Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Time Can Be Rewritten 22 (The Song of Megaptera)

Among the many services Big Finish provides for Doctor Who at large is a helpful testing of various pieces of fanlore regarding unmade stories. There are, for instance, people who wonder whether Prison in Space would really have been as unbearably terrible as it sounds. And as it happens (and we'll cover this in the Troughton book this fall), yes, yes it would have been. But there is perhaps nowhere this service is more valuable than in the Saward era. One of the less resolvable debates surrounding the Saward era, and one that will play into the next two entries heavily as well, is the nature of the writers. Simply put, there's some solid evidence of some very good writers having scripts rejected during this period while people like Glen McCoy and Anthony Steven had scripts made. It's one thing when Pip and Jane Baker, two writers who are at least fast and reliable, get repeated commissions. It's quite another when they're actively commissioned over Christopher Bidmead and PJ Hammond, as, in Season 23, they were.

Of what I'd consider the big three of baffling rejections - the twin rejection of Christopher Priest's Sealed Orders and The Enemy Within, PJ Hammond's Paradise Five, and Pat Mills's Song of the Space Whale, two - Hammond's and Mills's - have subsequently been recorded by Big Finish. Since the fan lore has Hammond's rejection being down to Nathan-Turner and not Saward, whose influence I am more interested in tracking at the moment, let's opt for Mills's script, now renamed Song of Megaptera.

For those who don't obsessively memorize every detail I cover on this blog, Mills, along with John Wagner (who was a co-author on earlier drafts of this script) co-created Judge Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra, and co-wrote the earliest Doctor Who Weekly comic strips. Song of Megaptera was, originally, a story for a Tom Baker comic strip, but Mills was persuaded that it was too good for that and instead sent it to the production office where it was, at various times, considered for Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and, finally, Colin Baker before finally being abandoned. In discussing its scrapping Pat Mills has stated that one of the reasons Saward gave for objecting to it was that Saward didn't like Mills's decision to portray the ship's captain as working class, preferring the idea of a classless future.

Let's get one thing out of the way first - in a litany of poor creative decisions that can be laid directly at Eric Saward's feet, making Timelash over this is one of the most inexcusable. It is flat-out inconceivable how any remotely sane or reasonable script editor could look at Timelash next to this script and conclude that Timelash was going to work better. The Twin Dilemma was an aggregate of brain-searingly bad decisions, but I'm not convinced that any given decision, and particularly any given one of Saward's decisions about The Twin Dilemma was prima facie worse than this.

It is not that Song of Megaptera is a flawless story. Its flaws are relatively evident - it displays an almost Baker and Martin level of obsession with cramming in new ideas, and like Baker and Martin it fails to explore most of them in the depth they deserve. This is, to be fair, simply the way Pat Mills is as a writer - his 2000 A.D. work displays the same hyperactivity, as do his Doctor Who comics. Unlike the comics (which combine this with an at times puerile machismo), however, this script feels altogether more suited to Doctor Who.

It's also an example of politics done well in Doctor Who. The five-year incubation of this project coincided with the heyday of the "save the whales" campaign, and the year after its final abandonment marked the decision to put a moratorium on whaling that is still in place. This story is unrepentantly and unambiguously an anti-whaling screed. I've admittedly always been in favor of overtly political Doctor Who, but if there's been a season that's made that case for me more successfully than Season 22 it's tough to think of it - the best story in the season was by miles the most political one, and virtually every stab at quality it had stemmed from efforts to be more immediately relevant.

But more than its politics The Song of Megaptera has two things going for it that are significant. On the one hand, it wears its politics on its sleeve and builds outwards from them instead of building towards them. The question of whether or not the Doctor is going to oppose whaling is never seriously raised - of course the Doctor opposes it. This is refreshing. After all, a political story like this tends to telegraph its intentions early on, so holding off on having the Doctor's inevitable moral stand on the issue (in either direction - it's not impossible to imagine a story about defending a whaling vessel from ecoterrorists, after all) in favor of having that be the climax would have been dumb anyway.

