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Chosen One of the Day: those episodes of Classic Doctor Who when K9's voice got all weird

Contributed by
Apr 2, 2018

In the late ‘70s, after Star Wars did its Star Warsy thing and blew up the world of sci-fi adventure, other genre shows were caught up in a desperate scramble to find a way of Lucasing up their worlds. And Doctor Who was no exception.

Despite having a decade-and-a-half head start on Star Wars, the mad man with a box still had to appeal to the youths with the introduction of a lovable robotic sidekick. Amazingly, they managed to actually land a pretty decent attempt in the form of K9, the name given to a series of robotic dogs that first appeared on Doctor Who in 1977.

One of the most distinct aspects of K9 is the voice, provided by John Leeson, whose success in the role is often attributed to the fact that upon beginning rehearsal, the actual robot dog prop wasn’t ready yet. Instead, Leeson himself rehearsed with Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, which helped cement him as another actor in the trio rather than a disembodied voice coming out of a prop. Leeson went on to play the character for several more seasons, and returned to do the voice for special appearances, audio dramas, and the odd attempt at a spin-off or three.

Except for when he didn’t.

In 1979, John Leeson decided to leave the show, and Doctor Who did what any show in its shoes would do: replace him with an actor who sounded absolutely nothing like him.

And so, in Classic Who’s 17th season, alongside Lalla Ward taking over as the freshly regenerated Romana, K9 is stricken briefly with a case of robot dog laryngitis (they wrote it, not me) and replaced by David Brierly for the remainder of the season.

Now, look, Leeson is the definitive voice of K9, without question. But there is something truly magical about that brief Brierly era. I don’t know if he cared that he didn’t sound like Leeson, or if he genuinely thought he did and no one had the heart to tell him—or the budget to stop recording long enough to let him work on it. And I don’t care.

Brierly’s give-no-fraks rendition of K9 suddenly shifts the dog’s attitude from digital deadpan to full-on sassy sidekick. It’s like his battle with laryngitis made him decide to just lean into posh. He still likes to get his digs in at the Doctor, but now it feels like he expects to be holding a hanky that he can wave at another fop and giggle as he does so. It's something that catches you off guard when you're not expecting it, and is such an utterly different choice for the character that it feels strange in an era when every inflection of various Kermits the Frog can be analyzed to death. Given that the scripts are roughly the same and the K9 prop itself wasn't re-built for the change, it really underlines just how much a voice performance can define a character.  

The Brierly era is pretty short-lived. His final story, "Shada," was left unfinished at the time, so in Doctor Who’s original run he only got to do the character for four stories. Leeson was convinced to return for what would be the dog’s last days, departing along with Ward not long before Baker himself would also leave the show. Leeson has maintained his status as the one true K9 to rule them all, and Brierly’s run has become simply a strange production footnote during one of the most beloved eras of the show.

So absent is Brierly’s K9 from the narrative that when I went looking for clips of it, the only thing I could find is this interview from 1980 in which K9 and Lalla Ward, in one of her Romana II costumes no less, are interviewed about the overlapping of astrology and dog ownership. I promise you that last sentence was not a prank. This is a real thing that actually happened, and frankly now I don’t know how we’ve been talking about anything else.