A Review of John Nathan-Turner's Tenure by Greg Cook 1/5/00
If I had to name the most maligned person in the history of Doctor Who, it wouldn't be Michael Grade, Eric Saward, Bonnie Langford, or even Matthew Waterhouse; it would be John Nathan-Turner, the producer who oversaw the series' last nine seasons. Some fans have nothing good to say about him, and one of the foulest utterances a fan can make about a particular episode is to say, "it epitomizes all that was wrong about the JNT years". So, what was so "wrong" about that time in the show's history? The charges usually include:
There are other complaints, but let's stick to these three. I'll begin by admitting that many JNT episodes fall prey to one or all of these problems. Who among us wants to defend The Twin Dilemma, Timelash or Time and the Rani? Still, JNT deserves much praise, and we often forget the great accomplishments of his early tenure.
Season 18, JNT's first at the helm, surely remains of the best-looking and consistently good eras in the series? history. The previous years of Doctor Who had seen the show become progressively more inane, with Tom Baker's performance degenerating from hs powerful early characterization into mere pantomime. Furthermore, the production values of the show had slipped under Graham Williams. City of Death, alone among the travesties of Season 17, resists looking horribly cheap. Season 18 rectified the problems and gave the series new direction. Baker's performance was again moody, reflective, witty, and intelligent. The storylines were more thought provoking: Full Circle deals with evolution and progress, Warrior's Gate explores the banality of evil and how the sins of the past are visited upon the present, and Logopolis concerns itself with mathematics and the nature of reality. These episodes certainly have substance: they have some of the most innovative scripts in the show?s history (thanks, in large part, to the script editor). They also have style: Warrior's Gate remains one of the most visually stunning episodes in Doctor Who history. Furthermore, the episodes of the 18th season aren't overrun with references to the past - except, of course, for the Master. Although 'decay and change' represent the theme of the season, what strikes me is the sense of newness - even down to the costumes and incidental music.
And that sense of Renaissance holds up throughout the Davison years. Castrovala stands, in my mind, as the best 'new Doctor' story, managing to introduce a new lead actor, wrap up the plot strands from the previous season, and still tell an unusual tale with several interesting guest characters. Other delights of the early Davison era include Kinda, an allegorical tale filled with allusions, symbols, witty dialogue, and thoughtful performances; Black Orchid, the first historical story in years, refreshing because it reminds us that occasionally the Doctor goes places where there aren't monsters or maniacs; and Mawdryn Undead, which does have characters from the past but also includes the sort of sympathetic 'villains' absent from the program since the early Pertwee years. And, of course, Davison's final adventure, The Caves of Androzani, has earned its place as one of the finest tales of them all.
The first four years of Nathan-Turner's era are, I think, as good as any in Doctor Who history, save for the Hinchcliffe/Holmes seasons. After that, things became erratic, and I think I know why. When a new producer takes over Doctor Who, he sees numerous elements he wants to improve. Barry Letts thought that the show had become too cold and inaccessible; Phillip Hinchcliffe, that it had become too cozy; Graham Williams, that it had become too dark. These producers had their own ideas about what made good television and enjoyable Doctor Who, and they reshaped the show accordingly. Doctor Who thrived on such change: new elements were added to keep the program fresh, and older elements were eliminated when they became excessive.
When JNT first became producer, he had clear ideas of how the show should be retooled. He introduced those changes in Baker's last season and let them flourish during the Davison years. When Davison left the show, JNT knew Doctor Who had to reinvent itself again, but this time he deliberately introduced change for the sake of change: the unstable incarnation, the 45 minute format, the increased violence, the American companion, the darn coat. Instead of a producer adjusting Doctor Who to mirror his own sensibilities, we had a producer intentionally going against the sort of characters and stories he had introduced - just so the show would be different. Here's the clearest example of what I mean: JNT hired Peter Davison because Davison reflected the sort of Doctor JNT wanted; then JNT hired Colin Baker because he was different from Davison. No wonder the last five years of JNT's era seem so uncertain in tone; the producer was intentionally making decisions against his instincts. Such thinking resulted in gimmicks: the longer episodes, the 'Trial' season, the comedy of Season 24 (from JNT, who didn't like the 'slapstick' of the later Tom Baker stories).
What is my point? I simply believe that if any producer stays for a long time, he begins to have a negative impact: he grows stale or he second-guesses himself. If we'd had two more seasons of Hinchcliffe, he might've Hammered us to death with his horror motif, or he might have realized the excess and gone for light comedy (unlikely!). Either effect would be have been detrimental. Conversely, had JNT left at the end of Davison's reign, most of us would have remembered him as a great producer whose tales have a unique flavor. Let us not forget his virtues.
John Nathan-Turner, a tribute by Joe Ford 11/5/02
I was extremely upset to here recently of John Nathan-Turners death. It came as quite a blow, as it always does when a major player in Who history is lost. He was by all accounts, a great man, a good friend and strong lover of Doctor Who. Without him our beloved show may have been cancelled years earlier than it was. His is an era which is discussed widely in these parts and for good or for bad is one that is enjoyed worldwide. But I don't come here to complain I came to tell you he was the best people we could have had to be involved with the show.
John Nathan-Turner's tail end seasons, eighteen and twenty-six are two of my all time favourites. He employed my my favourite actor in the role (Colin Baker). He help create one of the greatest companions ever (Ace). He gave the show a glossy, polished look. He produced some of the best Doctor Who there ever was (Curse of Fenric, Vengeance on Varos, Frontios).
He was a man who was very fond of surprising his audience. Who would have guessed the Cybermen were behind the bomb in Earthshock? Who would have thought they could employ somebody as young as Peter Davison to play the Doctor? Who would have followed up such a 'four square fellow' with Colin Baker? Who would have employed Bonnie Langford as a companion? Who would if need be get on the set direct parts of his show himself? What I love about the guy is how he made no apologies for these changes, even if they weren't well received by the fans. His constant abuse of K.9 was a particular delight. Of all the producers in the show he was the least safe, the other all found comfortable fomulas and pretty much stuck by them. JNT had no formula. He didn't want the show to be predictable. He killed off Adric (god bless you John).
As I understand his relationship with Eric Saward wasn't a smooth one. You couldn't really tell on screen as there was a consistency throughout his producership that I find admirable. Aside from a few exceptions nearly all of his shows LOOKED great. The scripts were often every bit as bold and brilliant as the show itself. He listened to the fans and often gave them what they wanted (more Cybermen, Daleks!). He gave us some glorious foreign shoots.
People complain about his 'guest star' ploicy but I found it a bold innovation! Why not? Bring in well known actors to boost the ratings! Genius! We fans can now force our mums to watch just so they can see Beryl Reid, Lynda bellingham, etc. And more often than not they were astonishing in their parts. Who could forget Maurice Colbourne's icy Lytton or John Stratton's brilliant Shockeye...and especially Nicholas Parsons who was heavily criticised before the show aired and turned out to be one the best things about the wonderful Curse of Fenric!
There was a clear affection for his work throughout and I was lucky enough to be firm follower of DWM when he wrote his memoirs for the show. They were absolutely compelling. To realise all the problems he suffered during his tenure and yet to still provide a great show takes not only talent but a genius. JNT was that man and we should thank our lucky stars that he fought as hard as he did.
