Quick, what's the first thing you noticed about the planet we visited in last night's Doctor Who special? That's right: It was a soundstage.* None of Matt Smith's final hour was filmed in a real location. Alien worlds used to be filmed in the studio more often — here's why we miss visiting Planet Soundstage.
There are a few reasons to love a soundstage planet. First, you can get a lot more strange flora, by scattering weird fake plants everywhere. Second, it opens up the possibility for some really beautiful matte shots, which are still a thing even in the age of CG. Third, there's just something otherworldly and weird about an entirely manufactured landscape. Fourth, the sky can be any color you want, without post-processing.
Nowadays, you're much more likely to see an alien world created entirely using greenscreen, as in the case of Avatar. Or flying to an exotic location like Iceland or Utah, as in the case of Prometheus or John Carte. Few television shows, especially in the U.S., even try to depict alien planets any more — but if they did, it would be some rocks somewhere.
Classic Star Trek rarely did location shooting, although it famously shot the battle between Kirk and the Gorn at Vasquez Rocks. Also, a few bits of "Shore Leave" were filmed at a wildlife preserve, and some Paramount studio buildings were used as a Nazi headquarters and a NASA facility. Plus the Deneva Colony was filmed at the TRW Space and Defense Park, which featured tons of futuristic architecture.
But meanwhile, there were loads of alien planets created indoors, with funky rocks and weird skies and strange plants. And famously, when Star Trek wanted to visit an Earthlike settlement, the show used the streets of Mayberry, the quaint town from the Andy Griffith show.
Classic Doctor Who is famous for its endless gravel quarries, as spoofed in the comedy short "Curse of the Fatal Death." But the show also created a number of alien worlds on soundstages, some of which still look pretty darn impressive — like the strange planet Vortis in "The Web Planet," and the alien jungles in "Kinda" and "Planet of Evil."
There are also a ton of classic science fiction films that use soundstages to create their alien worlds — complete with some awesome matte shots.
Below are some of our favorite images of soundstage planets from classic science fiction...
Lost in Space:
Lost in Space spent a lot of time on a planet that was created entirely inside a soundstage. The show made the jump to color in its second season, which meant all the huge panoramic shots showing the ship's exterior from a distance against the alien landscape couldn't be reused — and thus you never really see the whole ship's exterior in the second and third seasons.
You have to admire some of Trek's completely way-out-there matte paintings, in addition to the soundstage planets.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century:
Okay, so it's a future post-apocalyptic Earth rather than an alien world — but you have to love these matte shots by Syd Dutton.
The alien worlds in Alien and Aliens were filmed at the disused Acton Power Station, with fantastic H.R. Giger-inspired sets.
I feel like we're just scratching the surface here... what's your favorite alien world created in an indoor studio?
* Apparently this is a fact I invented, and it was actually filmed on location after all. Apologies for the mistake!