Doctor Who’s Best Stunts
From UNIT soldier shoot-outs to the TARDIS dangling over London to Sylvester McCoy's singed bum, we celebrate Doctor Who's greatest stunts.
To clarify, by stunts we mean simulated action requiring special skill to achieve, not publicity stunts (though there’s an article in that). At last, Den of Geek publishes an article for the people who – when watching ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ – tap their partner on the shoulder and say knowledgeably: ‘If you look carefully you can see it’s Terry Walsh’. For these people’s partners we can, alas, only offer the solace that all things must pass.
A key name associated with stunts in Doctor Who is Derek Ware, who arranged fight scenes in the very first story and later founded the HAVOC stunt team who were regularly involved in the early-Seventies. Doctor Who isn’t a show heavily associated with stunts anymore, but they’re still a key part of the show. Jodie Whittaker still hurled herself into boxes and injured herself during the making of ‘Flux’. We’re in an era of painting out wires, but this still provides opportunities to give the lead actor an adrenalin rush.
10. Remembrance of the Daleks – You Don’t Know What You’re Dealing With Here
It’s hard to know what to do when you’re acting being shot, especially by a Dalek laser. Generally people seem to go for a bit of a writhe and then collapse to the floor, although more extreme options are available (everyone in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ seems fairly chill about being shot, whereas in ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ Del Henney goes to the other end of the spectrum, flapping and gurgling for slightly too long to take seriously). In ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ writer Ben Aaronovitch confirms what actually happens when hit by a Dalek death ray – your insides are scrambled – and the force of the energy bolt slams a soldier off his feet and sends him flying back into a corrugated metal fence. It’s a sudden burst of PG-rated violence, with Keff McCulloch’s synth-heavy score giving us a not-so-subtle clue that something bad is about to happen. To achieve the effect, Tipping was yanked back into the fence.
Tipping, despite being noticeably taller than Sylvester McCoy, also doubles for the Seventh Doctor in the same story when he climbs down a rope onto the Dalek shuttle craft, and appears as the soldier who gets attacked in the school cellar later on. After being a stuntman/arranger for three stories in the McCoy era, Tipping was tragically killed in 1993 when recreating a real-life parachute incident for the show 999 with Michael Buerk.
9. The Woman Who Fell to Earth – Throwing Yourself Into the Job
This is a clear indication of how things have changed over the years: we have the lead actor performing the rigorously story-boarded stunt herself (more focus on safety and the ability to paint out wires allowing this to happen) even though it’s out of her comfort zone. I can’t help but ponder how this would have been done in the early Seventies, whether it’d be Terry Walsh dressed as the Doctor, doing the stunt for real, or if it would be done using Colour Separation Overlay (today known as green screen, though blue was used more often in Doctor Who – partly because so many monsters were green).
For the wide shot, which director Jamie Childs implies they could only shoot once, the boxes beneath Whittaker were removed so we do have footage of Jodie Whittaker genuinely hurling herself off a slippery platform to the point of screaming terror. You certainly can’t say she’s not trying.
8. Warriors of the Deep – Chekhov’s
Gun Huge F**k-Off Water Tank
Of course, as a ten-year old, we all invited a friend round and attempted to convince them that Doctor Who is a serious and grown-up show by making them watch ‘Warriors of the Deep’. Everyone did that, it was totally normal.
After twenty-five minutes of brightly lit, brightly made-up deep-sea base crews saying dramatic things dramatically, occasionally interrupted by bipedal lizards so slow-moving you’d be forgiven for thinking they were on ketamine, the Doctor attempts to escape back to the TARDIS only to be confronted by some guards. He decides to fight them off, only for one to push him off a gantry into the tank of water below, whereupon Turlough believes he has instantly drowned. CUE CREDITS.
While the episode remains flawed, the initial surprise of this stunt lingers because it’s just so sudden, and such is the vehemence with which Mark Strickson insists the Doctor is dead the shock is very real. It’s also, bluntly, a very atypical stunt for the show. Normally falls are slow, awkward, staged things, whereas this is arranged and performed at pace.
Gareth Milne doubled for Peter Davison (landing with what must have been quite a slap to the system), having also played George Cranleigh in ‘Black Orchid’. He would later play a mortuary attendant in Vengeance on Varos. His career as a stunt arranger and performer has included Bond and Bourne films, Lifeforce, Downton Abbey and Mindhorn (but this is just scraping the surface).
7. The Sea Devils – Stuart Fell Flips Out
As well as the memorable scene halfway through the story where the Sea Devils emerge from the water, the final episode of ‘The Sea Devils’ features a lengthy fight sequence where the Navy – who assisted with filming, providing location, equipment and extras – arrive to fight the Sea Devils who have taken over their base (they treated it as a training exercise and so provided equipment). As the Sea Devils aren’t immune to bullets they are successful, and the stunt team promptly throw themselves into their work, dying in as many dramatic ways as possible.
Stuart Fell, an ex-gymnast of short stature (and therefore often called on to be involved whenever someone’s head got removed) doubled for Katy Manning in this story when the Doctor and Jo have to climb onto the sea fort from a small boat. However, what lived long in the memory of many viewers was when Captain Hart (the Brigadier stand in for this story) escaped on a hovercraft and fires at the pursuing Sea Devils, and one responds to being shot by doing a forward flip before settling on the ground. His fellow stuntmen (in HAVOC’s last performance in Doctor Who as a team) were annoyed because they thought he was overdoing it. It was Fell’s debut with the team, so he wanted to show what he could do. Fell later joked that he thought HAVOC leader Derek Ware was worried he’d have to pay him extra.
