When the Cybermen returned to our screens after a seven-year absence, the costume designer responsible for giving them a ‘hi-tech’ look was Dinah Collin. She worked closely with Richard Gregory at independent effects company Imagineering to bring the Cybermen bang up to date for the Star Wars generation.
RICHARD GREGORY: Imagineering offer a service insofar that anyone hiring us can get a wide range of experience because we’re not tied to any specific subject. It’s a talent pool really. The talents overlap into many fronts including electronics and pyrotechnics. We can deliver a complete package of something without all the hassles of being tied to one company, or even to the BBC.
DINAH COLLIN: I had a design problem with the head. The Cybermen were being resurrected and I wasn’t allowed to create a totally new idea of what they looked like. JNT told me to update them but to keep the head as near to the original as possible. I saw some photographs from the later stories but that was all. If people had said more about what had gone before, it might have been too confusing – although the actual background to how the Cybermen evolved would have been nice to know, what they can and can’t do, what their powers are and so on.
RICHARD GREGORY: It comes down to a question of hours. Sometimes we will work eighteen hour days to get jobs done on time whereas the equivalent man hours at the BBC would cost far more than a Doctor Who budget could support.
DINAH COLLIN: I wish I’d seen something of the first Cybermen. From what I’ve heard of them since, they seem to have been horrifying – and I didn’t actually think mine were. However, I do think that as a finished product – the set and the story – Earthshock was very good. And of course there was the script to go by which was informative and allowed the imagination to get to work. All of us, designers, actors, directors, really base our work from the script.
RICHARD GREGORY: There’s no hard and fast rule as to when a job would be done at the BBC and when it would come to somebody like us. It all depends on the Designer.
DINAH COLLIN: I could understand why John needed to have them recognisable from what had gone before. It would have been quite exciting to have been able to create a new creature with a body inside it but the job I had to do was quite a challenge in itself – fraught with difficulties because of its attachments to the old.
RICHARD GREGORY: The difficulty with the people at the Costume Department is that they often feel in lost territory when it comes to doing things that involve special effects. So you find quite a few of the people we work with, like Dinah Collin for instance, have not done science fiction for years.
DINAH COLLIN: One had to find something that technically would work, that people could move in. First and foremost, it is necessary to find out what an actor has got to do in a costume and design round it. That was one of the things that failed to work in the helmets. Because they had to remain more or less the same. I couldn’t explore the possibilities of making them more practical to work in for the actor.
RICHARD GREGORY: Earthshock was our biggest Doctor Who. For that one we produced nine Cybermen – don’t forget the one that got frozen into the wall – fourteen troopers and two androids, although they were just heads basically. So when you add it all up there were about two dozen costumes for that story, which is rather a lot. When Dinah came to us we were able to offer her a lot of advice on the costumes she wanted because we had worked with vacuum formers, fibreglass and latex. She came to us with ideas and together we worked out what could be done. We did a lot of sketches ourselves to show how we thought the Cybermen should look and how they could be made and we were very lucky in that she agreed so many of them.
DINAH COLLIN: Richard worked very closely with me as we sorted out what changes we could actually make. We had this idea that the body of the actor would become part of the outer skin. Instead of having gloves on the hands, it would have been nice to build them up with make-up. It would have been an extension of the funny suit, which had tubes on it already, and I thought that if you brought the tubes up over the chin and into the mouth, then the helmet part of it would grow from that. There wouldn’t have been any clear division where body and helmet began. But I was running out of time because Richard had to cast the helmet and we had to decide whether there was going to be a lower jaw and if we could keep the handles – I didn’t like them very much. But JNT was right to keep the links going. Without the handles, the fans probably wouldn’t have recognised it as a Cyberman at all.
RICHARD GREGORY: The Cybermen were a difficult subject because of the way they had been conceived and the way they’d developed over the years. Nevertheless, whenever someone saw our version they instantly recognised them, even if only in silhouette – and all because of the jug ears. In all other respects the head is very much different to the originals and the body doesn’t resemble the predecessors at all.
DINAH COLLIN: On all things technical, Richard was extremely good. I would keep coming to him to say, “If I wanted this, Richard, how could it be done?” For example, he found the G-suit – the lightweight flying suit covered in all those tubes – in an army surplus store in Oxford and he suggested it as a base to work from – so I can’t claim any credit for that at all. We put the G-suit onto a cotton boiler suit which had been tailored to the size and shape of the particular actor who was to wear it. I wanted to get away from the previous vinyl suits because it was just a flat surface and anything put on to it doesn’t seem to have grown out of it. I talked to Richard originally about having a suit with these tubes built into it – based on an original drawing I did. I didn’t keep the drawing, I’m afraid.
RICHARD GREGORY: Because of the limitations of the budget you find a lot of Costume Designers will allow you a lot of leeway and they’ll often point out difficulties with costumes to the Director for you.
DINAH COLLIN: We were left with so little time to sort out the front of the helmet that we never got round to sorting the back out. So we ended up using the original head as a base for Richard to cast from, since that was the only way we could get the fourteen – or whatever ghastly number it was – made in time. Those frightful little screws to hold the back panel on was a design fault simply because of lack of time.
RICHARD GREGORY: Time is often your greatest enemy on Doctor Who.
DINAH COLLIN: The other thing we’d like to have done was to spray into the bodies. You know how we covered the costume with tubing and mesh and string vests and whatever? Well, I’d like to have gone much further and made it look more like a body with no skin, painting the tubes to make them stand out more, as though we were seeing arteries and capillary veins, even over the boots which had no detail and looked as though they were just stuck on the end of the legs. Again, we ran into this problem of time because, as well as the Cybermen, there were the other actors to costume – and though you might eventually get one Cyberman costume right, they all had to look the same. In the end we just sprayed them all silver.
RICHARD GREGORY: Obviously if you could work on a massive budget we could have done more. You see we can make a costume as well as anyone would want, but in turn we must work within the figure we’ve agreed to invoice the BBC. A certain amount of give and take always has to enter into it.
DINAH COLLIN: I think my idea for this open-surgery look really came from a TV programme of the time. It showed a heart replacement operation with clamps and valves and all the veins and arteries exposed. It seemed in line with what the Cybermen were about and was the image I had wanted to carry a lot further with the new Cybermen. But I got bogged down with this head.
RICHARD GREGORY: It’s a good show, you can do a lot with it because of the variations in style and stories, and it’s very enjoyable to do.
Richard Gregory was interviewed in 1982 for Doctor Who Monthly Issue 72. The Dinah Collin interview extracts are taken from David Banks’ Cybermen book (1988).
Read the earlier Cybermen design features here: