You can’t upgrade the universe if you’ve got a sweet tooth. So it’s a surprise to hear that Millennium FX producer Kate Walshe had to reprimand one of her Mondasian Cybermen for trying to squeeze a slice of cake through his, er, mouth hole. “I had a gentle word,” says Kate with a grin. “With only a few expletives…”
Kate has worked on Doctor Who in various capacities since 2008, and lost count of her episode credits some time ago. “Somewhere between 50 and 80?” she speculates. “One of these days I’ll count them.”
2017 has been another rewarding year of creating Doctor Who monsters for Kate and her team at Millennium, the company responsible for Doctor Who’s prosthetics and physical creatures. “We went through some really interesting processes this year” she reveals.
Some of the most significant creatures were the hideous Monks, who first appeared in the episode Extremis. Although Kate knew they were to feature heavily in the series, it wasn’t clear initially what form they would take.
“We knew early on that there would be these dead characters coming to life,” she explains, “but we didn’t know what the context was. When the scripts came through they read on the page as almost Palermo Catacomb Monks: dead figures, but wearing clothes and alive.”
“The origins of the Monks were a mystery,” adds prosthetics designer Gary Pollard, who headed up the look of this year’s creatures. “I like to get a sort of history and origin for all the characters. It helps to make things more authentic.”
Gary’s initial plans for the Monks were very different to the end result, as he explains. “Early ideas were that they were sort of ‘kung-fu Monks’, that’s what grabbed me on the initial script read. Monks springing to life and causing mayhem. One Monk takes out an entire SWAT team!” he laughs. “In the end it turned out to be mind control, so we simplified quite a bit from that point.”
Once the design of the monsters had been decided, a Monk’s head was sculpted and brought to the Doctor Who production team in Cardiff for approval.
“We sat in front of [showrunner] Steven Moffat with this terrifying corpse head,” laughs Kate, “and Steven went, ‘Yes! Of course we can make those for a children’s TV show!’ Things like that are really fun to produce. The textures allow us to be messy and have fun with the colours, and with the rot. It’s good old-fashioned horror.”
The Monks were originally intended to be non-speaking characters, which Kate says made the design a little easier. “You want to see a skeletal creature like that with its lips gone or teeth exposed. I was a bit worried about them speaking, because if you’re putting dentures in someone’s mouth, you still have to have their lips moving… So I was relieved when they said, ‘They’re not going to talk, they just need some movement and expression.’ I think it was four days before the shoot when [producer] Pete Bennett phoned me and said, ‘Hey! Remember I said that they didn’t need to talk?…’ It was a crazy turnaround, but we were able to sculpt something and get it ready.”
The exception to the fairly uniform Monk heads was the ‘Pilot’ Monk seen in The Lie of the Land. “It wasn’t in the script”, says Gary, “but we knew we had to have some sort of guy at the centre of it that was a little different, so I did something that was slightly more monstrous for that. There was a note in an earlier script that he was 15 feet tall, I don’t think they knew why… It was a good excuse to work in something that was scarier, more alien, at the end. It would have been a little disappointing if he’d just been one more rotting guy.”
Kate is full of admiration for the actors who bring Millennium’s costumes to life. “All of the cast were really graceful, thoughtful performers,” she says, “particularly Jamie Hill, who was the lead Monk. The levels of discomfort were high, and they still carried out these amazing characters really well. They were 100 per cent blind in those things, they couldn’t see each other. They spent time with [choreographer] Ailsa Berk developing the movement, then they just had to see it in their heads and carry it out. In order to make them look very skull-like with the cartilage worn away on their ears and nose we had to make their faces quite flat. We didn’t want to make them over-bulky as that would look too mask-like, so we sculpted it tight to the actors’ heads and tried to keep the mask as thin as possible. The poor guys had their noses crushed down for up to 13 hours a day. It seems improbable that were people inside those masks, but there were!”
Actor Jamie Hill already had an impressive array of monstrous credits to his name before he played a Cyberman, a Monk and an Ice Warrior in the 2017 series.
“The most enjoyable monster to play was definitely the Monks,” he says.“It was a completely different experience, to have prosthetic pieces applied and work face-to-face with Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas on set. I also got taken to Tenerife to film the pyramid scenes [for The Pyramid at the End of the World], so the Monks are definitely my favourite!