6. The Dalek Invasion of Earth – It Is Forbidden to dump Bodies in the Water
11.4 million, enticed by the pre-episode publicity, watched stuntman Peter Diamond open this story by ripping off a metallic collar from around his neck, and then staggering into a river and plunging himself face down into the water, and stop moving. We then cut to the view from the river, see a sign reading “It is forbidden to dump bodies in the water”, and then the episode title caption appears: ‘World’s End’. This scene was later immortalised by Terrence Dicks in his novelisation of the story, opening with the memorable description “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man”.
Diamond is later seen bobbing face down, quite still, in the water. He went into the Thames for real, with location filming under the Kew Railway bridge in August 1964.
If you’re wondering about the water quality of the Thames, a parliamentary report from the same year notes that “There is no doubt that in the last 20 years since the end of the war we have made a very substantial improvement in the quality of the water. and we shall certainly continue to strive after that’, but also that ‘I would imagine that something of the order of 120 million gallons a day of effluents are discharged into the Thames from some 10,000 different points.”
Fortunately Diamond had a long career working on and off in Doctor Who until 1971 and playing – among many others – a Tuskan Raider in Star Wars and Iman Fasil, the first immortal we see Connor Macleod fight in Highlander.
5. The Day of the Doctor – The TARDIS Is Lowered Into Trafalgar Square on a Crane
Again, this is the lead actor being genuinely hung off the TARDIS over a very real solid surface. Paul Seed doubles for Matt Smith for the more perilous moments, with the lead actor performing the disembark from a TARDIS prop containing Jenna Coleman.
Wider shots show Seed’s work more impressively, with the stunt-coordinator hanging above Trafalgar Square in full costume (the effect making people wonder if Smith performed all the stunts himself) for ‘The Day of the Doctor‘. As statements go, filming in one of the most famous locations in the country in front of large crowds certainly raised interest in the 50th anniversary special.
4. Inferno – Roy Scammell Shoots Himself off a Tower
Roy Scammell plays the soldier who shoots Private Wyatt (Derek Ware), but then Scammell himself performed the stunt fall as Wyatt then plunges from a gasometer. This was a record-breaking fall by a stuntman at the time of filming, with Scammell falling 50 feet on location at what is now the Kingsnorth Industrial Estate in Kent. It looks like the towers were still there as of 2006, but we would strongly encourage you not to re-enact this scene (especially if, like Jon Pertwee, you have a fear of heights).
3. The Mind of Evil – the Prison Fight
In episode 5 of ‘The Mind of Evil‘, UNIT successfully attack a prison that has been taken over by the inmates. The prison is an old castle, because it looks mint. Once the Brig announces the prison is in military hands he’s immediately shot at, returns fire, and someone falls off the battlements going ‘aargh’. There then follows a lot of gunfire, grunting, people falling downstairs, people falling off things, people climbing up castle walls on ropes, people doing ‘ooh me guts’ acting, one guy who looks like he’s about to sneeze, and the director getting involved – taking out a few UNIT soldiers before being shot from behind. It’s great, despite reshoots being required for close-ups. Derek Martin arranged the fights, and they’re edited together to make UNIT look efficient and quick. Given the recurring stunt arrangers featured in this era, it’s a reasonable enough headcanon that UNIT clone a lot of their soldiers which is possibly why they’re so recklessly expendable.
2. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy – Sylvester McCoy Gets His Bum Set On Fire, Merely Blinks
Arguably this isn’t a stunt, it’s an actor walking away from an explosion. As you can see from the video below, stunts involving fire and explosions are now rigorously tested so the production team can be certain that their lead actor is not going to come to any harm.An actor moving safely away from an explosion counts as a stunt.
In ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’, however, time was against the production team. The initial plan was not to use explosives but air mortars (using pressurised air to blast debris). The equipment was hired, but they decided to use pyrotechnics late in the day. The only problem being that no one had told Sylvester McCoy this, and he was expecting the blast of air.
As a result Sylvester McCoy’s clothes and posterior were singed, but as he knew they would only get one take, McCoy tried not to react. Indeed, despite the heat McCoy merely blinked once, and gave them a usable take.
While some people lament the rise of health and safety culture, it’s worth noting that as well as this accident Ian Reddington (who played the Chief Clown) lost two teeth while filming this story: a cage door slammed shut on his head and, due to already being behind schedule, Reddington continued filming for the rest of the day. As he was led off set he reportedly heard one of the behind the scenes crew say “Told you that would happen”. Sometimes there are very good reasons for being cautious.
1. Terror of the Autons – Terry Walsh Rolls With It
Terry Walsh worked on Doctor Who (often uncredited) between 1966 and 1979, also appearing in the 1989 stage play ‘The Ultimate Adventure’. He was often a stunt double for Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, but here he plays a policeman who initially seems to have taken the Doctor and Jo out of trouble, only for the Doctor to pull his face away and reveal the blank plastic face of an Auton. UNIT then arrive for a shoot-out. Initially scripted to take place in a wood, the action sequence wasn’t detailed in the script due to it ultimately happening in a quarry (where Katy Manning sort-of subverted a companion cliché by genuinely injuring her ankle while running).
Dinny Powell, who featured multiple times as an extra and stunt performer on Doctor Who, was driving the car towards Walsh who tumbled further down the hill than expected after launching himself off a trampoline to simulate the car’s impact. Nonetheless, when he reached the bottom of the 60 foot cliff, Walsh managed to immediately pick himself up and start climbing back up the hill again. The effect was to make the Autons seem uncanny, unstoppable creatures who felt no pain.
Walsh was also injured performing this stunt, though director Barry Letts stated on the DVD audio commentary that his intention was to cut away to a reaction shot, but Walsh insisted he could do the fall so a cut wouldn’t be necessary. Multiple stunts throughout Doctor Who’s history have gone wrong, and it’s been through a combination of skill and luck that nothing more serious has happened to any of the performers.