John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who for most of its last decade, gets a bad rap from much of the fanbase. Sometimes this is deserved – some of the worst episodes of the show ever produced were done on his watch, and often at his instigation.
It is possibly going to appear over the next few days that I am joining in this chorus of disapproval, mostly due to my choices of episodes, so before I do that, I just want to say firstly that for every bad decision Nathan-Turner made he also made a good one; and secondly that Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who is the version of the show I grew up on.
And that means a lot to me. I was a Doctor Who fan of the most obsessive kind before I was in primary school (the obsession dropped down between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, but much of my love for the programme dates from a very young age). I knew Nathan-Turner’s name written down before I knew how to pronounce it (I still half-consciously read it as Natthan (with a short a) in my head). Peter Davison and Colin Baker were ‘my’ Doctors in a way that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were to earlier generations. And my love as a child for that show – flawed as some of it undoubtedly was – inspired my passion for reading (give a Target novelisation to a five-year-old who doesn’t know he’s not meant to be able to read it and you’ll be surprised how quickly his vocabulary expands…), fantastic fiction, eccentric characters in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, non-violent solutions to problems, physics, evolutionary biology, linguistics (specifically a bit in the novelisation of State Of Decay where the Doctor explains to Romana about consonantal shift), logic… while I am actually nothing like the Doctor (in real life I am more like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but without the social graces and physical attractiveness) , the idealised self-image I have comes from wishing to emulate the Doctor as a child.
So whatever Nathan-Turner’s faults as a producer (and how much he can be blamed for the problems the show had during his tenure is definitely open to question) his years on the show did make at least one small child extraordinarily happy, and that’s something to keep in mind…
The Five Doctors, the show’s twentieth-anniversary special, is the first episode I have a conscious memory of watching when it was broadcast, a little over a month after my fifth birthday (though I’d definitely seen earlier episodes – it’s just no others remain in my memory). I remember being absolutely thrilled – Daleks! Cybermen! K-9! The Master! All the old Doctors who I’d only heard about! – and for years later I could remember the black triangle getting the Doctors, and Peter Davison collapsing, and a couple of other moments, even though I didn’t have a clue what the plot had been.
That is, of course, because there wasn’t one – or at least not one to speak of. While the tenth anniversary show, The Three Doctors, had had a simple brief – do a story with all three Doctors in it – The Five Doctors had to do more – it had to ‘celebrate’ the show by featuring as many old villains and companions as possible, as well as all five Doctors to date. The need to do this made one scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, quit early in the process – Holmes simply couldn’t come up with a coherent story featuring everything that the production team decided was necessary for the show. So Terrance Dicks – another former Who script editor, and at the time a freelance writer who made his living from novelising the TV show (mostly just adding the words ‘he said’ to the scripts if my memory of his books is correct – he was not someone who was known for labouring over his prose in an effort to turn out an exquisitely memorable phrase if instead he could just type “The Dalek shot the prisoner, who screamed and died”) took on the job.
Dicks was actually even more insistent that the production feature *everything* than the production staff themselves were – he had to do a story with Time Lords, the Master and Cybermen because that’s what Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward (the script editor) wanted, but he also insisted that it had to feature at least one Dalek (who gets killed in a most perfunctory manner after about ninety seconds of screen time), K-9 (who gets about two lines) and the Yeti (who most people don’t even notice).
Dicks was entirely right about this, incidentally, from the point of view of absolutely captivating small children, but it gives the story the same flavour as much of nuWho – a bunch of exciting moments strung together by something pretending to be a plot but without any real coherence.
Of course, it can’t have helped that Dicks had to do a story about Five Doctors when he only had three available. The absence of William Hartnell, who had died years earlier, was expected, and they got round it by casting Richard Hurndall to play his part (Hurndall did a passable impersonation of Hartnell, who hadn’t been seen on TV for many years, though the effectiveness of it was hampered by a little pre-credit snippet of Hartnell reminding people what he actually looked and sounded like). What hadn’t been expected, though, was for Tom Baker to turn the story down (mostly because he’d left the show less than two years earlier, but also because he didn’t get on very well at the time with Nathan-Turner). This absence was eventually also covered – by using some footage from the unaired Douglas Adams story Shada (with much better dialogue than the rest of the show) and saying that Baker’s Doctor was caught in a time distortion – but it meant that the script needed extensive rewriting.
