JN-T. If you are a Doctor Who fan those initials will stir some sort of reaction in you. You might take a moment to admire his ability to bring a programme which by all accounts had a minuscule budget to the screen year after year, on schedule and on target. You might smile affectionately, remembering his remarkable knack for publicity. You might sigh at what appear to be some of his loonier policy decisions. You might spit shards of teeth out in all directions in cold fury at what you perceive to be his contribution to “the slow death of my favourite programme”. If you ever met him at a convention you’ll remember not only his always entertaining panel appearances but his presence in the bar, holding court. You always knew when JN-T was around. You couldn’t ignore him. You’ll certainly have some sort of opinion on the man. You couldn’t be ambivalent about JN-T.
After years of work on Doctor Who in one capacity or another John Nathan-Turner took over as producer for the 18th series, aired in late 1980. Season 17 had just broadcast in the UK. While massively, hugely popular with the general public at the time I think it’s safe to say that behind the scenes Doctor Who was beset with difficulties. Tom Baker’s gigantic personality and unquestionable devotion to what he saw as the best way to make the series has given rise to countless stories of production hell. Scripts were falling through, budgets were being slashed, entire productions cancelled. It can’t have been easy to steer the ship and a worn out Graham Williams finally passed things over to production unit manager John Nathan-Turner. Presumably with a massive sigh of relief.
While initially supervised by former producer Barry Letts (there on a sort of executive watching brief to make sure the new chap knew what he was doing), JN-T soon made his mark. When Doctor Who returned with “The Leisure Hive” at the end of August 1980 it was barely recognisable. Brand new titles, the first since Tom’s first series. A new arrangement of the theme. Incidental music provided in-house by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop instead of long-serving maestro Dudley Simpson. A slightly more sombre Tom Baker. Slightly.
There’s a long-standing misconception that Doctor Who’s 18th season is an almost humourless affair, reacting virulently against a perceived surfeit of silliness in the previous series. How anyone can say that about a series that begins with a hyper-intelligent robot chasing a beach-ball into the water on Brighton Beach and exploding, takes in a megalomaniac Cactus, a moss-covered statue that becomes the most powerful entity in the universe and ends with the Doctor attempting to flush out his hated enemy by erm, landing in the Thames and opening the Tardis doors, I’ll never know.
Nonetheless, it was substantially different to what we had before. Change was in the air, and change was what JN-T was good at. He had to cope with it often enough. Within a year Tom was off and the new Producer got the chance to really make his mark. He got it wonderfully, perfectly right. Peter Davison is one of the very few people – ever – to have appeared in Doctor Who and never given a bad performance. His Doctor was so different to his overwhelming predecessor that I sometimes think he’s not given the credit he deserves, and sometimes slips down the cracks a bit. As “the one between The Two Bakers” the Fifth Doctor was everything that I wanted my Doctor to be. He still is.
There’s a tendency amongst us old fogey-type fans to talk about Doctor Who as being best when you first really, really got into it. I’d been a fan since I was seven years old or so, when Tom was in full swing. I became a Fan with capital letters during Davison’s first season and I still look at season 19 with a much less jaundiced eye than I possibly should. Rose-tinted spectacles may be donned but nothing in Doctor Who can take me back to more innocent times faster than a season 19 story. The Doctor, spinning back to the first creation (no doubt overtaking The Garm and friends on his way) before being plopped out into the middle of a mental construct that makes no geographical sense. Giant frogs with delusions of godhood. Buddhism, colonialism and madness filtered through an economical studio-bound 100 minute science fiction series with a result so perfect, so right that it almost makes me cry watching it. A robot designed by bunch of criminal lizards with a hugely developed sense of aesthetics, meaning that even the most functional of devices must look beautiful. Fifteen minutes of air time given over to the central cast just… mucking about, playing cricket, eating sandwiches and dancing. The return of an implacable foe and the remarkable surprise that came at the end. Time travelling Concordes. Good god. Doctor Who is – at all times – loopy, magnificently ambitious, tremendously silly and above all always trying to things it can never afford to. It has always been a series where ambition triumphs over common sense and that’s never more obvious than in season 19. When it gets it wrong, at least it’s still trying to do something different. I can even find something good to say about “Time Flight”. Yes I can – the British Airways crew (most of them, anyway) are fantastic, endlessly watchable. Yes, they are.
Davison presided over the years when my fandom was forged. My love for Doctor Who was to be severely tested over the years – primarily by some of the stuff that John Nathan-Turner would come up with. Never once have I stopped watching. That’s down to the great work done all those years ago, when magic swirled around the walls of Television Centre.
When Peter left after three years JN-T cast Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor and things seemed to fall apart. All of a sudden the unassailably secure seemed vulnerable. Before too long everything went horribly downhill. The public seemed to drift away. The series lost support on a management level. Everyone on the production team appeared to be… worn out, really. Almost bored, despite a main cast that was working flat out to give us their very best. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant scrape greatness in their time on Doctor Who so often that it takes my breath away. Just watch them. In so many mediocre adventures, they’re just great, aren’t they? Oh, my favourite Doctor Who story is “Revelation of the Daleks”, which sits squarely in the middle of all this. They were still getting it right. Sometimes.