“The most physically challenging was definitely the Ice Warriors,” he continues. “The costumes are pretty heavy and as the torso piece doesn’t bend it gets quite uncomfortable. Thankfully one of the crew members, ‘Beans’, built some special stools for us to rest on in between takes.”
“I’m so grateful to have been asked back as many times as I have. The funniest thing that stands out for me was making Mummy on the Orient Express  as the Foretold. During a scene with Peter, as I was chasing him down the carriage, he messed up part of his line as he found the mask and my performance so terrifying that it distracted him. It was either that or the horrible smell of the foam-latex costume…”
Having previously designed Skaldak the Ice Warrior for the 2013 episode
Cold War, the team at Millennium expanded the Martian race further by introducing the first female Ice Warrior, the formidable Iraxxa, in Empress of Mars.
“One thing we often say in this workshop is that there aren’t enough female monsters,” says Kate, “so for me this was a good milestone. Gary is a die-hard Doctor Who fan. He adores the Ice Warriors, and was head over heels that he got the opportunity to modernise them. He made a little super-quick maquette of Iraxxa and brought it down to show Mark
Gatiss, who wrote the episode.”
“I was quite sure Iraxxa would follow a traditional shape, tying in with the shape of the Ice Warriors way back, but also with Skaldak, the update” explains Gary.
“The helmet design I wanted to fit in with the ‘Ice Lords’ in the [Third Doctor] Peladon stories, because it was always a helmet of rank. I took that as a starting point and gave her slightly more aggressive cheek-plates, shifted her eye-plates into a slightly more ‘Grey Alien’ look, and got the lines of the helmet to work with her mane of hair and the proportions of the suit. The maquette was received very well, so we went down those lines, shifting it to more of a cleaner, clinical armour look. The whole scaling of her armour is segmented and sophisticated as opposed to the huge bold lines of the male warriors.”
“I started down a ‘dress armour’ route for Iraxxa,” says Gary Pollard. “There was an initial confusion about gold armour, which was quite funny…”
Kate takes up the story: “There’s the gold sort of sarcophagus, the gold version of Iraxxa. In the script, it says ‘sculpted gold Ice Warrior’,then no mention of it going green later, so we all assumed she was gold! We were doing tests, running around working out different types of gold colouring, getting all excited,’This is amazing and super-bling with jewels and everything…’ And then Mark Gatiss said,’No. Clearly she’s going to be green, she’s an Ice Warrior!’ I would say we spent weeks figuring out a good gold for Iraxxa.”
The casting of Iraxxa was crucial to make the character work on screen, insists Kate: “They needed a really strong female performer, with the height to stand up alongside the main Ice Warriors. They cast Adele Lynch who had never been in a prosthetic before, never mind a creature costume. She was just exceptional. We wanted to make sure that her body shape was feminine but not in a human way. We didn’t want her to be bosomy, or super slim-waisted. Adele is… a fine woman, and we had to strap all that down! She had all these compression vests on to change her body shape so that we could build on top of her, create this sort of new alien femininity.”
Once Adele was life-cast, changes were made to Iraxxa’s design to fit the actress’ proportions.
Further amendments were made in collaboration with director Wayne Yip before recording began. “I think in Wayne’s mind he wanted something a lot sleeker than was possible” says Kate, “Obviously we were very keen to keep elements that reflected the history of the characters, which were slightly chunky and dumpy.”
“There was a request from Wayne to have a V-dip in Iraxxa’s collar,” adds Gary, “but I argued strongly that the circular collar is iconic Ice Warrior, so I managed to keep that. Wayne suggested that she should have a gun on both wrists, which was a great idea, as long as I could still create the impression of a slender feminine wrist and hand after the Weaponry had been added. Wayne also asked for the boot shape at the bottom to be slightly less clunky, a little more elegant without losing its impression of weight and power.”
Adele’s first day on set as Iraxxa was a big success. “She began with that, ‘Rise, my warriors!’ scene,” remembers Kate. “She just walked on, 100 per cent badass, and did this huge speech, the first thing she said on set. I remember Wayne was so happy, he grabbed her and showed her the shot on the playback. She was so excited, and really, really happy. There’s all this stuff going on, completely uncomfortable, and she just lived in that character. I was just bowled over by her.”
