“When we first started filming the Cybermen, people would say, ‘I just can’t come over to you, because they scare me,’” remembers dancer and Doctor Who creature performer Paul Kasey. “Even on set, people have those memories of those characters, from their childhoods.”
Doctor Who, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, has scared and delighted generations of British children and adults. First broadcast in November 1963, the BBC teatime drama shows the adventures of the Doctor and his companions, who travel through time and space in a machine disguised as a police box. The series really took off with its second story, featuring the alien Daleks. Though the BBC bosses hadn’t wanted “bug-eyed monsters”, audiences loved them.
The original series ran for 26 years, with seven actors playing the Doctor – the hero is an alien who can regenerate when seriously injured. These changes of leading man allowed the show to rejuvenate itself for decades. Even when Doctor Who was cancelled, it never quite lost its national treasure status. A 1996 attempt to revive the show never got past its first episode, but in 2005, Doctor Who made a triumphant return to television. Monsters and adventure are still thrilling.
The first of Doctor Who’s alien adversaries is still the most iconic. Created by Terry Nation and superbly designed by Raymond Cusick, the Daleks are fleshy mutants encased in metal, with harsh, robotic voices. Surprisingly, dance was part of the inspiration for the Daleks. Watching the Georgian State Dancers on television, Nation was struck by the way the women seemed to glide, their tiny, smooth steps hidden by long skirts. The skirted shape and trundling motion of the Dalek was born.
Dance would go on playing a part in the series. In the 1960s, Doctor Who used movement to suggest the sheer weirdness of past or alien worlds. In the 1965 story The Web Planet, dancers wriggled through “insect movement” choreographed by Roslyn De Winter, while wearing fibreglass ant suits or huge translucent wings. In The Underwater Menace (1967), the Fish People perform what is basically an Esther Williams water ballet on a BBC budget. It was filmed without water, with Fish People hanging from wires so that they could “swim”.
The Doctor and his companions can travel into Earth’s past, as well as to the future or to other planets. Dance provided setpieces in some of these “historical” stories. There’s a 1920s masked ball in Black Orchid (1982), a showstopping 1930s number in Daleks in Manhattan and a touching village dance in Human Nature (both 2007).
In the 21st-century revival, dancing has been used to explore the Doctor’s own character. There’s even an episode called The Doctor Dances, which uses dancing as a metaphor for sexuality – something rarely highlighted in the old series.
There are quirkier instances, too. Matt Smith, the current Doctor, has a lovely moment at a wedding in The Big Bang (2010), where he dances like a drunken giraffe. An onscreen audience of delighted children follow his lurching moves, arms stuck straight up while the legs stagger about the place.
Dance’s biggest contribution to Doctor Who has been in the aliens, the villains, the creatures. As Terry Nation realised, trained movement can create uncanny effects. Dancers and former dancers have popped up throughout the series. In 1984, Christopher Gable, a former Royal Ballet star, gives a twisted grace to the disfigured villain in The Caves of Androzani.
In The Hand of Fear (1976), Judith Paris, another ballet-trained dancer, played an alien made of stone rather than flesh. Paris had remarkable muscle control: when Doctor Tom Baker picks her up, she stays as stiff as a board, firm as the stone she’s supposed to be.
The modern series has its own repertory troupe of monster performers, many of them dance trained. Working from the script, in collaboration with designers and make-up artists, choreographer Ailsa Berk creates a distinctive movement quality for the different creatures. Cybermen move in a robotic stomp, while animated scarecrows flap and sag like straw sacks.
After an all-round dance training, Kasey danced in the West End before performing creatures in film and television. His aim is to make his creatures “as real as I possibly can. The subtlety of a movement, how it is, how it moves. It’s not backflipping across a stage and kicking my legs up by my ears, but it’s so challenging to make something look as real as possible.”
The costumes help to define each alien. “Cybermen are an army, Judoon [a rhino-like alien race] are police. You take one look at them, in the fittings, and you sort of know.” At the same time, the elaborate costumes can make movement difficult. Padding and built-up heads give the performers a very different shape, but mean they have to project movement through masks, suits and gloves.
Kasey often plays the lead creatures – those in the close-up shots, with the most detailed costumes and prosthetic masks. “I tend to have the animatronic heads, the ones that move and blink and perform facial movements. Obviously, because they film close up, you can’t have big holes for the eyes, so your vision is narrower. I’d walk on set and try to map it out, so I know where everything is. You’re counting steps, because you can’t always see the floor in front of you.
“With dance training, you get a natural sense of spatial awareness. So I think I’m very aware of where I am, who’s next to me, the marks to hit. Everything I’ve ever done, my training and all the dance work, has come in handy when playing creatures.”
Watching it back, Kasey can still be caught up in the thrills and scares of the series. “There’s one episode, with clockwork droids and Madame de Pompadour…” In this episode, The Girl in the Fireplace (2006), a scared child sits on the bed as the Doctor looks under it – and finds a monster. “I know I’m under the bed!” Kasey laughs. “I sat there watching it, knowing I’m under the bed, knowing what I’m going to do – but when it actually happened, when I reached out to grab the Doctor, I leapt out of the sofa!”
The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special is on BBC One on Saturday, November 23 at 7.50pm.
Top: Tom Baker and the Daleks. Photograph: BBC
Below: Jemma Powell and Jamie Glover with two insects from The Web Planet in An Adventure in Space and Time, the recent BBC docudrama about the early days of Doctor Who. Photograph: BBC/Hal Shinnie