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Monster Making
Seventies BBC Special Effects - Pt 2 (Pt 1 in TV Zone #126)

From sketch to completion: Tony Harding's K9

Concluding our special series looking at the BBC’s Visual Effects Department, we move on to the time of the Fourth Doctor

 
selected from TV Zone #127

By the mid-Seventies, Science Fiction was really getting a name for itself. People were becoming more interested in the genre en masse, and a modest little programme like Doctor Who was at the height of its popularity, since Tom Baker had rejuvenated the series...

Robots Rule…

With the world gripped in Sci-Fi fever, thanks to the release of Star Wars, people saw what could be done, and wanted more of a spectacle every time a new planet was visited. Increased pressure was put on the Effects Department to keep coming up with the goods. Thanks to R2-D2, cute robots were back in vogue, and (producer) Graham Williams decided to introduce such an automaton to the TARDIS crew.

Roll forward, K-9, a device that would cause the department no end of trouble, yet win a place in the hearts of most viewers. K-9 was to start his adventuring in the Bob Baker and Dave Martin-penned story The Invisible Enemy, broadcast in 1977. The effects work had been allocated to Ian Scoones, but it was soon realized that the work-load was too high for one designer. Tony Harding was drafted in, allowing Ian to concentrate completely on the models.

Tony, like Richard before him, had worked under Derek Meddings at Century 21 on Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Secret Service and UFO. The work was building the sets and filming the models and it would be this specialized experience that would be put to the test by the construction of the metallic mutt. “I was asked to attend a production meeting at Television Centre,” he recalls. “So I went along, still very much in the dark as to the story requirements, and was asked to show my drawings of K-9. Apparently, Ian had already submitted some provisional sketches of the prop, that I was completely oblivious to.

"I explained that I’d only been on the show for a day and didn’t really have any idea what they were talking about. The producer informed me that ‘K-9’ was a mobile computer resembling a dog. I asked if it would be big enough to house a human operator and got instructed to design it with the exact opposite in mind, making the dog small enough to convince viewers that there definitely wasn’t a human operator.

“After listening to a discussion on the dog’s daunting number of operational features, I got told it had to be ready for the studio in three weeks! The script included a short description of K-9: ‘…a tin dog on wheels, with a screen for a head, a print-out gate for a mouth and an antenna for a tail. In computer lettering on each flank is the name K-9.’

“As the meeting continued and I jotted notes on the ‘other’ effects required in the story, I did my first rough sketch of K-9 on the same piece of paper. It reminded me of a mechanical version of Walt Disney’s cartoon dog, Pluto. I drew up a second version with a list of functions when I returned to the workshop. At the next production meeting I refined the design into a third drawing, making the shape less comical and more square. This third version was accepted, so then all we had to do was make the thing.”

Team time for K-9

The building of the dog was very much a team effort. Tony drew up some detailed plans for the dimensions and along with his assistant Chris Lawson, made a wooden and plasticard ‘former’ of the whole thing. Roger Perkins the department sculptor, took a mould from the former, from which they produced a complete fibre-glass body. The inner workings were posing more of a problem due to Tony’s experience with radio control being limited to flying model aeroplanes, so he decided to get some specialist advice.

“I found The Radio Control Model Centre in the Yellow Pages. I went to the shop with one of the sketches and explained to a member of staff what I was trying to do. The guy who served me was Nigel Brackley. He became the technical advisor on the project, guiding us through the equipment we would need to make the dog perform its various tasks.

“Two weeks before the studio deadline, the department’s specialist in electronics Charlie Lumm, had begun to fit the interior workings. I was then told that K-9 had a ticker-tape dispenser in his nose! I’m not sure if this was a late addition to the script, or someone had simply forgotten to mention the requirement at the production meeting. Whatever the reason, there just wasn’t room for the extra mechanics. With no time to make a new head to larger specifications, we had to make the existing one bigger by adding some fibre-glass strips under his chin. To ensure we had the dog ready, we were working from 7am until midnight towards the end..."

Stephen Cambden

Get TV Zone #127 for the full set of interviews, and our latest Doctor Who merchandise reviews

K9 images © Stephen Cambden / Tony Harding
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction
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