With Doctor Who off the air for eighteen months everyone involved was, for obvious reasons, interested in finding some way to get some new Doctor Who out. And so they ended up doing a radio series of six ten minute episodes written by Eric Saward. The end home of this series was part of a BBC Radio 4 children’s magazine show entitled Pirate Radio 4. Since he was writing for an overtly children’s audience Saward, to his credit, recognized that his usual space marine action approach was a no go. Accordingly, he channelled Douglas Adams.
Let’s not forget that one of the foundational myths of the Nathan-Turner era is that the show was irrevocably broken by the Graham Williams era and that it was “silly.” Eric Saward was among the pilers-on, accusing the Williams era of insulting the audience. Now, suddenly, he’s trying to mimic the approach of Williams’s script editor?
The problem is that between the time when that myth was laid down – 1980 or so – and 1985 – there’d been a necessary reevaluation of things. In 1980 Douglas Adams was a comedy writer who’d had a decent success with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the novel coming out towards the end of his time on the show. Accordingly, he could be dismissed as having made the show silly. But 1985 he’d gotten to book four of the trilogy and was a reliably best-selling author. And suddenly he was a major point of legitimacy for Doctor Who – someone the program wanted to boast about its association with instead of boasting about moving past.
But more than that, there is something odd about the spectacle of Eric Saward writing light comedy. I mean, he attempted dark comedy on a regular basis – there’s a great moment in the infamous Starburst interview when, pressed on the idea that Doctor Who isn’t funny anymore, he pointed out that Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors, and Revelation of the Daleks are all comedies. Which, I mean, they technically are, but… this is clearly not what those critics meant. This, though, is the only real instance of him doing an extended piece of straightforward comedy in Doctor Who on his own initiative (as opposed to in the course of a salvage job).
It’s not very good, but it’s not very good in the same ways that The Visitation is not very good – a case of the whole being markedly less than the sum of its recycled parts. Many, if not most, of the ideas are genuinely funny, but the story is in many ways wholly encapsulated by the drunk ditz computer, a funny idea that overstays its welcome by a considerable margin. Still, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation. Doctor Who has always faltered when people attempt explicitly “for children” versions of it. This is no worse than The Pescatons before it or The Infinite Quest after it, if we’re being honest. Indeed, it’s probably better than either.
No, here once again we have something where the biggest factor in its critical reception seems to be what era it’s a part of as opposed to a judgment of quality as such. Which is not to mount a defense of Slipback so much as to note that as Eric Saward’s weakest bit of Doctor Who writing by far it acquires all of the excess hatred of Eric Saward. But what’s interesting about it is that it provides a good window into Eric Saward himself, a figure who has been much contested over the past few seasons on this blog.
The trouble with Saward, at least from a critic’s perspective, is that he’s not quite as bad as would be useful. I mean, obviously we all want to find someone to blame for the train wreck of the Colin Baker years and the squandered potential of the Davison years. John Nathan-Turner, having presided over the quite good Bidmead and Cartmel years, can’t absorb all of the blame, though he certainly gets given a large portion of it. Which means that we want to direct the blame at Saward. He, after all, oversees the bulk of the parts of the 80s where the show doesn’t work. If we really want to get creative and blame Season 24 on him, that’s certainly doable (though I much prefer enjoying Season 24). So, you know, if it looks like a goat and bleats like a goat you may as well send it out into the desert.
But there are some problems here, and the main one is that Saward isn’t that bad a writer. Yes, all five of his stories came in for some sharp criticism on this blog, but of them he has only one abject turkey, and even it’s better than the two season openers before it. The faults of Saward are maddeningly hard to pin down. Even the most obvious – that he’s more interested in the violence around the Doctor than in the Doctor himself – doesn’t quite stick after Revelation of the Daleks given that the violence around the Doctor is so interesting there. Still, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the program takes a dramatic downturn that coincides almost precisely with his tenure as script editor. So what, exactly, is the problem if not that Saward is a rubbish writer?
Back when Saward first arrived on the scene I suggested that even from the beginning his work was best understood as a weak imitation of Robert Holmes. Now, with Slipback, we have the same phenomenon with a different source writer: weak imitations of Douglas Adams. We can add to that the weak Evelyn Waugh imitation in Revelation of the Daleks. All of this begins to shape up to a pattern gestured at from the start – Saward’s taste exceeds his talent. He tries to write like good writers and can’t quite pull it off.
Or perhaps more accurately, Saward’s taste exceeds his confidence. If anything, I think Saward’s work and tenure on the series tends to demonstrate a real anxiety about other writers. It’s easy to observe that for all of his complaining about having to use writers like Pip and Jane Baker or Glen McCoy that the good writers he had found tended to vanish after one or two stories. The Lost Stories line shows that rejected scripts by Bailey, Bidmead, and Clegg existed. He shows a similar aversion to importing well-known writers from elsewhere. We’ve seen how good The Song of Megaptera actually was, and Saward’s behavior in and around the Christopher Priest debacle is easy to criticize. (About Time quotes a letter to a fan inquiring why the show didn’t use writers like Priest that says “the names of writers you quoat are novalists. Infact one of them has attempted to write a Doctor Who script with disasterous results. That is why we don’t use novalists.” Priest received a formal apology for this, apparently.) Equally, he was quick to ally with Robert Holmes, and clearly had respect for Philip Martin, so it’s not as though he only surrounded himself with hacks, but equally, any suggestion that the writers just weren’t there in the Saward era is, as we’ve seen, nonsense.
