Although I’d been exploring fan films for several years, and had even seen a few Who-related ones, I wasn’t aware of any gathering place for fan film fans and filmmakers until signing on to the now-defunct Outpost Gallifrey website, back in the early days of this century. There I found a lively community bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, and plenty of folk who had already been active as Who fan filmmakers. I spent some time exploring the vids that were available, and found many things to enjoy; I started posting in the forum, and began to forge some friendships.
One of the most welcoming and gung-ho members of this community was one Adam Manning of the UK, who, along with his cohorts in the aptly-named Cheeky Monkey Pictures! group, had already posted the first episode of their epic fan film Tyranny of the Daleks. Like many first efforts, Episode 1 of Tyranny is fairly rough around the edges, but full of verve and surprisingly good performances, along with some pretty slick-looking CGI effects. As Episodes 2 and 3 made their debut in later months (and years), it was obvious that the confidence and filmmaking style of the CMP! band (which includes Adam’s wife Alison, co-star Lizzie McWilliams, and her husband Matt, who serves as director and primary cameraman) was increasing by leaps and bounds. But the epic remains unfinished, and almost two years have passed now since the third installment debuted. Manning, a crime-fighting barrister by day (that’s a lawyer to us Americans), has had to contend with computer crashes and a steep learning curve on a new CGI program in his valiant effort to bring Tyranny to a rousing conclusion – as well as squeezing in side projects like their amusing spoof Henry V: Champion of Saturn. We posed ten questions to Herr Manning about his Tyranny and its future.
1. What’s the earliest Doctor Who episode you remember seeing? Why do you think the series has had such a profound effect on you?
The earliest episode of Doctor Who I distinctly remember seeing is “Destiny of the Daleks” (1979). I remember, at the time, having mixed feelings about it. I loved the initial buildup, the Doctor becoming trapped and reading a book on Astrobiology to pass the time. I managed to get hold of a rather thick paperback on Astrobiology myself which I habitually kept in my coat pocket too (not bad for an 8 year old – one by Fred Hoyle actually). I remember thinking whilst the story had merits, sending the Daleks out as effectively suicide bombers was a bit weak and not helped by how banged-about they looked. The Movellans were just cheap and disappointing for aliens. It just left me a little deflated after the exciting build up of having the Daleks return.
I’m much more positive about it as a story now when I watch it. The scenes of Romana being tortured are quite effective, given the broadly brushed and outlandish sci-fi setting. The actor brought into play Davros gives it a good go, impressive considering his predecessor had given such an extraordinary performance in “Genesis of the Daleks.” Romana’s regeneration scene is amusingly whimsical in a way that cleverly offsets the rest of the story’s matter of fact grimness. What I mostly enjoyed about the opening scenes on Skaro was due in part to the involvement of Douglas Adams in the story and something I would grow to really enjoy in later Who stories and Hitchhikers. The Movellans, I would realize, were an attempt to make the story look contemporary and exciting by styling them on the then current glamorous disco fashions and made for a rather fabulous, if incongruous, race of androids.
I clearly watched Doctor Who before “Destiny”; I have distinct memories of the Mummies from “Pyramids of Mars” for example, but that was the first story I really absorbed and was able to follow fully.
2. Please explain your obsession with Rupert Booth!
It is quite true to say that I am obsessed with Rupert Booth. To me he is the true official Doctor of the interregnum between the classic and new series, perhaps even more so than Paul McGann. It all goes back to 2000 and 2001 when we as a group first became interested in the idea of making a Doctor Who fan film. One of the most widely known groups in this field is Timebase Productions. We were able to obtain VHS copies (see this goes back a few years now!) of all four of the major Timebase films and watched them with avid interest. Like many people, something about them seemed to resonate with what was most enjoyable about the original series: the sense of intrigue, the fascination with the surreal and mysterious. Rupert’s performance was obviously an important part of this. To be brief, and you have to watch the films to understand this, but it is right to say that Rupert manages to carry off the very difficult task of being a Doctor without just acting in a “Doctorish” manner, without just being a rather eccentric man in eccentric clothes. In retrospect it’s quite clever then that the first time we see his Doctor, he’s not in Doctor style clothes or indeed clearly in his full Doctor mode. This cutting away of the normal Time Lord props helps build up his character as being very much his own creation. His Doctor is very much in the mould of the Doctors of the original series without just being a caricature or impression or copycat play act.
As the Timebase Who fan films progress, we also see that Rupert’s Doctor has to deal with things the original series’ Doctors didn’t, pre-configuring or anticipating themes now found in the new series. Also physically he looks the part, with his long hair and the striking outfit of his dinner suit. It also helps that Rupert is a very natural comic actor, which adds to the enjoyment of watching them.
Over the years, I have got to know Rupert well and have to say that in addition to all this he is also a wonderful chap, thoughtful, kind, very humorous and generous. A delight to know and it pleases me no end that through making our fan films I have to come to know him as a friend.