Something had to give and the unthinkable happened. Doctor Who was “rested” for eighteen months. Seems like a handful of heartbeats to me now given how long it took for it to reappear after 1989, but back then… well, we were children then in our fandom and like children we reacted by throwing a gigantic hissy fit and hurling our toys out of the pram. I think we hit quite a few people on the way who perhaps never quite forgave us. We certainly placed an awful lot of the blame on JN-T. Scapegoated time and again for things which may not necessarily have been his fault.
Before too long it was crisis time again. A 23rd season riven with difficulties ending in an irrevocable split between producer and script-editor, the unthinkable happening *again* (a Doctor being fired at management level), and yet another leading man to find. JN-T cast Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and somehow managed to keep things going long past a point where all support had so obviously evaporated. Desperate to leave but endlessly “persuaded to stay” (and knowing what we know now, how pained those seemingly glib words seem), he hired Andrew Cartmel and the two of them took off in a direction which impacts Doctor Who right through into the revival. Russell T Davies was obviously taking notes. It’s not that great a leap between Ace and Rose as some fans might like to think.
Eventually though, even JN-T couldn’t keep it going and Doctor Who slipped away. Lost, unloved and with a reputation that suggested it had been made entirely by idiots with delusions of adequacy – god, I hated those years passionately. How many times did I have to waste my energy defending something which I knew was wonderful to people who didn’t care and thought it was all about people shouting at each other while surrounded by wobbly sets and day-glo monsters? Actually – sometimes it was. Sometimes though, it wasn’t. Sometimes, when JN-T was in charge, it was both. In the same story. That was one of the many odd things about the man.
If the DVD features which come with his Doctor Who stories teach us anything it’s that JN-T’s time as producer was… volatile. There are occasions when he seemed to take leave of his senses completely. Some of his decisions make no sense whatsoever. The Sixth Doctor’s ridiculous coat and even more ridiculous personality, obviously. Time and again he nods through things that couldn’t possibly be achieved then and which you’d have difficulty doing now. You can’t produce an electricity spitting sea monster on the same budget as “Angels”. You just can’t. “The Caves of Androzani” doesn’t *need* that ridiculous Magma monster plonked in the middle of all that beautiful harsh and gritty race-against-death stuff. “The Twin Dilemma” – well, JN-T was rumoured to have said “that’s the one that I’ll be remembered for”. He was certainly right about that, but not (presumably) for the reasons he might want to be.
Thing was… he cast Peter, Colin and Sylvester. During the time Doctor Who was off the air (and continuing to this day) all three have grown and developed their Doctors through their work with Big Finish. New audio plays featuring all three turn up on a monthly basis, enriching and developing that big old universe of stories that Doctor Who does so well. Colin in particular has deepened and refined his portrayal to the point where he’s bloody near definitive, certainly on a par with any of the other Doctors. You couldn’t say that to judge by what the poor guy had to work with on tv. The work he’s doing now… if he’d been given the chance on television the way he has with the audio work he’d probably still be there now. He’s that good, and JN-T cast him.
The documentaries really only began to come into their own and get really in depth after JN-T passed away. A lot of people have told their stories without JN-T’s side necessarily being equally represented. That’s unfortunate but inevitable. Archive interview footage can only do so much. Without the man here to react to new revelations, new tales, things can seem a bit skewed against him. Certainly I find myself wondering from time to time if Doctor Who didn’t get made despite him rather than because of him, but that only usually lasts as long as it takes for me to return Time and The Rani back to the shelves.
Coming from the background that he did – a production, rather than a creative side – JN-T’s strengths seemed (to this viewer) to lie in more practical areas. He knew how to get the show made, and he was a great facilitator. He gave new talent a chance. The number of now-famous people who pop up in JN-T’s Who in very early roles is constantly surprising. Many production staff who really got going during his time have enriched our television landscape immeasurably ever since. No JN-T, no Rona Munro. No Stephen Gallagher. No Graeme Harper. Imagine that. All of these people would doubtless have surfaced eventually and made their impact but it was JN-T who gave them a chance.
Many of the people working on Doctor Who now grew up during his time as producer. They know how television works because JN-T, the arch publicist, told them so. He sparked their interest and many have gone on record as as saying they got their first steps in the business because Doctor Who got them fascinated with television in general. A lot of that’s down to JN-T and that’s a pretty good legacy.
John Nathan-Turner died on the 1st May, 2002. Good grief. That’s ten years since Doctor Who’s longest serving, arguably most controversial producer passed away. Ten years since the final photo-op with someone from the show being pointed at by JN-T, ensuring that he couldn’t get cropped out of the resulting picture. He didn’t live to see the return of the programme he loved through the best and worst of times, never saw it triumphantly return to where it belongs at the heartland of the BBC schedules. I think he’d have loved it. I think he’d have been proud. I think he’d probably have cried at how fantastic it all looks now (although they’re doing now exactly what he did then – making the money stretch and putting it on screen where we can all see it).
Sometimes, he was the best of producers. He was – occasionally – the strangest of producers. Without him constantly battling away in the darkness we probably wouldn’t be here now. I’m grateful to him. Thanks, John.