The Unsung Heroes of the Matt Smith Era
Guest contributor Gregor Schmalzried provides an alternative selection of awards.
If we think of the people that made the last four years of Doctor Who the fantastic thrill ride that it was, we usually end up looking at and writing about the same few names: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Jenna Coleman, Steven Moffat and so on. In short: actors and writers. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The actors are the face of the show, they are what we fall in love with and the writers are the story makers, the creators of the things that draw us into the series time and time again. But this fixation on just a few people sometimes leads to peculiar situations in which the showrunner, who has more power about the show than anyone else, ends up receiving all kinds of praise or blame even for things that are completely out of his reach, as if the whole show was made by a small production team.
But as the Oscar stars remind us every year when presenting all those minor categories most people don’t care about, without the unknown people behind the camera who are still able to take a walk to the shop without being compelled to give out autographs, there would be no show. The directors, designers, tech experts and all those people of rather unglamorous occupations are what makes the show work in the end and they are who I want to dedicate this article to.
With the Best of Matt Smith weeks having come to a close, I have compiled a rather unusual retrospective. I have looked through series 5 to 7 and chosen my favourites in Cinematography, Direction, Editing, Music, Production Design, Sound and Visual Effects. Please feel free to leave your own picks in the comment section.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
While it’s not a story that’s famous for generating a lot of love in the fandom, there’s one thing you can’t fault the 2011 Christmas special for: it looks absolutely gorgeous. Stephen Pehrsson, who also did the cinematography for The Pandorica Opens and The Impossible Astronaut, makes the hard job of filming everything just the right way look so damn easy. His camera is always astir, it is never only bystander, but moves and behaves just like the characters in the story.
Not only does Pehrsson establish the beautiful Christmas forest in a magical way, he also finds elegancy in the most simple set-ups and shoots them like small pieces of art. About half the frames of this episode are potential desktop wallpapers and the movements of the camera are just as important for the pace of the story as the editing. You can find one of favourite “smaller” shots here.
Honourable Mentions: The Eleventh Hour, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Day of the Doctor
The God Complex
Before Nick Hurran went on to direct Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan and The Day of the Doctor, his Who premiere consisted of two episodes in the latter half of series 6, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. And he did such a brilliant job one them that he went on to become one of the most influential Doctor Who directors and also directed the latest series finale of Sherlock. In a way, Hurran was lucky, because those two episodes are two of the best stand-alone scripts of the Matt Smith era. On the other hand, on paper, it doesn’t seem like there’s an awful lot to do with them. One is set in maybe half a dozen rooms on an empty alien planet and the other one, save the last seven minutes, takes place entirely in a hotel. And still, both of those episodes, particularly The God Complex, never feel like budget-savers and that’s mainly to Hurran’s credit.
The real achievement of the direction in The God Complex is that it makes one hotel set look like a Hollywood movie. He has so little to work with and does so much with it, using surveillance footage, the most ludicrous camera angels, in some occasions, a horizontal Vertigo effect and diversified lighting methodes. Through those and a few other tricks, the hotel becomes unpredictable and you never know what might be lurking behind the next corner. Hurran finds so many ways to film a simple corridor and still make it look natural: of course you would shoot the scene that way, what other way is there?
In other hands, The God Complex could have been static and boring. Nick Hurran brought it to life. One of the toughest jobs of the Matt Smith era and one of the most successful.
Honourable Mentions: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Girl Who Waited, The Day of the Doctor
The Name of the Doctor
The shorter the running time of an episode, the harder is the job of the editor. The Name of the Doctor must have been one of the hardest editing jobs in Doctor Who history, as it not only features the return of every Doctor ever, but – in typical Moffat fashion – the romping plot doesn’t stop for a single second. The episode goes from Victorian London to modern Day London to a dream-like intermediate world to another planet and into the tomb and finally the time stream of the Doctor, everything in just 45 minutes. It’s an insane ride. The editing makes it work and is the reason why the whole thing doesn’t just fall apart, as it keeps the story at a fast pace while never making it seem rushed.
The scenes with Clara in the time stream (which has a lot more to do with editing and a lot less with visual effects than you might think) are put together beautifully, just like every other piece of this episode. The music, the performances, the visuals and the brilliant story, all only cohere through the editing. And the cuts during the last minute of the story are nothing short of genius. Every shot is judged perfectly and has exactly the right length, making the build-up to the Hurt Doctor reveal all the more exciting.
Honourable Mentions: The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Asylum of the Daleks
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
Yes, okay, it’s a little weird to include Murray Gold in this article. Firstly, he can’t really be called “unsung”, as in online conversations his work comes up almost as often as that of the actors or writers of Doctor Who. Secondly, he has done every score for Doctor Who since the revival in 2005, which doesn’t give him an awful lot of competition. But nevertheless, he deserves a spot here, since his magic behind the camera is the kind we may connect with the most.