Parts of the show work extremely well – especially the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (with Troughton ad-libbing furiously most of the time, coming out with stuff about the Terrible Zodin and beasts that used to hop like kangaroos), and the show comes alive in the last few minutes, when all the Doctors are brought together at last (Nathan-Turner thought there’d be ego problems, and so made sure they only had one day of filming together) – the performers get over a mediocre script and spark wonderfully off each other, in a way that makes you wish just for an hour and a half of Davison, Troughton and Pertwee trapped in the TARDIS rather than this disjointed mess.
Most of the classic Doctors could rise above a bad script with a great performance, and Terrance DIcks was familiar enough with the characters to provide them with opportunities to do that, and the script contains several pretty good lines (“A man is the sum of his memories, you know… a Time Lord even more so”) – although several of the best were inserted by the actors. It was great fun for kids at the time, and it has a lot of nostalgia value – I’ve probably watched it more than any other episode, because if you don’t concentrate and just look up for the good bits it can deliver a great rush of childhood affection for the various characters – but it’s just a disposable children’s romp, not something that should be given a ‘twenty-fifth anniversary special edition’ DVD release on two discs with two different edits of the show and three different commentaries.
To mark their fourth anniversary doing Doctor Who audios, and their 50th audio adventure, Big Finish created a special multi-Doctor adventure, called Zagreus, featuring for the first (and so far only) time all four of their audio Doctors in the same story. To lead up to this, CDs 47, 48 and 49 had a shared theme.
Titled Omega, Davros and Master, each one featured a different Doctor, in a story with no companions and dealing with the Doctor’s relationship with one of his long-term recurring villains. Each story also revealed for the first time something of the motivation behind the villain in question.
Omega was a pretty good story, with Peter Davison turning in an extremely good performance as a calm centre in a chaotic storm of events; while Davros was great fun, essentially just Colin Baker and Terry Molloy constantly trying to top each other for hammiest performance of all time (but in a good way).
Master on the other hand…
The Seventh Doctor, as played by Sylvester McCoy, causes the most fan argument of any of the Doctors, partly because his characterisation changed more, in a shorter space of time, than any of the others. In his first series, McCoy’s Doctor was a buffoon – playing the spoons, madly mixing his metaphors, fighting giant Bertie Basset men and hanging around with Bonnie Langford.
However, largely due to script editor Andrew Cartmel, this changed quite suddenly. The Doctor was first given an ‘edgy’ companion (the risible Ace), and then given ‘story arcs’ and a Mysterious Past which was built up until the series was abruptly cancelled.
While this was in theory a reasonable idea, in practice the quality of the series varied wildly at this time, from excellent stories like Remembrance Of The Daleks, to utter cack like Silver Nemesis. But what made it fail more often than it succeeded was the quality of the performances. Sophie Aldred’s Ace was so bad that criticising the performance seems pointless, while Sylvester McCoy, who is a reasonable light comic actor (presumably why he was chosen for the lighter Doctor he initially portrayed) is utterly hopeless at darkness and menace and ambiguity and all the other things his Doctor was meant to be.
However, after the series was put out of its misery, many of the writers for the series continued writing Doctor Who novels for Virgin Books and later the BBC. Being written by many of the same writers, these largely continued the trend in which the series had been going. I’ve read very few of these, because they came out during my time away from Doctor Who fandom, but while I’ve been told by many people whose opinions I respect that they’re rather good, the overall impression I get from the descriptions of the plots is of a bunch of slightly-less-clever-than-they-think Sixth Formers writing incredibly convoluted continuity-wank, ‘explaining’ aspects of the Doctor’s past that never needed explaining, and carrying out arguments with each other in their books, to a very small audience of hardcore fans (anyone who sees parallels with the way comics went in the same period, go to the front of the class).
But like I say, I’ve not read the books, so I’m only talking about a perception I’ve got from others’ discussion of them.
But that’s where the problem came in for Big Finish. With the Fifth and Sixth Doctor adventures, they could reasonably assume all the listeners had seen most of the TV shows in which those characters appeared, and they had to fit the stories in between those episodes anyway. There was no real need to think about what ‘canon’ meant – the audios are clearly based around the TV show.
With the Seventh Doctor, things were very different – the books were perceived by many fans as ‘the official continuation of the TV show’, but at the same time had not been read by many of the potential audience and were for the most part out of print. What to do?