But equally importantly, it does actually build from that. Yes, the story is anti-whaling, and yes, that's very blatant and up front. But because it takes that as a starting point it's able to go somewhere from that. The working class captain that Saward apparently didn't like is, in this regard, a fantastic character because one is able to understand why he's the way he is. Yes, he's the villain of the piece, but he's an utterly sympathetic villain. Because Mills is so up front about making whaling a loathsome practice, in other words, he's freed from the obligation to make anything else equally loathsome. There's no moustache-twirling villain in the piece. The captain is an over-aggressive Ahab because he's desperate both to prove himself and because he wants revenge on the company that he feels exploited him. The whaling practices take place not on anyone's overt command but out of a systemic failure of anyone to care about motives beyond profit. The sequences in which the Doctor impersonates an inspector making sure regulations are followed are fantastic largely because of the sheer banality of evil on display here and the way in which that banality makes for a far more nuanced game of manipulation than basic "bad guys try to hide the plot from the Doctor." Instead it becomes a game of the villains trying to pull off a PR job on the Doctor, which is far more complex and involving.

The second thing the story does that's exceedingly satisfying is play for willfully low stakes. For most of the story the dramatic tension hinges entirely on the survival of the space whale. Eventually there are a decent number of lives at stake, but we're still talking about hundreds of human lives and a herd of whales. This is an exceedingly small scale - there's not even a planet at stake, and there's no iconic foe to ratchet up the stakes artificially either. The last time we played for such small stakes is the story that replaced this in Season 20, Mawdryn Undead, and even there we had the Black Guardian lurking around in the b-plot. But on the whole this is refreshing - a reminder that Doctor Who's power comes in part from its ability to change scales and focuses week to week. When every single story is about massive planet/galaxy/universe/species-imperilling danger, well, frankly it gets a bit overwhelming. A story where what's at stake is "a whale" is nice simply because it's a reminder that Doctor Who can do more than this.

There are failings - the fungus monster who's also a stand-in for indigenous people who whale is unfortunately under-explored in a way that's troublingly xenophobic. But on the whole this is a script with its heart in the right place that's trying to make the program do interesting things, and that constantly pushes to make sure there are things happening in the story and things are exciting.

So why the hell was Timelash made and this rejected? We can posit personal and psychological reasons - and in two entries' time we will - but for now let's stick with aesthetic reasons.

It could simply be that the 2010 version of this is better than the 1985 version was. In the interviews at the end of the story Mills talks about changing scenes to work better on audio, and one of the highlights of the story (Peri's delirious ramblings when infected with the fungus) is one he specifically mentions adding. Perhaps this just wasn't that good a story. Or perhaps nobody had the heart to point out that a giant whale is difficult to do on a BBC budget. At least some allowance has to be made for the fact that this is not the 1985 script but a polished up 2010 adaptation of it.

It could also be stylistic. There is something odd about Mills's hyperactive approach. It's something I'm more inclined to file as an authorial idiosyncrasy than as a failing, but it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Perhaps Saward favored the logorrhea of the Bakers or the lack of any distinguishing style or characteristics whatsoever of McCoy to this. There is something markedly different about this script compared to anything else from the time. That basic fact is, in some sense, a reason for rejection.

But I think the real issue is likely something very close to what Mills has said all along. The Saward era, even in Season 22, was never fond of politics. Take Vengeance on Varos out of the mix and Season 22 becomes marginally more political than what had come before, but we're still basically left with Robert Holmes and Philip Martin as the only solidly political writers of the bunch, with Saward himself poking at it (very) lightly in Revelation of the Daleks. Yes, it's impossible not to read Mark of the Rani as having political implications, but it takes pains to avoid having to make the connection directly. And Philip Martin recalls being warned off of politics rather angrily by Nathan-Turner prior to writing Vengeance on Varos. A script this political was out of step with the rest of the era.

