As Russell T Davies passes on the showrunner baton to Steven Moffat, it seems timely to look back at Doctor Who‘s previous visionaries. We tend to talk about Who in terms of eras, usually with reference to the incumbent Doctor.
Arguably the true vision and direction of the programme lies with the producer, (they cast the Doctor, remember) often working closely with their respective script editors. Sadly, most of the names on this list are no longer with us, Barry Letts being the most recent loss.
I’m excluding Phillip Segal who produced the Paul McGann TV movie, as it would be unfair to judge his work on just one story. Here then is the first part of my top ten Doctor Who producers…
10. John Wiles 1965-66 (The Myth Makers – The Ark)
John Wiles replaced the original producer of the show, Verity Lambert. He was immediately in the shadow of her pioneering work in creating the show with Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson. He only did the job for a few months and oversaw just a handful of stories.
He produced The Dalek Masterplan and secured the first Christmas Day broadcast of the show. The Doctor famously breaks the fourth wall and wishes viewers a Merry Christmas.
Wiles had planned The Feast of Stephen to take place on the set of popular police serial Z-Cars, something the production team of Z-Cars (rightly) vetoed. He had several heated disagreements with William Hartnell over the direction of the show and even contemplated replacing the star before the whole concept of regeneration had been firmly established. He cast Jackie Lane as Dodo and was keen she should speak with a broad cockney accent – much to Hartnell’s disgust.
Ultimately Wiles never felt comfortable with the role. Deeply frustrated, he asked to be transferred to a less stressful position. John Wiles died aged 64 in 1999
Greatest Achievement: The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve
Don’t Mention: The Ark
(Guess which is missing from the archive and which exists!)
9. Derrick Sherwin 1969 (The War Games – Spearhead From Space)
Derrick Sherwin instigated the whole look and feel of early 70s Doctor Who with his decision, in part to offset the cost of colour broadcasting, to exile the Doctor to Earth.
Sherwin’s ideas were sown in the Web Of Fear and The Invasion, both essentially trial runs for the Pertwee-era UNIT stories. Sherwin was the producer for only two stories but two very significant stories to be fair. The War Games introduced the viewer to The Time Lords. The Doctor’s lifestyle, set against that of his peers, seems exciting and varied. Of course, this goes against the stuffy Time Lord laws of time and after a rapid trial for willful intervention, the Doctor is forced to regenerate and is exiled to Earth. From now on, unless expressly permitted to do so, he will be unable to pilot the TARDIS.
Spearhead From Space was one of the biggest reboots the series had ever undergone. Aside from the programme title, the brief appearance of the TARDIS and (for those who remember him) the Brigadier, there is very little to connect this new colour film version (due to a strike at the BBC, the show was recorded entirely on 16mm film) with the monochrome show that ended six months previously.
Sherwin, also an actor, appeared in the story as a security guard who riles the new Pertwee Doctor in his determination to see the Brigadier. Terrance Dicks, who had just been seconded to the script editor’s chair, felt he lacked the clout to argue against this far-reaching vision for the series. Dicks’ friend and mentor Malcolm Hulke expressed serious reservations about the new format, famously declaring it left the writer with two main narrative options: Alien Invasion or Mad Scientist.
Derrick Sherwin moved onto new projects within the BBC most notably the Paul Temple series. He occasionally contributes to the Doctor Who DVD range, most recently on The War Games released last summer.
Greatest Achievement: The War Games
Don’t Mention: Introducing three 7-parters for the Seventh season.
8. Peter Bryant 1967-69 (Tomb Of The Cybermen, The Web Of Fear -The Space Pirates)
Peter Bryant was the man behind the later Troughton years. After a probationary producer role on Tomb Of The Cybermen, Bryant replaced Innes Lloyd full time from The Web of Fear onwards.
Bryant oversaw the majority of the “monster years”, producing classics such as (the now sadly lost) Fury From The Deep. He introduced the characters of Zoe and was one of the architects of the UNIT stories, the Brigadier.
Bryant’s last few months on the show were marked by disappointment. Several stories fell through and the whole shape and style of season six was (at best) uneven. The Invasion is a glorious romp that almost disguises the fact it’s padded to twice its ideal length. The Krotons, (the legendary writer and script editor, Robert Holmes’ first contact with Doctor Who) replaced an intriguing story by comedy writer Dick Sharples called The Prison In Space. As described elsewhere on Den Of Geek its storyline is remarkably similar to the memorable Two Ronnies film serial The Worm That Turned. Amongst the suggested casting was onetime Hancock stooge Arthur Mullard! An overtly kinky and comic story about female domination, one can immediately see its shortcomings as teatime family drama.
Peter Bryant together with his script editor Derrick Sherwin were a formidable production team, whose first major show upon leaving Doctor Who was 1969’s Special Project Air (the first BBC drama serial to be broadcast in colour) and the popular Francis Matthews vehicle Paul Temple.
