Reviewed: The Black Archive #14 – The Ultimate Foe

Actually, I quite like Trial of a Time Lord.

I didn’t like it at all when it was first transmitted – another example of Who fans disliking something when it’s first aired and then thoroughly revising their opinions. It’s not perfect Doctor Who and it never gets above the level of “pretty good”. Some bits are dreadful; some bits are badly incoherent; some bits are “meh” (the first four episodes, horribly overlit and generally ineptly realised). The last two episodes, which James Cooray Smith’s Black Archive covers, are among the best of the season – and that’s quite extraordinary. To say that their gestation was tortured would be a massive understatement; it’s astonishing that they’re as good as they are.

The book is well written (not always the case with Who factual books) and it’s exhaustively researched. It’ll probably be the final word on The Ultimate Foe – it goes into more depth than anything else that has been published on these episodes. It isn’t just a summary of what’s already been published: there’s a huge amount of new material here, much of which I didn’t know, and it fills in the gaps in our knowledge.

Cooray Smith also includes (and I haven’t seen these before) full details of Robert Holmes’ original script for part 13 and Eric Saward’s original script for part 14. Moreover – and this may come as a surprise – neither were as good as the transmitted versions. (The screened part 13 was heavily rewritten by Saward. Mr Popplewick, who I thought the quintessential Holmesian character, was actually an invention of Saward; he doesn’t appear in the original draft.)  Good insights too into the development of the Valeyard’s character: was he to be a future incarnation of the Doctor, an intermediate stage between regenerations like the Watcher, or the Doctor’s id (which, incidentally, was how Robert Sloman thought of the Master)?

In fact, the book makes for rather a sad read. Much of it is about the breakdown of relationships. Behind the scenes, it was the worst time for Doctor Who in its history.

The two people who come out of this mess with the least credit are Jonathan Powell and Michael Grade. BBC executives rashly cancelled Doctor Who, brought it back with a grudging and teeth-grinding reluctance, slashed its season length, lied about having cancelled it in the first place, and practised the cowardly art of blaming other people for their own stupid decisions: they made scapegoats and they didn’t accept responsibility. No guidance was given to producer, John Nathan-Turner and his team on how Doctor Who was to be improved. The demand to tone down the violence was plucked out of thin air (even though parts of the previous season had indeed been among the most violent in Doctor Who, bar Bill bashing people over the head with a spade in The Reign of Terror). Saward and Nathan-Turner wanted to make something which both their bosses and the viewers would like, and their bosses gave them neither direction nor support. Their behaviour was shameful and irresponsible.

JNT, saddled with a programme he no longer wanted to produce, was abandoned by his superiors and told to get on with it. Both he and his script editor were bewildered and deeply fed up; they’d been badly treated by a department head who hated their work and was bound to carp at what they tried to salvage.

As we know, JNT and Saward had a massive falling out at the end of the season, particularly over the last episode.

Indeed, it’s interesting to compare fan reaction to JNT with fan reaction to the Moff. Hailed initially as the best thing since sliced bread, JNT was progressively vilified and ultimately became, for some, a hate figure. (The viciousness of the personal spite and bile directed towards JNT by some fans far exceeded the grumbling about Moffat today.  Not surprisingly, Nathan-Turner was deeply hurt by it. It’s one thing to dislike someone’s work; it’s quite another to attack them as human beings.) When he produced Tom Baker’s last season, JNT was seen as the programme’s saviour, responsible for reining in Tom Baker’s silliness and thereby controlling the uncontrollable, and overseeing the best run of episodes since the departure of Philip Hinchcliffe (with the possible exception of the heavily Hinchcliffe-influenced first four stories of Williams’ tenure). Davison’s first season was considered by many as very good indeed (with one story the obvious exception) – but the change in fan appreciation came when Davison was cast, with many huffing that the casting was a disaster that ruined Doctor Who for them and they’d never watch the programme again. (Sound familiar?) Once Colin Baker took over, some fans never looked back – and never again looked on Classic Who with love.

And then, of course, we got the revelations about JNT’s nastier behaviour, culminating in Richard Marson’s biography. Clearly, a lot of Nathan Turner’s antics were inexcusable and just plain exploitative. Many felt their loathing of him was vindicated. He was shown to be as bad as they all said he was. He was a vile man, beyond redemption.

And yet… as an ardent reader of biographies, I do sometimes wonder. Biographies dish the dirt. We find out more about their subjects that even their closest friends would have known; all of us do nasty things, all of us hide our ids from others, and I suspect none of us would come out well if an in depth biography of us were to be written.

