Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

The New Dr Who

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The new season of Or Who has a new producer. How will that affect the programme? Will there be lots of changes? John Fleming went to BBC TV to talk to producer John Nathan-Turner about his plans and his views on television's longest-running fantasy show.

Nathan-Turner is 33 and was born in Birmingham. On leaving school, he turned down a university place and, instead, decided on a theatrical career. After some experience in acting and stage-management, he joined the BBC in 1968. He worked mostly on drama shows and eventually became Production Unit Manager on All Creatures Great and Small, Angels, Flesh and Blood, Nicholas Nickelby and last two seasons of Dr Who. He describes the job of Production Unit Manager as "general and financial adviser to the producer". Fleming and Nathan-Turner talked when the BBC financial crisis was as great as ever and when the Musicians' Union strike was at its height.

Starburst: You were a Production Unit Manager. That sounds un-creative.

John Nathan-Turner: Well, I became production manager in order to ultimately become a producer - as a stepping stone. I enjoyed doing it, but it was just another rung. And certainly that sort of financial back ground - mentally - is tremendously useful for actually doing the job.

Your executive producer is Barry Letts, a former Dr Who producer. Doesn't that cause friction?

No, it's absolutely no problem at all. Barry is also producing the family classic programmes (on Sunday afternoons) which take up a lot of his time. But he's someone I go to for advice and consultation when I need to.

This is your first programme as producer. Doing Dr Who is really being chucked in at the deep end - Never enough time or money.

Er.. It's a fantastic challenge. What has really pleased me about it - apart from actually getting the job - is that I've never been very fond of the six-part stories and I wanted to drop them from this season. I asked, through Barry and my head of department, if we could do 7 four-part stories - making 28 in all which is 2 more than of late. Inevitably, one ran the risk of being told No, do 24- 2 shorter than of late. But unfortunately it got through.

Why don't you like six-parters?

Well, I found that many of the six-parters in recent years have really been 2 four-part stories condensed - unmasking one villain at the end of episode four and then having another villain. I just think four is the ideal length for the programme in its current form.

What other changes are you making?

Well, we've got a new opening and closing title-sequence which goes a long way from the traditional time-tunnel. We have a new radiophonic version of the theme music, which is being released on a record and which I have tremendously high hopes about. We have a new logo. The Doctor has a new costume.

A new costume?

Well, he still has the same silhouette-the scarf and hat are retained, but it's just different colours. More of a uniform look as opposed to the casual look the Doctor's had of late.

Why's that change been made?

My decision.

You felt that he.. .

I just thought he needed generally smartening up.

And I hear you've reduced the comedy element.

Yes, I think we're trying to approach it much more seriously as an adventure-science-fiction in which there is humour rather then something which is dominantly humorous. But isn't humour the basis of the Tom Baker characterisation?

I think humour has its place in the programme - of course it does - and it's a very essential ingredient. It's a case of putting the spotlight on the humour at the relevent moment in the story in each episode. So I wouldn't say we're wiping it out. I think we're playing it down.

Drama with comedy, rather than comedy with drama?


Tom Baker had a lot of control over the character.

Tom Baker is playing the Doctor, yes. He's the fourth Doctor. I think when he first started - I was looking at some old cassettes recently -there was not a dominant humour in the character. I think each new producer imposes some sort of style on the programmes and I would just like the comedy to fall more into the background.

There have been periods of monsters, gore, strong stories. What's your bias?

I think a mixture of them all. Very strong stories indeed. Very varied.

You've brought in a lot of new blood for the writing.

Yes, apart from two very well-known Dr Who writers (David Fisher and Terrance Dicks) this season is totally new writers - I'm very keen to do that and so is my new script editor Christopher Bidmede.

Isn't it a big risk to rely on writers who haven't got the feel of the series?

The programme's fantastically popular and I think there have always been lots of writers who've never written for the show before who've wanted desperately to do it. I mean, ii you don't entertain new writers, you'd be stuck with the same people who wrote it in 1963. We are concentrating on new writers who come with fresh ideas and a fresh outlook towards the programme.

I'm surprised you don't have a full-time historian for the series, like Coronation Street does.

Well, I'm keen on continuity. I've spent a lot of time looking back at the old cassettes and scripts of stuff that's unfortunately been junked. I think it's tremendously important. I think obviously the time will come - it hasn't so far--when one will want to change something for the particular structure of the new script. But I see no point in changing it for change's sake. You might as well get the history right, if possible, and then change it if you absolutely have to because it doesn't quite work within -the framework of your particular four-parter.

You were going to scrap K-9.

No, this is something that's been blown up by the press. I have been accurately quoted as saying there are some stories in which he will not appear this season, but there are no plans for him to leave the programme during this season at all.

Surely the problem is that K-9 is omnipotent and, any corner the Doctor gets into, this silly dog will always rescue him.

I think it's something that some writers have relied on to get the Doctor and/or his cornpanions out of a situation they can't get out of. But that's something we're watching.

The newspaper coverage didn't affect the K-9 decision at all?

