Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Raymond Cusick

Raymond Cusick has rightly been hailed for his design of the Daleks for the original Doctor Who story in which they appeared in December 1963, only the second serial in its very first season. It was a design to which that much abused and overused term ‘iconic’ can for once be confidently and accurately applied. As ever with BBC productions of the time, there was a good deal of contingency involved, practical considerations of cost, time and utility playing a role in what was eventually produced. Terry Nation’s original intention, backed up by producer Sydney Newman’s determination to avoid ‘bug-eyed monsters’, was to create something which steered clear of the usual man in a rubber suit clichés of monstrous SF aliens (clichés which Dr Who would later wholeheartedly embrace, often to great effect, and on occasion not). Nation’ descriptions in his script were left vague; he described machine-like creatures moving on a cylindrical base with mechanical arms and a lens eye on a flexible stalk. Cusick took this basic scripted thumbnail sketch and set to creating a workable model. He originally thought of a straight cylinder, which really would have looked like the mobile dustbins which the Daleks were later to be characterised as. But he realised that this would be distinctly uncomfortable for actors who would have to stand stooped inside for considerable period of time. It would be far better for them to be seated, which would also make them easier to operate. The leg room thus required led to the forward flaring expanse of their ‘skirts’, which, with the inspired addition of the half-tennis ball bumps giving it a textured design, had the appearance of a thorax separate from the dome-capped ‘head’. This gave some sense of a body, which added to the terror they inspired: they were alien, but not wholly other. It’s a characteristic which Steven Moffat cleverly exploited in a recent story which played on the horror of being forcibly turned into one of them. The angular thrust of their skirt also added to the menace of the dalek glide, lending its leading edge the aspect of a plough, designed to cast aside all in its path.

Daleks vs. Mechanoids - The Chase
The grilled ‘neck’ beneath the shiny skull cap also played a practical part, allowing the encased actor to see out, whilst the flashing ‘ear’ lights (perhaps the Daleks’ only cute feature) were added so that it would be clearer which one was talking (or shouting, as tended to be the case with these irritable creatures). The lights would be flicked on and off by the actor inside in morse-like flashes corresponding to the lines being spoken. The actor could also operate the whisk-like gun, which Cusick added, and also gesticulate with the sucker. As director Richard Martin ruefully recollects, the plunger was a matter of contingency. They wanted some sort of mechanical arm, but the budget was already at full stretch, so they had to make do with what they could find lying around – a sink plunger (which no doubt still had to be accounted for). This served as an all-purpose if rather impractical hand. Ironically, this underwhelming facet of the Dalek design was the first we ever saw of them, as they menaced Barbara at the end of the first episode before being fully revealed at the beginning of the next. A magnet was attached beneath the black rubber sucker so that it could carry metal trays. In the first Dalek story, one of the creatures brings in some food on a tea tray to the Doctor and his imprisoned companions, thus proving for all time that this was an alien invented by an Englishman. Rob Shearman would later make effective play with years of mockery occasioned by the plunger in his Dalek story in the revamped Russell T Davies series. A soldier unwisely takes the piss and finds out exactly what the sucker is capable of in a horrific scene which ensures that the appendage will never be seen in the same jokey light again.

Dalek vs. Dracula - The Chase
The Daleks were an immediate success, in no small part due to their immediate visual impact, their classic profile so to speak. Cusick must have looked on with a certain amount of weary resignation as he saw his original work licensed out to become a phenomenal marketing success from the mid 60s through to the seventies. Die cast toys, board games and play costumes were mass produced to meet insatiable public demand. Whilst his design might have been distributed in a wide variety of forms throughout the households of Britain (and beyond), as a jobbing staff designer at the BBC he presumably saw not a bean of the considerable profits accrued over the years. Of course, if people wanted to replicate the actual Dalek, the mutated mess which lurked within the protective metal casing, they could have done so in a budget fashion following that taken by Cusick. The slimy claw briefly seen protruding from a tarpaulin covering the corpse Ian has scooped out of the decommissioned Dalek’s lid was the hand from a joke shop gorilla costume smeared in Vaseline.

