Sit down, Ace. There’s something sad I have to tell you …
May 08, 2002
Doctor Who has, or can appear to have, no creator. Sure, the story of how the show came to be is there for anyone who wants to unearth it, but it consists mostly of a sketchy concept ungloriously shuttled from one BBC executive to the next, and there is no one person who could stand on a convention stage and proclaim, as Gene Roddenberry liked to do with Star Trek, that no character or story officially “became” Doctor Who until he or she said it did. Except maybe John Nathan-Turner.
The show’s longest running — and final — producer, Nathan-Turner may not have created Doctor Who, but he assumed command of it at one of its lowest creative points and stayed with it until the end 10 years later. In the process, he assumed a role in the minds of Doctor Who fans no producer had ever achieved before; from his loud Hawaiian shirts to his gentle demeanor, fans felt they knew John Nathan-Turner—even when they couldn’t stand him.
Nathan-Turner had worked on the series for years before being appointed its producer in 1979. Entering its 18th season, Doctor Who‘s audience as well as its creativity was lagging alarmingly from its peak of just a few years before, when leading actor Tom Baker and producer Phillip Hinchcliffe led the show to an explosion of popularity and critical acclaim. Hinchcliffe had been gone for years, replaced by a man (Graham Williams) who used liberal doses of silliness to make up for the violence he had been ordered to excise from the program, and Baker was becoming impossible—his performances grew broader and more comic every week, and no one before or behind the camera had the strength to rein him in. As he took over from Williams, Nathan-Turner laid down the law: no more tripping over scarves, no more chewing the scenery, and try to stick to the lines more or less as they’re written. He wanted to purge all traces of campiness from the series, and the new writers he brought in were told to keep their dialogue witty (but not silly) and their ideas grounded in harder science. The resulting stories were subtle, witty, a little dry, but above all, serious. And nobody tripped over scarves or talked to mechanical dogs any more.
Baker never recovered. He ambles through his final season morose and slightly stunned, seeming to hide within a new, elaborately tailored costume the like of which no Doctor had ever worn before. His replacement was Peter Davison, the first actor to play the Doctor young enough to have watched the show as a child. Doctor Whounder Davison and Nathan-Turner was serious about itself and its history, and strove to simultaneously break new thematic ground while maintaining continuity with almost two decades’ worth of backstory. A goal this ambitious could never be achieved perfectly every time, but Nathan-Turner came pretty close. He introduced new complexity into the thankless role of the Doctor Who assistant: they still got into trouble and asked “What’s that, Doctor?” a lot, but they also bickered with each other and complained when the Doctor ignored or patronized them. The Doctor himself displayed a new vulnerability, a lack of assuredness that sometimes had dire consequences. The violence in Nathan-Turner-era Who is graphic and disturbing, not for its goriness but for the way it unfailingly depicts the tragic loss that violence always entails. This was never more apparent than in the story “Earthshock,” in which the Doctor’s young companion Adric dies in an explosion on a spacecraft while the Doctor and companions Nyssa and Tegan watch helplessly. First Nyssa and then Tegan collapse into helpless sobs; the Doctor is too overcome to speak, but his expression of sickened guilt says more than dialogue ever could. It is the most moving scene of any Doctor Who story.
Nathan-Turner made plenty of blunders over his 14-year stewardship, taking chances that damaged the show and ultimately led to its demise. The Colin Baker era was a disaster, from its unlikeable leading man and his ghastly costume to scripts that were turgid and boring, and Nathan-Turner earns the lion’s share of the blame. Baker was dumped and Nathan-Turner tried to start over with Sylvester McCoy, with whom he hoped to restore the sense of playfulness and mystery he had downplayed for most of the previous decade. Again he mis-stepped, launching McCoy in a season of overly whimsical stories that further wore down the audience’s patience. At the last moment he redeemed himself with the finest creation of his era: Ace. Young, moody and with a troubled past, Ace was arguably the most fully realized companion ever to walk alongside the Doctor, and the chemistry between the two of them was dramatic in and of itself. At McCoy’s behest, the scripts began to explore the mysterious dark corners of the Doctor’s past, and the show looked primed for another popular revival when it was thrown into permanent hiatus by the BBC. Nathan-Turner, whose long-standing threats to resign had become a running joke for fans, suddenly found that his bosses had made his decision for him.
The abrupt end of Doctor Who left Nathan-Turner in a curious position. In a decade that had seen the show undergo tumultuous change, he had been the one constant—Doctors had come and gone, but John Nathan-Turner had been there throughout, only getting off the bus once it had nowhere left to go. He had become, to those in the know, as recognizable a figure as the actors themselves; newspapers and fan magazines frequently ran location photos of a grinning Nathan-Turner arm-in-arm with whoever happened to be playing the Doctor that month, with the curious implication that they were somehow of equal importance—that you should care about this pudgy guy in the loud shirt just as much as you did about the Doctor.
Doctor Who has lost its best figurehead, and one of its biggest fans. Like the fictional hero he nurtured so doggedly, he could be brilliant one moment, short-sighted and frustrating the next. For all his faults, though, you forgave him, because you knew how much he cared. If the rumors prove true and Doctor Who does return to television next year, the next producer will have a formidable legacy of dedication and longevity to live up to; he or she will have to earn not just the respect of the fans but their affection, as Nathan-Turner did over those long, combative years.