3. Had you made any films (fan or otherwise) before Tyranny?
In a word – No! Tyranny of the Daleks, or The Galentor Incident as it was originally called, is our first go at making a film of any description. Episode 1, which is The Galentor Incident, was originally all we planned to make, but we had so much fun making it, we wanted to continue the story further and that eventually became Tyranny of the Daleks.
4. What was the main motivating factor behind mounting your own Who fan film?
The secret here is that at first, at the absolute outset, we wanted to make a Star Wars fan film. There I’ve said it, it’s our dirty, shameful secret. Matt and Garry had seen some of the early Star Wars fan films, including of course Troops. This was in the days when the Internet was a very different beast from what it is now. Star Wars what fan filmmaking was all about, or so it seemed at first.
We reasoned fairly early on that actually Star Wars would be a very difficult thing to try and do as the production values were so enormously high. We were excited about creating our own special effects but to make anything even remotely fit a George Lucas-style vision seemed a mountain too high to climb.
Now, it’s not right to say for example that we then settled down on Doctor Who as being easier. It’s more accurate to say that we recognized with Who there was a different emphasis, which might make it more suitable for a first film. Whilst Who was also clearly a visual feast (or at least tried to be), the focus was more on intrigue, atmosphere, character and plot. That combined with the all-too-evident fun the Timebase guys were having making their films and also the Projection Room films as well (which were very influential on us too), made it natural to emigrate our ambitions to Doctor Who instead. Lizzie, Matt and I were all total Who fans as well. The Projection Room films suggested a positive approach to telling a story with the film. They were influential in depicting how to build up a scene with the shots and how to keep going and carry the narrative forward.
Remember, this was all happening at a time (around 2003) when the new series had not even been remotely mooted by the BBC. Doctor Who was, it seemed, a bit of an embarrassment to the BBC in those days – despite, in its heyday, being something the nation adored; the Beeb made it clear they had no intention of ever bringing it back. Science fiction like Who, the BBC would regularly say, simply did not have a big enough audience in these modern times. Fan productions really were, at this stage, the only way to actually see new Who on the screen. One particular day, “Who Fan Film Day” in the summer of 2003, actually made the news on the old Outpost Gallifrey website when three fan films including ours happened to be filming on the same day. From a visual perspective, fans had nothing to talk about apart from fan films and so they were accorded perhaps more importance than they are now. With the new series (deservedly) being such a success, there are a whole new generation of fan filmmakers out there now, and I am fascinated by this. Taking their cue much more from the new series, they have a whole different style and approach.
The internet has grown and developed so much over the last ten years that the good old days of sitting around waiting for a VHS tape to be delivered in the post and then excitedly slotting it into your machine and pressing play have long gone. Now it’s all downloads and bit torrents. Tyranny perhaps straddles both generations of fan films, being conceived and born in the last days of the VHS era, when all we had was the old series to inspire us, yet since being fully accessible on YouTube and Google Video, an effectively online series. It’s interesting that when we started, in no way did I envisage the internet getting to the point where this might be possible. When we started Tyranny, I only ever thought in terms of it being available on VHS or, at a stretch, DVD. It really has been a, perhaps barely noticed, revolution before us in terms of the power we now have to watch what we want.
5. How did you meet your stalwart cohorts the McWilliams’?
Ah, this is an easy one. I went to school with Mr. Matthew McWilliams, our wonderful director and principal camera operator. This was good old Hamble Comprehensive back in the ‘80s, near Southampton. I also worked for a while with Matt at Beth’s Restaurant in Hamble. Lizzie was Matt’s girlfriend, now his wife, and I met her for the first time on 23rd September 2000 as Matt brought her along to one of my birthday parties. I know this, as I am an obsessive diarist and write everything down. We played a lot of Twister, which is always a good way to get to know people, I’ve found over the years.
6. Co-star Lizzie McWilliams: diva or darling?
Darling. Even as a Diva she’s still a Darling. Not only is she utterly gorgeous she’s also a wonderful actor, far better than me, and always unerringly and absolutely spot on with her lines! Right from the start she’s always had fan mail and I think a large part of the attention we get is down to her, and rightly so! Always remember, she is far more clever than you are, and if you do, all her behaviour will be acceptable albeit occasionally incomprehensible.
7. Your Doctor is very much the action hero – how did you arrive at that approach?
I don’t physically resemble any of the past doctors, so an impression or representation of any previous Doctor was not a good idea. Nevertheless, I had felt that the Third Doctor might be good inspiration for a fan film Doctor, being a rather larger than life, flamboyant and colourful character. Also, the idea of a Third Doctor-style Doctor for me was influenced by a big story I wrote as a ten year old in which the Third Doctor confronts Davros: in the story, his assistant was called “Xafonix,” which I re-used in Episode 1 for the friend the Doctor and Romana are hoping to meet.
This also for me coupled with an interest in martial arts and kung fu films generally. It was a given that any Doctor Who fan film we made would have to involve some fighting and high kicking as a result.
And then, when we filmed Episode 1, it became very clear that filming action sequences was really good fun. We all seemed to enjoy the running about, jumping, hiding behind trees and general larking about that the action bits involved the most. So with the later episodes it was agreed that we would try and do more of that.
