Forty-five Years Behind the Sofa: Doctor Who monsters revealed!

Imagine the scene. You're seven years old. It's Saturday teatime, and you and your family are gathered around the TV to watch your favourite programme, Doctor Who. As the story unfolds, the Doctor and his intrepid companions suddenly come face to face with ... a monster! For more than 45 years – apart from the enforced break from 1989 to 2005 - generations of children have been both scared and thrilled in equal measure by the assortment of alien creatures which Doctor Who has brought to our screens. We've been confronted by hairy monsters, scaly monsters, stone monsters, metal monsters – all kinds of creatures to stretch the imagination and fuel the nightmares. But what does it take to bring these monsters to our screens? There's the costume design, the make up, and – nowadays – the CGI special effects. But what many people forget is that there are also actors inside those costumes! So, what does playing a Doctor Who monster entail? Caroline Callaghan and Adam Christopher asked a few of the actors and stunt performers who've portrayed some of these creatures to tell them about their experiences ...

The Fourth Doctor story “The Brain of Morbius” was a Frankenstein-style tale involving mad scientist, Solon, and his monstrous creation, the Morbius monster. This hideous beast was a creature constructed by Solon from various alien bodyparts salvaged from crashed spaceship victims. Crowning this stitched-together cadaver was the jar-encased brain of executed Time Lord criminal, Morbius.

The monster was played by stuntman, Stuart Fell, who had been performing stunts and appearing in Doctor Who since the early 70s. Another of his most celebrated characters was Alpha Centauri, a nervous hexapod with one eye for a head, who had first appeared in “The Curse of Peladon”.

It’s clear from watching these stories that playing these parts involved far more than simply wearing a costume. Alpha Centauri required complex animation from inside the costume in order to move the limbs and blink the eye. The alien’s nervousness was conveyed by the timid movements and shuffling gait which Stuart Fell brought to the character. Similarly, in the case of the Morbius monster, the creature’s death scene involved a difficult stunt fall by the performer whilst still encased in the costume.

So, what kind of effort was involved in playing these characters? Stuart takes up the story:

“Playing both monsters required me to endure a little discomfort, and an actor would not be so enthusiastic about a part which required his face covered up to such a degree. I was already becoming known as a stunt performer who could act (I had to learn all the lines for Alpha Centauri to be able to react and animate the costume.)

“Both costumes required me to liaise with the costume designer and the model maker to make these characters work. So really I was helping to design a costume that I could also be active in and, in the case of Morbius, fall to his death, still wearing the head which actually was about twelve inches above my own head, putting some strain on my neck.

“Because the recording time of a Doctor Who episode is only one and a half hours, it was necessary for me to be in costume all the recording time, and under the studio lights it was extremely hot. In the case of Morbius, I made up a small snorkel tube so that I could breathe fresh air more easily – unfortunately the air in the studio was hot, dry and recycled, resulting in me getting a sore throat after a couple of days!”

Another celebrated monster from classic Doctor Who was the sadistic, slug-like Sil, first encountered by the Sixth Doctor in “Vengeance on Varos”. Sil’s appearance is memorable, but it’s his mannerisms – superbly executed by Nabil Shaban, who played the character – which really stand out. Sil is highly excitable, conveyed by his fractured speech as well as movements, and has a most evil laugh! The laugh, explains Nabil, “was inspired by a friend’s pet snake and also a slug that was about to be eaten in my salad sandwich!”

Nabil explains the physical demands of the role:

“It took three hours to get into the rubber suit, and for make-up, but only half an hour to remove everything. It was quicker probably because by the time the filming was over, I was desperate to go to the toilet, as it was difficult with the suit on. It was hot, sticky, sweaty and, with glue on my face, difficult to move. One time I was in the suit for eleven hours, under the hot studios lights. It was murder, and I felt like fainting. I had to have an assistant to constantly fan me with a hand-held battery powered fan to keep me cool, and supply me with endless drinks of water and coffee, which made the toilet issue even more acute.”

Have things changed with the new series of Doctor Who? Does CGI make it easier?

The first story in the new series when it returned to our screens in 2005 was “Rose”. This story reintroduced an old adversary of the Doctor from the classic series – the Autons. The Autons are shop dummies brought to life by the evil Nestene Consciousness.  Elizabeth Fost played one of these Autons in “Rose”, and subsequently went on to play a Slitheen in “Aliens of London”.

The Slitheen are probably the most instantly recognisable of the new Doctor Who monsters, with their huge, green bodies, rather appealing eyes, and their ability to disguise themselves as humans by squeezing into skin suits.