Television has lost one of it's finest and we have all lost a good friend to the show. I cried the day I discovered the news of his death. Let's all remember a the good things about his time on his show. He deserves every bit of praise that he gets.
A Review by Tim Roll-Pickering 26/5/03
It is hard to dispute the argument that with perhaps the exceptions of those who devised the series (although as a collaborative process they arguably do not count), John Nathan-Turner is the single most significant figure in the history of the series. Equally hard to dispute is the claim that he is the single most controversial one.
I would be very surprised if reviews of any other creator ever outnumber those of Nathan-Turner on this site once a good number have come in (of course this statement could now lead to deliberate attempts to disprove it!). Eric Saward is possibly the only contender to achieve this, given the degree of controversy he can generate (to a large extend arising out of discussion of Nathan-Turner though). Robert Holmes may be phenomenally popular but it's hard to see too many reviews being written before they become increasingly the same routine appraisals. (Look at how few reviews the supposedly "most popular Doctor" Tom Baker has received compared to the others for a similar situation.)
But John Nathan-Turner is different. For many years fans have been discussing him in a way matched by few other creators. It is indicative of a way in which certain producers have become exceptionally prominent in the discussion of the series.
As a completely unscientific experiment I decided to see how many times the relevant producer was mentioned in the reviews of a particular story on this site. Without the time to go through every single one, I decided to limit myself to a handful that have recently had a high profile.
The results (taken on November 12th 2002) were revealing:
The Aztecs - 0
The Sensorites - 0
Planet of Giants - 0
The Time Meddler - 0
The Gunfighters - 0
The Tomb of the Cybermen - 0
Carnival of Monsters - 3 (but 2 are about Barry Letts as the story's director and the other comments on why he later cast Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan)
The Ark in Space - 6
The Invisible Enemy - 0
Underworld - 1
The Creature from the Pit - 1
Resurrection of the Daleks - 2
Vengeance on Varos - 1
The Trial of a Time Lord - 17
It would be foolish to draw any hard and fast conclusions from such a simple survey. But I think it does indicate the degree to which some producers get cited far more often than others, which is one of the areas where Nathan-Turner has been criticised far more than his fair share.
It is not uncommon to see in newsgroup postings or even in reviews a fan commenting on something in a 1980s Doctor Who story and for them to say "Another thing to blame JNT for" or words to that effect. Yet look at criticism of stories from other periods and it is much harder to find Verity Lambert, Innes Lloyd or whoever being criticised for decisions on costuming, points of continuity, editing or other aspects of stories that can generate outrage. Instead the individual writers, costume designers etc... or the director as the man in overall control of an individual production are the people who come in for blame, if it is apportioned. To take one example, that old bug bear UNIT dating. I have often seen people blame Nathan-Turner for the "error" in Mawdryn Undead, yet hardly anyone ever criticise Philip Hinchcliffe for the equal "error" in Pyramids of Mars. (Of course not everyone would see one of these as the error!) Equally telling were the stories of Nathan-Turner's mailbag when he was producer which were retold around the time of his death, such as the head of a local group expressing outrage that they hadn't been told there was shooting in the area and so had been made to look foolish. Such trivial points have contributed to a long-term picture of Nathan-Turner as an ineffective and clumsy producer that is in my opinion completely missing the point.
To start with, let's turn the clock back to around 1981. It's difficult to accurately determine what fan opinion was like at the time, but from the comments subsequently made it seems this was a time when the general opinion was that the series started out well with classics such as The Web Planet but an all time disaster in The Gunfighters, hit its peak in the Pertwee years with The Daemons as the greatest ever story whilst The Time Monster was impressive but the series floundered in the late 1970s with Season 17 being the all time worst, with The Horns of Nimon rivalling The Gunfighters for the position of the worst ever story. At this point Doctor Who Weekly began and due to the dominance of Jeremy Bentham in the writing of articles as well as early reference books, much of the young fandom developed attitudes in line with this perceived gospel. Enter John Nathan-Turner.
I have by my side a copy of Doctor Who - A Marvel Monthly #55 which features, amongst other things, the results of the first ever DWM Season Survey for Season 18. It makes for an interesting statement of how Nathan-Turner's first season was received at the time and how views on it have changed since. The opinions expressed in the various categories was frequently united with many being won by a landslide. The least well received story was Meglos, with very few respondents ranking it anywhere above fifth or fourth on their lists, with the (anonymous) commentator suggesting:
"As producer John Nathan-Turner stated in the interview in DWM #51, Meglos was based on a very traditional story - a megalomaniac wanting to conquer the Universe. From your voting it would seem that Doctor Who fans now, just as in the past, prefer the series to concentrate on its major talent for presenting original concepts that have not been turned out of a Stateside script writing computer."The Leisure Hive came next, albeit with few comments to back it up. The main criticism were the ending failing to live up to expectations and the weaknesses of the Fomasi costumes. Narrowly above it was Warrior's Gate, which many fans simply didn't understand and either loved it or hated it. Then came State of Decay narrowly beaten by Full Circle, which won praise for its monsters. But the top two stories were clearly ahead by a mile. In second place came The Keeper of Traken, which scored well for characterisation and the return of an old foe, but the top story was Logopolis. The Favourite Monster category was a runaway success for the Marshmen, whilst Favourite Villain and Favourite Character were won by Anthony Ainley's twin roles of the Master and Tremas respectively. The Favourite Episode was another landslide for the final part of Logopolis.
Looking at these results it's easy to suggest that the main attractions for fans were less the change of direction than the big events such as the return of the Master or the Doctor's regeneration. There are some signs that innovativeness was a factor for some, but overwhelmingly it was the more predictable elements of the series that won through. The "original concepts" sought were clearly not so much an all new style every story but rather something different from the bulk of US science-fiction series. At the time it seemed as though this was what fans wanted.
The perceived fan opinions on the relative merits of the season's stories remains broadly the same to this day. Warrior's Gate may now do better in a survey (although the many different potential voting systems are notorious for producing very different results) and The Leisure Hive might receive praise for its supposed bold changes (though it betrays its origins as a season 17 style story) but otherwise the general pattern of Meglos being the least appreciated and Logopolis the most is the same. And that pattern has been pretty consistent over the past couple of decades. It is recalled that fandom at this time and for a few years afterwards was pretty positive about Nathan-Turner. Oh boy did that change!
Looking back at the first four years of Nathan-Turner's producership it is easy to see the clangers - The Leisure Hive, Meglos, Four to Doomsday, Time-Flight, Arc of Infinity, Terminus and Warriors of the Deep are the obvious ones. Being the equivalent of a season between them it could be easy to write off these four years as weak and blame the producer. But equally there are the high points such as Warrior's Gate, Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors or Resurrection of the Daleks to name but the best. And overall there is a clear style of professionalism. Most of the stories benefit from sensible budgeting and co-operation of the different factors of production to produce good results. The stories that fail are those where the elements fall out of line with one another or where the budgeting is weak - is it any wonder that most of the clangers listed above fall into one or other of these categories? The key to success is clear - assemble a competent team that can work well together and spend the money wisely. Some people have criticised the fact that the regulars wear the same clothes all the time, even though there are many people in real life whose clothes are so predictable it looks as though it would take surgery to remove them, but this is but one example of wise spending. From an artistic point of view it's hard to fault the overall direction of these early years, whilst at the time they were well publicised. On the basis of what the producer is responsible for, namely the overall planning, direction (although the script editor arguably had even more influence on this) and promotion of the series, it's hard to find much to fault with.
