Colours of Doom – How Doctor Who’s Palette Dulled

You may have noticed something quite striking about Jodie Whittaker’s costume as compared to other recent Doctors’. Bright colours, and a diversity of colours. Not only in her look, but in the settings for the promo shots, we have seen a noticeable shift from the ‘darker’ tones of recent years.

Capaldi’s black jacket, and Smith’s dark frock coat alongside a less saturated backdrop perhaps defined the later Moffat era. But why did this happen? Was it simply a reflection of an intention to bring about ‘darker’ stories? Or was there something more practical going on? Perhaps a mixture?

The main thing we have to consider is the way in which we have been consuming media recently. And the biggest change in the last five years has probably been the rise of High Definition.

Back in the Day

If you’re a fan of the classic series, you may have found yourself watching the newer DVD releases as they have come out. We tend to forgive a lot of the old school special effects, and many of us have a soft spot for them. Knowing how much effort went into bringing certain things to life, often on a shoestring budget, is part of the show’s charm.

But those places where the illusion is broken, when an effect isn’t quite, well, effective, get emphasised on DVD. Especially if you put it up on the big screen, in high definition. Many of the original series stories were designed to be seen on tiny televisions with tinier screens. Things hardly bigger than a sizable smartphone, but with a tenth of the definition.

I remember watching a good chunk of the original series via streaming services in the early days of the internet. Often these would be of poor quality, a tiny video box in a browser. Ironically, when I later bought the DVDs and re-watched, the experience wasn’t the same.

The imagination does a lot to fill in the gaps, so we end up thinking we have seen scarier things than the special effects budget could ever hope to achieve.

Some classic era stories from the 1980s are often criticised for the use of lighting. Warriors from the Deep, for example, might have terrified more children if the infamous Myrka had been kept in shadow and dim light. Exposed under bright studio lights, it was exposed for the tight budget piece of work it was.

A New Era

While the 2005-2010 run may not have had the highest special effects budget the BBC ever gave out, it often managed to get by. Though we may look back now and snigger at the Abzorbaloff, or the Slitheen. At the time, it served well enough for the quality of television we had.

You will notice, too, that during these years there was considerably more location filming done. Outdoor scenes, under bright skies. Even in studio, we saw colourful settings more often than not. Though we occasionally had the duller (in the sense of colour) scenes, the overall effect for most of the episodes tended towards a much brighter palette.

As Matt Smith’s first series rolled on, much of this remained and series 5 is still quite bright for the most part. It was around series 6 that I started to notice things were changing. While we still had the occasional moment in the bright sunlight, more and more, we were in darkness. And as the years rolled on, we saw less of the outside.

Technological advances

As High Definition televisions and computer displays have become more prominent, television producers have to do their best to keep up. It’s very difficult to compete with the big budget hollywood blockbusters with their million dollar effects when you’ve got £4.50 to spend on CGI this week.

We live in an age now where films are being made not with the cinema as their primary medium, but the computer screen. A Marvel superhero movie will look slick and its effects just as convincing on your laptop as they would on the big screen. TV, however, has to find new tricks just to stay in the game.

An easy way to do this is to tone down the colours as much as possible. This can also create atmosphere when done right and isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, don’t get me wrong. If your CGI monster of the week doesn’t look quite as realistic as Supreme Leader Snoke, putting it in the shadows can help hide that. It also lets the viewer’s imagination do more of the work.

A Question of Balance

Like I said, these techniques to keep the TV audiences just as engaged and engrossed when you don’t have the biggest budget on the planet are all fine. In many ways, it encourages effects specialists to get creative about how to fool the eye while also bringing these things to life.

This is not unique to Doctor Who, it’s worth pointing out. It’s an issue all of television is dealing with, science fiction and fantasy especially. And Doctor Who has been much better in the most recent series. It was one of the things I most enjoyed about series 10!

Doctor Who is a series that allows the audience to go anywhere, experience anything, and see amazing things.Week to week, episode to episode, if it is all in darkness, all dulled and hidden, it can get a little stale. My hope for the future is that we will see a return of the colours.

I’m not saying every episode needs to be bright and filled with rainbows. It’s a question of getting the balance right, between something that looks good, and something that keeps our eyes open. Creating an atmosphere and a feel for the show is a question of keeping it diverse.