A few weeks ago, in the viewing notes for Doctor Who series 10’s second episode, Smile, I mentioned that the craft used by the colonists was marked ‘Erewhon 190484’ and asked for your theories. Many of you correctly pointed out that Erewhon is the name of a Samuel Butler novel about a dystopian society whose inhabitants live in fear of machines (And not ‘nowhere’ backwards, as I’d rather rashly stated – sorry about that…).
But what of 190484? There were some fascinating suggestions, including a possible reference to Winston Smith’s diary in George Orwell’s 1984, the date of a UFO sighting in East Anglia and both a jazz musician and an Israeli engineer who lived from 1904-84.
So I got in touch with Doctor Who graphic designer Matthew Clark, who told us the following: “I’m afraid it’s just a birthday. It’s not even a deliberate thing to get said date on screen – a lot of the time it’s just easier for me to do typographic design around a phrase/number that I know well/can get a flow for, if that makes sense.”
Which indeed it does – though I still prefer the idea that 19/04/84 marked a significant event in the Dalek/Movellan war…
The reason I originally got in touch with Matt, however, was due to the use of a rather familiar font around Space Station Chasm Forge in this week’s episode, Oxygen; a lot of the signage is in Microgramma (or the very similar Eurostile), a font many readers will associate with its extensive use in space-based sitcom Red Dwarf. When fellow Geek writer (and editor of the official Red Dwarf website) Seb Patrick pointed out that Clark has worked as a designer on both shows, I was compelled to find out whether the font – and the phrase ‘Ganymede Systems’, referring to the Jupiter moon which has a key place in Dwarf lore – was a deliberate reference to the small rouge one:
“I only did a week or two prep on Oxygen before moving on to another show. If anything of mine made it onto camera it’d be the deck signs and the initial layout for the control panel screens on the suits, that was about it.
I couldn’t tell you re: Ganymede as a name as that would have come from the writers, but that did surprise me too! As for using Eurostile/Microgramma – not directly a Red Dwarf thing; that typeface as I’m sure you know has done spaceship duty for yonks and I think it was the first time in a season and a half of Doctor Who that I’d actually found a valid reason to use it! It was still early in the production of the episode, but we had some rough set layouts and we knew we were looking at low ceilings / long wall panels, and our production designer specifically referenced the JCB aesthetic, so using that typeface just seemed a perfect fit. I’m a big fan of slightly rubbish 70s England as much as I am spaceships so I’m keen to get that typeface in wherever I can. I did actually use it on the run down council estate on the Zygon two-parter [2015’s The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion], but I don’t think that was seen.”
Microgramma and its variants have indeed done spaceship duty for yonks; just a glance at the font’s Wikipedia page (yes, really) lists its use in everything from the Alien films (as part of the Weyland-Yutani conglomerate’s logo) to the spaceship exteriors in the Star Trek movies, via 2001, Mr Fusion in Back To The Future Part II, The Incredibles and pretty much every Gerry Anderson show ever made.
Back to Matt Clark, who kindly offered a possible explanation for this:
“My pet theory on this (which I have never really investigated) is that it might have something to do with VFX crews from England in the 60s/70s. I’m sure there was an overlap of model/miniature crew on the various Gerry Anderson productions, 2001: ASO, Red Dwarf etc. All these shows used Letraset rub on labels on the models and trim tapes, especially the Gerry Anderson shows and Red Dwarf. There wasn’t a huge supply of wide, legible typefaces in the Letraset catalogue at that point, which probably meant it was the default choice for a lot of shows, before eventually becoming the default”.
“You don’t really see loads of it on the interiors in the very early Red Dwarf, when the set graphics were more stencil based (but when you do see it – beer cans etc – that was probably a Letraset application). It was later when desktop publishing / digital type was a thing that it started popping up more across the whole show, rather than just the VFX side of things”.
Even though it’s in the US, if you think of its minimal uses in Star Trek, it tended to be across the ship hulls, which were, of course, models. Off the top of my head it appears almost nowhere on the interior sets.
“That could be totally off-base, but having grown up on Thunderbirds and Red Dwarf at the same time, and then later boning up on the making of the various shows, there does seem to be a bit of a link.”
It feels like we’re headed down the rabbit hole on this one… If you know of more uses of the fonts, or even have some extra knowledge on its use, do let us know in the comments below! And of course, huge thanks to Matt Clark for taking the time to provide us with such an insightful answer. You can see many examples of his work on Doctor Who, as well as many other productions, at http://matthew-clark.co.uk/.