All too frequently there is a tendency for fandom to seize upon ratings as a sign of proof of the point they are making, all too often overlooking the statistics for other periods of the series. The 1980s saw Doctor Who change it's regular slot no less than six times (to say nothing of the many one-offs such as The Five Doctors and Resurrection of the Daleks) with the result that the series failed to consistently stand its ground and see off strong competition before it was moved once again to face new competition. It is often forgotten that in many households control of the television differs throughout the week and so it seems to me that from a modern perspective it would be foolish to judge a series on its 1980s ratings, other than to note that often it was one of the best rated shows for the relevant time slot on the relevant channel. Producers have no control over scheduling slots and should not be judged upon them.
If the early 1980s saw the team working well, the mid 1980s saw a major feud at the heart of the series' production which spilled over into the public arena, whilst the series found itself thrust into battle over its existence and a fanzine declared war on Nathan-Turner, bitterly dividing opinion for years to come. All these created a highly tense and poisonous atmosphere that to some extent persists to this day and it is impossible to ignore them now.
The Nathan-Turner/Saward feud was not necessarily a bad thing. Way back in the 1960s one of the series' originators Sidney Newman had a reputation for loving conflict for generating creativity. (Apparently he liked it best when he heard two BBC producers had a punch-up in the toilet!) The Colin Baker years see the professional and slick production values of Nathan-Turner encounter the grim and downbeat world of Eric Saward's vision and the result is all too often a success, such as Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks. However at some point the feud between the two became too much and led to Saward's infamous Starburst interview in which he viciously castigated Nathan-Turner. At the same time another falling out led to the fanzine DWB running a huge "JNT must go NOW!" campaign. There were no major hate campaigns against script editors, writers, directors or other creators. Virtually all the blame for things going wrong was piled onto the producer. For many fans he could do no right. Even in recent years comments like "JNT got it wrong" still persist.
At the same time the series suffered publicly when production was moved back a financial year, primarily due to a financial shortfall in the BBC as now seems clear, but the whole thing turned into a battle to save the series from cancellation which led to much discussion of its quality. In recent years Michael Grade has said on a number of occasions that the series was cancelled "because I hated it." It is extremely hard to believe that a professional at the level of Grade would have made a decision on such a purely personal point of view, and easy to accept his giving this reason now as a result of years of being demonised by fans, as well as the need to provide a quick answer. (Did he also have on his hate list all of the many other shows that ceased production at the same time such as Crackerjack?) Many of Grade's criticisms both then and now come across as an attempt to find fault with the series to justify a financial postponement decision (and many series had similar gaps between seasons) after it had been made. Nevertheless it made many ask "What's wrong with the series?" and many fans jumped on a simple answer "JNT is producing it."
But looking at the series today it's hard to see such a fault in it. Rarely does it rest on its laurels. There are times when there seem to be rather too many returning monsters in a season, but often they are used to new effect - look at Attack of the Cybermen which seeks to construct a tale about the Cybermen rather than just using them as any old monster. The changes of script editor and Doctor keep it from being stale whilst the consistent producer ensures that the series is still budgeted and publicised well whilst more often than not the individual production teams for a story are compatible. The result is a highly competent series that never seems tired and at times shows itself, especially in the McCoy years, to be highly diverse from story to story.
When John Nathan-Turner died last year there were those who rushed to attack him as "The man who killed Doctor Who". However there were others who were prepared to objectively assess his producership free from the old disputes of the 1980s. Whilst it may now be too soon to see which way fandom goes, it seems probably that soon it will come back to the position it took in the early 1980s in relation to Nathan-Turner, namely that he produced a highly competent sequence of stories that had some clangers and some triumphs but throughout there was strong consistency and overall the series did well. He was one of the most significant figures in the history of the series but creatively he was also one of the strongest overall who will be much missed.
In need of surgery by Thomas Cookson 20/4/07
Horns of Nimon is a story that has become fondly reappraised as the last knees up party of the Graham Williams era (I actually prefer it to Nightmare of Eden). The last story before the show became so po-faced that it expected us to take Adric seriously when he was a character that desperately cried out for irony. On that note it also represents the last time the show was made by people who knew how to do farce properly. Whether you liked or hated the Williams era, there was no way you could say it killed Doctor Who. Maybe it had loosened up the show and Season 17 had been a bit directionless but if anything in 1980, the show was in need of a renaissance, not a termination. But entering into the John Nathan-Turner era, and it wasn't long before the show was in serious need of a mercy killing.
The reasons why were varied but all came together as being based on high ambitions, over-earnestness, misdirection, incompetence and the kind of schizophrenia where the show's left hand didn't know what its right hand was doing. Not only that, but the 1980s had a fixation with deadwood. Each era of the show had relied on something to give the erratic show some kind of direction or greater arc, whether it was getting Ian and Barbara home, or unraveling the mystery of the Doctor's origins or the TARDIS being Earthbound, or the 'educating Leela' arc, or the Key to Time quest. Possibly as an overcompensation for the frivolity of Season 17, the JNT regime decided to revive the Master, the Black Guardian, Omega, every single old monster, delve deeper again into Gallifreyan politics and corruption and overcrowd the TARDIS with obnoxious brats all in the space of three seasons, and incidentally didn't have a clue what to do with any of them.
Unfortunately the 1980s seemed to require the show to do everything at once in search of a direction it never found. Each story was trying to be important to the lore, each season was full of redundant dug up foils, fannish indulgences, changing line ups and tedious rematches with the Master (the fact that he kept coming back from the dead spoke volumes about how directionless the show was). No wonder the show was turning into a chore, no wonder dud stories like King's Demons and Twin Dilemma were harder to dismiss as forgettable when they were crucial to the canon in the way that The Time Monster or Underworld weren't.
These were the kinds of things the Williams era had never suffered from, and I actually think the show could have stayed fairly respectable if Williams had stayed on. I think he provided the show's most accessible, cheap but cheerful niche of two Time Lords in a continuity free, imaginative and downright fun universe, and you could read a love story into it if you wanted to.
I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing. It's easy to see now the shortcuts the show could have taken then. The show didn't need any Dalek stories between Genesis and the New Series, although personally I'm fond of all the Davros stories. The only Master stories the show needed after Logopolis were The Five Doctors and Survival, and maybe Castrovalva. The rest could have gone in the bin. It'd be far better that way continuity-wise if the Time Lords rescue the Master from Castrovalva and Rassilon exiles him to the Cheetah planet. Moreso Attack of the Cybermen would have made a good debut for Colin, and Twin Dilemma could have gone in the bin where it belonged. Likewise, Eric Saward's unused conclusion to Trial of a Time Lord would have been a far better story for Colin to go out on because it made him far more heroic (if only they'd known it was to be his last), and the regeneration too would have been far better if it hadn't involved McCoy in that stupid wig and had, narratively, seemed to count for more than an arbitrary need to change the actor under vindictive directives from on high. I can just imagine how Sylvester McCoy might have seemed untrustworthy from the outset if he had just turned up out of nowhere, claiming to be the Doctor, and how his merging with the Valeyard would explain much about his darker side and his ability to anticipate future events. It was as if the puzzle pieces were all there but no-one bothered to see them.
