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Digital Subscriptions > Doctor Who Magazine > The Essential Doctor Who: Robots > LIKE CLOCKWORK


They may be the stuff of nightmares, but the repair droids from The Girl in the Fireplace were inspired by historical fact…

“I like the idea of clockwork”, said Steven Moffat, the writer of The Girl in the Fireplace, in 2006. “I like the idea of the ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’ – broken clocks and all that creepiness; a children’s-story creepiness of a clockwork man that makes that noise. There was a clockwork man around at that time [in the 1700s]: a clockwork chess player.”

This clockwork chess player was a crude kind of robot that originated in Vienna in 1769, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Hungarian engineer and inventor Wolfgang Von Kempelen created an ‘Automaton Chess Player’ – later known as ‘the Turk’ – for Empress Maria Theresa. In 1770 he unveiled it to her at Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg court in Vienna, in the presence of Venetian noblemen and scientists.

The Turk was a mechanical life-sized man, attached in a sitting position to a wooden cabinet overlaid with a chessboard. At the Habsburg court Von Kempelen demonstrated the Turk’s inner workings. He opened the cabinet’s doors, shining a candle inside each section to reveal nothing but clockwork machinery; there were cogs and gears, but no person was concealed inside. The same is true of the mechanical insides of the repair droids in The Girl in the Fireplace. “One of the lines in the script that inspired me”, prosthetics designer Neill Gorton told Doctor Who Confidential in 2006, “is [when] the Doctor looks and sees the Clockwork Man and just says, ‘Oh, you are beautiful!’ So it was this idea that this thing should look beautiful, like an absolutely beautiful piece of machinery. It just couldn’t be a few old cogs on a stick. The impression of eyes and the impression of mouths are actually made up by the working mechanisms. So it feels like a face, but it’s not a face. It’s just the way the mechanisms are laid out. It’s purely a functioning machine and that’s why all the mechanisms are on show. That’s why it just feels like a piece of machinery that’s walking around and doing its thing. So the masquerade mask is its way of hiding its inhumanity.”

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About Doctor Who Magazine

Robots have been an essential part of Doctor Who for six decades. The latest issue of Panini’s lavish Doctor Who bookazine includes features on classic robot stories such as Galaxy 4, Pyramids of Mars and The Robots of Death. Other highlights include interviews with the actors, writers and directors who helped to create some of these episodes. Packed with exclusive content and rare images, this 116-page bookazine is a must-have for fans