I am loathe to take the psychoanalytic tack when dealing with writers, but it is difficult to ignore the sense of Saward as desperate to prove himself the equal of writers he admires, terrified of being outshone, and unable to escape his influences enough to distinguish himself. But in this regard Saward is not so much the scapegoat on which to pin the era’s failures but a tragic figure.
Let’s consider, first of all, Eric Saward’s television experience prior to writing The Visitation. Well. That was a short list. OK, let’s move on to his television experience prior to becoming script editor then: The Visitation. If ever there was a case of promoting someone too fast, this is surely it. Even Douglas Adams had a few miscellaneous television credits stretching back a few years. If we look at The Visitation as what it is – the first produced television script of a writer – it’s got considerable potential. Yes, it’s a Robert Holmes knock-off, but it’s mostly capable and he’s ripping off the right stuff. It’s just that nothing about it screamed “this is the man who should be in charge of shaping the writing for Doctor Who for the next five years.” It may have screamed “take this writer under your wing and in three years you’ll have a good writer,” but that’s not what the program did.
We’ve also talked about the sheer size of the task facing the program in this era. With the family audience it had catered to for twenty years evaporating, science fiction making massive leaps and bounds as the doors opened by Star Wars are casually walked through on a regular basis, and the increasing rise of a wide variety of alternative culture along with some exceedingly divisive politics of the sort science fiction was all but made to comment on the business of making Doctor Who exciting and interesting in the mid-80s was as difficult as at any time in its life. It needed a very steady pair of hands in 1981, and that’s not what it got.
So yeah, the untested writer at the start of his television career couldn’t cut it on that big a stage. But, I mean, this is hardly surprising. It’s worth asking whether a writer we’ve mostly praised like Terrence Dicks could have cut it in the mid-80s either. There’s a moment on the Trials and Tribulations documentary where Ian Levine accuses John Nathan-Turner of deliberately avoiding older Doctor Who writers who, as he puts it, could write Doctor Who in their sleep. It’s true, but surely, in the mid-80s, when Doctor Who needed nothing so much as bold new ideas, the last people you want to write it are ones who can do conventional Doctor Who reflexively. The other writer Levine mentions – Holmes – certainly could do Doctor Who in his sleep, but notably hardly ever did. But Dicks, much as I love his writing, is a solid source of extremely traditional straight-up Doctor Who yarns. None of his skills would have helped in 1985 either. He was, in many ways, as fortunate to work on the program in the early 1970s as Saward was unfortunate to be working on it in the early 1980s.
To Saward’s credit, then, he was trying the right stuff. We’ll look next time at what top notch BBC drama in 1985/86 looked like, but it’s not nearly as far from what Saward is trying to do with the program as his critics would have you believe. It’s just that, well, Saward isn’t good enough to pull off what Dennis Potter or Troy Kennedy Martin can do either.
Unfortunately, between his meltdown criticizing Nathan-Turner in the aftermath of Trial and his being at the helm for the hiatus, Doctor Who marked the end of his television career. And the thing is, Slipback really suggests that this is maddeningly unfortunate. Because for all of its multitude of faults and sins the reality is that Slipback is, much like The Visitation, a merely half-bad Douglas Adams knockoff. Which suggests that Saward has both taste and versatility. And, let’s be honest, no small measure of talent. What he never got the chance to develop was experience and style.
Because frankly, crap scripts are what writers do early on. Robert Holmes had to get The Krotons and The Space Pirates out of his system before he became the Robert Holmes we all know and love. Does anyone seriously believe that if he’d been put in as script editor after The Krotons and had to mastermind the Pertwee era it would have gone off without a hitch? People have rough starts to writing. Hell, go look at the early entries in this blog – my Marco Polo entry as it appears here is absolutely cringeworthy. (The book version ain’t half bad, if I may say so myself.)
In the end, Saward had very, very good instincts on who to imitate and what to try to do. He didn’t have the execution down early in his career, and he was put in far too high a position far too quickly, and, crucially, before he’d had a chance to develop his own style instead of attempting mimicry. It’s easy to imagine an Eric Saward whose career was allowed to develop normally and who became quite a good television writer in the mid-to-late 80s. But that’s an Eric Saward who didn’t get tapped for one of the hardest jobs in television wildly prematurely.
Saward, in the end, tried the right things. Better writers than him would have floundered as well. Yes, Saward’s failings were exceedingly bad for the show. But of the two of them, Saward fared the worse, and we ought give him no small measure of sympathy for it.