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is his magnum opus, the one where everything comes together. Whatever there is to do with music, Gold does it in this one. He uses new arrangements of pre-existing themes and pushes them to their limit, making them truly iconic (the ‘I am the Doctor’ variations ‘Words Win Wars’ and ‘I Remember You’, as well as ‘Amy’s Starless Life’). He introduces the wonderful ‘The Sad Man with a Box’ at the emotional climax of the episode and accompanies every plot movement with subtle changes in the tone of his music. The highlight for me is ‘The Life and Death of Amy Pond’ which is the final track of The Pandorica Opens. Many other composers would have used more thriller-type music for the scene in which the Doctor gets trapped in the Pandorica, but Gold goes for the full emotional blast and a very gloomy track. The universe is ending and the orchestra plays the saddest tune of all. It’s just wonderful.
Honourable Mentions: A Good Man Goes to War, The Rings of Akhaten, The Name of the Doctor
Best Production Design
The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon
Michael Pickwoad (Art Direction)
Michael Pickwoad (Production Design)
Julian Luxton (Set Decoration)
Barbara Kidd (Costume Design)
Pam Mullins, Vivienne Simpson, Allison Sing & Barbara Southcott (Makeup Department)
In Matt Smith’s run, there are two stories that can be considered the blockbusters of his era because visually and narratively they did things that simply hadn’t been considered possible before. Both stories could pretty much “win” every single category I compiled here, but I consciously chose not to name any episode more than once. The two stories I’m talking about are of course The Day of the Doctor (which will come up again later) and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.
This may be a bold statement, but I can’t think of another Doctor Who story that looks like this much effort’s been put into it. Not only do the on-location shoots in America look stunning, but every piece of the design – and there is an awful lot of design here – is just brilliant. At the risk of losing a bit of structure here, I’m going to list everything in this episode that looks like it’s from a high-budget Hollywood movie:
The Oval Office, the walking space suit, the Silents (maybe the best Doctor Who monster design ever), the space-tech warehouse, Area 51, the black prison, Apollo 11, the orphanage (hell, that was creepy) and the Silence TARDIS technology, although to be fair, this one had already been used in The Lodger. But well, it still looked fantastic.
Honourable Mentions: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, The Rings of Akhaten, The Day of the Doctor
The Time of the Doctor
George Atkins, Sam Biggs, Martin Colclough, Matthew Cox, Deian Humphreys, Jamie Talbutt & Julie Ankerson
The Doctor’s swan song brought back a whole lot of elements from the previous three series and with them came their sounds. In a way, The Time of the Doctor can be considered a Greatest Hits compilation of Doctor Who sound design with the characteristic deep growling of the mysterious crack, the return of many known monsters and a very explod-y showdown. But that’s not all there is to it. The way the sound builds up the location of Christmas is fantastic, with the whizzing wind and church bells and I also really enjoyed the noises of the wooden Cyberman, a brilliant twist on the classic Cybermen sounds that felt genuinely natural and real.
But perhaps the best thing about the sound here is the central plot element: the “Doctor Who?” message, transmitted through the entire universe and pooled in one simple noise, a strange electronic pattern that builds up tension just by being there. A truly sublime piece of sound design.
Honourable Mentions: A Christmas Carol, The Wedding of River Song, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
Best Visual Effects
The Day of the Doctor
Just like The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Day of the Doctor would have fit in just about every category, but this may be the aspect of the episode that truly made us go: “Wow, it’s really been a long way since the 60s”. And even when compared with the visual effects from Doctor Who just six or seven years ago, the battle of Arcadia, an exploding Dalek, three-dimensional paintings and a wonderfully gory Zygon transformation looks like something from a completely different show, especially for those of us who could experience it in a cinema.
The visual effects department really went out of its way for this one and The Day of the Doctor looked just brilliant, from start to finish. What a magnificent way to celebrate fifty years.
Honourable Mentions: The Wedding of River Song, The Name of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor
All in All
One of the greatest challenges that every new series of Doctor Who faces is that it always has keep up with the times. If the show stagnated for only a few seasons, it would slowly die. The gigantic team behind Doctor Who has to constantly reinvent the show and push towards new limits.
We live in the golden age of television. Shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter turned from sleeper hits into big successes and Game of Thrones, True Blood and The Walking Dead celebrate the revival of mainstream science fiction and fantasy entertainment. To keep up with this competition, Doctor Who has to be constantly on the move, keep pushing the boundaries and all while struggling with never-ending budget problems.
It’s a true triumph of the Matt Smith era that it managed to eke out a position among the very best television shows there are in the world and a lot of this credit has to go to the men and women behind the camera, who make this show what it is and make every new episode feel like such an exciting event.