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Digital Subscriptions > Doctor Who Magazine > DWM Special 43 – Special Effects > BUILD A ROCKET BOYS!


By the 1980s BBC executives were citing the quality of Doctor Who’s once acclaimed effects as justification for its cancellation. How were those effects judged by contemporary audiences? And should they ever define the series as a whole?

Picture the scene: a too-close encounter with an alien organism has caused a man to mutate into a writhing mass of plant matter, the size of a building. Before we go any further, we’re not talking about the hapless mercenary Keeler in The Seeds of Doom (1976), transformed into a vast alien Krynoid. We’re talking about the hapless astronaut Victor Carroon in The Quatermass Experiment (1953), the BBC sci-fi thriller serial which, alongside its sequels, is said to have influenced so many Doctor Who adventures.

Perhaps, though, we owe the exploits of the questing Professor Quatermass a debt beyond the obvious – beyond those elements borrowed for Seeds, Spearhead from Space (1970), The Dæmons (1971) or The Android Invasion (1975), to mention just four. Because in 1953 the BBC had no Visual Effects Department to help realise writer Nigel Kneale’s vision of an alien organism writhing in the rafters of Westminster Abbey, as the final two episodes demanded. And so, as Kneale was often pleased to recall: “I did the special effects myself, because there was nobody else to do them and nobody wanted to… I appealed to the designers. I said, ‘Can’t you help?’, and they said, ‘You wrote it – you do it.’”

The RAF speculates about the wilderness of space in 1955.

Kneale drove out to the country with his future wife, the children’s author Judith Kerr, to gather greenery – and then: “I got a pair of leather gloves and we dressed them, Judith and I, with rubber solution, and stuck bits of foliage on.” The production team blew up a photo of the abbey interior and plastered it to a piece of plywood, into which two hand-sized holes were cut. Wearing the gloves, Kneale stuck his hands through the holes and waggled them on cue, on camera. “The funny thing was, it worked. It shouldn’t have done but it did… It was extremely sinister. Really creepy and dangerous. This thing was 60 feet high and spreading, and you believed it. I believed it.”

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About Doctor Who Magazine

Special effects can transport audiences to alien planets, render familiar surroundings unrecognisable and bring terrifying monsters to life. Doctor Who has been at the forefront of such television trickery for more than 50 years. This richly illustrated publication celebrates the series’ greatest effects and meets the people who created them. From the trailblazers of the 1960s to the digital artists of today, here is the story of Doctor Who’s journeys into the impossible.