The first monster - petrified Magneton
His contributions to Doctor Who went well beyond the fashioning of the Daleks, however. He worked as a designer on the programme for a little over 2 years, from December 1963 through to January 1966, when he bowed out in style no the epic 12 part Dalek story The Daleks’ Master Plan. With his work for The Mutants, the serial later to be known as The Daleks, he can lay claim to having created a number of Doctor Who firsts: its first alien, a rather charming chameleon-like creature with upright eye stalks called a Magneton, whose dead husk the Doctor and his companions chance upon (he would later design another alien with snail-like eyestalks for the Keys to Marinus, this time rising from that pulp SF classic, the squirming brain in a bell jar); its first alien environment, the petrified forest on Skaro, whose haunted strangeness is economically conveyed through some trails of white lattice-like growths; and the first alien city, the Daleks’ metropolis. This looks magnificent, and only a cynical curmudgeon or someone whose senses are oversaturated with digital dazzle, leaving them unwilling to expand upon the model in their own imagination, would point out that it was evidently just a collation of toothpaste tube lids, plastic screws and box corner reinforcers.

Dalek City - knick-knack dystopia
Its interiors also feature Doctor Who’s first corridors, walled with a semi-reflective material which gives it the look of some alien alloy. The running down corridors aspect of Doctor Who was later to become something of a cliché, but it was used so much because of its simple effectiveness (and, of course, because it was economical). The suspense is heightened when something might appear around the corner at any moment. Cusick cleverly pointed to the fact that this city had been constructed with non-human needs in mind by making the doorways oval and low-lying. He also created an alien symbology, with dials and controls covered with ‘pie-chart’ designs. Futurity was indicated, 60s style, by the use of a lot of Perspex, with blinking lights and diodes behind suggesting complex computational functions in constant operation. Cusick would also make impressive use of Perspex in The Keys to Marinus, with the giant machine brain which provides the calculating judicial Conscience of the planet represented by a large transparent platonic solid, an all-knowing, all-seeing dodecahedron.

Perspex mind - the conscience machine in Keys to Marinus
Cusick seemed to specialise in the more science fictional aspects of the first two series, mostly leaving the historical backdrops to others. His broken down spaceship in The Rescue had the kind of deglamourised shoddiness which would later be a feature of the Nostromo in Alien (and Ridley Scott was a BBC designer at the same time as Cusick). He created another spaceship as working environment for the Sensorites, a story for which he also imagined another convincingly alien city. The climax of The Rescue featured a particularly effective and atmospheric set – the Dido temple, with its columnar row of smoking braziers, draped tapestries and its round table and altar decorated with Aztec-style designs. In low light shone through drifting smoke, this looks very impressive indeed. Cusick also explored the domestic quarters of the Tardis in the third story, Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction). Curved plastic beds descend from the walls, and there is an automatic food dispenser which synthesises whatever is programmed in. Shades of the Nutrimatic in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although no one asks for a cup of tea. He also designed the Tardis’ rather unwieldy ‘fault locator’, a bank of instrumentation which took so much effort to set up that it soon quietly disappeared.

Ian and Barbara inspect the drains in Planet of the Giants
One of his greatest triumphs can be found in the oversized sets he designed for the Planet of Giants, which outshone the rather dull story in which they featured. A miniaturised Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian make their way through rocky canyons which turn out to be the gaps between garden paving stones, and come across dead specimens of ants and earthworms. Later, Ian and Barbara unwisely climb into a the cavernous interior of a briefcase and are carried into a laboratory. Here, there is a great aluminium sink set, with very convincing plughole and adjacent plug with linked chain. There is also a king-sized spiral-bound notebook, a tangled slope of cloth-insulated phone wires and a mighty telephone handset, as well as a match on the scale of a caber, which Ian and Susan heave up like battering ram, taking a short run-up to strike it against the side of a shed-sized matchbox.

