This week, my thoughts on Doctor Who’s history will cover the John Nathan-Turner years, up to his first major catastrophe in the Colin Baker years. JNT always had a mixed reputation in the history of Doctor Who, for some pretty complicated reasons.
|Ladies, gentlemen, and other-identified, the late and|
terrifying John Nathan-Turner. I found a photo with the
least offensive of his many Hawaiian shirts.
The JNT era from 1982 to 1986 caused Phil Sandifer some consternation getting the themes fully explicit when he first covered those years at the TARDIS Eruditorum blog. By the time the book on the Peter Davison and Colin Baker years came out a couple of years after that run of posts, his conclusion was clear, and I largely agree.
JNT had some genuinely interesting ideas for Doctor Who, but he was often let down when his script editors couldn’t find and coordinate writers of the talent necessary to pull them off, and couldn’t write at that level themselves.
But there was something more that was only uncovered a couple of years ago that gives his whole era a disturbing new twist. Yet it’s an ethical issue* and never impacted what made it on screen. So I’m not going to talk about it in the main body of the post.
* That ethical issue was that John Nathan-Turner, at least during the height of his tenure when he regular courtws organized fandom, aided his partner Gary Downie in the sexual assault of teenaged male Doctor Who fans.
JNT first worked on Doctor Who as a crew member during the Patrick Troughton era in 1969, and climbed up the ranks until winning the producer’s chair in 1980. There, he oversaw the last year of Tom Baker.
In the commentary to my Logopolis dvd, Baker describes how, during the Graham Williams era, he’d begin every season’s production telling the showrunners that this would be his last, because he loved when the producers would beg him to stay. JNT and his new script editor Christopher Bidmead shocked Tom by taking him seriously.
|Antony Ainley would play the Master in nine stories|
throughout the JNT era. He played the role with a pitch-
perfect camp that's inspired countless gay slash-fics.
The departure of Tom Baker dominated Bidmead’s year as script editor. The entire season was essentially Baker’s Doctor Who being dismantled piece by piece. The zippy tone of Williams and Douglas Adams’ approach to Doctor Who was gone. In its place, stories grew darker, more serious, intense, filmed with a more cinematic flair of quick cuts and tracking shots.
Bidmead’s style of intellectual, cerebral sci-fi adventure foregrounded the exploration of strange, complicated ideas in Doctor Who’s stories. Warrior’s Gate was a surreal meditation on the cyclical nature of generational violence and slavery.
Full Circle took seriously what kind of society would develop from a brutally transformative evolutionary mutation over a mere generation or two, but where no one remembered the change. Keeper of Traken was a Shakespearean drama set in a sci-fi world.
Bidmead’s script for Castovalva, Peter Davison’s premiere story, took place in an artificial pocket dimension whose spacetime was shaped literally like an M. C. Escher painting. His story Logopolis was a meditation on the ethical reflections of entropy, the inevitability of decay and transformation. A perfect theme for a regeneration story.
After Bidmead moved on, JNT began a long game of building publicity for Doctor Who as a cult property, engaging with its hardcore fans in the hopes that the fandom would grow and the expectation that everyone who liked the show was just like its fandom.
Like soap operas, another realm of television JNT knew well, Doctor Who would cultivate its devoted fandom as the base of its audience. And JNT even developed a structure for the TARDIS crew for the 1982 season that worked like a soap opera, making them into a family straining itself apart.
|Davison's has generally been one of the most difficult|
Doctors to write for, thanks to the subtleties of his
performance as an ancient traveller with a young,
athletic body, who still possesses a boyish
enthusiasm for life. Sandifer had a good take on the
character, though: write him as an English Odin.
Tegan Jovanka, the longest-running companion of the Davison years, was aggressive, highly ethical, but not too bright, and would often instigate conflict. Nyssa was a calm centre for the family, but few writers knew what to do with her.** Adric was an annoying, petulant brat who made Wesley Crusher look like John McClane.
** I feel like Vaka Rangi would have a lot to say about Nyssa, as a long-running problem in sci-fi television – really up until the last decade – has been an inability of mostly male writers to figure out how to handle competent, confident, and assertive female characters.
Davison’s Doctor, thanks to his new younger face and quiet, snarky demeanour, couldn’t inspire the same admiration and unquestioning loyalty as his predecessor’s scenery-chewing ego. He had a softer personality than Baker, and was no longer the strong father figure that he played to Adric in 1981.
You can see how the conclusions of 1982 on the show – Tegan’s desire to return to Earth, Adric’s alienation from the new Doctor and the emotional fallout from his death – could have played out when you think through the details of how these characters would relate to each other.
