I live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. 13 miles over the Moor is our neighbouring tiny town, also in the middle of nowhere. Visitors call them villages; they’re wrong: villages are usually much larger.
One Saturday earlier this month, I was walking through the neighbouring tiny town with one of those visitors, chatting about the weather, the local emergency services and human needs, the value of community. I say “walking” – I was trying hard not to float or skip in fangirl glee, because the visitor was Sophie Aldred, fresh from the broadcast of her triumphant return to Doctor Who.
We were heading for the celebration of Neil Cole’s Museum of Classic Sci Fi, a day which went on to cement that first impression; in Who, like no other show, there is no barrier between stars and fans, collectors and creators, crew, cast, and helpless obsessives. During the day, I took copious notes for our site (with permission from Neil and all featured individuals of course), and here offer you, dear reader, a tiny selection of the happy conversations that filled the day…
First, I catch up with Hal Townsend and Phil Robinson, creature creators…
The DWC: Why do you do it?
Hal: We’re such massive fans, which is how I met Neil. It is a good community he has managed to create. The events are always really friendly. My mate Phil and I create the costumes, so when we come to an event we dress up.
DWC: Do you have a favourite era?
Hal: Classic has the best story, adventure, and character development. But I’ve worked on Chris [Chibnall]’s era, and the new Russell [T Davies] specials.
DWC: Wow! I guess you can’t give us any spoilers, but can you say why we’re having to wait for so long?
Hal: Russell never, never does anything without a reason – In Russell We Trust.
DWC: And Phil, why do you do this job?
Phil: There’s such a diversity of designs, it is very inspiring; it reminds you of your childhood. And I love creating things.
DWC: As a sculptor, how do you create creature costumes in which actors can express things?
Phil: There are complex animatronics in some, but it’s also the basic material. Silicone is soft, and they add something to make it even softer, so it can cling so close to the skin, and move with the muscles underneath.
DWC: You created the new Sil costume for Nabil Shaban?
P: Yes, I went to his house and took casts and measurements to make a full body costume. And I had to go to Sophie [Aldred]’s house to make a cast of her head, in a bit of time pressure as it was a last-minute decision to make her character, Lady Na, wear prosthetics [for Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor].
DWC: I gather you have been involved in the upcoming RTD2 era?
Phil: Yes, but I have signed an NDA, so I can’t give you any information.
Hal: If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
Phil: I can say we helped in the team on two different kinds of monsters for the 60th anniversary specials. Millennium Effects did monsters from 2005 until Chibnall started; now they have come back with Russell.
DWC: So can your understanding of the time it takes behind the scenes help fans with our impatience?
Phil: We were sculpting them back in April. So we have even longer to wait to see the finished product!
We all had to wait 16 years last century, but Keith Barnfather says:
‘For me, the ‘wilderness’ years never really existed. We carried on, with fan-made audio visuals, Reel Time, and Myth Makers. The ‘Classic/NuWho split doesn’t occur to us.’
It is seriously worth looking up the massive range of stories, interviews and films he’s behind. The story of Neil’s museum is here, presented by Sophie Aldred.
Steve Lyons is a Doctor Who writer who thrived through the ‘wilderness’ years, producing novels, short stories, Big Finish, and other audios. I chatted with him about conventions and fandom.
Steve: I have done it as a guest and as an attendee. It’s just brilliant that Doctor Who has this solid aspect, when we can get together and talk about something we love. It’s my favourite TV show because it very quickly became so much more than a show.
DWC: What made you a writer?
Steve: I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember reading.
DWC: What audio Who are you proudest of?
Steve: The Witch Hunters, The Crooked World, The Architects of History. When I had a companion I had created (Tracy Childs’ Elizabeth Klein) and monsters I’d created on Radio 7/4extra, it was really exciting – I had my name in the Radio Times!
John Hogg, prop replica creator, collector, and ‘Killer Auton’ actor is an excellent example of how fans become part of the show. He says:
“The first TV I remember was The Time Warrior. We couldn’t afford a TV before then. Now I’m in the credits for the Blu Ray Season 8 trailer, wearing this head I made as a killer Auton!”
“I was 3 years old, in front of Androzani. I’ve been addicted ever since; it’s been part of all my life.”
People call ‘Ol Sixie ‘The Ambassador’ but I’d say there’s another uber fan and star whose work for the show is invaluable. Sophie Aldred is such a pleasure to talk with.
DWC: As a woman of very similar age to yourself I have to ask, parachuting into the TARDIS… are you trying to make the rest of us feel inadequate?
Sophie: [Laughs] When I first saw the script, I was delighted. Chris had asked what I wanted to do, and I said whatever Ace was always doing, lots of running and jumping. Then when I saw the sheet is said ‘stunt double.’ I thought ‘oh no; health and safety aren’t going to allow me’. After day one I never saw the ‘stunt double’ again – they realised I was as foolhardy as ever!
Jamie Magnus Stone would come up to me and say; ‘do you fancy doing…? Or he’d say ‘I’ve had an idea’ and sketch it on a bit of paper. ‘If you were to lie on this plank, on a dolly, we could whiz you into the TARDIS. I said ‘Yes! Let’s go for it. The crew thought I was bonkers. I thought ‘are you really going to do this? Yes. I am.’