Viewing the Op Art caves - The Chase
Cusick did design the sets for one of the historical Whos, however: The Romans, which encompassed a rather impressive villa, a stretch of Roman road, a marketplace, various rooms of the Emperor Nero’s court, prison and a galley slaves’ rowing deck. All of this with a budget which was fiddling change in comparison with the money thrown at the Taylor/Burton Cleopatra a year or so earlier, and which would make Carry On Cleo look like a lavish epic. Perhaps his greatest challenge came with two series whose episodic nature required multiple sets, often of an elaborate nature. The Chase finds the Doctor, Barbara and Ian pursued by the Daleks across space and time, stopping off on a desert planet, Aridius (the vaulted, labyrinthine underworld of which is impressively Piraneisian); the top of the Empire State Building (where Peter Purves does a hilarious turn as a stereotypical Texan before turning up later as a completely different character, Steven, who would become one of the Doctor’s companions for the next year), the Marie Celeste (a well-realised ship’s deck set); a haunted house complete with gothic monsters and paraphernalia, which turns out to be an abandoned, robot-populated fun fair, Frankenstein’s House of Horrors (and it’s great fun seeing the Daleks confronting – and getting a pasting from – Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and freaking out at a wailing female ghost); and finally, the planet Mechanus. Here, there are some entertaining giant ambulatory mushrooms which envelop any who linger too near with their umbrella-like caps; some great op-art caves; and a fantastic alien city which follows the fungoid theme by resembling something that has grown from rotting humus. It looks like something that Roger Dean might have drawn for a 70s Yes album cover (triple gatefold, of course). There's a miniature shot I particularly enjoy here of a model mechanoid travelling across the arcaded bridge between the cliffs and the main city. Cusick also gives us a mechanical adversary for the Daleks, the Mechanoids, which resemble trundling Faberge eggs. There’s a great climactic battle between the two, taking place on another excellent city interior set, which of necessity involves a lot of intersecting ramps along with white arching architecture which makes it all look like the bisected section of a seashell.

Prog rock cities - The Chase
This was all tremendously demanding, with much being expected in a short space of time. The scriptwriter, Terry Nation, had also put Cusick through his paces on an earlier story, The Keys of Marinus. Here, the plot coupon structure requires the gathering of various segments of a key to gain control of the powerful conscience machine before the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan can leave the planet. This meant that Cusick had to develop and build a completely new environment for each episode. There was the initial island of glass surrounded by an acid sea (another fantastic model alien environment), with a pyramid atop a mountain containing the all-powerful machine; a beach spiked with shards of black glass (and with some rather nifty one man submarines beached upon its shores – Perspex, of course); a lavish palace and banqueting hall; a trap laden laboratory in a tropical region which is besieged by carnivorous plants; ice caverns, economically achieved by using cellophane shot in low reflective light; and a museum, courtroom and city interiors. Considering the time strictures, with the erection of sets, run throughs and filming of each episode required to be completed in one day, this was asking an incredible amount.

Isle of glass in an acid sea - Keys of Marinus
Cusick outlined his approach as being a matter of ‘beg, borrow and steal’. This is put to great effect in the palace scene, in which he has evidently raided the historical props department to create a motley scene of decadent excess. He also enjoys wrecking it, showing the tawdry and dilapidated reality which lies behind the hypnotic illusion implanted in the minds of the questing travellers. A comment on extensive use of illusion which he had to resort to achieve what was required of him, perhaps. Cusick noted that Nation tended to be a bit vague when it came to specific description in his scripts. He would, he said, write something along the lines of ‘they enter a white featureless room’. When he asked Nation about this, he told him that it was up to him to supply the detail. There is indeed a scene in Keys of Marinus in which Ian and the Doctor walk into a blank, featureless room, its only prop a battered table and a rusty tin cup. Under the hypnotic spell of the aliens who run the place (those brains with protruding eye stalks mentioned earlier), they see what we don’t – a fantastically well-equipped (cyclotrons and all) phantom laboratory. Maybe Nation was having a little self-effacing dig at his own shortcomings here.

Far from armless - Ian fails to approach idol with due caution in Keys to Marinus
Cusick also designed a marvellously fierce-looking idol for the tropical episode, which grabs the curious who approach too closely and swivels round to deposit them in a secret room beyond. Cusick had wanted mechanical arms, but had to make do with real ones thrust through convenient holes. There’s never any doubt that they’re real, and that they will obviously come to life, but the whole thing still looks pretty good. Cusick, ever his own harshest critic, and recollecting things with unsentimentally acerbity, observed that it ‘didn’t quite work, but it was cheap’. His assessment of his work on Keys of Marinus, an experience which he evidently felt was absurdly overdemanding, was particularly damning. Asked whether he was proud of anything he’d done on the story, he replied, with the air of a true perfectionist, ‘I can really say no’. I’d say he was wrong, and that he had much to be proud of there and elsewhere.

1 comment:

robin said...

A nice appreciation! Thanks.