In a few entries we'll deal with the television program that most flagrantly showed how foolish this approach was, but even here it's safe to say that it's a problem. As I noted, almost everything good about Season 22 came from its eagerness to engage more in the material world. And more broadly, in a world so dominated by material politics any piece of science fiction that turns away from that is at least somewhat problematic. This is where my long-standing opposition to escapism as an aesthetic goal becomes clearest. Escapism tacitly abandons changing the status quo in favor of purely imaginary pleasures. Whereas what the culture needed in 1985 was material change - a clear vision of something other than a Thatcherite hell. There is, I think, a direct line from the sociopathy of escapism to appropriating the methods of famine relief for complaining that you have to wait eighteen months for your favorite television program.

But at the end of the day, the why matters less in terms of understanding the program in this era than the basic fact that one of the central defenses of the program in this era - that better writers weren't available - just isn't true. Good scripts by proven writers were rejected while the litany of debacles goes on. There's an alternate Davison and Baker era where the stories that do work are accompanied not by Arc of Infinity, Warriors of the Deep, and Timelash but by stories by Pat Mills, Christopher Priest, PJ Hammond, and more scripts by Bidmead, Clegg, and Bailey. And if The Song of Megaptera is any indication, those scripts would have been better. For all the defenses we can mount of this era, it's difficult to ignore the fact that there were better alternatives right under the production team's noses and they hadn't the sense to use them.


  1. Other stories Saward rejected that appear much more interesting and promising than Timelash include: Brian Finch's Leviathan, Stephen Gallagher's Nightmare Country, a Chris Boucher story and Bidmead's Pinacotheca(which Saward actually approved episode by episode until the last one)

    Which rather puts the idea of not being able to use experienced writers to bed.

  2. I'm glad I listened to this.

    I don't think the hyperactive approach is that less marked than in, say, Caves of Androzani. Perhaps it seems that way as the strands aren't sketched in as effectively as Holmes could sketch in an idea.

    There are some bits in the script which I would like to know whether they're original to the nineteen eighties or added later. The references to cuts and downsizing could be nineteen eighties but are just as relevant to the present recession. And the Doctor pleading that he's an endangered species seems oddly to parallel the Beast Below (which I think was pretty much contemporary).

  3. "When every single story is about massive planet/galaxy/universe/species-imperilling danger, well, frankly it gets a bit overwhelming."

    I think the word you were reaching for is "dull". As in, "the viewer becomes dulled to the supposed 'drama'." This is, alas, another area in which the New Series has systematically failed with its season-enders. (And also, just part of why "Army of Ghosts/Doomsday" is possibly the worst piece of television ever.)

    "with Saward himself poking at it (very) lightly in Revelation of the Daleks."

    I think what's interesting is that Revelation comments on culture, rather than politics per se. But also, one of the most pointed comments in The Loved One is one which Saward omits. In discussing the embalming, burial and funeral of a dead, ex-pat Englishman, the following sequence occurs, between the attendant and the customer at "Whispering Glades":

    "I presume your Loved One was Caucasian."

    "No, why do you think that? He was purely English."

    "English are purely Caucasian, Mr. Barlow. This is a restricted park. The Dreamer has made that rule for the sake of the Waiting Ones. In their time of trial they prefer to be with their own people."

    All at once, we can see the real connexion between "Revelation"'s "Great Healer" and Waugh's "Dreamer". And it's telling that such a cruel skewer of 1950s American propriety is something that Saward avoids like the plague in his version. Waugh was an individualist right-winger (see his interviews for evidence of this), and it seems to me is unambiguously uncomfortable with racial segregation (though I may be in a minority in thinking this). His "Dreamer" commits a moral evil which is casually accepted. Saward's Davros, on the other hand, commits a cultural taboo which is publically objectionable. Maybe I'm grasping at straws, but I do think there may be an interesting inversion here.

    Anyway, sorry for dragging this post OT. The audio sounds interesting, though I must admit I've not listened to it. The one BF I tried I didn't like much.

    1. Yeah? The one TV ep I tried I didn't like much.

      (Seriously, with hundreds of stories by different writers, "BF" is no more consistent than "BBC". I've only heard a dozen or so, including some dull and duddish ones, but also several that I'd rank top ten and twenty Who stories of ever.)

