Third soldier from the left.
Gary M. Dobbs
This article was originally published in SF Memories
It’s a little after six on a freezing cold January morning and I’m driving, with the utmost care I add, through the Welsh countryside – my destination RAF St. Athens’ for a days work as a background artist on the new Doctor Who. There’s an unreal feeling in the bottom of my stomach. After all, I'd been a fan of the show ever since as a seven year old I watched Jon Pertwee fighting hordes of massive spiders and then falling to his death only to regenerate into the rather gormless Tom Baker. I’d collected all the figures cut from the back of a Weetabix box and staged my own adventures on my bedroom floor, I’d attended several Dr Who exhibitions and had once had posters of Sarah Jane Smith, The Doctor and assorted monsters covering my school books. In fact I once had a cane from the headmaster (Yeah, they actually did this a long time ago during the distant days of childhood when the world was black and white. Anthony Head’s sinister headmaster from School Reunion was nothing compared to our brutal teachers.) for passing a poster around the classroom of the lovely Katy Manning draped naked around a Dalek. Ahh, those were the days!
It was strange how I got the gig. A friend had casually mentioned a friend of theirs who was getting a lot of television extra work and I asked them to find out who his agents were. They returned with a couple of telephone numbers and I promptly set about getting myself on their books.
The result – a phone call in January asking me if I was available for a days filming starting at 7:30 the following morning. It was short notice and I had other work to do but as soon as I heard the show was Doctor Who I knew I’d move mountains, shift continents or at the very least arrange a day’s cover from my regular job. I’d be there. Details were given and I tried to contain my excitement and not appear too fannish. Act professional, I kept telling myself but my blood was racing through my body and I felt like this was all a dream and any moment the bubble would burst. I would be playing a soldier and so this meant I needed to get my shoulder length hair cut. Thankfully, another friend offered the use of his own shavers and he set about giving me something called a number one – apparently this was a style much favoured by World War II POW’s, and 1970’s football hooligans; I decided there and then that I had far too many friends.
And so, looking like a cross between an aged Leeds fan and a threadbare broom, freezing my butt off and avoiding the icy patches on the roads, I neared my destination with the LOCATION signs directing me the last mile or so towards destiny.
I was gonna’ be on Doctor Who!
My imagination was racing, what would I have to do? Which monsters would I see? Would the Doctor be there? Sod that, would Rose be there? I had delusions; that the delectable Ms. Piper would not be able to resist my smouldering charms.
“As is turned out she was there and was more than capable of resistance. “
I pulled up and went to the checkpoint and gave my name to the security man. He checked his list, me peering over his shoulder and noticing the names of both David Tennant and Billy Piper. He then informed me I wasn’t listed. I would not be allowed entry to the set. Panic followed but a quick telephone call to my agent soon sorted things out. The location manager had forgotten to supply a list of the required background artists and I was allowed through and onto the set of a real live Doctor Who shoot.
There were a dozen or so other extras and we were all led to costume where we were each given a military uniform bearing the Torchwood insignia. As I was slipping into my fatigues I glanced out of the window and happened to catch sight of an actor wearing the bottom half of a Cyberman costume and my heart skipped a beat. Not only was I going to work on an episode of Doctor Who but it would contain one of the most iconic monsters in the show’s history. Damn, the Cybermen were second only to the Daleks.
It couldn’t get much better than this.
It was about to get a whole lot better.
We were then served a wonderful breakfast – all of us extras, cast, crew all crammed into a double decked bus that had been decked out with the type of tables you see in caravans. I was seated directly facing the stars of the show and I tried to appear casual as I tackled my bacon and listened to David Tennent and Billy Piper discuss Rula Lenska’s antics on Celebrity Big Brother which was currently airing on ITV1.
This was all absurd. A long time fan of the show, only a couple of years earlier I, like most other fans, had been watching the old episodes on DVD and wondering if the show would ever return and then after hearing the wonderful news that Russel Davies was finally bringing it back and sitting through thirteen wonderful episodes and one Christmas special, I was now becoming a part of this national institution. A small part granted but a part nonetheless.
Breakfast over and it was time to go to work.
It was almost like a real military parade as all us extras were led across the tarmac towards the aircraft hanger that housed the set. Once inside we were each given a futuristic looking machine gun, a side arm and a badge, which identified us as members of the Torchwood force. How cool was this!
With all the props and the uniform I was starting to feel my character and there before me stood a familiar looking blue police box. Funny I’d managed breakfast with Billy and David, taking it in my stride but I was completely star struck by the sight of the TARDIS. And I knew that as soon as it was possible I was going to sneak a look inside. Would it be bigger on the inside? Was it really only a small box? Course I knew it must have been- it was television magic that made it bigger on the inside. All the same the child inside me thought that maybe, just maybe…
We were then given directions by the stage manager. We were to be involved in a huge fight between the humans, Cybermen and Daleks.
‘Excuse me,’ I lifted a hand. ‘Did you just say Daleks?’ I asked the bemused looking stage manager.
‘I did.’ Came the stoic reply.
Oh my God – not only was I in Doctor Who, not only was I in an episode with the Cybermen but also with the Daleks. It would be the first time the two species had ever appeared on screen together. I was to be a part of something truly historic and the relevance was not lost on me. In fact, I’m sure this scenario had once been acted out on my bedroom floor with the Weetabix figures.
Moments later and we find ourselves standing before a green screen, surrounded by Daleks and Cybermen. We’re directed through events by Graham Harper, a man who seemed to be coping with carrying all this upon his shoulders, and then the action begins.
For the first take I find myself running through a laboratory shooting every which way as the Daleks and Cybermen also fire in all directions. It’s like Die Hard on steroids as SCI-FI bullets whiz above our heads. A few of the extras fall down dead but I make it to a point of cover behind a large table and once again start shooting.
We’re all keeping in position, waiting for the director to be ready for the next shot when the Dalek next to me loses control of his eyestalk and whips me on the side of the face.
‘Sorry mate.’ Comes a voice from within the pepper pot.
‘No problem.’ I said, unaware of the absurdity of the situation, and turned my attention back to the director who was talking us through the next shot. Though I think this particular Dalek must have been carrying a grudge since he would exterminate me later in the scene.
We went through this countless times and I became aware of the sheer amount of work everyone from the crew, to the actors, to the extras, to the make up department put into bringing the spectacle to the screen. Everything had to be perfect and if it wasn’t it would be repeated again and again until it was.
Between takes Dalek head pieces would open up and the human operators would appear, all wearing dark woollen hats, Cybermen would remove their masks and dance about and the director and his crew would frantically brainstorm. And while all this was going on there was another shoot taking place at the other side of the massive hanger with Billy Piper, Shaun Digwell and David Tennent shooting scenes involving crane work for episode six. I and a couple of other extras would wander over from time to time and watch and I found myself again feeling like a fan, captivated by the display of talent as the professionals went about their work. This scene would eventually appear on the screen with the Doctor, Rose and her alternative father climbing the rope ladder towards a Zeppelin with the Cyberleader in hot pursuit. It gave me a kick while watching it, later on screen, to think that while all this was going on I was standing underneath, staring up at childhood icons reinvented for the modern age.
The day ended all too soon. We finished by shooting a final scene in our regular clothes – walking through a corridor, wearing flashing earpieces as cyber controlled people being led to our doom in that shredding machine.
And so we were thanked for our hard work, reminded to sign out and hand over our props and led away as the set was wrapped up. I hung behind for a moment though and took a furtive look around. I had to look in the TARDIS and, feeling like the eleventh Doctor, I walked towards it and experienced a tiny tingle of anticipation as I reached for the door.
I pulled it open and……