Elizabeth explains what was involved in playing both an Auton and a Slitheen:

“The Slitheen costumes were relatively complex as they had fibre glass shells that were modelled to our bodies, steel supports and then the rubber outer skins. On our heads we wore sort of fibre glass skull caps to which steel rods were attached supporting the character’s head. The animatronics in them made the heads very heavy – we needed to be feeling very strong and fit! The costumes took about an hour to get into as the skin on the arm extensions had to be repainted every time. This meant that they couldn’t really be taken off except at lunchtimes and in times of dire emergency – we had to have drinks with straws held for us! The rubber trousers took a lot of pulling on – we had to jump into them – and there were a lot of ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ jokes flying around! We got very hot very quickly when dressed, as the costumes had very little ventilation, and the most difficult thing was trying to stay cool and alert whilst waiting around to be used.

“Lack of air was also a bit of a problem with the Auton masks as they were modelled on our faces, were very close fitting and had to be sealed at the back. The most difficult situation I remember was filming in the basement of Cardiff hospital, which was full of hot water pipes and had no windows. When you added in the heat generated by cameras, lights, etc, we were literally pouring out our masks after takes!  All good endurance training I suppose.”

So it really doesn’t look like the performers have things any better in the new series then!

Perhaps the most enduring monsters from Doctor Who, both classic and new series, are the Daleks. One of the Dalek operators from the new series is Barnaby Edwards, who explains:

“I think people are genuinely surprised to find that there are actors inside the Daleks. They naturally assume that the Daleks are remote controlled or perhaps operated by a member of the studio crew. However, they are, and always have been, operated by actors; and for a very good reason. Without a performer inside, a Dalek is just a lifeless hunk of fibreglass, wood and metal.”

Barnaby provides an example to illustrate why an actor is required inside a Dalek.

“In series three of Doctor Who (the story “Daleks in Manhattan”), the Daleks invade New York and there’s a scene in the sewer where two Daleks are discussing the unreliability of their leader, Dalek Sec. Nicholas Pegg, a fellow Dalek operator, and I were rehearsing the scene outside our shells in front of the director, James Strong. The script called for a conspiratorial moment between these two Daleks, both of whom knew they shouldn’t really be expressing doubts about a Dalek of higher rank. It seemed natural to us as performers to physicalise this unease, so I sidled in slightly before saying “You have doubts?” and Nicholas turned his head to look over his shoulder, just to make sure we were alone, before turning back and saying the unthinkable line “Yes.” James Strong loved it, kept it in, and it’s now become a legendary moment amongst fans. An anecdote which illustrates, I hope, why the BBC will continue to use actors to play the Daleks for a good few years yet.”

So how are the Doctor’s greatest enemies brought to life, and what exactly does it involve for the Dalek operators? Barnaby explains:

“It’s not a terribly comfortable job. Daleks are entirely manual – well, two of them have animatronic heads but they can be more trouble than they’re worth to be honest – and are basically a hollow shell, open at the bottom and moved very much in the manner of the car in The Flintstones. You spend hours in a dark cramped space, breathing your own carbon dioxide, straining your leg muscles to shift twenty stone of combined human and Dalek, and collecting a stunning array of cuts, bruises, bumps and splinters in the process.

“There are five Dalek operators for the new series – Nicholas Pegg, David Hankinson, Anthony Sargo, Dan Barratt and me – and we vary wildly in height and body shape, but what we do have in common, aside from strong calf muscles and boundless patience, is a determination to get it right. Over the years we’ve developed a consensus on how Daleks move and what their little quirks are: the tremble when they speak, the head-first body-second turn, the psychotic gun-twitching, the paranoid tic of the eyestalk and many other performance tricks which help breathe life and character into the Daleks. We also know how to move as a unit, which is remarkably difficult given the fact that you can only see through an envelope-sized slit in the neck ring. Even though we don’t actually speak the lines – they’re provided live by the inimitable Nicholas Briggs – we learn them, so that we can interact with the other actors in exactly the same way as we would were we not inside our shells. In short, it’s just like any other acting role: learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture!”

But why not use CGI in this day and age? Barnaby says:

“The CGI effects for the new series are astonishingly accomplished, but to replace the Daleks with computer generated effects would be nigh-on impossible. Not only would it be a technical nightmare, it would be prohibitively expensive. There’s a reason R2D2 and C3PO have remained largely human-operated in the recent Star Wars trilogy – it’s simply too difficult, and too pricey, to replace them with computer avatars. It’s also, frankly, not terribly desirable from an artistic point of view: actors like to act with something they can actually see.”

So, the next time you watch Doctor Who, remember just how much hard work and sheer dedication it takes to bring this wonderful array of monsters to life on screen!

With grateful thanks to Stuart Fell, Nabil Shaban, Elizabeth Fost and Barnaby Edwards for their contributions to this article – and also for their contributions to Doctor Who itself.