It may sound snide to talk with hindsight about what should have been done but the fact is that a lot of the stories of Nathan-Turner's tenure should have been jettisoned. The man had appalling awareness of what made a good or bad story and let some real travesties get made, and 20 years on he still thought Twin Dilemma was a good story. Not only that, but he seemed to move the show at a snail's pace. The Peter Davison era may be fondly regarded for nostalgic romps like Five Doctors and Resurrection, but otherwise the whole era is on a slow path to nowhere. Castrovalva and Mawdryn Undead really are the show at its most lethargic. The Colin Baker era isn't much better with tedious TARDIS console scenes, followed by a second wave of tedious courtroom scenes. In some ways Colin's Doctor is more proactive and spontaneous than his predecessor but it's really only in the Sylvester McCoy era that the pace really picks up and that's only because the show is forced into a tight squeeze with only 14 episodes a season.
Doctor Who is a neverending story by nature. It could go anywhere and its protagonist was near immortal, but it was moving into an era where nothing could be eternal in the realms of TV unless it was a soap and the show had never been linear and had always strived to be more than wallpaper. It is very easy to see how nice it would be if someone had pulled the plug on the show midway through the JNT era. Doctor Who had never been character driven but now it was trying to be, quite ineptly, in order to keep up with the Joneses. In the 80's, TV dramas of various genres were becoming more linear, more based on character development and continuity, and this was becoming true of sci-fi too with Star Trek Next Generation and Red Dwarf. Nowadays, collections of individual stories well told aren't enough, they have to have character arcs and emotional journeys and a sense of linear progression.
But Doctor Who was clearly having teething troubles with the transition. Nyssa and Tegan suffered traumatic events, the death of Auntie Vanessa, a mental rape by the Mara, the destruction of Traken, but all of these would be forgotten next week and the characters would carry on as normal. Even the mourning of Adric in Time-Flight is so off the cuff and brief that it shows up how routine and horribly insincere it all is. The only decent companion characterization the JNT era gave us was Ace, and even then only the Ace of Season 26. Likewise Planet of Fire should have marked a turning point for the Doctor and the Master rivalry, but it didn't at all.
The show was opening up these characters but doing nothing with them. It feigned a sense of direction that it didn't possess in the least, doing nothing with its baggage. A character-driven, continuity-driven show should drive to a conclusion, so really that's what the show should have planned for, if only as a compromise for doing the characterization so ineptly, and it very nearly could have brought itself to a proper and natural end in 1984. Season 21 was the show's most violent season and the best way to end the show would have been through absolute carnage and killing off all the half-baked excesses before they became any more redundant than they already were, but again the puzzle pieces failed to fall into place.
If in Mawdryn Undead, the Doctor had lost all his regenerations, then Androzani really would have been the death of him and the end of the show, and why not? It comes after two stories that say goodbye to his oldest friends and see him vanquish his oldest enemies for good; the Master and Davros seem to have met their ultimate end (a shame it didn't stay that way next season) and the Daleks are pretty much on the endangered-species list, so there really could have been an air of finality to it. It seemed the logical next step to have Caves of Androzani finally kill off the Doctor himself. I actually think that would be far more poignant than what we got when Colin Baker's brutish first lines killed the whole scene. So after the companions and the Master flash before the Doctor's eyes, Peri crawls towards the Doctor's youthful corpse and weeps a while, and the TARDIS rotor stops as the ship lands. The final shot of the series could be the TARDIS back on the same windy Brighton beach we saw in Leisure Hive. Peri steps out, distraught and alone and we see a silent mournful long shot of the solitary TARDIS. Just like its dead owner, it will never travel again.
It would have been the show's last chance to bow out with dignity before Twin Dilemma brought the show down to a new low. Sometimes I really wish Michael Grade had twisted JNT's arm into ending it there. Yes fans would probably point to the poor effects of Warriors on the Cheap and the gratuitous violence of Resurrection of the Daleks as being responsible for the show's demise. But they wouldn't know how pleasing that finality would be, or the horrors they'd been spared by the skin of their teeth.
Actually, perhaps a New Adventures novel range could have still happened, involving some elaborate plan by the Time Lords to reconstitute and resurrect the Doctor for a special mission, and that would pave the way for the current New Series.
Just like with Season 26, people would remember the Davison era as a climax where the show reached a level of unprecedented maturity with Kinda being dissected in The Unfolding Text and Resurrection of the Daleks being touted for its straight-for-the-jugular brutality and loaded portrayal of moral responsibility. The Graham Williams era would be regarded as the 'when it all got silly' bit, but for various reasons I think people would be won over to the charm of those frivolous stories. When the 80's got silly the results were repellent.
But then there are times when I'm glad that the Colin Baker era happened. Like every era it had some merit, and Revelation of the Daleks definitely deserved to be made. Trial may have been a tacky, incompetent and bitter mess, but it was also ambitious and grand, its scope was amazing as was its nightmarish atmosphere and temporal vertigo and every now and again I feel a strong urge to reappraise it. Furthermore, the era seems more fun and comfortable with itself as a directionless indulgence and has dropped the earnest pretenses that made the previous era such a bumpy and stuffy ride. Even so, the earnestness of Davison's stories was occasionally worth it for serious art stories like Snakedance.
Indeed, the only point of the JNT era that to me is completely without merit is Season 24. There was a time when I briefly considered Season 24 to be better than the Colin Baker era, and the current David Tennant era purely because it had a good-naturedness that raised it head over shoulders above those more bitchy and mean spirited eras. But that was before I quickly realized that I found pretty much every story of that era so impossible to watch a second time; in fact, I barely got through Time and the Rani a first time. Now I just find Season 24 uninviting, irredemable, tacky, lobotomized, spirit-crushing and sickeningly twee. Sometimes, I don't even see it as Doctor Who because the show isn't meant to be brainless, plus the fact that there's nothing alien about Sylvester McCoy's Doctor during that season. Without the Time's Champion overtones he just seems like an unfunny kid's TV presenter.
It begins the McCoy era on such a childish note. But then again the McCoy era did have something of a rapid growth, quickly going through growing pains into maturity in three seasons. It seems in Season 25 that Nathan-Turner has found his niche at last and the show has finally rediscovered how to appeal to its young target audience with pacy, efficient stories, evil Headmasters and Daleks in the school basement. Stories like Greatest Show in the Galaxy that can operate on a mere symbolic level. It was a show with something for everybody again for the first time since The Five Doctors. To me Curse of Fenric best encapsulates how the McCoy era really tapped into the mentality of the late 80's roleplaying generation. Indeed, it was a relief to see the Doctor come to the fore as a figure of knowledge and words as power once more, having for the last six years been either a passive bystander or a common thug.
Overall, it was good that the show had survived long enough to establish a new mythology in the McCoy era, which paved the way for the Virgin novels range which has kept the franchise going, paving the way then for Big Finish and the current revival series. So there is always that to be grateful of to John Nathan-Turner. He killed Doctor Who but he also saved it, sowing the seeds for its return to TV one day. Despite the stumbles, and the vindictive efforts of Michael Damien Grade to bury the show, John did take Doctor Who right to the finishing line, no matter what obstacles were thrown at him (or were self-inflicted). It's just a shame that he also oversaw the kind of shit that sticks for those outside the fandom niche who can easily point to the embarrassments of the era that make the show seem best forgotten.
