Date Of Birth/death: 12 August 1947 – 1 May 2002
Doctor Who Producer: 1980 – 1990
Preceded by: Graham Williams
Succeeded by: Show cancelled 1990. Philip Segal (1996)
John Nathan-Turner (known as JNT) was the seventh and final producer of the original era of Doctor Who. JNT took over from Graham Williams in 1980, until the show was cancelled – in 1990.
JNT was a controversial figure in his producer tenure of Doctor Who. His tenure as producer, was always memorable. If not always, for the right reasons.
JNT came into the role, with little producing experience. For his first year in charge, he was helped by previous Who producer Barry Letts. He had previously worked his way up (from floor crew), on the show. Having joined the show – in 1969.
His first task as producer, was to manage the final season of Tom Baker (who had decided to leave the show) and plan for a new fifth incoming Doctor.
JNT introduced a number of sweeping changes for season 18, to bring the show into the 1980’s. The show’s title sequence (out went the famous time-tunnel effect), Delia Derbyshire’s title tune and even the Fourth Doctor’s signature outfit was changed.
Out went companion Romana and K9, (unceremoniously dispatched following a bizarre ball-chasing episode) on Brighton beach, where K9 went into the sea and blew up – in JNT’s opener; The Leisure Hive.
At times, JNT’s choices for the show were bizarre and illogical. This was best measured, in the Doctor’s various companion ); employed in the JNT era. They were a bizarre, mish-mash of oddities and not well received by viewers. Companions Adric, Turlough and Mel; were judged – as garish and unlikable.
Companion Tegan, was made an Austrailian; to directly appeal to international Antipodean audiences. Likewise, later companion; Peri – was made American; to appeal to Trans-atlantic audiences.
JNT didn’t have a good working relationship with (Tom) Baker and was happy to see the back of him. Baker was, at his most difficult, by 1981. Having been in the role for 7 years (Baker later commented that he stayed 1 year – too long!).
JNT set out to look for a new Doctor, to replace Baker. Initially favouring an older actor, akin to Hartnell. In the end, settling on the youngest Doctor to date; TV actor Peter Davison – in 1981 (due to also producing Davison’s show; All Creatures Great And Small).
People who worked on the show throughout this time, later commented that working for JNT was chaotic. He did not always lead the show, in the way a producer had in the past. Choosing instead to stay off the studio-floor altogether. Other times, he was not around at all.
JNT would travel to America for Doctor Who fan conventions, at the weekend and then turn up back at the BBC office on Monday morning jet-lagged and spend the first day of the week, hiding away in his office; sleeping.
Despite burning the candle at both ends, JNT did raise Doctor Who’s profile internationally and secured funding (and sales), aboard. For a while, the show was popular in America and Australia.
JNT frequently fell out with his staff and a number of previous Doctor Who writers and directors publically denounced him. JNT also refused to have anyone back, who had worked on the show previously. So he relied on inexperienced or unproven people to fill the gap, such as – in 1987; when he employed (27 year old) novice Andrew Cartmel – to be his new script editor.
Whilst the situation with long-time Who contributors, meant many wouldn’t work for JNT; it did open up gaps on the show and gave lots of new writers and directors, a chance.
This is probably best realised, by the situation when JNT commissioned a 17-year-old fan (who was sending scripts to the BBC) to write a script for the show, that eventually became the Tom Baker serial; Full Circle
JNT worked with 4 different scrip-editors in his time. Including; Christopher H. Bidmead, Anthony Root, Eric Saward and the aforementioned (Andrew) Cartmel.
JNT was not adverse to taking risks on the show, he was the first producer to (briefly) bring back the working chameleon circuit, in The Attack Of The Cybermen. Which meant the famous blue-box look of the Tardis was removed for a while.
Despite some positives, the show’s fortunes over Nathan-Turner’s era, began to enter a long slow decline. Resulting in the show being taken off of air altogether, in 1985; and then finally cancelled – in 1990.
“At various stages, we came into a lot of flak. In retrospect, sometimes the criticism has been fair. As far as violence is concerned, pehaps we did go a little bit beyond the line of what was acceptable occasionally. But I don’t agree that it was ever like a pantomime. Panto is a very specialist genre of theatre which stems from the commedia dell’arte. If anyone can really show examples of panto in ‘Doctor Who’, I’d love to see them!” – Nathan-Turner on his era.
When JNT’s era was good, it was excellent; which was sadly rare. Stories like Warrior’s Gate, Earthshock, The Five Doctors, Caves Of Androzani, Remembrance Of The Daleks and The Two Doctors showed originality, risk-taking and flair. However, these were offset by absolute howlers, such as The Leisure Hive, Time Flight, Terminus, The Twin Dillema, The Happiness Patrol and Survival.
20th Anniversary (Season 20) – gave the show a (temporary) welcome boost, with the previous 20 years being celebrated and benefitted from a number of stories; which brought back classic characters and villians.
Davison decided after 3 years in the role (as advised by Patrick Troughton), to leave the show. Personally, Davison also felt that he was not getting enough good stories. In another first for Doctor Who, JNT chose an actor to play the Doctor, who had previously appeared in the show – as another character altogether.
Colin Baker (who had previously played Maxil in Davison’s Arc Of Infinity in 1983) stepped into the role of the Sixth Doctor; in 1984. Although the quality of the stories, continued to dip further. Nathan-Turner took risks with a bolder, more adult horror tone – to Baker’s era. That was commendable, in terms of taking risks but was not that well received, by viewers or the BBC senior management.
Senior management were not happy with the choice of actor or the direction of the show and took Doctor Who off air, for the next 18 months. This meant a whole season of stories were then scrapped.
When it returned in 1986, the show went for a new tone with a season long story-arc of the Doctor on trial (like the show in real-life). Season 26’s – Trial of a Time Lord, did not give the show the required boost and the BBC management stepped in again and fired Colin Baker (another first for Doctor Who).
There was alot of drama behind the scenes during this time. Script Editor Eric Saward, resigned in protest. Later denouncing JNT publically, in a now notorious Who fanzine interview.
“I was getting very fed up with the way Doctor Who was being run, largely by John Nathan-Turner – his attitude and his lack of insight into what makes a television series like Doctor Who work. This had been going on for a couple of years and after being cancelled and coming back almost in the same manner as we were before…the same sort of pantomime-ish aspects that I so despised about the show. [On cancellation] …we were rather stunned. We didn’t know what was going on. We were simply taken off because they thought we were awful. If we were really that bad I can’t believe he would have kept the same team [referring to JNT not being fired]!” – Eric Saward shortly after leaving in 1986.
Nathan-Turner had wanted to leave the show, after Davison’s era. He later said that he was told that if he could not find a replacement producer himself; the show would be cancelled.
JNT claimed he was not able to find another person, that he thought had the show’s best interests at heart. So stayed on for the longest producer tenure on the show; to date; 10 years.
JNT searched again, for another actor to play the Seventh Doctor in 1987 and settled on children’s entertainer Sylvester McCoy – to play the Seventh Doctor.
Despite a more well received actor in the role and an increase in budget and quality of the stories. The BBC management – yet again, stepped in and took the show off air in 1990, before planning for season 28 was underway.
Following the cancellation of Doctor Who, JNT carried on working on Doctor Who in various media enterprises. He was involved in video and audio-tape releases of lost episodes and helped write the 1993 Doctor Who reunion – Children In Need sketch : Dimensions In Time.
Later, he contributed to the VHS and subsequent DVD releases of his era of the show, with interviews. Nathan-Turner died in 2002, aged 54.