Bryant contributed to the DVD release of Tomb Of The Cybermen. This story was long missing from the archive, eventually resurfacing in 1992 (rather conveniently) just before the show’s thirtieth anniversary. Peter Bryant died in 2006, aged 83.
Greatest Achievement: The Web Of Fear
Don’t Mention: The Dominators
7. Graham Williams 1977-79 (Horror Of Fang Rock – The Horns of Nimon)
Graham Williams was asked to tone down the (perceived) violence of the show following on from the incredibly popular Philip Hinchcliffe era. Williams’ solution was to fill the narrative void with humour. He seemed to actively encourage Tom Baker to indulge his passion to ad lib and clown.
Arguably, this undermined many a good story as a consequence. Baker once joked he wanted a talking cabbage as a companion, which could perch on his shoulder – one can only guess how close that idea came to fruition. Williams worked with three very different script editors. Initially Robert Holmes carried on the traditions of the Hinchcliffe era, Horror Of Fang Rock and Image Of The Fendahl could quite easily have been part of the gothic 14th season. The Invisible Enemy with its cute robot dog K9, however, was very much the shape of things to come…
Anthony Read took over as script editor and he and Williams crafted a series of imaginative and humourous tales. The two most notable perhaps wereboth penned by the outgoing script guru Robert Holmes. The Sun Makers was a witty take on the tax system prompted it seems by Holmes’ personal frustrations with the taxman. The Ribos Operation, boasted a wonderful cameo from the late, great Iain Cuthbertson as an archetypal Holmesian conman – the merchant Garron. The story was chosen to open the umbrella-themed Key To Time season. Williams wanted to reward the long-term viewer with a story arc to keep their interest across 26 weeks. At the same time providing the casual viewer with a decent story every four weeks, hampered somewhat by budget, an overuse of CSO and BBC strikes, Williams was only partly successful in this goal.
For his final season in charge, Graham Williams recruited writer of the moment, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams as his Script Editor. The previous season’s The Pirate Planet had been Adams’ first contribution to Doctor Who and whilst writing it Adams found himself suddenly overloaded with work. BBC Radio 4 greenlit his original version of Hitchiker and wanted six radio episodes as soon as possible.
In truth Adams was perhaps a most unlikely Script Editor, given his legendary poor ability to meet deadlines, often waiting until the deadline had become impossible before starting work. Williams was further beset by problems. A technician’s strike ultimately curtailed the 17th season when studio work on Shada, Adams’ part eulogy to his Cambridge University days was abandoned.
Graham Williams’ biggest contribution to Doctor Who was undoubtedly his work with Douglas Adams on City Of Death. Steven Moffat has cited this as his favourite story but noted that Adams (rather unhelpfully) merely showed what Doctor Who would be like “written by a genius”.
In the 80s, Williams left the BBC for Anglia to produce Tales Of The Unexpected, then Tyne Tees, where he oversaw the popular Supergran series. Tragically, Graham Williams was killed in a shooting accident in 1990 aged just 47.
Greatest Achievement: City Of Death
Don’t Mention: Nightmare Of Eden
6. John Nathan-Turner 1979-89 (The Leisure Hive – Survival)
As the longest-serving producer, John Nathan-Turner’s contribution to Doctor Who was both enduring and controversial. Initially overseen by Executive Producer Barry Letts, John Nathan-Turner introduced many fresh ideas in his mission to take the show into the 80s and attempt to match expectations of the latest generation of viewers, heavily influenced by the production values of films like Star Wars, which had redefined sci-fi cinema and consequently the genre as presented on television.
Nathan-Turner was acutely aware of the disappointments that resulted from the abandonment of Shada and managed to secure 28 episodes for the upcoming 18th season. This gave him the opportunity to produce seven four-part stories, Nathan-Turner felt four-parters best suited the Who format. In part because it would generate more publicity for the show as a new serial began each month.
With new script editor Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, he put together a series of intentionally scientific stories ranging from the traditional (State Of Decay), to the suitably doom-laden (Logopolis) for what proved to be Tom Baker’s final year as the Doctor.
John Nathan-Turner cast Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor. To bridge a nine-month season gap, Nathan-Turner secured a special series of repeats to remind the public of the show’s heritage and the fact actors other than Tom Baker had played the Doctor.
The Five Faces Of Doctor Who appeared on BBC2 in the Autumn of 1981 and was seen as a great success. The archive repeats occasionally out-rated the evening news programmes on BBC1!
Nathan-Turner also produced a Christmas special featuring K9 and Sarah Jane Smith. K9 and Company saw Elisabeth Sladen make the first of many comebacks…
The 18th season had seen a new title sequence and fresh version of the legendary theme tune. The Radiophonic Workshop was tasked with providing the new theme and incidental music at the expense of composer Dudley Simpson. The Doctor’s costume became more designed and uniform-like.
