ (ADO).
Paintbox was a tool which could be used to enhance or change footage (much like a Photoshop of its day) by colourising or altering images.
It was mainly used to alter the colour of alien skies, such as the pinky hues of Lakertya in Time And The Rani. and the pink skies of Thoros Beta in Mindwarp.
ADO was used to generate the Dalek lazer blasts in Remembrance Of The Daleks, the Dalek infra-red view point and the Rani’s bouncing ‘time-bubbles’ in Time And The Rani.
Another CGI software programme – called ‘CAL Video’ was used to generate the Seventh Doctor’s opening titles – another first for the show.
Finally, CGI was also used to generate the opening titles and Skaro backdrop, to 1996’s Doctor Who : The TV Movie.
In summary, the show which is known for its poor special effects – was infact a trailblazer for new technologies and visual mediums, bravely trying new visual tricks, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. All – in an attempt, to enhance the story or scale of proceedings – further.