Why John Nathan Turner Was Good For Doctor Who

Now I know this is going to be a very controversial article. JNT as he is more commonly known is often referred to as the man who killed Doctor Who.

Personally I find this title to be completely inappropriate. Yes there is no denying that the man made mistakes during his 9 years as producer on the show, such as those awful question marks on the lapels, the 6th Doctors costume, and blacklisting old writers.

Still all showrunners, producers, writers, make mistakes. Barry Letts overused the Master in season 8, Russell T Davies stuffed the show full of pop culture references, Steven Moffat tended to reuse certain ideas and concepts, Bob Holmes made the show too violent for some.

However I think that with JNT we tend to only focus on his negative points simply because he was the producer when the show got cancelled twice. Obviously people are naturally going to think that he was the man who finished it, and focus only on the bad things he did like 6’s costume as proof he finished it.

However as I have explored before JNT was not responsible for the cancellation it was entirely the fault of the BBC ,and indeed I think if anything JNT was the man who managed to keep the show afloat during its darkest days.

Whilst I don’t assume many people will agree with me here, I have decided to compile a list of the best things JNT did whilst he was producer of Doctor Who. Positives that I feel far outweigh any of the bad things he did with the show.

He Brought Back Old Iconic Enemies

Now many have criticised JNT for this, and its true he did overuse the Master, and he brought back some enemies that really did not need an encore appearance, like the Silurians.

Still lets not forget that he did successfully bring back many enemies who had been gone for years and gave them a whole new lease of life.

Look at the Cybermen. Pre Earthshock they had had one appearance in the last 12 years. Furthermore that appearance wasn’t exactly an all time classic was it? Indeed its a fairly poor and dull story that makes the Cybermen into complete jokes with the Doctor even ridiculing them “You’ve no home plane,t no influence, nothing, you’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the universe in an ancient spaceship”. If the Doctor isn’t remotely scared of them, why should we be?

JNT really brought the creatures back with a bang and made them a legitimate menace in the Whoniverse again in Earthshock, which many consider to be among the best Cyberman stories ever made.

I’d argue that it was John Nathan Turner who really made the Cybermen into the Doctors second archenemies. Obviously the Cybermen had been big in the 60’s, but in the 70’s they had only one story. You can see how had they not come back in the 80’s it would have been easy to just dismiss them as an old 60’s monster, like the Yeti that had had its time.

By bringing them back in the 80’s and having them face all of the 80’s Doctors (as well as Jon Pertwee in the 5 Doctors whom they had missed out on meeting in the 70’s), JNT made it a right of passage for the Doctor to meet the Cybermen at least once. They became along with the Daleks and The Master, the only other villain to face every Doctor on screen, and thus they became the other ever lasting icon of the series rather than just another old 60’s icon.

As for The Master, well whilst it is true that he overused him, at the same time he also completely reinvented the character as well. He also cast Anthony Ainley, who was absolutely superb in the role. Also it could be argued that much like with the Cybermen it was really John Nathan Turner that built the Master up into being the Doctors other main foe. Prior to Turner the Master similarly had had his golden period when he was introduced, but he had only appeared once since then.

Granted that one story The Deadly Assassin had been an absolute classic, but still its easy to see how the Master could have just been seen as a 70’s thing that had had its time. It was JNT who made it a right of passage for the Doctor to face the Master at least once, and similarly allowed him to face both the first and the second Doctors in the Five Doctors too, allowing him to face every Doctor onscreen too.

Davros meanwhile is definitely a character that I think was saved by John Nathan Turner’s era. Davros’s debut story, Genesis of the Daleks was one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever made, but sadly his return in Destiny of the Daleks was handled badly.

The story was poorly made, Davros looked cheap and laughable, the character was written as a one note baddie shouting about how he will lead the Daleks to victory. Which is completely at odds with his final almost poignant moment in Genesis where he tries to destroy them, having finally realised how evil they were. On top of that the character is treated as a joke. Much like with the Cybermen in Revenge, the Doctor isn’t remotely scared of him and makes jokes at his expense “Oh poor Davros” and pats his bald head and tells him he is misquoting Napoelian.

If that had been his last ever story after Genesis then it would have been a real shame. It would have basically undone his perfect ending in Genesis just to make the character a joke.

JNT fortunately gave us three excellent stories with Davros.

He made Davros a complex character again in stories like Resurrection and Revelation. He made him someone that the Doctor was both frightened and disgusted of like he should be.