Perhaps the most contentious of all John Nathan Turner’s innovations was the use of question marks on the Doctor’s shirt and later as a motif on a horrific item of knitwear worn by the Seventh Doctor. Fans felt the question marks undermined the whole concept of the character and the show. Fond of using foreign locales, Nathan-Turner’s era saw the show film in Amsterdam, Lanzarote and Seville, though exactly what each location actually added to the respective stories is questionable.
Unlike many of his fellow producers, Nathan-Turner wasn’t a great storyteller preferring to rely on his instinct to decide what would work within the format. The 19th season, transmitted around 7pm on weeknights (in another break from tradition), saw a rather overcrowded TARDIS. Three companions eased the transition from Baker to Davison. Killing off (the increasingly annoying) Adric was a brave move. Cleverly not trumpeting the return of the Cybermen after a five year absence, Earthshock was arguably the best slice of Who in years. This success would unfortunately lead to an over-reliance on continuity and returning monsters.
The successful return of the Master, was handled with subtlety (only the character name Tremas giving the hint), even though Tremas wasn’t actually the Master but the victim of the renegade’s possession. The 20th season alone saw the return of Omega, The Mara, The Black Guardian, The Brigadier and The Master. There were rumours Terminus might see the return of the Ice Warriors, so it was more of a surprise when they actually didn’t show up.
1984 saw the return of the Daleks and a radical 50-minute episode format to accommodate the Winter Olympics. John Nathan-Turner was asked to restore the show to Saturday evenings in new style 45-minute installments.
Believing (not unreasonably) Doctor Who would inherit the 7pm slot from police drama Juliet Bravo, Nathan Turner set about commissioning scripts suitable to that timeslot. Meanwhile, Peter Davison bowed out in The Caves Of Androzani, which marked the return to the series (after much encouragement from Script Editor Eric Saward but much resistance from Nathan-Turner himself) of arguably the best writer the show ever had – Robert Holmes.
Directing the serial was Graeme Harper, a real specialist in taut, action thrillers, who gave the show an exhilarating shot in the arm. Hindsight suggests John Nathan-Turner should perhaps have left at this point. Had he done so, he would have been seen as having taken Who in a fresh direction after Tom Baker with a credible Doctor and some interesting stories, albeit ones that were a little too serious for their own good. Moreover, what a brilliant story on which to depart…
Of course JN-T (as he increasingly liked to be called) took the decision to stay on and introduced his second new Doctor, played by Colin Baker, in the final story of the season.
The Twin Dilemma had very few things on its side – most notably a decent budget. Why then introduce the new star of the show in such a shoddy production? To follow such a great exit for Davison with such a poor entrance for Colin Baker is unforgivable and handicapped the Sixth Doctor’s era from the outset as being gaudy and, quite frankly, a bit rubbish… I’m not even going to start on the costume!
Nathan-Turner helpfully described it as “tastefully tasteless”, this from a man who thought a Hawaiian shirt the height of sartorial elegance! In February 1985, new BBC1 Controller Michael Grade ‘rested’ the show for eighteen months. Violent and gaudy, Season 22’s sudden steep decline in ratings from 8.9 million for the opening episode of Attack Of The Cybermen to just over 6 million for The Two Doctors (in which Shockeye bit off the head of a rat… at teatime!) was causing the controller concern and the general public to switch over to The A Team!…
Nathan-Turner ran with the idea of the series (literally) being on trial and Trial Of A Timelord, the show’s longest-ever story, was born. Poorly received and the subject of several backroom disputes, Trial marked the end of both Colin Baker and Eric Saward’s time on the show.
Reluctantly, John Nathan-Turner offered to cast a new Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, a better choice than many expected) and recruited a new Script Editor (Andrew Cartmel). Despite an offer to produce Bergerac, Nathan-Turner, aware respected Children’s Drama producer Paul Stone had declined a request to take over, decided to stay on for the sake of the future of the programme.
The BBC was increasingly aware Doctor Who would attract about 4-5 million viewers no matter where it was scheduled. So for all three McCoy seasons it was up against Coronation Street. The 26th season was the last made in-house. John Nathan-Turner was made redundant.
In the 90s, JN-T produced nostalgic Doctor Who videos such as the ‘Years’ tapes. He oversaw the charity run-around Dimensions In Time, a misguided 3D experiment for 1993’s Children In Need. By the new millennium the Nathan-Turner years were being re-appraised by a new generation. Sadly, John Nathan-Turner died in 2002, aged just 54. A mere 15 months later, Lorraine Heggesey announced the return of his beloved show to BBC1.
Greatest Achievement: The Caves Of Androzani
Don’t Mention: The Twin Dilemma
Tomorrow, I choose my top five, but who will make it to the top spot?