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Monday, September 8, 2014

Mat Irvine On Bringing Words to Life

A spaceship waits on its launchpad
outside a lunar penal colony

Special Effects work has always demanded hard work, quick thinking, and ingenuity on the part of their practitioners. The Doctor Who story "Frontier In Space" proved especially so. In Science Fiction terms, author Malcolm Hulke's story occupied the sub-genre known as Space Opera. The events portrayed in "Frontier In Space" may not compare favorably with the interstellar journeys and battles in a novel by Peter F. Hamilton, but the story was pretty fantastic for its time. 

Unsurprisingly, "Frontier In Space" proved one of producer Barry Letts' costliest stories. Over six twenty-five minute episodes, the Doctor and Jo embark on numerous space journeys, get embroiled in several space battles, and encounter an Ogron-eating monster whom the Ogrons worship as a god. There's even a short appearance by the Daleks. Events take our heroes to Earth, the Moon, Draconia, and the Ogron home world. So, even if the Doctor and Jo repeatedly get locked up in cells by Humans, Draconians, Ogrons, and the Master, they also get out of them and have plenty to do to keep us interested and entertained.

The Doctor even stretches his legs in two spacewalks during the course of the story. 

Thousands of people are typically needed to create the special effects for today's blockbuster Sci-Fi movies, many more than would have been involved in the entire production of this 1973 TV serial. Producer Barry Letts had to stretch his budget to the limits to pay for elaborate twenty-sixth century sets, costumes, location filming, and of course, the special effects work. The latter involved an enormous TV wall-screen in the Earth President's office, the Draconians' makeup, battles involving laser pistol and rifle fire, and of course, all the events that take place in space. 

Despite the enormous scope of the story, the Special Effects team only received a fraction of the days they had requested to film the space sequences. Thankfully, the BBC had purchased a lot of spaceship models from Gerry Anderson's Century 21 Productions. While the Special Effects team weren't allowed to film any of the models, as they were too well known from TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, they were allowed to cannibalize the models for spare parts. So they built all the spaceships and sets required in the script, and hoped for the best when their short period of filming took place.

On one precious filming day, Mat Irvine realized that the size of the Master's Earth Police ship was too large to work with the set of the lunar penal colony. With only half-an-hour before the scene was due to be filmed, he set to work with a ping pong (table tennis) ball, bits of tubing, balsa wood for the wings, and some of the plastic parts cannibalized from the Century 21 models. He cut, assembled, glued, and painted the required model, and managed to set it down on the lunar set before the camera was ready to roll. It may not be the most impressive model ever built, but it helped draw viewers into the story, and make them believe that the Doctor and Master were really on the Moon.

Hard work, quick-thinking, and ingenuity, such as he demonstrated in "Frontier In Space," is what Special Effects work is about. Isn't it amazing, how an author like Malcolm Hulke can create enormous vistas that Special Effects teams have to spend so much money and time to recreate on the TV or movie screen? It makes me all the more impressed when I read novels such as The Reality Disfunction, and wonder if the aliens, space battles, sentient biospheres, and galaxy-sweeping events Peter F. Hamilton created with a few words could ever be brought to life on movie screens.

But then, we all know that words hold tremendous power, don't we?

Dragon Dave

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