It's also a shame he couldn't have let the sublime Survival be his signing off story, and he just had to make the atrocious Dimensions in Time as an encore.
It's a shame that so much of the good got lumped with the bad during those years, since the era did produce some very challenging stories. Warriors' Gate and Greatest Show in the Galaxy were as strange as the show got and they both had so many things to say on victimization and the dark side of human nature. Survival had so much to say on Thatcher's Britain and disaffected youth. Kinda did what Doctor Who does best: looking at our society from the outside in and showing the kind of spiritual void we have in our lives. Revelation of the Daleks is probably one of the most forward-looking and topical stories of its era.
And really that's the point. JNT Doctor Who would have worked far better if, after the high concept of Season 18, the show had shrunken immediately to a compact four stories a season, just like in the McCoy era. In the 80s, the show was running dry on inspiration and yet simultaneously was producing the odd stories that had so much to them, that were so vast, so strange and detailed and topical, such as Warriors' Gate, Snakedance and Revelation of the Daleks that really outclassed Doctor Who's own remit. So it would have been better if they'd had fewer stories to work on a year so the deeply inspired stories were on top of the agenda and the poor stories got jettisoned, and were given no chance to drag the show down. If Snakedance hadn't been bogged down by the rest of Season 20. If Earthshock and Caves of Androzani had been the climactic season finales and no embarrassing encores had followed them. If characters developed quickly instead of at a snail's pace. If stories and seasons hadn't become samey, and in some cases bitter and repellant, such as the frequent misogynistic treatment of Peri, or Trial of a Time Lord taking the show beyond self-parody into out and out self-loathing.
The JNT era was capable of grand stories and mind-blowing concepts, but so many things shouldn't have been allowed to hold it back. More than any other era, the JNT years are marked by the show's slipperiness when it comes to quality control. The show needed a lot of jettisoned stories, a definite overall plan and little chance to meander from it and every impetus to move fast and efficiently. It couldn't afford so many bad stories and publicity stunts, but, sadly, judgement was appalling and the show let itself get cheapened, and as I said before, stories like Time and the Rani just showed how the production team could be so incompetent that they couldn't even do farce properly.
My perfect JNT era would keep Seasons 18, 25 and 26, and all the intervening stories that were written (in whole) by Eric Saward, Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, and Christopher Bailey, and would bin nearly all the rest. My JNT era would be half the stories it were, but it'd definitely be exclusively the good half and it would still end proper with Survival. Oh and Shada would have been finished too.
Doesn't that sound much better?
The bottom line is that no other era of Doctor Who has ever required such a rigorous nip and tuck because no other era has ever featured such a glut of the detrimentally bad.
The JNT era by Paul Williams 15/5/07
I grew up watching Doctor Who produced by John Nathan-Turner, largely enjoying it at the time until McCoy came along. Now is a chance to re-evaluate the stories, as others have done, and on the whole this period stands up rather well when evaluated through adult eyes.
Season 18 is refreshingly different. Only Meglos and State of Decay could conceivably have been made in an earlier era; indeed State would have fitted nicely into Tom Baker's early years where it was originally intended to be. The other stories are well designed, with the alien worlds being much more realistic than in Season 17. Another key difference is the absence of malevolent monsters. In The Leisure Hive, Full Circle and Warriors' Gate, the monsters are not evil but the humans or humanoids are greedy or misguided. Of course it could be argued that this carries on a trend seen in The Ribos Operation and, more significantly, Creature from the Pit, but there wasn't another season before this where the Doctor largely battled concepts instead of mortal foes. The escape from e-space and the entropy in Logopolis are beyond his control. Perhaps that's why he becomes more sombre and dark, losing much of his wit. This makes the season more serious and more believable. The science doesn't stand up, as others have said, but for the first time in ages we see a Doctor who can be defeated.
Four to Doomsday and Time-Flight apart, Season 19 had some excellent ideas. There are stories like Castrovalva and Kinda which stretch the imagination, then stable classics such as The Visitation, the delightful Black Orchid and the ambition of Earthshock.
For Season 20 it was decided to bring back some of the Doctor's past in each story. JNT has been criticised for pampering to fans but were Omega, the Guardians and the Mara really on anyone's list as their favourite to return? The stories here are diverse and, apart from the first and last, intellectually challenging.
The Five Doctors was a fitting tribute to the show thus far.
Season 21 again starts and ends badly. Warriors of the Deep had potential, being let down by bad lighting, acting, direction, effects and the stock characterisation of the Silurians and Sea Devils. The Awakening and Frontios are grim and exciting with Resurrection of the Daleks being a victim of its own ambition. I applaud the attempt. Caves of Androzani stands as an undisputed classic. The Twin Dilemma should never have been made.
The controversy of season 22 will never go away. How Michael Grade must regret his decision to publicly cancel Doctor Who instead of dropping it quietly as his successors did in 1989! Colin Baker's casting, and costume, has been criticised but he has proved his credentials with Big Finish and also in this season where he made the Doctor dominant again and also reintroduced some humour. Sadly, the recurring themes of cannibalism and aliens wanting Peri's body jar after a while.
The Trial of a Time Lord is to be commended for the ideas and penalised for the realisation. Undoubtedly it would have been successful if Saward and Holmes had remained on board until the end.
Like Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy started with a story that should never have left the drawing board. Due to the cut in the number of episodes, he never had the chance to recover. Paradise Towers had enormous potential and the novel shows how dark and atmospheric the televised story should have been. The same may be said of the next story and Dragonfire is let down by some comical moments.
For the 25th anniversary, it was decided to resurrect both the Daleks and the Cybermen and attempt to recreate some mystery around the Doctor's origins. This comes across as tacky. Remembrance of the Daleks is the first story to alienate the casual fan, a real problem with viewing figures dwindling due to the time-slot. The Happiness Patrol could have worked as a satire but it is played too much for laughs and the moment is lost. Silver Nemesis is a mess and only The Greatest Show in the Galaxy takes any credit from this season.
Battlefield fails on every front, Ghost Light has potential but leaves too many unanswered questions, Curse of Fenric attempts too much and Survival stands foremost amongst McCoy stories. It's contemporary and fast-moving with the pace of the plot absolutely right. You can see the direction that Cartmel wanted to take the series in, and it's a shame he never had the opportunity to do more. It's also obvious that JNT's enthusiasm had waned after Season 22. In longer seasons bad stories can be absorbed and forgotten. In shorter seasons, like Mc Coy's, the failures have no hiding place.
Until the reduction in the number of episodes, each JNT season had contained a diverse range of stories, demonstrating ambition and imagination with excellent ideas that sadly weren't always developed to their potential. There was also at least one really awful story in each. Is that better than having a range of consistently solid stories with no classics or donkeys? Personally I prefer the variety. Doctor Who is at its very best when given the freedom to experiment and the odd failure resulting from that is a risk worth taking.
'..and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "Adric"' by Stephen Maslin 16/4/12
Part One (1980-1981)
1980 - JNT's 'Plan A' (Impact)
12th January: The Horns of Nimon dragged the Graham Williams era to a sluggish and premature close. Douglas Adams' epic six-part send-off Shada had fallen victim to industrial action and Doctor Who had shriveled up in the face of budget cuts and cynicism. In less than three months, the show had fallen from one of its greatest triumphs on the streets of Paris to being little more than a bad joke. Suffering greater ridicule than the worst of the Pertwee era, no one would have been surprised if the show had not returned and not that many would have cared.