Look at Davros in Destiny here and see how much more comically he and even the Daleks are portrayed. Both are bested by a hat.

Its not really a fitting way for a villain as psychotic and dangerous as Davros to be defeated is it?

You can see how Davros in that story is more of a jokey character “Not ME you FOOL”.

Now take a look at the three confrontations between Davros and the Doctor in the three 80’s stories, and you can see how the characters menace was restored as JNT if nothing else, took him very seriously.

All three of those scenes are brilliant, and they allow us to see how much the Doctor has changed over the years too. We see how the 5th Doctor wants to kill Davros because he believes he is too dangerous, but can’t bring himself to murder someone in cold blood. The 6th Doctor meanwhile is willing to kill him but is unprepared when he meets him. Finally the 7th Doctor is not only morally willing but unlike 6 is actually waiting for him. He has taken the fight to Davros and by this point knows him well enough to trick him by using his temper into provoking him to act without thinking.

Thus 7 succeeds where his two predecessors failed. Though even then its quite a nice twist the way Davros once again manages to slip through the net and I would have loved to have seen where they would have gone with the Davros story arc next in Classic Who. Would the 8th Doctor have been devastated that Davros had survived and have been even more determined to destroy him? Or would he have been guilty at what he did in Remembrance?

JNT also carried on from the end of Genesis too unlike Destiny.

He showed Davros develop a distrust of the Daleks due to their actions in Genesis and, had him actually turn on them in Resurrection, and then try and build his own race of Daleks in future stories.

Also just like with The Master and the Cybermen and his own creations, meeting Davros became a right of passage for the Doctor in the 80’s and therefore Davros I feel entered into popular culture in a way that he otherwise would not have done. I don’t doubt that Davros would have been remembered by fans on the strength of Genesis alone, but I doubt he would be quite the icon he is without the 80’s stories.

He Helped The Show Catch On In America

Yes unlike Moffat he is actually the one we can give the credit to for this one. Of course that’s not to undo the great work Moffat has done for the show abroad, but still the man who really helped the show catch on stateside was JNT.

During the early 80’s Who managed to catch on for the first time in America earning a big cult following over there. During JNT’s time the show was being seen by close to ten million people in America. It would ultimately be seen by over 150 million people in over 80 countries worldwide during the JNT years. Who had always had an overseas following since the Hartnell era, but really it was during JNT’s time that the shows popularity really took off abroad.

Barry Letts the producer of the series during the Pertwee era credited Turner with the shows rise in popularity in America.

“I know there was quite a campaign against John, and there are a lot of people who knock him. To the extent that I worked with him, we got on fine. What I think John has done as a producer, which has helped the show enormously, is that he’d got a great feeling for the show business side of television. ‘Doctor Who’ has become public property over the years, and John has picked up on this and expanded it enormously. An awful lot of the expansion of the programme in America was due to John’s efforts in publicity. That side of producing was something that I wasn’t very good at, and John is. You couldn’t work on the show for years unless you love it, and love the work you’re doing. Ultimately it becomes an expression of your personality. You wouldn’t do the job just as a way of earning money, because you don’t earn that much.

He Cast Three Brilliant Doctors

Okay now I’d imagine that this is probably something not everyone is going to agree but in my opinion JNT cast three very talented actors in the role of the Doctor all of whom went on to be very successful and very influential actors in the role.

Peter Davison was very popular. He was the first young man to be cast in the role and paved the way for later younger actors in the role such as Paul McGann, David Tennant and Matt Smith.

Colin Baker though dealt the hardest blow by Micheal Grade was nevertheless able to make the most of it, and has since through his work with Big Finish given us one of the most well developed incarnations of the time lord. He also similarly proved influential on later Doctors. His dark, aggressive, unpredictable, grumpy Doctor who is still a big softie underneath served as a clear template for the likes of Christopher Eccelston and the current Doctor Peter Capaldi.

Sylvester McCoy meanwhile brought the mystery back into the character as well as much of the whimsical crazy humor, traits which again we see emerge in new Who Doctors like Matt Smith. Moffat’s “Doctor Who” arc involving a huge mystery surrounding the power behind the Doctors real name is not unlike the Cartmel Masterplan.

Say what you will about JNT he clearly had a good handle on the character of the Doctor as he cast actors who were all perfect for the part, and he had lots of interesting ideas for the character, such as casting someone younger, making the Doctor more mysterious, manipulative, darker, grumpier all of which subsequent writers including both Steven Moffat and RTD have used to great effect too.