The highest profile monster suits were saved for last, with the much anticipated revival of the Mondasian Cybermen for series finale World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. This involved an update of Alexandra Tynan’s original 1966 design for The Tenth Planet, as well as creating the ghastly hospital ‘patients’ in various stages of their evolution into Cybermen.
“We got the heads-up that there would be a Tenth Planet origin story,” says Kate, “so we started doing concepts. We thought that it would be a new interpretation in the way that the Ice Warriors were. There are lots of things that are clunky about the originals, and lots that are earth-shatteringly creepy and horrifying. The really dead face, the homemade-ness of it, and the fact that they clearly once were humans.”
“We went down to the meeting with one of the concepts and an action figure of the original Cybermen,” she continues. “When it was time to talk about the Cybermen, Steven said ‘Bring the toy!’ So I brought the toy up. Steven looked at the concepts and said, ‘Just make it look like the toy!’
“People were still saying we needed to update it. There’s not a huge amount of great reference from the time, and it was in black and white, so there were loads of liberties we could take. The old ones had these massive light-beam guns beneath their chest units. They were really difficult for the guys to walk with; too big, too heavy, really impractical.”
“I was absolutely delighted to start work on those Cybermen”, says Gary. “They’re the scary ones, and that’s why it was quite exciting. It’s a careful game to update something, keeping what you found frightening in the first place but not taking on anything done on a shoestring budget that wouldn’t hold up now. It was always on my mind that they’d have to rub shoulders with modern-day Cybermen. It’s not a redesign to me, it’s an update.”
Kate recalls that, rather than going down the route of further concept drawings, the team opted to build a full Cyber-suit as proof of concept. “We had a chap called Rocky Marshall who came in and built the chest unit out of cardboard, plastic, and other bits that he’d found. Then Robin Archer, who is a latex costume designer, built the suit in
a matter of days.”
Gary points out that the chest units had to be both sturdy and visually impressive. “We made sure they weren’t too heavy and looked embedded into the body. They’ve got some nice lighting effects, like system-check valve lights, and I put in a red heartbeat that never alters, suggesting they never get stressed. The point was to look like a piece of hospital machinery that you could manufacture to last forever, but no part of it was frivolous or designed to impress. They’re just built to last, and that’s quite frightening. For the fabric of their clothes Kate found a sample of silver latex that looked retro, like something from a 1950s sci-fi movie.”
With the suit complete, Kate’s team shot test footage for approval by the production team. “We used this chap Liam Carey, who ended up being the ‘Bill’ Cyberman,” she says. “He was one of the key patients as well. We sent off the video to production, and they said yes. In the end I think we had just under four weeks to build eight of them.”
One of the most macabre features of the Mondasian Cybermen is their gloved hands. “We wanted them to feel like a medical experiment,” explains Kate. “There’s these slightly translucent gloves that become even more translucent when they’re made wet on the inside, so you can see the skin through them. They’re like old medical gloves, this transfusion rubber that’s kind of yellowy and sickly. There’s something sort of ill-ftting about them, and we asked the guys to twist them so everything was kind of buckling weirdly.” With the Mondasian Cybermen barely dry, there was a final race to transport an army of Cybermen from Millennium’s Aylesbury workshop to Cardiff ready for the series finale’s extensive night shoot. “I was driving the biggest van production could find, with eight Mondasian Cybermen, seven modern Cybermen, and six of the ‘Cybus’ Cybermen, and they just about fitted,” recalls Kate. “It was terrifying. We were putting things in boxes until three in the morning and some of it was still drying. We drove down, had very, very little sleep, then were filming late into the night and had to pack up and set up our unit base at the Roath Lock studio. I’d say we were working for pretty much 48 hours.”
The hard work and long hours paid of with some stunning results on screen. “It was difficult to feel cranky, tired or annoyed when you saw it all,” says Kate. “You’re on set with 20 Cybermen and the special effects guys have done a great wet-down of the street. It’s 11 at night, there’s the Mondasian Cybermen with their chest units all lit up, and smoke, atmosphere going round. It’s a night that’s just seared into my mind, one of the most extraordinary things. We were all giddy. Twenty Cybermen, all hanging out taking these crazy selfies. It was really special. I’d have lost a week’s worth of sleep just to have been there.”