The 50th anniversary episode of the BBC science fiction television show, “Doctor Who” will be shown on television and movie theater screens all around the world at the exact same time on Nov. 23, 2013. The show’s main character is a centuries-old, time-traveling alien named The Doctor who can regenerate into a different physical appearance any time he is dying. He is eccentric, intelligent, charming, witty and has saved the universe countless numbers of times.
Armed with his incredible intellect, witty charm and his trusty sonic screwdriver, The Doctor has travelled through all of time and space in a physics defying (it’s bigger on the inside) time machine called the TARDIS. On screen the sonic screwdriver may have been created by The Doctor, but in reality it was built by Nick Robatto of Rubbertoe Replicas.
Nick Robatto has been one of the most active prop makers for “Doctor Who” since the program’s return to television in 2005. He has helped build not only every iteration of the sonic screwdriver, but also hundreds of other props ranging from small handheld items to much larger set pieces. In the summer of 2012, Robatto was given the opportunity to build the new TARDIS console for its debut in the “Doctor Who” Christmas special, “The Snowmen.” This month he sat down with Target Audience Magazine to tell us a bit about how he got into prop making for “Doctor Who” and his latest enterprise, Rubbertoe Replicas.
As the prop-maker for “Doctor Who,” you obviously have some skill-sets. How did you end up where you are? Your work history, etc.
After finishing high school, I went through art college to complete doing art foundation. At that point, I just thought that since I liked drawing and painting I was going to something along those lines. I always thought I could be a graphic designer. But, I realized that I preferred making things, really. I was a lot better at it and I enjoyed doing that, so I sort of ventured into the three dimensional side of the art world. Then came the time when I had to choose my university degree, so I choose product design. I thought that it sounded good and I got to go to another city in Britain and live away from home, so I thought it would be great. Then, I started doing the product design course and after six months, I realized that I didn’t like it because it was all science and there wasn’t a lot of making stuff.
While I was in University, I went to the art college that was down there, and they had a model making course, which I did and I did really well. I finished that and I started straight away in a place in Cardiff, Wales. I was making architecture models, product models, exhibitions, sets and displays. I did quite a lot there, making bigger stuff. We did lots of convention stands and bigger stuff, but also with the architecture model making, I sort of like to do the finer detail stuff and the smaller stuff. So, after working there for about five years, I could more or less make little tiny things up to big massive things.
When “Doctor Who” started filming, they started contracting out some of the work to the company and I would make a few bits and bobs for them. Then they started wanting more and more props and then they started taking people on. Gradually, I just sort of found myself working for them more or less full time on a freelance basis. Then, they sort of took me on full time. Still freelance, but on like an eight-month contract a year on“Doctor Who” and when that wasn’t on, I was working on “Torchwood” or “The Sarah Jane Adventures.” So, I had a continuous run for about five years working on those programs.
Did you have to get special training to use the tools that you use now, the lathe and the milling machines?
I learned a very basic amount of it in college during the model making course, but after college, I didn’t use the lathe or mill for quite a long time because the place that I worked didn’t have them. It was only until I started buying my own machines and taking them to the BBC workshops that I started to use them a lot more. I bought my own machines and sort of self taught myself.
Do you have any advice for people that are interested in becoming a prop maker?
When I was in college, a lot of people would specialize in one area like sculpting, architecture models, textiles, product models. They’d always concentrate on one area, but I always made sure that I did a bit of everything so when it came to the end of the year, the potential employers could see my portfolio and see that I was pretty diverse. I tried not to pigeonhole myself into one specific thing. You’ve got to be good at all of it really. Just try and get good at doing everything. Make loads of stuff.
Is there one specific material that you really dislike working with?
Fiberglass. I hate fiberglass. It stinks and it’s horrible and dirty, and when you sand it, it makes you itch. I don’t ever touch fiberglass. I just say that I don’t do it. Also, making things out of metal is always tricky because it takes a lot longer to machine it. You can’t just ram it through a saw … you‘ve got to take your time with it.
It’s nice to make stuff out of clean things. Like, at the moment we’re making all of our TARDIS door sign replicas, which is just a timber frame. It’s nice, easy and soft wood to work with. The white part of the sign is made of foamex, with vinyl lettering on it. It’s all nice, clean work. You can just sit down and get on with it.
Do you have any specific prop that you made for “Doctor Who” that you consider to be your favorite?
There’s been a few little ones that I really liked. There were a few mashups, where they just gave me a pile of junk and I just stuck it all together, put a motor in and made it move. Stuff like that. Of course, making the sonics was good fun … well, I don’t know if it was good fun, but it’s nice to have my name behind it.
What do you think is your favorite “Doctor Who” episode so far?
I thought the last one,“Name the Doctor” was pretty good, when the TARDIS went massive. Then, the other one, the one that Neil Gaiman wrote, “The Doctor’s Wife,” and the Vincent Van Gogh one, “Vincent and The Doctor” were really good. They’re the ones that really stick in my mind I suppose.
If you had to pick a favorite Doctor, which would it be?
I don’t really know much about the old series. When I was younger, I think the one I remember most was the seventh Doctor played by Sylvestor McCoy. The only ones I sort of know are the three that I’ve worked with. Christopher Eccleston really didn’t stick around long enough for me, so it’s between David Tennant and Matt Smith. I met David Tennant a few times and he was a nice guy, but then so was Matt Smith… I dunno! I like Matt and David.
Looking forward to the future with Rubbertoe Replicas, what do you think are your next challenges?
It would be nice to get some more “Doctor Who” props out. When they come out with the new series, it would be nice to get the props out within a month or two of it being seen on screen. Trying to make nice things that are affordable for people is hard at the moment because we are making it all by hand. I don’t think a lot of people these days understand that. It’s nice to have something that’s not an injection molded piece of plastic from China, but I don’t know if people really get that at the moment. They’re so used to having these products that are just churned out in the thousands for a couple of bucks. Maybe we go down that road in the future, I don’t know. Part of the uniqueness of these products is that they are handmade. For every one hundred people, it seems only about one person appreciates what goes into a handmade product.
We really want to get the rights to distribute our “Doctor Who” replicas to the U.S., I think. It would be good to get into some U.S. companies who would then stock it and make it more available to the U.S. so that you wouldn’t have to pay such stupid shipping charges. We’ll see. It’s all still sort of new to us.
If you are a “Doctor Who” fan, make sure to read the Target Audience Magazine interview with composer Murray Gold.