He Defended Colin And The Show

I lost a lot of respect for Eric Saward when I saw how he basically stabbed Colin Baker in the back after leaving his position as script editor, by saying in an interview that he doesn’t feel he should have been cast in the role. He also later said he felt Peter Davison was not the right choice either in the Trials and Tribulations DVD.

John Nathan Turner however always to the very end defended Colin and did all he could to try and prevent him from being dismissed in the role. As a result of this Colin has no ill will towards JNT and even still considered him a friend for many years afterwards.

Look at how Colin defended JNT in this interview here

“Well I have extremely strong opinions about that, I feel very very sympathetic towards John because what he’s done for the programme is ten times what anyone else has done for it. There’s a tiny, tiny coterie of fans who are very frustrated because they’ve never been producer of the programme, they’re mainly in Britain, but there are two or three that I could name but won’t, in the UK, who have made it their lifetime job to do everything they can to sabotage John Nathan-Turner, and I think it’s miserable, petty, ghastly behaviour and I think they’re worms that ought to be trodden into the ground. (laughs) Don’t mess around, Colin, tell them what you really think.

But John was the producer for a very long time, and he’s responsible for it being over in the US and he came over and marketed it, he always cared about the fans, he always made sure people like myself and Nicola came to conventions when our first inclinations were that we weren’t too sure about it. He persuaded people like Pat Troughton, who never wanted to talk about the programme, who found out he loved it! And John kept the programme on the air in Britain, he was the only person fighting for it. Witness the fact that now he’s been ousted, there’s nobody in the BBC who’s waving the flag.

But those same people are still campaigning to get rid of the little bit that John’s still doing, he’s working on the videos and they’ve orchestrated a sort of hate campaign based on his choice of videos now! It’s so stupid, and it’s all jealousy, simple jealousy. I think the right-minded fan… it’s like all vocal minorities, they can swamp the majority, which covers a wide range of opinions, I’m not saying that everyone agrees with everything John’s done, of course he’s made mistakes, I’ve made mistakes, you’ve made mistakes. But they’ve said ‘Doctor Who has become a pantomime’. One article said that once. I don’t see men dressed up as women, that’s pantomime, I don’t see terrible jokes, apart from mine, and that’s my choice, not John’s. John is a friend and for a while he shrugged it off but now it’s beginning to get to him. If some people want to make someone unhappy, that’s up to them, but I think the rest of us should make sure that’s not allowed to continue. I rest my case.”

At the same time JNT also had to deal with the BBC’s attempts to smear the show. They constantly aired fan grievances on television and even allowed some of them to launch personal attacks on JNT, but John always stood his ground and defended the show.

See here

He also at the same time when the show was off the air did all he could to keep it alive in the public’s consciousness including even hosting events celebrating the series.

If nothing else Turner was a great ambassador for the series.

He Stayed On As Producer

Now this might sound a bit of an odd thing to say considering that one of the biggest complaints against JNT from fandom is that he overstayed his welcome.

The thing is that JNT actually wanted to leave a lot earlier, but was forced to stay on by the BBC. After the Trial of a Time Lord the BBC would have axed Doctor Who if Turner had left as they could not find a replacement. Nobody wanted to take on a show that the BBC had made it known they hated and wanted to finish. Taking on such a show would have effectively killed their career stone dead. Turner knowing this however and desperately wanting to move on to new projects (at one point he was even offered Bergerac!) decided to stay on for the good of the show.

Thus if it had not been for him then we wouldn’t have had the entire McCoy era.

The McCoy era is often regarded as one of the shows best era’s, that features one of the most popular companions, that many regard as a blue print for the new series, and finally that allowed the original series to at the very least finish in a dignified way. It features some of the best stories the series ever produced in its 26 year run, Remembrance of the Daleks, Survival and The Curse of Fenric.

That’s all thanks to John. He stayed on at the risk of his own career, and he also I might add had only a few months to put season 24 together. Season 24 is definitely the weakest of the classic era’s run, but again consider that Turner had just a few weeks to get a new script editor, and a whole new Doctor its a wonder it got made at all. And whilst season 24 may not have been the best series, both Cartmel and McCoy Turners two picks for the roles he had to fill so quickly both turned out to be fabulous and later produced some of the greatest who stories ever made.

His Mistakes Were Not As Great As People Make Out

Not only does fandom focus solely on John Nathan Turner’s mistakes but I feel they are often blown out of all proportion as well.

