Doctor Who's Famous Sonic Screwdriver

Photo from Series 9 YouTube excerpt, below.

For those interested in how to construct an on-screen universe, there is no better place to start than with Doctor Who: Impossible Worlds.

Doctor Who: Impossible Worlds: A 50-Year Treasury of Art and Design

Publisher: Harper Design
Author: Stephen Nicholas, Mike Tucker
Publication date: 2015-10

This weighty volume seeks to provide an illustrated design history of Doctor Who. Authors (and former Doctor Who visual effects and design bods) Stephen Nicholas and Mike Tucker do a good job on the whole of documenting the evolution of the show’s visual style, from the design of famous monsters to the creation of props and the landscapes of alien worlds.

Nicholas and Tucker’s brief is simple, and throws up some fascinating facts that perfectly illustrate how serendipitous so many of the design decisions that shaped the show’s visual look were. Who would have thought that, back in 1963, the original Daleks were only supposed to have been made out of plywood for cost reasons, and got their trademark shiny fiberglass exteriors because the model makers didn’t have the money to hire a carpenter?

The story behind the Doctor’s famous sonic screwdriver is similarly an eye-opener. Casual fans may be surprised to know that the First Doctor (William Hartnell) is nowhere seen using one: five years went by before the screwdriver made its first appearance, in the form of a rather underwhelming small and unadorned silver rod brandished by the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) for the rather mundane purpose of tightening screws.

However, the legendary turned aluminium prop wielded with such panache by Third Doctor Jon Pertwee -- a prop that served, with only minor modifications in appearance, for the next two and a half decades -- was almost certainly not designed at all, at least, not by a Doctor Who graphic artist: Nicholas and Tucker note the prop was probably lifted from a Gerry Anderson Thunderbirds feature film made in 1966. By 2005, the device had undergone a complete transformation, benefiting from flashing lights and a distressed look that owed much to the steampunk overtones of the show.

Both the 1963-89 and the post-2005 series are covered here, at least in theory. The authors make laudable attempts to trace the development of the show’s mainstays, such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the TARDIS’ console room, from their beginnings in the '60s. The focus is naturally on the series’ visual look over the last ten years, but even so, it's dismaying that so many aspects of Doctor Who’s '60s, '70s, and '80s design philosophies barely get a mention. In the same way, the 1996 telefilm, which won plaudits on its transmission for a lush visual aesthetic that put the frequently cheap-looking sets of previous eras to shame, gets a single paragraph and no illustrations, in spite of the fact that Richard Hudolin’s TARDIS console room design arguably did more to influence later versions than any other.

Another criticism is that the authors have been somewhat selective in their choice of materials from these earlier periods. Given the paucity of surviving design documents from the '60s, it's surprising that very few of the blueprints for various sets and devices that do survive are depicted in the book. The Daleks and the Cybermen are notable exceptions; early design sketches appear alongside their more recent incarnations. Dalek designer Raymond Cusick’s initial sketch for a Dalek depicts something akin to a six-foot-high pepper shaker, with the prominent buttress to the front that is now synonymous with the silhouette of a Dalek completely absent. Sandra Reid’s 1966 Cyberman, meanwhile, will prove a mystery to viewers of the post-2005 series, with such features as the ‘teardrop’ eye and the hard metal appearance yet to appear.

Such illustrations are both instructive and entertaining; and indeed, the comparisons the authors draw with these monsters as realised today is often startling, with the Cybermen in particular having gone through several design iterations from 2005 onwards before the makers settled on the Iron Man-esque look we know today. One 2006 design concept by Peter McKinstry (p. 113) is utterly grotesque, a hideous mixture of Reid’s ‘handlebar’ skull design with Ed Cubberly’s Hannibal Lecter face mask so shockingly brought to life by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Other, less well-known designs are barely mentioned or overlooked altogether. The most notable omission along these lines is Raymond Cusick’s hugely impressive design work for the William Hartnell serial ‘The Rescue’, transmitted in January 1965. One of the show’s first ever two-parters, ‘The Rescue’ is a tight, agreeable story that centres on the Doctor’s encounter with the survivors of a spaceship crash. Given the usual scanty budget to work with, Cusick conjured up a simple but highly effective set consisting of a fuselage rent in the middle, all steel girders and technical-looking consoles.

Easily the match of anything that appeared on Doctor Who’s American cousin, Star Trek (the pilot episode of which aired the following month), the blueprints for the set are known to survive, and even turned up as a PDF extra on the DVD issue of ‘The Rescue’ a few years ago. As an example of '60s set design with limited resources, they could hardly be bettered, and their absence here was a disappointment, particularly as the authors are at pains to underscore the frequently challenging budgetary aspects of design work on Doctor Who in its early years.

Nevertheless, Impossible Worlds can hardly be faulted on its coverage of the post-2005 show. Page after page of preliminary sketches, followed by intermediate designs and concept art lay bare the design process, and serve to illustrate the exceptional work that has won Doctor Who award after award for its visuals since its return. For those interested in how to construct an on-screen universe, there is no better place to start.







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