      Phil, would you mind reminding us what other texts are upcoming in the 18-month interregnum? The heads-up about this one was very handy.

    2. There's ...Ish on the 4th of June, then Jubilee post-Trial on the 15th. There's also Slipback this Friday, though I don't actually know fi that's in print. And a book on Monday that I know is not in print.

    3. Ta - if anyone reading this hasn't heard Jubilee, they are enthusiastically encouraged to take advantage of that long lead-time to acquire and become familiar with it.

      (Memory doesn't enjoin me to offer the same advice regarding Slipback, but its release obviously has an important place in the blog's current narrative.)

  4. The sociopathy of escapism?


    1. I can't trace the original posts this morning, but one of Phil's recurring complaints about John Nathan-Turner was that he claimed, believed, and acted on a philosophy that art was meant to soothe, not to make you think. It's contrary to everything that makes great art great. We remember art as great and influential because it challenges you with complex ideas, makes you question moral and ethical presumptions, leads you to sympathize with people you would have otherwise dismissed, and engage with the problems of your society without direct risk. In order to do all that, art has to make you think. Great art also entertains you at the same time, but it isn't a zero-sum game between entertainment and thought.

      JNT's philosophy of what art was supposed to do cut out all the ways in which art can be great. Purely soothing, escapist art leads a viewer to become passive, and traps him in an attitude of quietism. If there's no place free of danger to explore alternatives to problematic living conditions, as challenging art can do, then two options are open to you. 1) You glumly accept that the world stinks and it's impossible to change; 2) You become so used to the terrible aspects of life that you come to think of them as good.

      That's the sociopathy of escapism: using art and entertainment to run away from your problems instead of making art a place to experiment with possible solutions.

    2. "We remember art as great and influential because it challenges you with complex ideas..."

      Yes and no. This certainly applies to most modern art (by which I mean art from the photographic age, and in the main from the 20th Century), but I'm not sure how well it works in explaining the value or effect of, say, Michelangelo's Pietà, the Arnolfini Marriage, or the Missa Papae Marcelli, to take an admittedly narrow sample. Yet I'm fairly sure that most people would count these as being "great art".

    3. Isn't that the same sort of criticism that dismisses pop music because it doesn't matter? Which is a pity I think, as there's something to be said for having harmless fun.

      I'm fully capable of appreciating the lyrics of, say, Roger Water's "Amused to Death" but that doesn't mean I can't also enjoy a collection of mindless bubblegum songs from the 1970s.

      Likewise, when I come home after having worked yet another double shift on the nursing unit of a poorly funded mental hospital, I'd rather engage in the sociopathy of escapism than be subjected to a thinly-disguised political tract dressed up as entertainment.

      I once unwound while watching an episode of "Teletubbies" for goodness' sake.

    4. I think there's a difference between the presentation of immediate pleasure and escapism, though. Immediate pleasure is still essentially a positive judgment - one enjoys the presence of something. I'll readily agree that something does not need to be challenging to be worthwhile, although I think a blanket objection to the challenging is also deeply troubling. But I do think it needs to have something that is valuable for what it is as opposed to what it isn't.

      Which is the problem with escapism - it's a negative judgment. Its sole professed value is its unreality - the fact that it does not connect to any material events but instead provides an exit from them. Escapism is defined entirely by its anesthetizing effect.

      In practice I think most so-called escapism does something else, largely because I'm also skeptical of escapism as a readerly phenomenon. (Simply put, I don't think audiences are prone to forgetting they're real in the way that escapism ultimately posits they do) So most supposedly escapist works simply don't behave as advertised. Typically they are simply immediate pleasures - what's fun isn't their unreality but the fact that what they depict is satisfying. But the pursuit of escapism, doomed as it may be, remains, to my mind, sociopathic in a fairly literal sense - it's based expressly on the complete devaluation of the real. And so even if the results of attempts at escapism do not work as they are theorized to they tend to be deeply problematic simply because of how unfortunate their underlying motives are.

