Christopher Barry: 1925 – 2014

Veteran British television director Christopher Barry passed away on February 7th at the age of 88.  Among his numerous credits was a long association with Doctor Who which began in 1963 and continued on and off until 1979.  This made him one of only three people to have directed William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker on the show.  Barry was interviewed at length in 2002 in Doctor Who Magazine #s 314 to 316, wherein he admitted “I didn’t like being stereotyped as a Doctor Who director.”  Nevertheless, he did very good work on the series, and is fondly remembered for his important contributions.

Barry was, with Richard Martin, the co-director of the second Doctor Who serial “The Daleks” in December 1963, which featured the debut of the Doctor’s instantly iconic arch foes.  Barry and Martin worked together closely in the planning of the seven-episode production, with Barry himself directing parts 1, 2, 4 and 5.  He conceived the famous first episode cliffhanger, shot from a Dalek’s viewpoint, with a plunger-like appendage gliding towards Barbara Wright, who screamed in terror, leaving audiences to wait an entire week to find out exactly what was menacing the schoolteacher.  Barry’s thinking was “Good thriller directors suggest terror rather than explicitly showing it.”  In episode two, Barry was responsible for the first full-shot reveal of the Daleks, as the camera rapidly pulled back from the Doctor, Ian Chesterton, and Susan to show them surrounded by Skaro’s strange, fearsome mutants.

Daleks episode two reveal

A historic reveal: the Daleks make their debut.

Barry directed three other Hartnell stories, “The Rescue,” “The Romans” and “The Savages.” His last contribution to the show’s first decade was directing “The Power of the Daleks” in 1966, which featured Patrick Trougton’s debut as the second incarnation of the Doctor.  Unfortunately this entire six part serial is currently missing from the BBC archives, bar a few short clips that give a tantalizing glimpse of the production.

Five years later Barry returned to Doctor Who.  Jon Pertwee was now playing the lead role, and Barry directed two of his stories, “The Daemons” (1971) and “The Mutants” (1972).  I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to view either of those stories in a number of years, and I have rather foggy memories.  Nevertheless, I do vaguely recall that “The Daemons” was a good story.  Many other fans of the series have cited it as one of their all time favorite stories.  I’ll have to pick it up on DVD one of these days.

In late 1974 Barry was brought in to direct Tom Baker’s debut as the Doctor in “Robot,” written by Terrance Dicks.  This one I have seen a number of times, and the direction is definitely dramatic and suspenseful.  Barry certainly used the eponymous Robot very effectively.  In real life it was probably a cumbersome prop / costume, but Barry makes it appear a menacing figure.  Aside from a few poorly realized special effects in the final episode, it’s a good, solid introduction for Baker.

Brain of Morbius Philip Madoc

Philip Madoc as Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.”

Barry would direct two more of Baker’s serials.  “The Brain of Morbius” (1976) is another of those stories considered a classic by many long-time fans.  It is an interesting, moody, Grand Guignol pastiche of Frankenstein, once again written by Terrance Dicks, albeit with heavy revisions by script editor Robert Holmes.  Barry once again did great work on this story.  He was responsible for the brilliant casting of actor Philip Madoc as the fanatical mad scientist Mehendri Solon.  As Barry explained, “I knew he had a strong presence, and was capable of almost manic intensity, which he indeed conveyed brilliantly.”

It is unfortunate that Barry’s final contribution to Doctor Who was the 1979 serial “The Creature from the Pit.”  This one is often regarded as a rather mediocre affair.  Aside from a somewhat shaky plot, the main point of contention is the alien Erato, a giant green glowing blob-like entity that was inexplicably given a phallic-looking appendage.  Tom Baker, never one to resist an opportunity for humor, infamously had the Doctor attempt to communicate with Erato by blowing into said appendage!  Quite understandably, this caused quite a commotion behind the cameras.

Creature from the Pit Erato

Move along now, nothing to see here.

Barry only accepted the job of directing “The Creature from the Pit” due to having an unexpected hole in his schedule right when it was offered to him, and needing the work.  He acknowledges that, in hindsight, it was not the best note on which to depart from the series, and he found the whole production, as well as the uproar over the poor conception of the Creature, to have been a trying experience.

Despite the fact that Barry would have preferred to have been recognized for the diverse range of productions that he directed on British television, in the end he acknowledged that he was satisfied with most of the work that he did on Doctor Who.  Certainly he was a talented, thoughtful director who played a key role in some of the series’ most significant moments, and who helped bring to life several of its most revered stories.

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3 thoughts on “Christopher Barry: 1925 – 2014

  1. I have “The Daemons” on DVD and did in fact watch it a few months ago. It is very good, as is The Brain of Morbius.” I especially like the way that the brain was able to speak by being connected to a very rudimentary, organic, vibrating speaker of sorts. It’s too bad that someone who played a significant role in the series and directed a number of classics had to end his relationship with the series directing what is probably once of the worst serials in the show’s long history. Still, the good ones – well, the ones that haven’t been lost, anyway – still bear witness to his talents.

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  2. Chris Barry was deservedly one of the Classic Series’ better-remembered directors. Even his biggest misfires (the Action Man tank in “Robot”, and some of the woefully dated visual effects in “The Mutants”) are forgivable in retrospect. Another painful loss of someone who was there from the very beginning…

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  3. Pingback: Horrific Historical Photo of the Day | An American View of British Science Fiction

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