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Bookmark and Share An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend

10/27/2013 06:54:00 am - Reported by Anthony Weight

The Dalek Factor
Part twenty-seven in our series telling the story of the creation of Doctor Who, and the people who made it happen.

After the travails of recent weeks, with the abandonment of the original pilot and the cold feet of the Controller of BBC1, as October began to draw to a close Doctor Who was looking a little safer. It was guaranteed a run of at least 13 episodes, and the second of those had now been recorded, with rehearsals due to begin on the third. Work was also continuing on pre-production and scripting for other serials, most immediately the seven-episode adventure by writer Terry Nation, which was to come second in the running order.

This would include creatures called the Daleks - Doctor Who's first race of alien monsters. On Sunday 27th October 1963, exactly fifty years ago today, draughtsman A. Webb drew up the earliest surviving formal designs for the Daleks, from the plans of designer Raymond Cusick. These would be sent to Shawcraft Models, to be constructed ready for use by 20th November. Nobody at the time knew it, but a legend was being born.

Nation's serial was to be an important one for the young series. Neither producer Verity Lambert nor story editor David Whitaker had been entirely keen on the opening story, An Unearthly Child by Anthony Coburn, but by the time they both joined the series it was too late to change it. Nation's scripts would therefore be the first serial they had entirely sought out and commissioned themselves, with Whitaker having selected Nation after being impressed by his work on the ITV science-fiction anthology series Out of this World. Nation had initially been unwilling to work on the programme, but after parting with his previous employer, comedian Tony Hancock, had taken up the offer. Nation had been able to deliver his scripts quickly and write efficiently within the format of the programme, and Lambert and Whitaker had been impressed with his work. With no other serial in as ready a state as Nation's, his tale of post-apocalyptic struggle on a distant alien world was promoted to second in the young programme's running order.

At seven episodes, Nation's scripts would take up a sizeable chunk of the 13-episode run that Doctor Who had been given in which to prove itself by a somewhat reluctant BBC1. The Head of Serials, Donald Wilson, disliked Nation's scripts and did not want Lambert to use them, but she successfully argued that nothing else was ready. Wilson's superior, the Head of Drama Sydney Newman, did not see the scripts or any designs for the serial, as by this stage he was taking a less hands-on role in the production of the programme that he himself has initiated - he did not see the Daleks until the viewers themselves did, in December.

Cusick had not been the designer originally allocated to the story. Future Hollywood film director Ridley Scott, then also working for the design department of the BBC, had orignally been given the task, but problems with his availability meant that it was Cusick who had to come up with a design to match the description in Nation's script:

Hideous machine-like creatures. They are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips for hands. The creatures hold strange weapons in their hands.

Nation was keen to get away from traditional science-fiction film images of monsters being obviously men dressed up in suits, but when Cusick sought advice on how to realise this concept from Doctor Who's veteran associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, he was dismayed to hear Pinfield suggest just that. Pinfield had been assigned to Doctor Who particularly for his ability to advise on technical matters, and his suggestion for the Daleks was a budget-conscious one. He told Cusick to design a costume of a large cardboard tube around the actor's torso, with other tubes around the arms and legs, and for the whole ensemble to be painted silver.

Cusick found greater inspiration when he spoke directly to Nation. The scriptwriter had been enthused by seeing a performance by the Georgian State Dancers, in which the female members of the Soviet group wore long dresses entirely concealing their legs and feet, and thus seemed to glide across the floor without any visible method of movement. Cusick, inspired by this, experimented with various designs all based around the idea of a seated operator entirely enclosed by the outline of the design, with no visible arms or legs.

Cusick worked throughout October on refining the design, consulting with other experts in the field such as Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine of the BBC Visual Effects Department. By 27th October, fifty years ago today, he had completed his design, to be constructed by the outside company Shawcraft Models. This was still not quite the final design - after the designs had been delivered to Shawcraft, the company's boss Bill Roberts made his own refinements to make the props easier, cheaper, and more efficient to construct within the time and budget available. Changes Roberts made included having the gun and sucker arms mounted on the same level, rather than at different levels as in Cusick's design. But beyond such comparatively minor changes, the design of the Dalek, the iconic image familiar to millions even fifty years later, all stems from the designs of October 27th.

Shawcraft would have £750 to construct the four Dalek props which would be needed for the making of Nation's serial, but the appearance of the creatures was not the only element that was being developed through October. The Dalek serial had been assigned two directors - the more experienced Christopher Barry would handle the majority of the serial, while newcomer Richard Martin would also direct some episodes, to help learn his trade. Barry had initially approached the Post Office's Joint Speech Research Unit to investigate providing voices for the Dalek creatures, but wasn't quite able to obtain what was wanted. Martin then approached a body which had already worked on Doctor Who, providing the theme tune - the BBC's own Radiophonic Workshop, based at Maida Vale.

The workshop's Brian Hodgson met with Martin, who explained the type of grating, metallic voice that was wanted. Hodgson, inspired by a robot voice he had previously created for a radio serial called Sword From the Stars, came up with the idea of using a ring modulator to process an actor's voice and create the kind of effect that was desired. Hodgson and Martin experimented with using the modulation process on the voice of actor Peter Hawkins, concentrating on the vowel sounds where the modulation was most effective. The trial session took place in Studio G at Lime Grove Studios on 24th October 1963, when Cusick's designs for the creatures they were coming up with a voice for had still not been completed. The two elements would come together to create a sensation - although nobody, of course, knew that at the time.

Doctor Who had still to prove itself - but with less than a month to go until the transmission of its first episode, there was not long to wait to see what the general public would make of this programme that had been enduring such a struggle to reach the screen. Meanwhile, production continued both on the first serial and on the Dalek adventure - from Monday 28th October, Waris Hussein and his cast would begin rehearsing the third episode of the programme, The Forest of Fear, while on the same day at the BBC Television Film Studios at Ealing pre-filming work began on The Daleks, using 35mm film for stunts, model work and other complicated sequences.

Next EpisodeAn Absolute Knock-Out
SOURCES: Doctor Who Magazine issue 331 (Panini Comics, 25 June 2003); Doctor Who Magazine issue 460 (Panini Comics, June 2013); Dalek 6388 - 1: The Dead Planet
Compiled by:
Paul Hayes