No. But even in that article in The Sun, I was quoted as saying there are no plans to get rid of K-9. I think it was some sort of inside story from the BBC and somebody had got their lines crossed.

You're bringing in a new male companion. Does that mean Lalla Ward is leaving?

Lalla is leaving the programme.

Is she being replaced by another female companion?

I want to see Lalla - or, at least, the character of Romana - gets on with the new boy, because they do at least three stories together before Lalla goes. I was very fond of the situation some years back where there was a boy and a girl as companions. I thought it worked tremendously well.

Why did it work?

I think from an audience-identification point of view it's good that there is one of eacn sex. Also, if you split up the Doctor and a companion, they've got no-one to talk to. If you've got K-9, the Doctor, a boy and a girl, you can split them into two groups and still have dialogue within each group.

Lalla gets killed off, does she?

Lalla leaves. She's not being killed off.

So you're leaving it open that you could replace her with another Romana?

Er... I'm leaving that open.

This new male assistant, Matthew Waterhouse..

He's 18-years-old. He hasn't done a lot of acting before — He's only done two episodes of a new BBC serial To Serve Them All My Days. I think he's quite a find — he's going to be great.

What sort of character is he in the story? He's a rather rough diamond who is a member of a sort of street gang who go round stealing food to eat and pickpocketing. He's been described as a cosmic Artful Dodger which, in a way, is not a bad description.

Is that where the idea came from?

(Laughs) Not at all.

What was the original idea?

We wanted somebody young, who was adventurous, intelligent and not totally good — or, at least, appeared not to be totally good — appeared to have a few bad streaks as well as very good ones.

Sounds a bit like Avon in Blakes's 7.

Not at all like that.

An anti-hero?

No, I wouldn't call him an anti-hero at all.

He's very young. Are you consciously trying to get a younger group in?

Yes. Actually Matthew, who's 18, looks 15 — so yes, I am trying to bring the ages of the companions down.

One of your new writers, Andrew Smith, is only 19. How did you find him?

He sent in unsolicited scripts. In fact, he'd been sending in stuff for about five years. There was a massive file in my script editor's office, including old scripts that he'd sent in, scene-breakdowns, story ideas. And there were a lot of encouraging replies from previous producers and previous script editors. He then sent in something else that we thought was worth encouraging and I must say I'd delighted with the four scripts he's produced, I think he's quite a find. He's doing a story called Full Circle, the third one to go out.

Earlier on, you mentioned new radiophonic music. I gather Dudley Simpson won't be composing incidental music as he normally does.

No, he won't. The incidental music is also being done by the Radiophonic Workshop.

Will you still have Musicians' Union problems?

Touch wood currently — we don't. The decision was made back in January and it couldn't have been more fortuitous, really.

If you were affected by the M.U. strike, do you think the show would work as well without music?

I'd be very unhappy to put the programme out without incidental music


I think it's an absolutely essential ingredient of the programme.

But shouldn't the plot carry the story along without the music having to reinforce it?

I don't think it's a case of 'carrying' the plot along. !think it's a case of augmenting. It adds a certain polish and over-all style to the production if there is specially-composed incidental music that is pointing the drama. We are using a lot more music this season than there has been in the past.

You've talked about the changes you want to make. It's now becoming successful in the U.S. Do you think there will be any pressure to change the programme for the American market - as there was with Space 1999?

No, none at all. The BBC doesn't operate under those sort of conditions at all.

So, all-in-all, what's it been like as a producer?

It's been tremendous so far. I can't believe the time is slipping away so quickly. I was originally asked to look after the programme for 15 months one season — and I've done almost 9 months now. I mean, you can see from the chart on the wall, our short schedule's so gruelling that the months do tend to go by very quickly.

And where do you go after Dr Who?

I'd very much like to stay with Dr Who for at least another year.

One last question I have to ask. Are the Daleks coming back?

Not in this season.


Above: John Nathan-Turner (picture by Graham Rickard from the book A Day with a TV Producer). Below: The Leisure Hive from the Dr Who story of the same name. Right: Matthew Waterhouse as Adric and Lalla Ward as Romana. Far right: Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and Ivo (Clinton Greyn} in the Dr Who story State of Decay.

Above left: The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) arrive in Brighton in the early part of the last century at the beginning of the adventure The Leisure Hive. Above right: David Haig plays Pangol, one of the directors of The Leisure Hive. Below: In the adventure, State of Decay,

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) are startled by the appearance of a group of hooded figures.

Above: Matthew Waterhouse plays Adric, the latest addition to the regular cast of Dr Who. Below left: The Doctor (Tom Baker) is the victim of a temporal experiment gone awry in the story The Leisure Hive. Below right: Meglos, last of the Zolpha Thurans, attempts to adopt the Doctor's form.but is unable to maintain the disguise in The Last Zolpha Thuran.

Spelling correction: Christopher Bidmead

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  • APA 6th ed.: Fleming, John (no. 27 (Nov. 1980)). The New Dr Who. Starburst p. 19.
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