Fast forward to August 30th. In a matter of seconds, Doctor Who, courtesy of Peter Howell and Sid Sutton, plunged dramatically into a new era. This was incoming producer John Nathan Turner's 'Plan A': new theme, new title sequence, big impact. One can picture the average British family, expecting the same old intro to the same old series, perhaps even preparing to change channels, sat frozen with food half-way to their mouths, a small part of them realizing that an often-unregarded fixture of the world had changed forever.
In The Leisure Hive, that first story of JNT's tenure, there was no let up in novelty and innovation: the artfully serene intro, the Doc in his a sombre new June Hudson rig-out, the sense of scale as we are transported to Argolis, colour bursting from every line of your screen... For anyone raised on the show in the 70s, it must have been little short of astounding. It is nowadays a vastly under-rated story, having details that reward repeated viewing, a splendid supporting cast and, in Lovett Bickford, a director of whom we really should have seen more.
One thing that had been all too noticeable about the latter three
stories of the 70s was how drab they were: a whole lot of gloomy,
unconvincing spaces that you just didn't want to be in, with gloomy,
unconvincing stories to match (and the more everyone tried to be funny,
the more gloomy it all got). The first impression of JNT's new broom was
that we were back in the future and that the future was painted in bright
primary colours. Meglos, the story that followed, may
not have kept up the overall quality - the script is very poor, but still
looked pretty good, in a way that, say, The Nightmare of Eden really hadn't. Tom Baker put in a
fine dual performance and, even though it was generally a bit dull, there
was at least the feeling that an attempt was being made to produce quality
work (rather than merely laughing about it no longer being possible).
The Leisure Hive (8/10)
1980 - JNT's 'Plan B' (Yoof)
Honours even, and with the jury still out, there started that steady trickle of production gaffs centering around bad choices of personnel, the first and worst of which was Matthew Waterhouse as Adric. We have become used to excuses being made for his presence: principally that he succeeded in being closer to the youngsters who actually watched Doctor Who, etc etc. Perhaps. But so what? He was awful, with a stilted delivery and awkwardness of manner that imply he was neither auditioned nor even screen-tested. We now know that he was unbearable on set as well. Why was he even considered? (Not long into Full Circle, one had the uncomfortable feeling that, one way or another, there would be a lot of 'yoof' in JNT's vision for the show, part of his 'Plan B' - to reorientate the show toward a more specific target audience.) A close second place in the culprit stakes would go to one Paddy Kingsland, or rather whoever in the production team was unable to tell the difference between his consistently sub-standard music and that of the far more inventive Peter Howell, Roger Limb and Malcolm Clarke. (More likely that no one in the production team thought it really mattered what the music actually was as long it was made using synthetic means). Music in Doctor Who had occasionally been brilliant (Terror of the Zygons), sometimes truly bizarre (The Sea Devils) but never outright bad. Yet Mr Kingsland was to be responsible for causing almost as many cringes as young master Waterhouse (and that really is saying something). His scores for Full Circle, Logopolis and, worst of all, Mawdryn Undead render otherwise decent stories periodically intolerable, a sheer awfulness that Murray Gold has since perfected, only with the added hubris of a symphony orchestra. If one could ignore the music and the infuriating gaggle of talentless youngsters, Full Circle would be a visually impressive story with lots of atmosphere. If only... In spite of even more Mr K and Master W, State of Decay, second installment of what came to known as The E-Space Trilogy, is pretty good. Undeniably camp (vampire fiction often is) but with Tom and Lalla at their absolute best and possessed of some highly quotable lines. ("The blood of the dead is stale and flat!") Best of all, we had a BBC producer playing to the Corporation's strengths: costume, directors and design, rather than bangs and whistles.
Full Circle (2/10)
State of Decay (7/10)
1981 - JNT's 'Plan C' (Fin de Siecle)
Warriors' Gate is odd, really odd. By turns, funny and profound, unremittingly weird, it is Season 18's finest offering. Adric is well-sidelined by being reduced to wandering around tossing coins (with possibly his only well-delivered line in all the time he graced us with his presence: "He's having delusions!") and Tom Baker is at his most imperious. It is a story that, like Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead' to which it more than once seems to make reference, succeeds in spite of its not really having a plot (and which is highly unusual as being possibly the only Doctor Who story save The Mind Robber that can be played to a devotee of art-house cinema; one doubts whether this would have appealed to JNT himself or that its avant-garde style is something he would have encouraged). The Keeper of Traken, though more traditional, is almost as good. Understated, slow-moving but dramatically a triumph; another fine cast, the return of the Master (of Deadly Assassin vintage) and purple, purple everywhere. It built on the sense of a valedictory drawing down of blinds, maintaining not only quality but a very distinctive tone: that of JNT 'Plan C' - fin de siecle, if you will. As the culmination of all this, Logopolis should have been wonderful and there are, without doubt, superb moments: the reappearances of the Watcher are often truly unsettling and the ending is rightly held up as a worthy conclusion to Tom Baker's time as the Doc. Yet it is often visually and emotionally at odds with what the latter half of the season seems to have been trying to achieve. It is frequently brash and bouncy when it should have been doomy and portentous and often clinically lit when it should have been full of shadows. It is also full of holes: a lot of the first episode is frankly embarrassing, the music is dreadful, there is a total lack of chemistry between the lead and his cohorts, the script is littered with pointless techno-babble... Even Tom's grand send off is almost derailed by the three companions he barely knew (nor wanted) scampering around his prone form as if he were a children's entertainer about to make a dog out of some yellow balloons. At the very last moment, the script loses its nerve and it is deemed necessary to add the leaden exposition that "The Watcher... was the Doctor all the time!" which neither helps explain things, nor makes any sense. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Tom's departure still manages the gravitas it deserves. The transition is over and a new era really is about to begin.
Warriors' Gate (9/10)
The Keeper of Traken (8/10)
In itemizing the early shortcomings of the JNT era, one might point the finger not only at companions and composers and other things beginning with C, but also aim it at the dry and humorless script-editing of Messrs Bidmead and Saward. Castrovalva (written by the former, script-edited by the latter) was a case in point. By no means bad, one can nonetheless imagine C H Bidmead sat up late into the night, with protractor and slide-rule, making it all join up, so painstaking is the end result. It rarely sparkles (Mr Bidmead doesn't do 'sparkly') but is saved by fine direction and beautiful M C Escher-inspired design (and a general absence of Adric). Most importantly, by the end of it all, Peter Davison had, in the space of four episodes, more than convinced that he was a great choice - and good choices were not a JNT era speciality. June Hudson once remarked that she thought JNT a frustrated costume designer. In truth, he was more a frustrated Busby Berkely for that was how he envisaged plots: as grandiose dance routines, constructed one set-piece at a time. Four to Doomsday is the closest we get to seeing that literally carried out, with its plethora of rubbish dance routines, interlaced with a lot of political correctness and a group of villains who sit in big chairs. There's a lot of talking with little said and the gaggle of squawking companions who have little to do but just stand around is a real irritant. A lesson is being learnt: Four to Doomsday, first recorded of Davison's run, fails by trying to utilize every one of the regulars, rather than sidelining one companion to create some space (Adric trapped in a web, Nyssa with a cold, Adric eating) as happens to better effect elsewhere. (Better still, how about getting rid of one altogether?)
