Doctor Who needs three things to succeed: the Time Lord, the Tardis and the terrifying monsters. Millennium FX are the special effects house responsible for bringing these creatures to life.
In this exclusive gallery of concept art from series eight, covering almost every monster that cropped up on screen (and in your nightmares), you can see just how dark things get. Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Rob Mayor and Kate Walshe from Millennium give some insight into how the monsters went from concept to finished episode.
The artists often don’t have much of a brief to work off, but that only gives them more room to create. “Generally, unless we’re reimagining a classic creature, it will literally be a few lines in the script. Unless the look of the creature is crucial to the action it performs in the script, it’s generally quite a vague open ended discussion,” Mayor explains. “That’s great for us, because it gives us a lot of creative freedom. We take those lines from the script, speak to Steven [Moffat], the director and the producers and see if they had anything in mind, then we start doing concept designs.”
After a lot of back and forth, pitching and drawing, the final design is agreed. “By the time Steven sees it again we’ve had about 20 iterations,” says Walshe. “So it’s an idea he can really get behind and understand, because we’ve all been thinking about it. We can explain why a character has this feature, where it’s come from and why it looks the way it does.”
Scrolling through this grim procession of monsters and twisted flesh, it’s hard not to notice how disturbing the concepts can be. Do they believe that the tone of the series is getting darker, the monsters scarier?
“I think since Steven took over the tone was always a little darker,” Mayor says. “If you look back to when Russell T Davies was running the show, even though it was still sinister, there were lots of bright colours. And the creatures echoed that as well. They were quite bold – you had the Juddoon and the Cat Nuns – there was a certain amount of playfulness in them. When Steve took over it got slightly darker. Even the colour palate we’re playing with is darker, more muted with a lot more blues, greys and browns.”
Nevertheless, he believes the series retains that particular eccentricity that has kept it so popular. “There’s a very specific style to Doctor Who, a sort of playfulness to the designs that’s always been there for the entire history of the show, and we still have that.”
Playful? If these monsters are playful, we don’t want to see the mean ones…
Episode 1: Deep Breath
Half Face Man
Fans know that the ‘Half Face Man’ in Peter Capaldi’s first episode was related to the clockwork droids from David Tennant’s episode The Girl in the Fireplace, but Millennium had no idea when designing the mechanical man. “In Steven’s mind he already had something that he wanted to work on, albeit rougher and not quite as beautiful and refined,” Walshe explains, “but we didn’t know until the end of part two that he was partly related to the Clockwork Droids.”
Despite being in the dark, the concept art includes an intriguing half-porcelain mask akin to the Phantom of the Opera. Surely this is a combination of the Half Face man and the original French regency droids, with their doll-like faces? Apparently not: the concept had more to do with saving money:
“At that point we didn’t know there was a connection, that was kept a secret from us. What we wanted to do was make something that could be a cheat. Obviously his head is clockwork and has wheels running in it, but we thought we’d give him a mask to cover that up sometimes, so they wouldn’t have to go to the ends of the Earth with the VFX. But in the end they didn’t want to pull their punches, they wanted to go the whole hog.”
Episode 3: Robots of Sherwood
First of all: gun face! Secondly, concepts for this ye olde romp offer a glimpse of a cut character, ‘The Hunter’, a terrifying robot skeleton (robots, skeletons and robot skeletons were a Doctor Who fixation this year.) Walshe explains:
“Mark Gatiss is really good so we often get his scripts really early on, months and months in advance. When a script first comes through it has all these amazing ideas and concepts and locations in it, but the reality of what we can shoot within a TV schedule is really tight. By the time we got to prep, the script and structure had changed. The Hunter was a character who never made it into the episode, but I can’t reveal what he did.”
Episode 5: Time Heist
The Teller and Psi
The brain eating Teller, the ultimate bank security guard, is one of the most striking creatures from series eight. However, Walshe makes clear that while the psychic snail in a strait jacket might seem fanciful, a lot of thought went into its biology:
“It’s not necessarily the writer’s job to figure out the logic of how a creature’s digestive system works, but we will go to that level of detail: where has it come from, has gravity affected it in a certain way, what is its terrain like, what kind of hand would have to deal with that terrain?”