Another point is that in watching the numerous fan films we saw before and during the making of Tyranny, perhaps the one thing that seemed surprisingly underused was action sequences. A lot of the fan films we saw were essentially long bits of dialogue between characters. Which was fine, but we thought we could be distinctive by shaking things up with a bit of action.
From this starting point, whilst working on Tyranny of the Daleks, a theme evolved of producing a style of Doctor Who inspired as much by comics as the TV series. Whilst working on the computer graphic imagery in Tyranny, I was taken by the idea that we were producing Doctor Who as if it were made by Marvel Comics, which is to say a very much larger-than-life, broadly brushed approach with exaggerated action, angled shots and general production values that were bold, colourful and dynamic. This was something that only developed after we started work on it. To begin with, we hadn’t even conceptualised the idea of a theme or a style with which to make the production. It was only something that grew as we became more confident.
8. How long did Tyranny take to shoot? Were there different blocks of shooting?
As mentioned before, originally all there was was The Galentor Incident, long before the title Tyranny of the Daleks was thought of. The only thing anyone knew of as our production was The Galentor Incident. After finalizing the script during the summer of 2002 with a couple of rehearsals, we filmed the whole of The Galentor Incident on one beautiful day in the New Forest in early September 2002.
Then after the script for the other episodes had been worked up and the new name of Tyranny of the Daleks decided upon, we did loads of filming over the next three years. There were some further gorgeous days in the beautiful New Forest during a very sunny July 2003, including one great day, our biggest filming day ever, when three of the chaps from Timebase Productions joined us. These were Neil Johnson, Steve Palace and Paul Ferry. You can see some of them in Episode 2 of Tyranny, but there’s lots more of them in action in Episode 4.
Filming for Episode 4 finished in the middle of 2005 and then the post-production fun began!
9. Why did you decide to tackle all the CG effects yourself rather than farming them out to others?
Quite simply, part of the fun of making a film for me is learning how to do it all yourself. I really enjoy the computer graphic imagery side of the production and greatly value how far it’s come on. There are some wonderful computer graphic artists out there working on Doctor Who fan films so there’s plenty to keep you inspired! It’s also a skill I’ve been able to carry into other films that I’ve made for business purposes which is very valuable to me.
Spending a lot of time essentially animating Daleks using a CG package took me right into the mind of a Dalek. In making them come to life, you can’t help but be drawn into their world. It occurred to me that if you were a Dalek, your thoughts would be so crystalline in their purity. Being so evil, so clear in their views, so free from doubt or fear or imagination you would have such an unfettered mental outlook, such a dazzling light to guide your existence. As a fan of the show, I found it an exhilarating insight to be taken that far into their world. This concept of purity is of course very much part of the general Nazi ideology that the Daleks have always been identified with.
As well as the various comic strips, particularly from the ‘60s, that depicted the Daleks, I was also greatly inspired by the two ‘60s films and their portrayal and production values. I think this shows somewhat in the models we used. Whilst working on Episode 2 I eventually settled on the type of backdrop used in the original series story, “Day of the Daleks,” which is quite an extraordinary story in many ways. The moderately reflective walls used added a great deal of interest, coupled with flashes of mostly green light. The first time we see the Daleks in Episode 2, they are engaged in a dialogue about the fate of the Doctor and I wanted to really do something special with this and in the end settled on a very long, continuous shot as they travel down a corridor. It took a lot of time to render but I was pleased with the result.
One further point is that it was, whilst working on the CG, that the notion of a comic book style really took hold. This is where the occasional split screen shots come from. I wish now that we had started off with this theme, as it makes Tyranny fairly unique. As said before, we had no concept of giving it a style to begin with, but I wish now that when we had shot the footage, we had taken lots of extra footage for more split screen stuff with the real footage to combine with the CG. But then learning all this is part of the fun!
10. And lastly of course – what’s the status of episode 4?
Episode 4 you say – well it’s a constant work in progress at the moment. All the filming’s been done, its now down to the post-production… am hoping to release it soon(ish)!
I’d just like to say everything about Tyranny of the Daleks has been so much fun, so much enjoyment and really some of the happiest times I’ve known. It’s been, and continues to be, a long project but I’ve loved every second and it’s always been delightful that anyone else even watches it let alone seems to enjoy it.
Many thanks to Adam Manning for taking the time to become our very first interview subject! The first three episodes of Tyranny can we viewed here, and check out the very exciting trailer here. Plus you can explore all of the Cheeky Monkey Pictures! output (including some bloopers and other silly bits) at their YouTube page.
That’s about all for episode two, but I was somewhat remiss last time in not linking to perhaps the best resource for Doctor Who fan films, the Doctor Who Fan Film Database run by our old pal David Nagel. More on this great site in the future, but for now, click on the link and do some exploring!
JE Smith is a forty-something guy living in the wilds of Texas, USA, who loves Doctor Who and loves fan films. He is currently a writer of film and DVD reviews for the media website Pop Syndicate, and is contemplating making his own DW fan film in the near future.