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Edward Thomas – A Production Designer With Science Fiction Flair

Production designer Edward Thomas feels his artistic obligations extend beyond the words in the script or the vision of the director.  His vision extends to the project’s fans.

Thomas, best known for his work on the revival of the well-known “Dr. Who” series and its spin-off “Torchwood,” recently took part in a panel presentation at the 2011 Comic Con Expo.  He was flooded by fans requesting his autograph and answers to questions regarding the most intricate details in the show’s production designs.

“Science fiction fans in general are so passionate about the genre, it’s amazing,” said Thomas.  “You have to be really careful about how you answer things because these guys watch every episode, and they take in every detail, and it is real to them.  As a designer it has to be real to you as well.”

Thomas had been working on feature films in Africa when he learned that producer Russell T. Davis was planning a revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  He recalled seeing the show in his youth and was aware that the series had been off the air for fifteen years.  Attracted to the challenge of the popular sci fi’s revival, he met with producer Phil Collinson and show runner Davis.  Attracted to his approach in mirroring the scale of the set to the reality of the story, Thomas was hired.

“As you are working on your concept, it has to make sense and it has to be real.  I think the downfall of a lot of shows is that the right questions haven’t been asked in prep and there are gapping holes in the concepts,” said Thomas.  “With ‘Dr. Who’ you have 45 years of backstory to work with, and it really is exciting.”

Thomas spent time looking at the various incarnations of “Doctor Who” to get a framework for the new version’s direction.  He wanted to ensure that he wasn’t copying the original concepts; however he wanted to connect any elements of the backstory that should be reintroduced in the new series.  He found three elements that were important to pull from the earlier versions: the Tardis (the doctor’s time traveling machine,) a universal tool called “the sonic screwdriver,” and the Doctor’s wallet, a personal item that had recurring significance when found in the hands of the various actors who played the Doctor.  Everything else was to be designed from the ground up per the storylines in the script.  Working with a crew of science fiction fans, Thomas discovered some unexpected challenges in creating the new environment.

“A lot of the art department that came on board were huge ‘Dr. Who’ fans.  That in itself can be troublesome because they want to stick to what’s gone in the past,”  said Thomas.  “You have to really make sure that you manipulate the situation and get them to open their minds.  I don’t like taking reference from other sci fi programs because everything starts looking the same.  Starting everything from scratch is just a discipline that you have to get into. We do that by creating mood boards of everything that we do.”

Because the Tardis is a time traveling devise and not a spacecraft, Thomas wanted to avoid creating a deck that had flashing lights and control panels one usually associates with a spacecraft.  To develop a completely new look, Thomas turned towards organic influences.  He associated the Tardis with a sea shell, an organic form that has the ability to grow and change over time.

“Nature is where you take your references from,” said Thomas.  “I always say looks start in nature, because it is all there.  It just needs to be reconfigured and remodeled.”

Having lived and worked in various global locations, Thomas discovered that different cultures use very different materials.  He particularly enjoys setting up shop in different countries and exploring the materials commonly used to help reduce cost and add interesting features to the set design.  In addition to the materials, the various ways each unique culture uses the material also becomes incorporated into the production design, be it a form of wood carving or weaving recycled goods into baskets.

“I loved to go into different parts of the world and discovering new materials.  Each country has very specific materials and brands of materials, different plastics, different woods,” said Thomas.  “It’s just happened to me quite a lot in South Africa for the show I’ve done called ‘Outcasts.’  All of a sudden a lot of baskets arrived and they are materials that you wouldn’t necessarily use in a sci fi show, yet it is obvious they would be there.  It’s amazing how the cultural influences snuck in.”

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