“With the Teller, the script described it as insectoid, massive, hulking, all these adjectives, but it didn’t really give us very much detail. It was when we were in a meeting going through the script, talking about what to shoot and where, that we came up with the idea of the two tentacles coming together to produce the beam.”
Less horrifying, but no less involved, was the cybernetically enhanced hacker Psi. Getting his fancy technological headdress was a long process: “We tried to think about who the character was – he’s obviously interested in looking cool, but technology is important for him – so we tried to imagine future technologies but also future trends in wearable technology. Steven was really insistent about getting a certain look. We kept producing stuff and not getting it quite right for him. Normally we do something, then one or two variations, and then we’ll nail it. But with Psi we did 20 or so variations.”
Our favourite is the Max Headroom style metal wig.
Episode 6: The Caretaker
The robotic soldier set loose in a school gave the designers a chance to try out lots of different styles. “It’s like most design processes, you need to start quite loose. Especially because of the tight turnaround with our builds, you can’t spend too long on one design in the hope they will like it,” Rob Mayor explains. “Unless it’s something very specific in the script, you basically cast a wide net then gradually you see what appeals to people and what strikes a chord. Then we start to hone down and refine the design from there. There’s no point in doing a selection of sketches that are kind of the same.”
Episode 7: Kill the Moon
“Originally, they wanted incredibly spindly legs, kind of like spider crabs,” Walshe says of designing the lunar parasites. “To build something that could actually function on set would have been so problematic for us, so we tried to push them in a way that was possible for us, with slightly chunkier legs.”
Episode 8: Mummy on the Orient Express
The classic horror movie look of The Foretold was only arrived at after an earlier, weirder design was abandoned, forcing Millennium to raid their personal archives. Kate Walshe explains: “This was the only concept we did, and it’s nothing like what ended up on screen. We had been told there was this episode coming up and we did this design based on a kind-of alien mummy, with much more flesh on dispaly. We showed it at the meeting and they were like…’No, no, just do a mummy.’”
“As it happened Dave Bonneywell, who was the creature designer on that episode, had previously made one of the most beautiful mummys for a film that didn’t get released. He whipped out those images and showed them to the guys and said ‘what do you think of that?’ So that was our basis to go to sculpt. We didn’t even go to a concept sketch stage, because they’d seen these other photographs and liked the vibe.”
Episodes 11 & 12: Dark Water/Death in Heaven
The series finale did a great job at making those old mainstays the Cybermen scary again, by effectively turning them into Cyberzombies, the dead brought back to life. But the clean skeletons seen on television pale in comparison with the gruesome concept art, full of rotten limbs and leathered skin. “It was a really tricky concept, because obviously they’re people’s relatives, but really for the skeletons to operate the Cyber-costumes they should have had some muscle structure,” Walshe argues. “But Rachel Talalay [the episode’s director] was quite clear what she wanted and we were able to scale back from that to really cool, interesting skeletons.”
And what about the gruesome, decaying clay statue labelled ‘Mausoleum Skeleton’? “That was just a quick sculpt that we did. Sometimes we’ll get a script in and just get really excited about it and we’ll sculpt something for them for free and go ‘what about this?’”
It’s probably best this version didn’t make the final episode. We would never have slept again.
Another interesting issue was how to reveal Danny Pink – Clara’s late boyfriend – after he was converted into a Cyberman. With the exposed rivets bursting through his cheeks, it looks excruciating. “It was a really tricky one to nail: getting across the horror of what Danny’s going through while keeping it sympathetic,” Walshe says. “A big part of that was actually Samuel’s performance. We can add all of this body horror, but he has such kind eyes that we had a lot to work with.”
Artists featured: Neill Gorton, Chris Goodman, Dave Bonneywell, Brian Coldrick, Gary Pollard, Calum5 and Kevin Walker