12 November, 2015

Acting in overruns - setting the record straight about Planet of Fire

Mark Strickson as Turlough in Planet of Fire (1984)
On The Underwater Menace DVD is a documentary called The Television Centre of the Universe - Part Two in which actors Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson and other personnel reminisce about their memories of working on Doctor Who at the former BBC Television Centre studios in London. During the documentary, Strickson, who played the fifth Doctor’s companion Turlough, recalls an incident that occurred on Planet of Fire, his last story, when he had to perform a scene with seconds to spare at the end of the day’s recording.

BBC Television Centre had a regulated shutdown each night at ten o’clock. The studio lights would be turned off at exactly that time regardless of the production’s progress. It was therefore imperative to finish recording before this deadline or else have the lights go out abruptly in the midst of recording a scene. Special arrangement could be made to go beyond ten o’clock if deemed to be absolutely essential, but these so-called ‘overruns’ were required to be documented in writing by the programme’s producer with an explanation as to why each instance had occurred.

The studio recording for Planet of Fire took place in two blocks totalling five days: 26 and 27 October in the large Studio One; and 9, 10 and 11 November 1983 in the much smaller Studio Six. It was a particularly demanding production for the crew, led by the highly-experienced director Fiona Cumming, because of the number of complex effects shots and difficulties with operating the robot prop Kamelion. These factors and other technical issues contributed to overruns on three of the five studio days.

Thursday 27 October, the second of the two days in Studio One, suffered the most significant overrun, lasting 35 minutes past ten o’clock. The scenes scheduled for recording on this date included all that take place on the Hall of Fire set. The overrun was necessary to complete these scenes because it would have been costly and impractical to not only retain and re-erect the large set on the next available studio day, two weeks later, but also re-hire the large group of extras playing the Sarns in these scenes. The Hall of Fire material was scheduled to have been completed early enough in the evening to subsequently record four scenes in the wrecked Trion spaceship and a further eight in the Master’s Laboratory, but due to the delay all of these material had to be rescheduled for a later date. The sets had been erected for these scenes in Studio One were dismantled without having been used.

The abandoned scenes were added to the next block of recording days, and provisions were made to erect the required sets in Studio Six. Fortunately the plan had always been to split the Master’s Laboratory scenes over the two studio blocks so additional room only had to be found to accommodate the Wrecked Ship set, which was erected alongside the TARDIS Console Room.

The Wrecked Ship scenes were now scheduled to be recorded last thing on the evening of Thursday 10 November, the penultimate studio day. On The Television Centre of the Universe documentary Mark Strickson recalls that these were the final scenes he recorded for the series. This was not the case: he was back the very next day, Friday 11 November, to perform scenes on the Ruins set, culminating in his final scene in story order, in which Turlough bids farewell to the Doctor and Peri outside the TARDIS. Once this scene was completed, recording continued with scenes in the Master’s Laboratory and on the Master’s TARDIS Console Room set. Turlough was not involved in any of these scenes so Mark Strickson was released from the production early on his last day.

On the previous evening it was a very different state of affairs as the cast and crew worked against the clock to complete the scenes on the Wrecked Ship set. Ten o’clock passed, and the production was again into overruns. As producer John Nathan-Turner noted, in a memo dated 15 November, the overrun on 10 November ran to 15 minutes ‘in order to complete scenes in a set that had to be struck [i.e. dismantled] over-night’. He was of course referring to the Wrecked Ship set.

Internal BBC memo from Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, dated 15 November 1983, to explain the overrun on the evening of Thursday 10 November.

Recalling the the pressures they were under on the DVD documentary, Strickson says, ‘[it] was the last scene in the studio and the director Fiona Cumming said, “Look, get it in Mark. I don’t know how you’re going to do it, you’ve got so many seconds, the scene lasts this.” So I had to physically, as I was acting, cut lines because I knew the lights were going to go out.’

This was by no means the first time Strickson had told this particular anecdote about his final story. On the Calling the Shots feature on the Planet of Fire DVD, he says, ‘… we were running very, very late, we had something like thirty seconds left before the lights were turned out and Fiona Cumming … said to me, “Mark, I don’t care how you do it, get the lines in, get the plot down because we all lose light in thirty seconds”, and I just edited and cut it as I went, and almost the moment we finished the whole of television centre went black.’ The incident is also mentioned by Strickson on the Planet of Fire DVD commentary (during the first Wrecked Ship scene in Part Two). Furthermore, when Jon Preddle and I interviewed Mark in 1990, he said, ‘This scene lasts about a minute and a half in the script and there was about forty-six seconds of studio left to get it in. So we started this scene and Fiona says, “I don’t care what you do, but get the plot in.” We just went for it - and I got the plot in.’

Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Jonathan Caplan (Roskal) in the final scene recorded on the Wrecked Ship set on 10 November 1983

The common thread running through these accounts is that under pressure Strickson improvised the last scene to some extent in order to get the relevant details across in the briefest time.

So what was altered in the heat of the moment? The camera scripts offer a detailed record of what was to be performed in studio. A comparison between the scenes on the Wrecked Ship as written and on screen reveals a surprising fact. They all play out as scripted. There is one dialogue edit, a cut lasting four seconds, at the start of Part Four’s Scene 22 (Roskal: ‘Is it still working?’ Turlough: ‘I don’t know.’), but these lines were definitely recorded as evidenced by their inclusion on a longer, time-coded edit of this episode.

Pages from the camera script for Planet of Fire Part Four, showing the last two Wrecked Ship scenes
(click on the image to enlarge)

The scenes in the Wrecked Ship were recorded last thing in the evening, just before the studio shut down. In that respect Mark Strickson’s recollection is undoubtedly correct. However the notion that this was his final work on Doctor Who or, more significantly, that he cut lines and edited dialogue on the fly in order to complete one or more of these scenes in the time available is wrong. All four scenes were all performed as written in the camera scripts. What Mark Strickson deserves credit for here is of course that he did a sterling job of managing to deliver the lines accurately under such pressure.

Stephen James Walker offers his recollection in response to my article... ‘I was in the studio when those wrecked ship scenes were being recorded at the end of the day, and they certainly were done very much under time pressure. I remember Mark accidentally dropped the Trion pendant prop at one point, and had to scrabble around on the set to retrieve it, while still acting.’

No comments: