If you’re a Doctor Who fan – of either ‘classic’ or ‘new’ Who, or indeed, both – you’ve undoubtedly been dazzled by the work of digital artist Lee Binding. His designs are, in both the traditional sense of the word and modern vernacular, epic: from blockbuster-calibre posters to tantalising box-set cover art, Binding captures the adventure at the heart (well, two hearts) of Doctor Who, helped by his longtime passion for the show.
“I’ve been a fan since I was about six years old,” Binding tells me. “It’s part of my genetic make-up as far as I can tell.”
Now 45, Binding credits his mother with turning him into a Doctor Who fan. “She called me downstairs one day and said, ‘Your show’s on, you like this’. She was definite about these things,” Binding says. (He similarly credits his mum for making him a Girls Aloud fan.)
His first Who adventure was the 1982 Peter Davison serial Kinda. “By the end she was right – yes, I did like it,” he says. “I can’t remember much other than being slightly scared and titillated by that feeling. I kind of blame it all on my mother.”
Binding, originally from the Midlands and now based in west London, talks to me via Zoom. He’s effusively upbeat, and tells me that he diverged at university and studied engineering, but found his way back to becoming an artist. He is, rather impressively, self-taught. “I am completely without training – I have been winging it for years,” he laughs. “Sometimes you can tell, sometimes you can’t, and that’s the good thing, I think!”
Binding did his first Doctor Who design job for Big Finish, the production company behind the vast universe of Doctor Who audio adventures. He began working for the BBC “by accident.” (“A lot of my career is completely by accident,” he says. “Right place, right time, right people.”) He started designing promotional online artwork for the rebooted Doctor Who series in 2005. His first website image was for The End of the World – the second adventure in Christopher Eccleston’s brief-but-brilliant tenure.
Binding recalls that even before Who had returned to screens in 2005 – and certainly before anyone knew the show would be a Gallifrey-sized hit – it was a clandestine production.
“When Doctor Who came back, it was under enormous secrecy,” says Binding. “The name Torchwood [the 2006 Who spinoff] came about from them sending tapes back and forth between the BBC and Cardiff. In order to keep them under the radar, they were anagrammed into Torchwood. It was very secret stuff.”
Binding remembers seeing a preview of the series two episode Army of Ghosts, which had its climactic reveal – the return of the Daleks to modern-day Earth – chopped out. “It just cut to black and said, ‘Cliffhanger here,’” he says. “Even if you were in on the secrets, there was always an extra level of secrecy – always something that you weren’t privy to until the show actually went out.”
From series ‘6B’ – the second half of Matt Smith’s second season, which was broadcast between August and October 2011 – Binding began making blockbuster movie-like posters for new episodes. They were a crucial part of the buzz around that era of Who and its big, cinematic feel.
“They went down really well, I think,” says Binding. “I don’t think anyone realised the impact they were going to have, and still have. I still get messages saying, ‘Oh my god, this poster got me excited for the episode!’”
Binding creates his work using real photography, and there’s a clear art to the storytelling within his poster and DVD designs: capturing the story and characters, packing the image with detail – but without giving too much away. His posters had to sell the show to non-fans and hardened Whovians alike.
Binding’s most iconic poster design, for 50th-anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor in 2013, is perhaps his most simplistic. “There so much wonderful lore and backstory in The Day of the Doctor,” says Binding. “We had to tantalise people with it. My mind was at trying to make it big like Star Wars. But the producer Marcus [Wilson] came up with this great idea. He said, ‘It’s the story of these three Doctors, we should do this.’”
The poster features Matt Smith and David Tennant back-to-back, framing John Hurt’s mysterious-but-explosive ‘War Doctor’. Looking back, Binding cites this as his favourite Doctor Who artwork. “I really like that episode,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotional attachment. I absolutely adore that era.”
He also designed artwork for the The Day of the Doctor Blu-ray SteelBook (a special-edition Blu-ray version in a premium metal case). It’s an action-packed design. “I got to revisit it and do the Star Wars thing,” he says.
Along the way, Binding had to keep some major plot details under wraps, such as the redesigned New Paradigm Daleks – chunkier, colour-coded versions from the 2010 episode Victory of the Daleks – and the return of Tom Baker and Paul McGann for the 50th celebrations. He accidentally stumbled across photos of them on a hard drive. “Those were interesting secrets to keep!” he says.
But even at his closest proximity to production, for the big anniversary, Binding’s security clearance for secrets and spoilers was limited. “Oh, I was so lower tier,” he laughs. There were “varying levels of scripts going around” and one script, he recalls, revealed a glimpse of the all-new 13th Doctor Peter Capaldi. “But there were whispers and rumours of this extra script,” he says, “But I think that had the end missing as well. We were all saying, ‘Oh what could it be?!’”
Binding seems happy with lower-tier clearance. “As a fan watching those episodes, you want to be thrilled like you always were,” he says.
Binding continued producing posters for the first Peter Capaldi season, which saw a change in tone and visuals. “With Matt Smith, it was always meant to be a fairytale,” he says. “Everything was meant to be amped up. With Capaldi, it was more grounded in reality.”
Now Binding works for Sky and has created artwork for shows such as Game of Thrones, the Mel and Sue comedy Hitmen, and Karl Pilkington’s sitcom Sick of It.
He also designs the artwork for Doctor Who’s The Collection Blu-ray series – classic Doctor Who seasons restored and re-released, with special features, a collector’s booklet, and Binding’s stunning art. (There’s barely a Who fan in existence – myself included – who hasn’t either bought or coveted these sets.)
So far, The Collection has included seasons from Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. When we speak, Binding has just finished work on two new collections – Jon Pertwee’s Season 8 and another, which is still under wraps.
To create the classic Who art, Binding is permitted to trawl through the BBC archives for Who photographs – a dream job for lifelong fans – and conjure up designs featuring old-school Doctors, companions and monsters. His cover art for the upcoming Season 8 set – featuring the magnificent Pertwee, and classic villains The Master, the Autons, Daemons, and Axos – is a retro delight. “I have complete freedom with it, which is both brilliant and daunting!” says Binding. “It’s very generous of the BBC to trust me enough to do what I like.”
Working with and sprucing up photographs that are 30 to 60 years old presents its own artistic challenges. “These images have been through the BBC archive for a long time and the quality has degraded,” says Binding. “They were often shot through a sock at 40 paces, with a lot of smoke on set, in the dark. We always have a challenge with these releases to make them as modern as possible, so it’s not a grainy old TV show, but part of a legacy – part of that rich Doctor Who story.”
Doctor Who returns to BBC One on New Year’s Day with Revolution of the Daleks. Binding doesn’t like to speculate on what might happen. “Though I’d love it if The Doctor and Yaz got together – they’d make a cute couple,” he says.
He’s excited by the series-changing twist that the The Doctor is no longer a Time Lord, but a mysterious, unknown being. “I love it,” says Binding. “The best thing about Doctor Who is that it’s utterly without format. I think where this leads now is incredible. It’s put the ‘Who?’ back into Doctor Who.”
For more on Lee Binding, visit his website here