    5. @Gnaeus

      Pieta challenged its audience to consider the symbolism of the work, to engage with the predominant religion of the time. The Arnolfini portrait is also loaded with symbolism, and its technical virtuosity was striking for its age. Missa Papae challenged a Catholic injunction against polyphonal music.

      @ Picklepuss

      You make the better point, I think. Having fun is valuable in of itself, and to say otherwise is to subscribe to a grim, cynical philosophy (which sounds an awful lot like Saward's era of Doctor Who.) It would be just as ludicrous to argue that a hot, relaxing bath is sociopathic for the escape it offers, when clearly it provides a tangible benefit.

      However, it's one thing to say that art doesn't need to occupy the space of social engagement, and quite another to say it shouldn't, because unlike a hot bath, art actually has the power to stand up to unhealthy and deformed social structures, and it doesn't even have to do so through a thinly veiled political tract (and better that it doesn't) but by striving to uncover truths of the human experience.

      And, not to put too fine a point on it, bubblegum pop and teletubbies, while fine at helping us to unwind and actually celebrate life, don't do anything to increase the funding of mental health facilities. Neither do hot baths, but then it's rare to call a hot bath "art."

    6. jane: I'm not so sure about those artworks. To begin in reverse order, the story about the Missa Papae Marcelli is nice, but the dates don't actually match up as I recall. The Arnolfini Portrait is interesting, I agree, but does it actually challenge anything? As for the Pieta, again, I'm not sure I agree that it was challenging, as such. Certainly, none of them are challenging in the same way as, for instance, Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro.

    7. I have my doubts about the contrast between escapist art and engaged art. Projecting an appealing alternative to present-day problems might function as escapist relief for some readers/viewers, and as inspiration to work for material change in other readers/viewers (or for the same readers/viewers on other days, in other moods), and both responses seem to make sense.

    8. @ jane - it depends on who is taking it.

      sorry, cheap joke, just couldn't resist.

    9. Tolkien's defence of escapist art - the people who most object to escaping are jailors - is explicitly political. Although that's more of a defence of some forms of art called escapist in polemics than of escapism as such. (I think Tolkien's own fictions have a more complex relation to Tolkien's conservative political opinions than is often assumed.)

      I think the sense in which Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro is challenging is not the only sense of relevant sense of challenging.
      Michelangelo's Pieta is quite explicit in saying 'you must change your life'. We could set that aside on the grounds that in the context of the Renaissance Papacy that is a challenge only in a rather superficial sense (although Michelangelo's circle were viewed by hardline churchmen as crypto-Protestants if not crypto-Jews). But even if you do so, if the dichotomy is between 'challenging' and 'soothing' it falls on the side of 'challenging'. At a material level it is a depiction of a corpse executed for political dissent and the corpse's mother grieving.
      The Arnolfini marriage on one plausible historical reading depicts the material conditions of the birth of modern individualism. Again, 'challenging' isn't the right word - but I don't think it's about 'soothing' either.
      Perhaps a way of putting it would be to say that you couldn't call either superficial.

      (Nobody has found a good way to talk about music as either about anything or not about anything that commands general acceptance.)

    10. And Tolkien's "conservative political opinions" are a bit complicated anyway. He said in a letter that his two favourite political systems were anarchy and unconstitutional monarchy. And you get two very different LOTRs depending on which of those two lenses you view it through. (If you take the ring as a symbol for political power, which Tolkien's remarks about WWII in the introduction virtually invite us to do, you get a straightforward anarchist moral: no one -- least of all kings and wizards -- can be trusted with political power, so the solution is not to get power into the hands of the right people, but rather to destroy it. But on the other hand, the whole Aragorn plot is precisely about getting the right person into power.)

  5. So the show wasn't allowed to do humor, it wasn't allowed to do romance, and it wasn't allowed to do politics.

    It also seems that most writers with any actual experience or talent were being systematically pushed off.

    It's no wonder we got crap like "TIMELASH".

    One wonders, how horror and ultra-violence ever crept their way back in? I'd have preferred romance & comedy.