The answer, obviously, was split the difference. Take the characterisation of the Doctor as presented in the books, assume that the books, or something like them, had happened, but not actually make any explicit reference to their events for the most part.
However, some of the stories follow up on the books more explicitly, and whenever this happens the results are pretty uniformly awful. Joseph Lidster’s Master is a case in point.
The worst thing about Master is that its first half is as good as anything Big Finish ever did – almost a textbook example of how to do small-scale character-driven Gothic horror. Isolated by a storm, some old friends come together to celebrate the ‘birthday’ of their good friend Dr John Smith, who appeared ten years ago that night, horribly scarred and amnesiac. In the years since he’s become a pillar of the community, saving hundreds of lives, and he’s admired by everyone.
However, things are not all rosy – there’s a serial killer on the loose in the area, who’s been killing prostitutes, who might in some way be connected with the ghost that supposedly haunts the house – the ghost of the builder of the house, who himself killed a woman he believed to be a prostitute. The descendant of the ghost – a local philanthropist who, while snobbish, genuinely tries to help the poor, is visiting the house, along with her husband, the over-authoritarian and mildly misogynistic local Inspector, who’s been investigating the murders. The husband appears to have his eye on the scullery maid, and who is this mysterious stranger, The Doctor, who’s just turned up? And why does Dr Smith have such a fascination with the concept of evil?
From that setup, anyone can see how the story should (and, indeed, for the most part, does) go. Dr Smith is a red herring – the murders are being commited by the Inspector, who’s jealous that his wife loves Dr Smith – but in discovering this, Dr Smith regains his memory and remembers that he is the Master, the Doctor’s deadliest enemy…
If this sounds familiar, by the way, it might be because Russel Davies used something similar for the 2007 series of nuWho, with Derek Jacobi playing the oblivious Master. The new TV series has quite a history of taking inspiration from the books or audios – most of the best episodes of the show have been based on one or the other – but only this once has the TV series unequivocally bettered its inspiration. And that’s because Davies essentially just tells the story of the Master realising his own true identity, and becoming evil once again, which is a perfectly reasonable story to tell.
But in this story, after all the work has gone into setting up a good Gothic chiller cum Agatha Christie whodunnit, the whole thing unravels in the last act with some of the most utterly stupid plotting of… well, of any story ever.
First, the housemaid reveals herself to be Death personified, and exposits all the stuff the actual plot’s been building to in a few seconds. This is merely stupid.
Then, it is revealed that the reason the Master has no memory is that the Doctor has made a deal with Death to let the Master live the life of a good man for ten years, at which point the Doctor would kill him. This is very stupid, but still not the stupidest thing ever.
Then it is revealed that the Doctor did this because the Doctor and the Master used to be friends at school, until the Master accidentally killed a bully who was beating the Doctor up, and the two hid the body. At that moment the Master became evil, and the Doctor dedicated his life to saving him. This is really very, very stupid indeed, and it commits every single possible mistake it’s possible to make when writing serial fiction, but what the hell…
Then it’s revealed that it wasn’t the Master who had killed the bully at all. It was the Doctor, and he should have turned evil. Instead, for good and adequate reasons, Death visited this tiny child and offered him a deal – let your best friend take on all the guilt and remorse for this killing, and go on to be a genocidal mass-murderer enslaved by the spirit of Death, and in return you’ll get to not feel guilty about it. And littleDoctor said yes!
Those of you who are comic fans, who thought plot details like Superboy turning evil for no reason and punching time to make Robin come back from the dead as a badass antihero were stupid, look at that last paragraph and weep. The Master became The Master because when they were kids the Doctor killed someone and then made a deal with Death that it would all be the Master’s fault instead. Words can’t express what a wretched, stupid concept this is…
For all the problems with the new series (and there are many – I’ve not watched the last series and intend never to watch it again, for reasons that will become increasingly apparent as this series of reviews progresses) it doesn’t make this particular mistake – it doesn’t hamhandedly ‘deconstruct’ characters in such a way that they can’t be put back together again and then pat itself on the back for being so clever.
The one thing you can say about this ending is that it’s never been referred to ever again – it’s not damaged the rest of the series in the way that this kind of mistake so often does – but it’s *so* appalingly bad that it wrecks what up to then was a relatively good story. Anyone looking for a textbook example of what not to do when writing a story with continuing characters – or for a perfect example of the difference between bad fanfic and competent writing – should listen to the last disc of Master. But only once…