For instance he is often slated for overusing past villains. Whilst there is no doubt that he overused the Master who appeared 11 times, he actually used the Doctors other enemies fleetingly.

The Daleks and the Cybermen were each in his era 4 times and that’s including the 5 Doctors which isn’t really either a Dalek or a Cyberman story. The Sontarans and the Silurians meanwhile he used a grand total of once each!

Now lets compare that to other era’s. In the Letts/Dicks era the Master appeared 8 times, the Daleks 4 times, and the Ice Warriors twice.

In the Davies era there is an appearance from the Daleks at least once every year as well as multiple appearances from the sontarans and the Master. Davies even went as far as bringing the Macra back.

In the Moffat era meanwhile the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Angels, the Master, the Sontarans, the Zygons have all appeared regularly.

So whilst I am not saying that JNT was right to use the Master so regularly he was not the only producer to do over use a villain, and indeed at least the Master was the only villain he overused, unlike other producers who overused multiple older villains.

Also another major criticism of his that he never used older writers is not entirely true either. It is true that at first he was reluctant to use older writers as he wanted to bring fresh new talent to the series, but as time went on he began to regularly use older writers for the show.

In his first series as producer he commissioned Terrance Dicks to write a story, he also commissioned Dicks to write the 20th anniversary story. Bob Holmes meanwhile wrote 4 stories during his time as producer and he commissioned him to write two more which sadly didn’t come about due to other circumstances. He also asked Terry Nation to write for the show 3 times but again he was unable to due to other commitments.

Thus can you really say that Turner never asked any of the older more established writers to work for the series when he asked the three most prominent writers a combined total of 11 times to write for the show?

Its also worth mentioning that many of the old established writers such as Malcolm Hullke, David Whitaker and Brian Hayles had all passed on by the time John Nathan Turner took over the show.

Finally its important to mention that the viewing figures did not go down during his time on the show until the BBC started messing it around.

Throughout the Davison era and Colin Baker’s first series the show was very popular. Its viewing figures were between 7 and 9 million in the UK almost 10 million in America and over 150 million people around the world. Ironically that probably represents its most popular period on a global scale. However after 1985 when the show was taken off the air for 18 months and then brought back in a poor timeslot its viewers fell drastically. Then when it was moved to the same slot as Coronation Street its viewers took another plunge. Its viewing figures in the late 80’s also dropped abroad due to the BBC raising the prices of stories to a ridiculous degree. The fact is the BBC wanted to kill it and really far from being the man who took a healthy show and drove it into the ground he was someone who managed to keep a show afloat that the BBC were attacking from every angle, slandering it on shows like Point of View, This Morning, giving it no advertising, slashing its budget, putting it in poor timeslots and raising its prices abroad.

Of course there are some things JNT did that cannot be defended. The costumes he picked for the last three Doctor were almost all universally awful. I actually don’t mind the 7th Doctors costume though. I think its actually probably the most recognizable piece of clothing for any Doctor after the 4th Doctors scarf.

Conclusion

As you can see Turner did a lot of good for the show during his 9 years as producer. Whilst I don’t doubt he made mistakes, ultimately I see him as the man who championed and defended the show during a very dark time when the BBC were practically devoted to its destruction. Even during those dark times Turner still manages to give us three excellent Doctors, classic stories like Androzani, Fenric and help the show break into the international market like never before.

Its such a tragedy that Turner died before the show could return in 2005. He most likely died thinking he had killed the show too. Hopefully as time goes on perhaps history will look on Turner more favourably.

Sadly I think that the DVD range of Classic Who stories is partly responsible for Turners reputation still being so negative.

To start with they have never made a tribute documentary to him which I think is disgraceful. This is a man who like it or not was the shows longest running producer and who cast almost half of the actors who played the Doctor. Yet there isn’t one tribute to him? There is to Philip Madoc who was in 4 stories but none to JNT?

Added to that I feel the documentary’s tend to be one sided in their presentation of JNT. They tend to only show Saward’s side of things. Granted JNT is dead, but still I often find that even those who are in favour of JNT like Colin Baker aren’t allowed to express their support for him on these docu’s. Colin it seems is only ever allowed to express the negative things about John. We have never seen him for instance be allowed to say anything like what he said in the interview I posted above on the DVD’s.

There should be a more balanced account of JNT on the DVD releases at least.

Thank you for reading.

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