    1. Another interesting way to think about the failures of the show in the mid-1980s. One of the strengths of Doctor Who, especially in the Hartnell years, was its ability to tell many different kinds of story, without paying attention to any rule of caveat that would restrict what it could do. But with so many restrictions Nathan-Turner and Saward put on what kinds of relationships the characters could have and what kinds of stories they could be in, the show got boxed in. Doctor Who works best when it's unrestrained.

      I think that kind of versatility of narrative is present in the new series. It does comedy (The Lodger), drama (Father's Day), historical (Tooth and Claw), romance (The Girl in the Fireplace), horror (Waters of Mars), action thrillers (Impossible Astronaut & Day of the Moon), disaster (Voyage of the Damned), political thrillers (The Sound of Drums), political drama (Turn Left), even swashbuckling piracy (The Curse of the Black Spot). A lot of the stories blend many of these styles at once.

  6. I disagree. There's a tremendous variety of narrative in JNT's era. I was just reading a post on another forum by Rob Shearman, pointing out that one of the best things about JNT's era is the unpredictability from one story to the next, even to the point of inconsistency.

    1. One of the ideas that the Eruditorum has helped me make sense of in a very clear way is the distinction between facts and problems. A variety of facts, which you got in the JNT-Saward era with their diversity of settings and events (public school to ancient space station to sailing ships in space to Magna Carta counterfeiting) is one kind of unpredictability. But the kinds of relationships among the characters involved were always the same. Even within the Black Guardian arc, to fit my examples, Turlough was often written as a generic cowardly companion. The tone and the relationships never changed, despite the variety of facts.

      Changing tone and relationships is a matter of changing problems. It wasn't just that, like Henry said below, the Hartnell years has stories moving from alien wastelands, to a claustrophobic TARDIS, to the medieval Asian Steppes, to an internally diverse alien world, to ancient Mexico. Yes, the facts of the settings and characters changed. But the kinds of stories changed too: a good vs evil monster story that challenged our ideas of pacifism, hallucinatory paranoia, a languid historical mystery, a proto-video game, a moral dilemma about the power of time travel.

      Nathan-Turner understood what it meant to go to a different place every week. That's what the lyrics to Doctor in Distress said: "That police box takes him everywhere!" But he never understood what it was to tell a different type of story, engage with a different type of problem every story. The facts of the matter changed constantly under JNT's watch. But it was a very similar type of story every time. The matters at hand never really shifted.

    2. I suppose one of the cool things about Song of Megaptera / Song of the Space Whale is that it is a different type of story than what JNT-Saward often assembled. Their Doctor Who stories were almost all of a similar setup: the Doctor arrives in a world where innocent people are threatened by monsters or a supervillain, or the monsters or supervillain are just there to be fought. Megaptera is the Doctor defending an innocent creature against a human system that perverts decent people to vile ends. The only thing close to a generic monster is the fungus creature, which Phil says sounds superfluous to the story as it unfolds. Was it perhaps tacked on as a JNT-Saward recommendation to have a monster?

      Maybe that's why it was rejected. One idea that emerged from the analysis of Doctor in Distress was that the JNT-Saward-Levine conception of Doctor Who was that it was about a catalogue of monsters. Where the monster/villain is superfluous to the story, or possibly not even present, their vision of the show wouldn't even have considered it a Doctor Who story.

      Anyway, I'll shut up now. I think I've contributed almost as much text to the comment threads as Phil did writing today's entry.

    3. The fungus monster has two roles in the story. It shows that one of the other characters is desperate enough to deal with a literal 'monster' to achieve his or her aims.
      More importantly, it's there as part of a false difference. It brings into play ideas that indigenous people apologise to the animals before they hunt them, and therefore is a rejection of those kinds of romantic tropes. In other words, it's not that killing whales is wrong when capitalists do it; killing whales is wrong whoever does it (and therefore it's one reason why capitalism is wrong).
      As Phil says, uniting the two functions in a single character is problematic. But it could be more problematic: it starts out working as 'The Monster' and then switches to the other role.