But for this soap opera dynamic to work properly, you need to thread arcs of the characters’ developing relationships throughout all the disparate stories and events of the whole season. JNT couldn’t get writers or editors for a sci-fi show with that kind of skill, and he didn’t have the writing talent himself to pull it off.
JNT began courting the fans through his relationship with Ian Levine, a prominent and wealthy fan spokesperson who was, like JNT, gay*** and unlike JNT a famous DJ in the Northern Soul scene. Levine became a fan gatekeeper through his access to the production office and influence on Doctor Who Magazine, and was officially the continuity advisor.
*** I don’t know if anybody knows how much Ian Levine knew about Downie’s sexual assaults and JNT’s complicity in them. Levine was a gatekeeper for bringing young male fans to the Doctor Who offices and studios. The fact that so many people who were actually or likely complicit in Downie’s predation were also gay is terribly awkward. It fuels the homophobic and hateful contention that gay men are also necessarily pedophiles.
Today, Doctor Who has abandoned all effort at maintaining continuity of its world-building details across seasons. The reason is because Levine’s obsessively detailed continuity tracking hamstrung and straightjacketed the show. As he gained more influence over JNT and his new script editor Eric Saward, he constrained**** what kinds of stories Doctor Who could do.
**** Richard Marson, who today is a documentary filmmaker and television producer himself, wrote a book detailing his own experience as a victim of Downie's violence. JNT even helped Downie assault the young Marson.
Saward took a while to grow into the script editor’s chair. He wasn’t very experienced when he was tapped for the job in the first place. His 1982 script The Visitation was his first Doctor Who story, and he became script editor a year later simply because there were no other candidates.
The Visitation was kind of a bog-standard Doctor Who alien invasion plot. It took place in a historical setting, which was an innovation at the time. But it also suffered from generic villains and an unnecessary supporting character that took too much screen time from the regular cast.
But Saward was the only one available. So he took the job. And once he really grew into the role by the end of the Davison era, he was able to make his aesthetic clear.
Really, Saward had a style well-suited to the mid-1980s: violent action-adventure with a tone of cynicism and misanthropy, spiked with a gleefully bleak sense of humour. The best stories for Colin Baker’s anti-heroic Doctor were the dystopias.
Trips through the most wretched muck humanity could offer that could always get a grim laugh out of suffering. When the show was firing on all cylinders Doctor Who could rub its shoulders at least against the waists of J. G. Ballard, Judge Dredd, and Alan Moore.
I’m talking about when Saward was writing at the top of his game in Revelation of the Daleks, Philip Martin contributed his brutally acidic satires Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp, or Saward’s mentor Robert Holmes came back to his old show for the subversive The Caves of Androzani, The Two Doctors, and The Mysterious Planet.
The problem is, these were the only good writers in Saward’s stable. The rest of the bullpen was barely competent, producing incoherent, nonsensical runarounds that delivered no character development, no interesting ideas, generic and mindless plots and villains, and reduced a talented actor like Nicola Bryant to a screaming pair of tits.
Doctor Who simply couldn’t maintain the quality necessary to keep it on the air. Its comeback season after an 18 month hiatus,***** Trial of a Time Lord was the most incoherent mess of all.
***** Colin Baker and Janet Fielding appeared on a children’s wish reality show hosted by Jimmy Savile during the hiatus, starring with eight year old Gareth Jenkins in a ten minute adventure. After Savile’s death in 2011, it was revealed that he used the entire light entertainment department of the BBC as his personal child sex recruitment network. He wasn’t the only one, and it was an open secret among BBC old timers that light entertainment was were you sent the pedos.
It was 1986. Saward left the show in a rage after Holmes’ fatal heart attack in the middle of writing the season’s last scripts. Bryant walked away from her underdeveloped character. Colin Baker was fired when the BBC brass decided that his brand as Doctor Who was damaged beyond repair.
Even Levine walked away out of disgust at the hiring of Bonnie Langford to take over the companion role. She was famous at the time as having been a child actress in the ‘adorable moppet’ model of Shirley Temple for 1970s British TV. But she’s actually quite a talented actor.
JNT was left holding the reins of a show that no one would touch. The BBC brass were content to slash its budget, let its ratings languish, and have it quietly die. Perhaps for good. Despite the highs it did achieve during Saward’s tenure as script editor, its overall quality justified any opinion that it was best to let Doctor Who go.
But that’s why Doctor Who lives forever. Just when things look like they couldn’t get any worse, something brilliant comes out of nowhere.
New life from death. Regeneration.