Four to Doomsday (1/10)
Three stories into Season 19, a run of fourteen episodes began that suggested things were suddenly really firing and that Doctor Who was back, back, back. Yes, we had unconvincing snakes and partially convincing Tereleptils, but not since the first four stories of The Key to Time had the show been so consistently entertaining. Even Adric being annoying was fitted neatly into the plot arc (though he still hadn't learned how to talk properly). Both Kinda and The Visitation are unexpectedly mature without ever being dull, a rare trick to pull off. JNT had, however, made a rod for his own back by being at the helm of something so successful (and created on an ever-shortening shoestring) that the BBC were forever-after reluctant to let him move on to pastures new.
The Visitation (8/10)
Throughout the previous season, Pertwee era producer Barry Letts had been on hand as a safety net while JNT learned the ropes. With the advent of the Fifth Doctor, JNT was left in sole charge and could spread his wings. It is from this time that one highly distinctive feature of his production style became apparent, a feature that might be lost on an audience from outside the British Isles. He was to cultivate a habit of casting at least one actor per story who would be well known for playing another character elsewhere. "So what?" I hear you cry: actors cropping up in more than one role is nothing new. What makes JNT's version of celeb-trawling noteworthy is the often inappropriate sourcing from the showbiz mainstream, specifically light comedy. Stratford Johns (Four to Doomsday) and Frank Windsor (The King's Demons) were best known for having played TV detectives, which was fair enough. Nerys Hughes (Kinda) and Polly James (The Awakening) were, by contrast, known from their days playing ill-matched flatmates in the liverpool-based sitcom 'The Liver Birds'. Leonard Sachs (The Arc of Infinity) was famous for introducing a long-running show of Victorian-styled music hall, 'The Good Old Days', and Peter Wyngarde (Planet of Fire) had been the suave novelist-turned-sleuth Jason King in 'Department S'. Keith Barron (Enlightenment) and Rodney Bewes (Resurrection of the Daleks) were known for portraying rather feckless types in a variety of light comedies and so on and so on. This habit, innocuous enough at first, would spiral out of control during the McCoy era but Black Orchid, a lovely little story, is free of such nonsense and the cast completely without reproach. The most out-of-place example during Season Nineteen is, of course, Beryl Reid in Earthshock. From the perspective of the casual TV viewer, she seemed to have previously made her bread-and-butter with roles that might best be described as dotty, aging, middle-class, parochial. Her being cast as a hard-bitten space captain didn't just raise eyebrows: it made jaws crash to the floor. It was either a very brave move or a very stupid one. (Hindsight shows us that it was quite clearly the latter.) The fact that it is done with the make-up and hair that one might have expected in some twee, period comedy is all the more bizarre. What is scarcely credible is that Earthshock is good enough to survive this blatant celebrity air-kissing. In fact, it's a classic. Go figure. With Time-Flight, the JNT celebrity casting-couch took an even more unexpected turn: not a light entertainment star this time but an airplane. An icon of minimal European progress maybe, but still just an airplane. What is irritating is that the plane precedes the drama and not the other way round and writer Peter Grimwade is left holding a very poisoned chalice indeed. The result speaks for itself.
Black Orchid (8/10)
Assessments of JNT's contribution to Doctor Who tend to dwell on the howlers, but one might first ask oneself how far up the scale of watchability his first two seasons really are. The answer is, pound for pound, pretty high: one never has to wait that long for something reasonable to spend time with, something you cannot say about a lot of earlier seasons. (The long overdue rejection of six-parters is a great help in that regard.) With Season 19 drawing to a close, there was a feeling that in spite of it ending on a low note, and in spite of an over-fondness for celebrity glitter and some occasionally naff music, things were in safe hands...
Part Two (1982-1983)
If there had been one over-riding problem with Time-Flight, it was the misconception that: 'We Have Concorde' is the same thing as 'We Have Plot'. The Arc of Infinity's limited narrative ambition could likewise be: 'Tickets To Amsterdam' plus 'Omega' means that 'We Have Plot Again', rather than 'Relevant setting' plus 'Good Actors' equals 'Satisfied Audience'. As with Time-Flight, The Arc of Infinity is not the worst of the Davison era, but it is still a truly inept way to start a new season. Amsterdam? Even in 1983, TV viewers were no longer dazzled by conspicuous geography. Aside from a centre-piece (transport icon, foreign locale, much loved celeb) being seen as more important than narrative, another frequent touchstone of the JNT house style is the variable range of actors. In The Arc of Infinity, we do have 'proper' actors like Michael Gough and Elspet Gray. Yet one is at a loss to discern what criteria were being fulfilled by the assorted hangers-on elsewhere. Perhaps JNT was ahead of the game in predicting how 21st century TV would turn out: based around the assumption that the general public will more readily watch teenagers with no talent as opposed to older people with it. The story reaches a nadir in its depiction of the Time Lords, the hidden power behind the laws of the universe, in a set that was little more than a conference room in a 1960s pre-fab. Compare their pompous, witless bickering with Robert Holmes' vivid portrait of Time Lord society in The Deadly Assassin and you are at the polar opposites of what Doctor Who scriptwriters were capable of. Snakedance is a step back in the right direction, not least in its more evenly balanced cast, with another intriguing Christopher Bailey script and some fine acting talent in the supports. A genuine surprise for anyone who thought (and many did) that Doctor Who was once again in danger of losing it, even though there was the uncomfortable feeling that far more expenditure had been given over to the preceding story.
Arc of Infinity (3/10)
With Mawdryn Undead, the Kurse of Kingsland returns with a horrible vengeance, serving up music that is truly abysmal even by his low standards, absolutely wrecking everything it touches. If you switch the sound off, it's lovely to see the Brig back and there are some nice backdrops. There are some excellent plot ideas too, but the quality filters in post-production seemed not just turned off but smashed to tiny bits. What's more, trying to pass off 23 year-old Mark Strickson (he looks even older than that) as a schoolboy is just incompetent, the felony compounded by his then being welcomed aboard the TARDIS, all the while The Black Guardian over-acting in his head. Mawdryn Undead is one of the few Doctor Who stories that not only disappoints, but actually makes me angry: it should have been - could have been - so good. All it needed was a) an admittance that the audience would be awake enough to notice Turlough being nearly a decade older than his school chums; b) a different approach to the Black Guardian - recast, underplayed and with, say, a shroud, rather than his dead bird headgear; c) better music. (Even no music would have been an improvement.) There is a lot more to be said in Terminus's defense: ideas, script, casting and direction, even if the music is almost as bad and the overall tone more than a little bleak. Nyssa's departure is quite well done, albeit spoilt by the realization that Tegan and Turlough are still there. Yet Philip Hinchcliffe's oft quoted question ("Can we do this?") should have been ringing in the producer's ears at least once: is it possible to make a dog that walks on two legs and whose eyes light up anything other than totally ludicrous?
Mawdryn Undead (2/10)
80s Doctor Who was not blessed with a great line-up of companions, the Tegan-Turlough partnership a particularly dispiriting one. All these years later, one still questions exactly what it was that kept them there so long. It's a welcome surprise that Enlightenment was as good as it was in spite of them (maybe even partly because of them). With arresting imagery (one particularly memorable cliffhanger) and a cast in which the only weak link was the by-now-customary JNT celebrity miscast (in this case, Leee John - as if anyone was going to be eagerly tuning in just because a minor pop celebrity was involved), this is generally considered the stand-out story of a generally indifferent season. The King's Demons is, on the other hand, usually given an extremely bad press, but its most pressing deficiency is that it's barely a story at all, easily summed up as: a BBC costume drama into which Magna Carta, some robot thing, a sword fight and Anthony Ainley have been shoe-horned. Blink and you'll miss it.