  7. Adam Riggio:
    "Another interesting way to think about the failures of the show in the mid-1980s. One of the strengths of Doctor Who, especially in the Hartnell years, was its ability to tell many different kinds of story, without paying attention to any rule of caveat that would restrict what it could do. But with so many restrictions Nathan-Turner and Saward put on what kinds of relationships the characters could have and what kinds of stories they could be in, the show got boxed in. Doctor Who works best when it's unrestrained."


    I mean, think how crazy it was to go from "INSIDE THE SPACESHIP" to "MARCO POLO" to "THE KEYS OF MARINUS" to "THE AZTECS".

    By comparison, with Patrick Troughton they mostly did "monsters", Jon Pertwee did an entire season of "military & scientific research labs". Philip Hinchcliffe did almost nothing but "gothic horror", then Graham Williams was told to cut out the scary stuff, and a year later, told to tone down the funny stuff. (You can't win with some people!)

    It's bad enough when the network is putting arbitrary restrictions on, but worse when the producer is adding a growing list of his own. Which includes, no established writers, no more BBC Radiophonic Music, no characters who actually like getting along with each other...

  8. I think we're making the mistake here of assuming that escapist art doesn't mean anything. Early Acid House as consumed in clubs didn't set out to encapsulate it's socio-economic mileu. But in context it just does, by being itself in response to events and in it's context. It's a much better commentary on the hopes and fears of its consumers than many explicit attempts to grapple with those weighty issues.

    Pop culture doesn't set out to mean nothing, it sets out to mean *everything*. This doesn't mean that it's empty.

    In contrast it's JNT's assertion, more or less, that Doctor Who doesn't mean anything or shouldn't mean anything that's the offensive part. The 'art should soothe' thing just suggests that somehow the show doesn't matter unless it fills a 'Doctor Who' labelled hole. That it should, in essence, just seem like Doctor Who while not actually being Doctor Who; a kind of ersatz Doctor Who.

    The failure is that it prevents Who being anything that might have actually been fun, or engaging, or frightening or funny, because JNT is saying that the only quality it must imbue is 'Who-ness' to function as Doctor Who.

  9. I have a strong feeling that JNT’s comment that ‘art must soothe’ has been taken completely out of context. This was an off-hand comment that was repeated in an interview not my JNT himself. JNT was supposedly referring to the art of M.C. Escher which covered the walls of the office of the BBC’s head of drama I believe. Let’s not forget the term art is not always used to describe the wider mediums it encompasses but often merely paintings, drawings and sculptures. Surely there’s a distinct possibility that JNT simply meant that the perplexing reality bending works of M.C. Escher gave him a headache and he prefers a nice watercolour landscape hanging on his wall? Also let’s not forget that this man commissioned Warriors Gate, Kinda, Snakedance, Remembrance of the Daleks, The Happiness Patrol, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Ghost Light, Curse of Fenric and Survival; Art that challenges the mind surely? All your theories are as perfectly valid as mine of course but I thought it’s about time someone stuck up for JNT. He gets a lot of criticism but a lot of the greatest Doctor Who stories we’re produced in his time. Out of JNT’s mammoth nine season reign it’s only really Colin’s era that saw major problems.

    1. Yes, that's been troubling me too. JNT is long dead, and wasn't one for dish-the-dirt interviews when he was still with us, so we end up putting massive weight on tiny scraps of second-hand quotations. Better to judge the man for good or ill by his work than by hearsay passed on by disgruntled ex-colleagues.

      From what we see on screen, the criticisms made of JNT based on this "art should soothe" quote would better apply to Innes Lloyd, or even Letts/Dicks.

    2. Here, I think, it's important to remember that there are three Nathan-Turner eras. Certainly there's little evidence that the mind-bending theatrics of Season 18 are largely down to Nathan-Turner and not Bidmead. This is unsurprising - Nathan-Turner was clearly focusing on the technical elements of the series that season while Bidmead overhauled the writing. Both agreed "less silly," but there's little evidence that Nathan-Turner had much to do with the specific direction.

      And it seems fairly well-established that Nathan-Turner was particularly resistant to politics in the Saward era - Philip Martin, for instance, recalls being warned off of them as well.

