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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Nathan-Turner And The Sociopathetic Abscess

The "With-drawing" room in Tamworth Castle,
designed as a grand public room for the noble family and visitors

Part 3 in a series on the Doctor Who story "State of Decay" by Terrance Dicks

Romana and the Doctor looked around. They were in a huge circular chamber, walls decorated with rich and somber hangings. On a raised dais at the far end were twin thrones, side by side. The whole place had an atmosphere of gloomy splendor, and was obviously some kind of formal state room. There was a man and a woman, tall and thin, with white faces and glittering black eyes, both gorgeously robed. The man said, "Greetings." His voice was cold, with a hissing quality. "I am the Lord Zargo. This is the Lady Camilla."

--from the novelization Doctor Who and the State of Decay by Terrance Dicks

In his attempt to prepare "State Of Decay" for production, John Nathan-Turner's (JNT) new Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead had gone to war with writer Terrance Dicks. After ceding a draw, Bidmead had taken it upon himself to comprehensively rewrite Dicks' script. While the new version might reflect JNT's ideas for updating Doctor Who to meet contemporary tastes, it also caused director Peter Moffatt to tender his resignation. 

This placed John Nathan-Turner in the worst position possible. Should he alienate a former Script Editor and long-term writer for the series, who had novelized many of the Doctor's previous adventures, a writer so beloved by Doctor Who fans? Remember: older Doctor Who stories weren't repeated very often in Britain. Nor had the home video revolution yet occurred, which would make it possible to purchase and replay any story that BBC Enterprises had released on VHS videotape. The only way fans could discover and relive those old stories was to purchase the Doctor Who novelizations, many of which were written by the prolific Terrance Dicks. 

But then, Terrance Dicks didn't work for John Nathan-Turner, and wasn't responsible for commissioning, shaping, and shepherding scripts through the preproduction process. That duty fell to new Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead, who shared JNT's ideas, and worked hard to incorporate them into commissioned scripts. Peter Moffatt might have been JNT's friend (or at least a director he admired), but like writers, directors only worked on individual stories. They came and went, as their schedules and interests dictated. Should he allow Peter Moffatt to walk away from Doctor Who, after watching him masterfully direct episodes of All Creatures Great and Small? Regardless of what he decided, JNT risked disappointing and alienating people who could prove tremendously valuable to him in the future. And then there was the fact that it was his first time producing any show, let alone one as popular and long-running as Doctor Who. Whatever decision he made, the BBC hierarchy would be watching.

"What is--is," said Lady Camilla, as if that explained everything. 

"Ah yes," said the Doctor argumentatively. "But what is--is wrong. Look, societies develop in varying ways, but they all develop. Yours seems to be sliding back into some sort of primitivism. Don't you agree, Romana?"

"Oh yes. A society that evolves backwards must be subject to some exceptionally powerful force."

"The rebels seem to think that force emanates from this Tower. From you."

"They flatter us," said Lady Camilla."

"After all," said Lord Zargo smoothly, "in any society there is bound to be a division between the rulers and the ruled."

"A division!" The Doctor was indignant. "More of a yawning chasm, I'd say, wouldn't you, Romana?"

"I'd say a sociopathetic abscess, to be precise."

"A very good diagnosis, couldn't have put it better myself. Yes, a sociopathetic abscess. I've never seen such a state of decay."

As in our own lives, TV shows run to a schedule, and it's just as important to complete a project on time as it is do it as best as you possibly can. As John Nathan-Turner was Lord of the Doctor Who castle, so the responsibility for the entire production was his. This was a test of his ability to be a producer: his time to demonstrate his worthiness for the huge responsibility with which he had been entrusted. So he walked into Christopher H Bidmead's office, and when he walked out, he handed Peter Moffatt a version of the script that better represented the story Moffatt had fallen in love with, that fired the director's imagination, and made him yearn to deliver the best TV show possible. Then he no doubt returned to his office, shut the door, and attempted to not think about the possible repercussions of making such a draconian decision.

I may not agree with all of the decisions John Nathan-Turner made during his tenure as producer of Doctor Who, but I respect the fact that he made decisions to reflect the evolving nature of British society in the 1980s. Just like JNT, we all have to make hard decisions, and they're hard because we know that those around us may disagree with them. Those decisions risk negatively impacting those we care about and rely upon. Yet, we must make those hard decisions, or watch our lives, work, and relationships evolve backwards, or to decay. 

And let's face it: no one wants an abscess. Of any kind. 

Dragon Dave

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