Doctor Who, Star Trek, limitations & creativity

Technical and story limitations in Star Trek: The Original Series and classic Doctor Who led to creative problem-solving. Here's how...

Technical boundaries can be stifling, but they can also force creativity. Take a look at the restrictions on two of our most beloved science-fiction TV shows, both born in the 1960s.

First, classic Doctor Who: 25-minute episodes, mostly shot in a multi-camera studio, initially recorded on 405 line video-tape in black and white. Scenes were performed live on set, just as they would be in the theatre. On recording day, rehearsals were in the afternoon, followed by a break for dinner, then they taped the live performance. The entire episode had to be finished by 10pm, because that’s when the BBC switched the lights off. There was barely time for more than one take thus any editing is kept to a bare minimum – due to budget, technology and facility constraints. In the first episode, An Unearthly Child, there is only one edit in the entire 25 minutes.

Secondly, Star Trek: The Original Series: 50-minute episodes, shot on colour 35mm film, with no limits on editing (within reason). It’s Horatio Hornblower in space, and it’s all about the human condition. The Hollywood hills stand in for alien landscapes. But there’s to be no conflict between the main characters because in this utopian future humanity has evolved beyond greed, jealousy and hate.

Doctor Who kicked off in 1963 with so many technical limitations it’s amazing it was got off the ground (if you’ve yet to see Mark Gatiss’ docudrama on the genesis of the series, An Adventure In Space And Timethat’s something to rectify – Ed). Yet having such rigid boundaries meant Producer Verity Lambert and Director Waris Hussein had to come up with a creative work-around: shoot it on connected sets, using connected story lines.

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No, Lambert and Hussein didn’t invent the A/B/C connected storyline structure, but they made excellent use of it with Anthony Coburn’s script for Doctor Who‘s very first episode, An Unearthly Child. For example, in an early scene, Susan (Carole Ann Ford) is reading a history book and declaring the details wrong, meanwhile her teachers Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) are staking out a junkyard. The scene changes are not done with editing but with live switches between the cameras. The cameras (which were about as cumbersome as a Dalek) had to manoeuvre between sets in the same small studio, but not run into the other cameras or run over cables. It must have been a nightmare in logistics.

Parallel stories and ‘meanwhile, over here’ scenes allowed the lead actors to leave one set and hot-foot it to the next. But the creative team cleverly got around the issue of not being able to edit and the episodes could be completed much faster. For instance at one point, the camera staying on Carole Ann Ford reading a history book in the classroom lasted just long enough for William Russell and Jacqueline Hill to get into the next set, in which they’re sitting in a car outside the junkyard.

The only edit came during the scene where Ian wrestles with The Doctor (William Hartnell) in the junkyard, allowing Barbara to push her way into the TARDIS exterior, the police box prop. Then the cameras and video tape stop, the scene is then re-started in a new set with the actress walking through the interior control room set doors. The jump from outside to the inside is the cut. It’s an edit on videotape, which meant physically handling the tape, cutting it with scissors and slapping adhesive tape over the join to the next piece of video tape. Unlike film, you couldn’t see the frames on video, so it was clever guesswork. They get away with it, with a bit of a wobble.

Of course the budget limitation that had the most significant impact was on the TARDIS itself. Originally the exterior was going to change every story to blend in with its new environment. That proved too expensive and so the chameleon circuit jammed on as a 1960s police box. Convenient and creative!

Nearly three years later, Star Trek had far fewer restrictions in production, yet a virtual noose when it came to writing stories. What? No conflict between the regular cast? Hello, conflict is story. How do you have a show with no conflict? Creator Gene Rodenberry’s high ideas could have been TV drama poison. 

Unlike WhoStar Trek was obviously made in the USA on film and in colour. There were some budgetary constraints on film usage, but nothing like constrictions placed on BBC productions. Fix it in post? Yes we can. Want another take of that scene? Not a problem.

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Shooting each scene separately meant Captain Kirk (William Shatner) could be in every scene if the writers and directors wanted. Having Kirk in most scenes meant less reliance on the multi-story arc. Following one character can give more depth, but it can come at the price of pace and story, as there’s generally no ‘meanwhile,’ to cut away to.

But the biggest hurdle, arguably, was the almost suffocating lack of conflict. The workaround here is to have regular cast members succumb to an external force; such as a virus freeing the crew’s inhibitions in The Naked Time, or a transporter malfunction creating an evil Kirk in The Enemy Within. All so they’re behaving out of character for a good reason. Or you bring in a baddie of the week, like a boy with dangerous mental powers in Charlie X, or a divisive Starfleet officer who takes command of the Enterprise in The Doomsday Machine. 

Which is standard fare for science fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But focusing on one monster/baddie/virus each episode meant it was the crew versus the intruder each time. It’s not really until D.C. Fontana’s Journey To Babel in season 2 that viewers got a noticeably strong A/B/C story.

Journey To Babel features the Enterprise hosting a multi-species gathering heading to an intergalactic conference; Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) parents Amanda and Sarek (Jane Wyatt and Mark Lenard) cramping his groove because Dad’s so disappointed Spock put the Federation ahead of a career in Vulcan science; a sneaky and very distracting vessel sending distress messages from just out of range and luring the rest of the crew away; oh yeah, and an on-board assassin. Plus, Sarek needs major surgery and Spock’s the only one with the matching blood type. The operation takes place while someone is shooting at the Enterprise. The conflict is externally sourced, rather than between crew members, but it’s a creative work-around all the same.

It’s a terrific episode with a cracking pace, and makes up for some of the slower paced offerings. Fans know better than anyone that not every episode of Star Trek is a masterpiece.

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To take another example: The Trouble with Tribbles is good, silly fun. It contains two major ‘meanwhile’ scenes, which are integral to the plot. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) buy the first tribble from Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams). Later, Chekov and Scottie (James Doohan) get in a fight with Klingons, and Kirk isn’t even there to join in!

Nobody gets a chair to the head in the fight, because the budget was so tight (1,500 tribbles don’t come cheap) the furniture was sourced from showrooms and had to be returned to the retailers in pristine condition. Costume designers covered toy dogs in fur to create some of the moving tribbles. These toys made such a noise they had to ‘fix it in post’ with the actors re-recording their lines.

The lesson? Sometimes restrictions can tie things down so much that nothing gets off the ground. But other times, the more barriers you have, the more creative you have to be to find a way out.

Ebony McKenna is the award-winning author of the 4-part Young Adult series of novels Ondine. Find out more at: ebonymckenna.com.