      This raises the question, then, of why he took on a script editor who openly talked about using Doctor Who as a vehicle to bring down the government. Because it's clear that there's a big reversal in his position come 1987 - it's telling that six of your nine examples are Cartmel-edited scripts.

      My answer would be fairly straightforward: Nathan-Turner was nothing if not a savvy viewer of television, and he'd have noticed Edge of Darkness as the most successful piece of BBC science fiction in half a decade at least.

    3. I don't know about Philip Martin's politics, but the politics of some writers can be remarkably crude, belying their otherwise sophisticated, er, life-positioning. Politics is what they need to be warned off, in the sense of crude bellyaching. That way you reach the personal, and we all know what the personal means. The end result was Vengeance, which JNT was happy with. He probably took on Cartmel because Cartmel was fierce-eyed and enthusiastic and not a pissed old hack.

    4. Philip Martin specifically describes being unwanted by Nathan-Turner and warned repeatedly that Doctor Who wasn't Play For Today. So it's seemingly not the type of politics that Martin had.

    5. It's a mystery to me, this business with writers. I've just watched the "making of" on the Mark of the Rani DVD and we have Eric Saward telling of how he couldn't find the writers, and hung around the Minder (!) office begging for scripts. And yet... well, what you wrote above. What the fuck was going on?

    6. Sorry about the typo. I meant 'by' JNT not 'my', as the quote was taken from an interview with Christopher H. Bidmead not JNT himself.

      I think it's obvious JNT's script-editors clearly greatly influenced the direction of the show and that some were far more political than others. Although, the fact that these stories we're commissioned and that although JNT disliked M.C. Escher hanging on the wall but didn't dismiss producing a story based around the themes of his work, suggests he wasn't of the opinion that Doctor Who shouldn't challenge the mind. As for Philip Martin’s comments, we can't take them completely as fact, as JNT isn't here to defend himself. Perhaps JNT was just adverse to the particular political views Martin wished to express.

      I do think it's a great shame writers of the calibre of Christopher H, Bidmead, PJ Hammond and Pat Mills's were unable to write for Colin; I'm a big fan of them all. There's the possibility though that JNT merely felt their scripts were unfeasible on Doctor Who's budget; sadly he's no longer here to defend his decisions.

  10. Mega dittos. Wasn't it International JNT Appreciation Day on Tuesday? Artists are always saying shallow things to belie their art. Witness Brian Ferneyhough claiming his music is like a cosy armchair or Dennis Potter pretending that Brimstone & Treacle was supposed to be "funny". Or Damien Hirst who tries to make us think he believes that art is just a crude form of stockbroking. I feel heartbroken actually that JNT is no longer with us and that he died before he had a chance to see the post 03 series, and see how many of his ideas were on the right track and that the programme survived. And for the sheer pleasure he would have got from doing the DVD commentaries and the shamed silence his living presence would have imposed on what kids these days call the "haters".

    1. I share your sentiment, but I fear "shamed silence" may be more than a little optimistic.

  11. I might add that Yukio Mishima traced his intense devotion to the Imperial idea to the presentation of a watch by the Emperor to high-achieving high school students, of which he was one. The sense of obligation never left him. When I was 10 I submitted a story outline to the Doctor Who production office called "The Invisible Planet". I can't remember anything about it except the title, which is probably just as well. But JNT replied, politely rejecting my outline, but encouraging me to try again, and he signed the letter himself in his own handwriting. And imagine the thrill to get a personal letter from JNT! The most exciting thing in the world at the time, and I've never had a bad word for him since.

    1. ...except, of course, that Yukio Mishima was driven crazy by being closeted in the intensely machismoic Japanese culture of the Second World War. I wouldn't wish that sort of "sense of obligation" on anyone.


    Not yet on Phil's radar chronologically but as its a chance to catch it while its free - if anyone is interested - this is a link to the BBC iplayer for a Doctor Who play I wrote with my friend John called 'Klein's Story' starring Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann as well as Tracey Childs. It will be available for 7 days. Hope you enjoy.