King's Demons (4/10)
NOVEMBER 1983 - THE FIVE DOCTORS
Now, don't misunderstand me: JNT and his happy band gave the show a kick up the backside when it really needed it, a lot of which really worked. (I would say the good-to-bad show ratio for JNT's first four years would be about 2:1.) The shame is that because things worked more often than they didn't, a lot of sins went unpunished. It could all have been kissed better if The Five Doctors had come up with the goods. In the 'grand tradition' of multi-Doctor celebrations, we were one Doc short before we even started (though they managed to replace William Hartnell with someone with a similar name). Then two short, when Tom Baker decided to stay in the pub for another couple of years. There was on the other hand a surfeit of past companions willing to step up to the plate, so many in fact that all of them were short-changed in terms of screen time, leaving us barely any time to blow up the variety of past alien adversaries that had been so graciously provided. It's amazing anyone thought that any coherence could be achieved with so much to cram in. JNT was to have two more disastrous attempts at multi-doctoring (and script writer Terrance Dicks one more disastrous attempt in book form). The lesson is that whenever one is tempted by any kind of Doctoral reunion, take a cold shower and just say no.
Five Doctors (5/10)
Another year, another season. Hey, the Silurians AND the Sea Devils AND Ingrid Pitt? Can it be true? Alas, yes, it can. Apart from another inappropriate choice as season opener and a producer clearly dazzled by celebrity, the overwhelming feeling watching Warriors of the Deep is one of abject shame. Far too ambitious to succeed on a 1984 BBC budget, it doesn't come remotely close to entertaining on any level whatsoever. If you have the gall to watch this with a friend whose opinions you respect, then good luck patching up that friendship afterwards. With some relief, The Awakening is far superior, a return to the realms of the historical, with one of Season 21's best casts. (Jane Hampden is a far better foil for the Doctor than either of his two regulars ever were.) It's a reminder that whatever happens, if nothing else the BBC has a very large wardrobe. It is slightly marred by Peter Davison's lovely, clean-cut Fifth Doctor making a rather tasteless joke about someone being burned alive, but what is more alarming is the yawning quality chasm between the season's first two stories.
Warriors of the Deep (1/10)
The Awakening (8/10)
Frontios is an unusual little story, a little
sciencey perhaps (it is after all by C H Bidmead) but oddly unsettling.
Paddy Kingsland's music is surprisingly tolerable, and Janet Fielding and
Mark Strickson give their best performances, which must mean they are
about to be booted out. No one was reaching for any Oscars, but this
should have been of a high enough standard to please most. Sadly, fewer
and fewer were tuning in. For those that still did, episode four should
have ended with a warning of what was just around the corner: Coming Soon!
Ridiculous, Ridiculous, Sublime, Ridiculous!
Worst of all of the many blunders of JNT's time in charge was the
unpardonable cynicism that attempted to remedy the ratings failures of the
later Davison stories. Up to this point, there had merely been the rather
benign and pointless recruitment of well-known character actors and the
odd minor celebrity. Now, things were cranked up a bit in three distinct
flavours. Flavour #1: 'Shock Value' (aka look how adult we are!) and
Flavour #2: 'Bring Back The Daleks!' are first up. Aside from Peter
Davison's great performance and Tegan's departure, that's all there is to
Resurrection of the Daleks. Flavour #3: 'Never Mind
The Quality, Feel The Width' comes next. You may have noticed that when a
science-fiction show is on the rocks, one particular rabbit is often
pulled out of the hat. Not enough people watching? Then a certain shape of
woman cast in a key role should bring the blokes flooding back. That's the
theory anyway. (Star Trek fans might call this the Seven-of-Nine Effect;
indeed a later incarnation of that show was so lacking in confidence as to
have 'the shape' in the cast right from the start.) So it was that poor
old Nicola Bryant was given her uncomfortably leery introduction in Planet of Fire, episode one, and Doctor Who
died. I HATE Planet of Fire: for its desperate
ratings grabbing, for its making Peter Wyngarde look foolish, for its not
even bothering to disguise the myriad of transparent plot contrivances.
Most of all, I hate it for being the end of Doctor Who as an
Resurrection of the Daleks (2/10)
Planet of Fire (1/10)
Still, there's life in the old dog yet. Though The Caves of Androzani remains tainted by the bad taste left by Planet of Fire's first ghastly episode, it is nonetheless a classic from start to finish and doesn't need me to trumpet its virtues, other than to underline that it is the last great script of the classic era; it has the last half-decent musical score of the classic era; it has the last great lead performance of the classic era; after Androzani, there was nothing, nothing at all. The Caves of Androzani (9/10)
With what might be JNT's biggest error of judgment, we come to The Twin Dilemma. For the first time since The Tenth Planet, a lead actor's final story had not
book-ended a season. Boy, what a mistake that was. Perhaps it would have
been a masterstroke if the story had been any good; the most amazing thing
about The Twin Dilemma is that JNT was, by all
accounts, actually proud of it, but to not realize how dire it was and
then to allow it to function as the teaser to a brand new series featuring
a brand new Doctor is simply incomprehensible. To fully gauge its total
failure, you first have to remind yourself how JNT had so dramatically
reversed the precipitate decline at the end of the Williams-Adams era, how
much of a saviour he really had been. A few hiccups, certainly, but in
spite of iffy companions, questionable celebrity casting, pointless
excursions to exotic locations and some wretched music, a show that could
quite have easily passed away unmourned was actually still there. Planet of Fire's cynical resorting to sex appeal to
bolster the show's flagging ratings was at least understandable (if
unforgivable) and was then mercifully trumped by The
Caves of Androzani. Yet The Twin Dilemma's
manifold inadequacies are simply unfathomable. That so many major flaws -
costume, casting, design, the performance of the lead (and, to be fair, of
everyone else on screen); in fact, every aspect of the production seen or
heard - could have been allowed to conspire into such an unholy mess is
utterly beyond comprehension.
Twin Dilemma (0/10)
Now here's some good news: you'll be relieved to hear that there ain't gonna be a Part Three or Four. JNT's first four years had more than its fair share of great stories and Seasons 18 and 19 are particularly fine, but his last five years had virtually none. The Sixth Doctor's TV era remains unwatchable trash from start to finish. The Seventh Doctor's era, with its rushed post-production, mumbling lead actor and unceasing array of dreadful incidental music that makes Paddy Kingsland sound like Johannes Brahms, is merely unlistenable (but in my book that's just as bad). Fans of the later McCoys point to a late resurgence in form, but it is at best patchy, with two bad stories to every one good. Which is nowhere near good enough.
Sad to say but JNT, the man who saved Doctor Who, also killed it. Not through lack of effort - heaven knows, he worked his butt off - but through a limited palette of ideas that he could bring to the show and the inability to tell good narrative from bad (or for that matter, good music from bad, or good casting from bad). If he had been moved on at the right time, his legacy would have been noble indeed. The tragedy is that his name became a byword for wrong-turnings and decline.