It’s a rather clichéd criticism that Doctor Who monsters are unconvincing men in poorly fitted rubber suits. The 1990s in particular saw a variety of programmes hosted by the likes of Clive James and Paul Merton poking fun at some of the series’ less successful creations.
What this latest collection from Koch Media and Reeltime Pictures does is attempt to redress the balance somewhat, interviewing the men and women, actors and dancers who played some of Doctor Who’s most memorable monsters. There’s a focus here on performance and craft rather than cheap gags about wobbly latex appendages, barring a dig at the soup dragon from The Mind of Evil.
The set opens strongly with the Sylvester McCoy fronted I Was a Doctor Who Monster! an engaging history of all the strange, strange creatures on the show from 1963 to 1989, complete with some incredibly ropy recreations of memorable monster moments from the show’s past.
The actors interviewed are much more impressive, and that’s actor with a capital A. Voice of the Daleks and Cybermen, Peter Hawkins and D84 actor Gregory de Polnay are on fine, Actorly form as they discuss their motivations and decisions over their characterisation of emotionless, robotic characters. Cyberleader actor David Banks takes this up in his own Myth Makers tape on Disc 2, in an enjoyable, but bizarre interview recorded during the Brighton leg of The Ultimate Adventure theatre tour. The bizarre part is not just the various bits of comedy business involving Briggs trying to track down his interviewee, but the striking image of Banks, sat on stage in a bold blue suit, discussing the history and appeal of the Cybermen whilst drinking from a champagne flute.
Whilst many of the anecdotes are familiar to Doctor Who fans, the collection remains pleasingly free of cliché. At no point during the discussions of the often dangerous conditions faced by performers does anyone turn to camera and point out “of course, this was in the days before health and safety”. Some stories are particularly wince-some, such as Kandyman actor John Pope being expected to fall down a slide in a bulky metal costume that “bunches up”.
As an opener, I Was a Doctor Who Monster! is a lot of fun, and sets out the collection’s stall as a celebration of unsung heroes, continued on Disc 1 with an interview with Doctor Who’s very own Jack Kirby, Raymond Cusick and a tribute to Michael Wisher, of whom the recently deceased Peter Miles notes “he was not as well-known as he should have been”.
The Cusick interview, rather sadly, is less the cosy living room chat it first appears, and more of an occasional slog, given interviewer Nicholas Briggs’ decision to diligently go through Cusick’s design work on Doctor Who in chronological order. This format eschews the opportunity for a more free-flowing chat and misses a key opportunity to emphasise the point that whilst Cusick designed the Daleks, he also embellished the design of the TARDIS interior, hinting at the vast interiors that the series would explore for decades to come. Briggs is on slightly more animated form when Cusick talks through his original Dalek designs, quizzing Cusick on small details that appear to have changed between the drawing board and the TV screen, however he seems to be bordering on disinterest when looking at designs for the Voord submarines or the crashed spaceship from The Rescue. Thankfully, he does manage to stick the landing in the closing minutes by asking Cusick about his feelings on Dalek merchandise and the key to their success, highlighting that it truly is a crime that Cusick is not better known.
The same is said about Michael Wisher in this tribute from 1996, introduced by Nicholas Briggs and hosted by Wisher’s son, Andy. Wisher was the first actor to be interviewed for the Myth Makers range, and the tribute is occasionally hampered by a history of ReelTime pictures, complete with clips of their original dramas, War Time and Shakedown in which Wisher played integral parts. Unsurprisingly for a character actor as talented as Michael Wisher, he is a great storyteller, regaling us with tales of his military service and explaining the different types of Dalek voice, all with a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other. Familiar stories about wearing a paper bag in the Acton Hilton get trotted out, at both the kitchen table and on a seemingly riotous Dalek panel at a 1988 convention which includes Roy Skelton and the late Peter Miles.
It is disappointing that we don’t get to hear more about Wisher’s roles after his considerable amount of time on Doctor Who in the 1970s, given that he had parts in other British TV institutions such as EastEnders and The Bill but overall, this is a worthy tribute to an underrated character actor which, thanks to contributions from Miles, emphasises the friendships and camaraderie fostered on many a Doctor Who set, another overarching theme of the collection.
The interview with 60’s monster actor Jack Pitt, for example, talks movingly about his friendship with William Hartnell and offers insights into his love of acting. Dalek operator Cy Town is interviewed separately but also alongside his Dalek cohorts, discussing some of the of their time pranks they used to play on set.
These interviews give a sense of what it was like to work on Doctor Who from 1963 to 1989 and highlight both its status as a huge television institution and the lasting effect it has had on all of the actors that have walked through the doors of Lime Grove or Acton or Shepherd’s Bush. A 55 minute interview with an actor who played a Zarbi and a Mechanoid is arguably pushing it, but the strength of the Myth Makers tapes is in its democratising approach, no actor’s contribution to the show is too small, and everyone is treated with the same degree of respect. Indeed, the Doctor himself once noted that he had “never met anyone who wasn’t important” and the Myth Makers format is testament to that outlook.
From the moment that the Daleks first appeared in December 1963, monsters have been an integral part of Doctor Who, but so has humanity, the men and women inside the costumes giving it their all in some rather extraordinary circumstances. You’d be hard pushed to find a more comprehensive celebration of that than The Doctors: Monsters!
The Doctors: Monsters! is priced £14.99 and is available from Koch Media at http://amzn.eu/1SCzpz6