Neil Gorton must have one of the best jobs in the world. For the last ten years he has brought to life monsters and alien beings for TV series Doctor Who. The iconic British sci-fi show, on air since 1963, is an established part of British popular culture having influenced — and sometimes paired with nightmares — generations of audiences and TV professionals. [Our favorites here at theDiagonal are the perennially clunky but evil Daleks].
The Time Lord, also known as “The Doctor,” has run into a lot of different aliens, monsters and miscellaneous beasties during his five-decade run on the BBC’s Doctor Who. With the show’s 50th anniversary upon us this weekend, WIRED talked to Neill Gorton — director of Millennium FX, which has created prosthetics and makeup for Doctor Who for the last nine years — about what it’s like to make the show’s most memorable monsters (above) appear on-screen.
Although Gorton works with other television series, movies and live events, he said Doctor Who in particular is more than just another job. “There’s no other project we’ve had such a close association with for so long,” he told WIRED. “It can’t help but become part of your life.”
It helps, too, that Gorton was a Who fan long before he started working on the show. “I grew up in Liverpool in the ’70s so I was a long way away from the London-centric film and TV world,” he recalled. “Nearby Blackpool, the Las Vegas of the North, had a permanent Doctor Who exhibition, and on our yearly family day trips to Blackpool I would insist on visiting. I think this was the first time I really started to understand that these things, these creatures and robots and monsters, had to be made by someone. On TV it was magical and far away but here I could see the joins and the seams and paint flaking off. Seeing that they where tangible made them something in my grasp.”
That early love for the show paid off when one of his childhood favorite characters reappeared on the series. “Davros [the cyborg creator of the show’s signature monsters, the Daleks] haunted me as a child,” Gorton said. “I remember seeing him on TV and thinking, ‘Where did they find that creepy old man?’ For years, I thought they found a bald old bloke and painted him brown. I pestered Russell T. [Davies, former Doctor Who showrunner] constantly about when I would get to do Davros.”
When the character did reappear in 2008?s “The Stolen Earth,” Gorton said that his work with actor Julian Bleach was “really personal to me… I sculpted [the prosthetics], molded it, painted and applied the makeup on the shoot every day. It’s the only revival of a classic Doctor Who monster that I’ve not heard a single fan moan about. Everyone just loved it.”
After nine years of working on the show, Gorton said that his team and the show’s producers have “a pretty good understanding” of how to deal with the prosthetic effect demands for the show. “It’s like that scene in Apollo 13 when they dump a box of bits on the table and the Nasa guys have to figure out how to make a CO2 scrubber out of odd objects and trash that happens to be aboard,” he joked. “The team is so clever at at getting the maximum effect out of the minimum resources, we’d be able to rustle up an engine modification that’d get us a round trip to Mars on top of fixing up that life support… The reality is the scripted vision always outstrips the budget by a huge margin.”
Although the showrunner usually plots out the season’s stories before Gorton’s team becomes involved — meaning there’s little chance to impact storyline decisions — that’s not always the case. “Last [season], I mentioned to producer Marcus Wilson that I had a couple of cool nine-foot robot suits that could add value to an episode. And several months later Chris Chibnall delivers ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ with two nine-foot robots taking featured roles!” he said. “Since then I’ve been turfing all kinds of oddities out of my store rooms and excitedly saying ‘How about this?’”
Read the entire article and see more doctor Who monsters here.
Image: Daleks. Courtesy of Wired / BBC.