The other side of JNT was that, on a personal level, he could be a very kind and a very generous man – not just to fans but to colleagues (and not all of his kindness and generosity to his co-workers has been documented). In his earlier days as producer, I was a schoolboy fanzine editor; JNT always answered letters, tried to help, and went far beyond what he needed to do. Busy producers have better things to do than answer schoolboys’ prattlings; JNT always replied to my ravings. Certainly before he was made the target of a hate campaign by some of the more extreme elements of fandom, he cared deeply about the fans and wanted to do his best for them. He didn’t have to, but he did.

And, of course, he and Eric Saward fell out. Saward was going through a dark time personally (well documented in this book), with the death of his friend Robert Holmes, and the professional relationship with JNT broke down entirely. Stuff like this happens. I suspect many of us will have seen tensions develop between former colleagues, who previously got on well, and watch those tensions grow until things become absolutely toxic. It’s sad, but it happens. Part of it is human nature; part of it is unprofessionalism: people too often expect colleagues to be friends and can’t work with them when friendship fails – even though neither friendship nor personal chemistry is essential for a decent working relationship. (I’ve sat on appointment panels where people wanted to appoint someone who’d be a buddy and a bit of a laugh, even though their professional qualifications weren’t as good as some of the other candidates.)

That the final segment of Trial ever made it to the screen is, despite all that has been said against him, testimony to how good a producer JNT was. He managed to salvage something out of a potentially disastrous mess; most people probably wouldn’t have managed it. That what he salvaged was as good as it was demonstrates how underrated he is. New evidence, such as this book provides, suggests it’s time for a reappraisal.

Who else comes out well from all this? Pip and Jane Baker, Robert Holmes (who had – and I didn’t know this – effectively become the programme’s co-script editor), Colin Baker, and the other actors.

And badly? Michael Grade we all know about. Jonathan Powell’s behaviour and attitude were absolutely disgraceful – and not just in that he, like Grade, showed extremely poor judgement in cancelling and then abandoning a programme they personally disliked. It is not acceptable to act on your own feelings in such situations, as though only your own judgement is worth listening to. All the evidence demonstrated both that Doctor Who was still a popular success and that millions still enjoyed it. For a public service broadcaster to ignore what so many wanted demonstrates a gobsmacking lack both of humility and of professional judgement. And far worse was Powell’s failure to support JNT and the production team. He allowed his feelings to get the better of him; his contempt for John Nathan-Turner was grossly immoral. It is not acceptable for a corporation funded by public money – by you and me – to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour among its staff that damages human beings. (No doubt such things have all now been eliminated. No, no doubt whatsoever about that.)

And, of course, there was the dreadful treatment of Colin Baker, who was made the final scapegoat for the breakdown in professional relationships that were nothing to do with him.

The book has yet more revelations. Did you know that it’s a myth that no-one other than JNT was available to sit in Doctor Who’s producer’s chair? Clive Doig, the former vision mixer (he worked on An Unearthly Child in that capacity) was a candidate. So, extraordinarily, was none other than Terrance Dicks, who was around that time producing the classic serials (and who would 1. have been great, and 2. have given us a very different Sixth and Seventh Doctor’s run  – and an Eighth and beyond?).

In sum: The Black Archive #14: The Ultimate Foe is well written (when it could have been dry and dull). It’s fact packed, thoroughly and extensively researched, and fascinating. It’s the best Doctor Who book I’ve read in a long time, indeed.

Recommended!

  • reTARDISed

    Did you mean to say you think Invisible Enemy was Hinchcliffe-influenced? Many thanks for this review: I’m tempted to get this book, as I agree that the last couple of episodes of season 22 are probably the strongest. Was JNT the only one to suffer fan opprobrium, though? I always felt the treatment meted out to Graham Williams was rather unfair, culminating in the insinuation by some that he did not die by accident. Insinuations of failure and suicide should not be made lightly (do such people think that sudden recollection of Nimon and Creature from the Pit suddenly induced Williams to end it all?). It’s just a television programme. I must be also one of the few to remain unimpressed by seasons 18 and 19 overall. I can only think of two stories from those seasons that I’d want to watch more than once (and no, one of them is not Earthshock). I never found that much “silliness” in season 17; the stories themselves were actually quite serious, in the main. Many also forget that Williams was Producer during much of the production of Talons.