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Inverse
Entertainment
Dais Johnston

An Infamously Cheap Sci-Fi Show Just Produced Better Special Effects than Star Wars

— Disney+

Doctor Who established a reputation for cutting corners over its 60-year history, especially when it came to filming locations. While the series visited alien planets in every corner of the galaxy, many of them happened to look like abandoned rock quarries in Wales, a setting that became a running joke in the Who fandom.

When Doctor Who was rebooted in 2005, the franchise tried to push back against this reputation by finding more creative (and expensive) ways to depict its sci-fi settings. But in its newest episode, “Boom,” Doctor Who brings back the old quarry setting back... with a state-of-the-art twist.

“Boom” is set on Kastarion 3, a desolate, conflict-ridden planet. To depict the landscape’s vast scale, the series used a relatively new technology popular with Disney+ series: a massive LED screen that can depict backgrounds in real-time rather than incorporating them in post-production with the help of a green screen. Star Wars and Marvel fans know this technology as The Volume.

This is the first time Doctor Who has used The Volume. While production values increased significantly after the franchise partnered with Disney, the more alien episodes, like “Wild Blue Yonder,” have still been green-screen dependent. But while “Boom” is the series’ first experiment with this tool, it shows an understanding of it superior to its usage elsewhere.

LED screens are essentially high-tech versions of the matte paintings Hollywood once used. While they can provide the illusion of a distant landscape, their lack of dimension can also make images fall flat. “Boom” works around this problem in two ways. First, most of the episode is restrained to one location, making it easier to buy into (and then ignore) the background. Second, that one location is a crater, meaning the Volume only has to show viewers a hazy sky, far-off mountains, and distant moons.

Star Wars and Marvel shows have used the Volume to portray everything from huge crowds to raging seas... and they’ve been criticized for special effects that look bland and artificial. Doctor Who, however, proves less is more. The Volume can be used for complicated backgrounds, but that doesn’t always mean it should. The technology often works best with simple backgrounds that set the mood, and Doctor Who is proving that in the most Doctor Who way possible: by creating a rock quarry that feels more immersive than anything we’ve seen before.

Doctor Who is streaming on Disney+.

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