DWC: Is it really an encouragement to be active?
Sophie: That is exactly what I said to Chris. I would love to encourage women of my age; they have a chance. I work at it though; I run nearly every day, I dance, I eat carefully.
DWC: What does it mean to have Ace in Classic and the most recent televised Who, and maybe even going into the future?
Sophie: The outpouring, the love of the character of Ace I have received this week… I’d love to think she has a future. That Russell is looking and thinking maybe a spin off – I haven’t heard yet!
There followed a screening of Doctor on Display, then another tea and home-made cakes break, followed by Q&A panels.
Q&A: Sophie Aldred, Keith Barnfather, Roger Stevens – presenter and creators of the film – and Neil Cole, its subject.
Neil thanked the guests for coming but Sophie thanked him.
Sophie: This is not like a normal Who con; it’s very, very gentle, relaxed. Loads of time for everyone to spend time with everyone.
Q: Roger, how do you edit so much potential material?
Roger: It’s a very people focussed story, about the people, not the props. It has ups and downs. We wanted a very human story and I hope that’s what we got.
Neil: In the film, restored artefacts from the show are referred to as ‘sacred.’
Keith: One of the things about Doctor Who is there’s no other show that’s exactly like it. The line between those who make and those who watch is has blurred over the years. We are a family.
Q: Sophie, what’s next in line for you?
Sophie: well, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’ve just been voicing a Barbara Cartland novel – lots of skin-tight pantaloons! You can’t plan as an actor.
Q: What was that scene [in The Power of the Doctor] with Sylvester like?
Sophie: I recorded my bits in the cold and wet dripping cave in the Brecon Beacons. I don’t think Sylvester would have like that very much! I’d been given a non-actor to read his lines, so I asked would you mind if Barnaby [Edwards, Dalek Operator] read in his lines. He did quite a good impression of Sylvester! Then we did the other way round. We had this lovely morning, Sylvester in his costume – there was something about him in that hat and scarf and jumper. Pretty emotional. Then I looked up and there just ‘happened’ to be a couple of hundred people dropped into watch!
After that scene, I was supposed to go home. I saw them [Peter, Colin, Sylvester, and Paul] in their trailer, and I thought ‘I can’t go home!’, so I stuck around. So for the rest of the day I played all the other Doctors. I read in their lines – it was the best Doctor Who con ever! Chris had come in specially for that day. An amazing day.
At the end of the day, the Cybermen came in and saw all the Doctors walking off, and said, oh no! something else we have to keep quiet about!
Q: What was the Companions Anonymous scene like?
Sophie: It was weird, the room was hazy with dry ice. Jodie [Whittaker] wasn’t in the scene but came in just to be there and see everyone. Everyone was so kind to William Russell, especially John Bishop [the first male companion and the most recent]. The floor manager knew he was struggling, came over and knelt in front of him, so tender. I actually thought a couple of days later ‘was that all a dream?’ Joyful to be together, reverential.
Neil: Colin was back on telly – in his element!
Sophie: Colin felt vindicated, to be back in the fold, doing such a great job.
Q: What got you into Doctor Who?
Sophie: I watched as everyone did. But I watched through a crack in the door, and made my brother watch so he could tell me about it in case I had to close the door!
I wanted to watch Jodie’s because it’s an icon. I’ve met so many girls and younger women wearing the Jodie costume, and a friend rang and said they’re showing the Rosa episode in school history class.
Neil: [who is also an art teacher] I have shown the Vincent episode in Art so many times.
Q: What was it like being back in The Jacket?
Sophie: The costume manager was going to make a replica, but I said use the real thing. So she kept it carefully. She told me ‘I’ve had so many people come to see The Jacket.’ In the scene where I pull it out of the floor in UNIT, they said ‘we’re going to do the Hero shot.’ I said ‘ooh, nice’. They said ‘no, not you – the Jacket!’
Keith: Maybe a spinoff?’
Q: What does the character of Ace mean to you?
Sophie: Everything. When I walked into John Nathan-Turner’s office with his Dalek curtains and framed Tom Baker Y-fronts, who’d have thought I’d be here 30-something years later?
You sign NDAs. The only person who knew was my husband because when my agent rang I burst into tears. He said what’s the matter? I said [mimicking sobbing] ‘Nothing’s the matter; I’m going to be in Doctor Who again!’
Keith: You rang and said something’s happened but I can’t tell you. So I knew, but you couldn’t say, so I couldn’t ask. What would life be like without Doctor Who, all the friends? We wouldn’t be here.
I don’t think any of us can imagine life without Doctor Who. Where else would you hear a ring-modulated Dalek utter ‘Oopsie daisy’? Its operator was a young girl, doing well with the big heavy travel machine. She is part of the Who family, evidence that there is No Other Show quite like it..
Bonus Material: Exclusive regeneration scene for the DWC, performed by Jason Lythgoe Hay and Avenue Who puppets