Doctor Who Convention Encounters: John Nathan-Turner

I’ve written a lot about different actors that I’ve met at Doctor Who-themed conventions.  But it hasn’t been just actors…I’ve also met a few members of the production team.

Specifically, I once saw John Nathan-Turner (not to be confused with “John-Nathan Turner”, who is probably a real person somewhere, but not relevant to today’s discussion) who worked as crew on Doctor Who for many years, notably as a Production Manager, before becoming the series’ 9th and longest-serving producer.

(Daily Doctor Who #123)

Nathan-Turner’s producership began with the series’ 18th season, which was Tom Baker’s last year on the show.  He went on to produce the series until it ended with Season 26, making him ultimately responsible for 47 full-length stories over, I believe, 156 episodes.

He was responsible for casting three different Doctors (Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy), which is also more than any other main series producer, assuming we don’t count all those “extra” Doctors that Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall liked to sneak in. 

There were things that John Nathan-Turner really did well as producer.  He brought a slightly harder science fiction edge to the stories and pulled back on some of the silliness that had snuck into the series.  He also did a much better than his predecessor at giving the departing companions meaningful goodbyes. 

Great companion, terrible departure…
Not the greatest companions, but outstanding departure…

On the other hand, there were things that Nathan-Turner did that were more questionable.  One of the most obvious, to my thinking, was his costume design.  Suddenly, the Doctor and his companions look like they are wearing costumes all the time, rather than just wearing clothes.

Compare the two versions of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.  Both are costumes, but one advertises that fact a lot more strongly than the other.

A jumble of clothes
Carefully tailored costume

He also oversaw the series through its most tumultuous period in its history, with the show being put on an unexpected hiatus for 18 months, its lead actor being fired (Colin Baker) and basically being under regular threat of cancellation.

In any case, for all his strengths and weaknesses, it’s definitely clear that John Nathan-Turner helped keep the series alive for those last nine seasons, especially as things were declining toward the end.  And in so doing, he delivered some good stories, like…

The Keeper of Traken

The Visitation

Revelation of the Daleks

…and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

This included a couple of the series’ best ever adventures, Caves of Androzani

and Remembrance of the Daleks.

In any case, John Nathan-Turner was a guest at the Visions ’93 convention that I attended in Chicago, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the show.  I didn’t hear him speak (that I can recall) but I did catch his photograph on the autograph line.

And in that same line (I assume), I got his autograph–in my book, since it seems like there aren’t really 8×10 glossy photos of producers in the same way there are of actors.

We also benefited from his presence because he brought with him a copy of Dimensions in Time, that we got to watch in a special screening.

This is a little mini-adventure that Nathan-Turner actually wrote, which aired as part of Children in Need, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the series.  It featured all the living Doctors at the time, plus loads of monsters and about a dozen companions.

It is almost universally agreed that Dimensions in Time is really bad, but you have to remember…at the time, this was the first Doctor Who to come on TV for three years, and there was no solid hints that there was anything else on the way.  Also, there was no internet or Youtube at the time, and in general it was actually quite tricky to watch Doctor Who at all, especially in the United States.  And certainly there was no way to watch this little charity special.  So now you can just watch Dimensions in Time with just a few keystrokes into a search engine, but at the time it was a real treat.

John Nathan-Turner wasn’t the only member of the production team to attend that convention.  Director Christopher Barry was also there (the guy behind 43 episodes of Doctor Who featuring the first four Doctors, including the very first Dalek episodes) but I don’t remember seeing him at all. 

Also, Gary Downie was there, the Production Manager for the show for a bunch of stories, mostly with the Seventh Doctor.  Gary Downie was actually John Nathan-Turner’s partner, which is not something I understood at the time at all.  You can see him in the photo up above next to Nathan-Turner.  I also got his autograph.

Doctor Who is a show that invites people to talk about their favorites…their favorite Doctor, their favorite companion, their favorite monster, TARDIS design, opening title sequence…and even favorite Producer.

I have my favorites, but I’ve always appreciated all of it.  While there’s stuff that could have been better in every story, there’s also some really cool stuff in every era of the show, including that delivered by Mr. Nathan-Turner and his production team. 

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