|Tom Baker increasingly gets the sense that he’s stayed in|
this role a little too long.
It’s August 30th, 1980. David Bowie is at number one with “Ashes to Ashes,” a phenomenal song that I should probably just link to Chris O’Leary’s phenomenal blog post on. A week later The Jam take over with “Start.” Then comes Kelly Marie with “Feels Like I’m in Love,” which holds the spot through the end of the story. Gary Numan, Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, ABBA, and Queen all chart.
Since Graham Crowden cracked up while dying and ignoring what we covered in the hypothetical during Shada, the Soviet Union has its first rock music festival, then kills fifty as a Volstok-2M rocket explodes on the launchpad. The US announces it will boycott the 1980 Olympics, and also does so. Riots break out in the St. Pauls area of Bristol. The origins of the riot are unclear, but the underlying racial tensions and anger over police racial profiling are searingly obvious. The US severs diplomatic relations with Iran and mounts a disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages held there.
Speaking of Iran, terrorists take over the Iranian embassy in London. the SAS retakes it five days later. Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, kills himself. A month later Joy Division has its first charting single with “Love Will Tear Us Apart. Both The Empire Strikes Back and Pac-Man come out, one the day after the other. CNN is launched and, eight days later, gets to cover Richard Pryor immolating himself while trying to freebase cocaine. 1700 people die in a heat wave in the US. And Ronald Reagan wins the Republican nomination for President at a convention where, bowing to pressure from the Religious Right, the party drops its support for the Equal Rights Amendment. By legend copies of JG Ballard’s story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” are passed around at the convention by people mistaking them as a serious study of Reagan’s strengths as a candidate.
While during this story Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope run to raise awareness of cancer comes to an end when it turns out that his cancer has spread to his lungs. There’s a military coup in Turkey, the Solidarity union is founded in Poland after weeks of strikes in Gdansk, and, um… not a lot else, I’m afraid, so let’s move on to The Leisure Hive.
As I’ve suggested in several entries, the drama of the gap between the Williams and Nathan-Turner eras is in many ways a product of Nathan-Turner’s own invention. There are many ways to frame this fact. Certainly what I’ve referred to as the fan-industrial complex plays in. This is visible even in looking at artifacts from the time period. What is now Doctor Who Magazine started in the closing days of the Williams era as Doctor Who Weekly and consisted purely of comics and lashed together text pieces on the history of the program. But as Nathan-Turner took over two things happened. First, the magazine changed to Doctor Who Monthly. Second, and more importantly, it started to actively engage with the program that was actually on the air.
Let’s say that again, because it’s a fact about the magazine that is absolutely crucial to everything that’s going to happen over the next decade that is nevertheless almost wholly unremarked on. Durng the Williams era, which the magazine overlapped for a good few months, the magazine did not actually directly refer to what was going on in Doctor Who itself at all save for in its letter pages. It was purely a Doctor Who comic book with some text pieces. Then John Nathan-Turner took over and began implementing the obvious practice of actually connecting to the TV series. This started with a location report of the Brighton filming for The Leisure Hive, then continued with photo previews of upcoming stories, interviews with Nathan-Turner, the magazine’s first ever review of a televised story (Jeremy Bentham’s exceedingly congratulatory take on The Leisure Hive, which went out of its way to credit John Nathan-Turner with immediately improving the show’s quality), an end-of-season retrospective with John Nathan-Turner, etc.
In other words, as of this story Doctor Who began historicizing itself even as it was made. The paratext (a term in literary criticism and theory that basically means “all the stuff about a book that isn’t the actual string of characters constituting the book” – i.e. the cover, the advertising, interviews with the author, etc) of Doctor Who is, as of now, part of Doctor Who. And this is not something that has ever or will ever stop. From The Leisure Hive on any competent reading of Doctor Who has to remain aware of the paratext because the paratext is genuinely part of the storytelling. Things happen on screen that have dramatic resonance provided to them by what happens off-screen.
Last entry I suggested that there were techniques that were unique to television. This is one of them – an expansion of the principle suggested by the cliffhanger that has been invoked by this blog for some time. If we take the cliffhanger not as a momentary event but as a week-long process of interaction with the narrative then Nathan-Turner’s approach of having a continual story of Doctor Who’s production running alongside the show is an expansion of this. Doctor Who, from this point on, begins actively telling its story not merely through what happens on screen but through what happens off the screen and during the moments the show is not transmitting. (Eventually a paratextual model of film arises – it’s central to the way that the “summer blockbuster” now works, with the actual release of the movie merely being the climactic event of an often years-long paratextual piece of storytelling – but it starts with television and Doctor Who is an early adopter.)
If we wanted to be cheeky, and we kind of do because that’s just how we are, we could suggest that this, more than anything, is the real revolution of the Nathan-Turner years. Certainly it is a real revolution, and one that eventually proves to have a nasty, nasty downside for the program. The fan-industrial complex and all of its problems are, in many ways, simply a disastrous execution of this idea of using the paratext of television as part of the storytelling. To some extent this problem can be summed up as “it eventually gets to where the only way to follow Doctor Who is to be an obsessive fan.” And, correspondingly, one of the successes of the new series can be summed up as “it figured out how to make much of the paratext a value-added extra instead of a prerequisite.” (Though notably, some paratext is necessary to understanding the show at all. The new series requires that the audience know what a season premiere or a season finale is in a way that the classic series never did.)
But it’s not. Even if the biggest part of the John Nathan-Turner revolution was in fact the announcement of the John-Nathan Turner revolution, it’s not the only part. The nature of paratextual storytelling is that it tends to rely on a fairly complex linkage of events. First the John Nathan-Turner revolution is announced in the pages of Doctor Who Monthly. Then when the series premieres there are a host of superficial but visible changes. A new title sequence, new theme music, a new costume for the Doctor, and a new style to the incidental music all create a strong sense of change. None of these are huge changes to the show, of course. Several are things that have happened before without major comment.
But again you can see Nathan-Turner constructing a complex meta-narrative of Doctor Who. Changing all of those things at once, including something as inviolate as the theme music, which had remained virtually unaltered in its iconic (and most brilliant) Delia Derbyshire arrangement since 1963, makes a powerful statement of reinvention even if you don’t do anything else at all. Combined with the bits of heraldry in Doctor Who Monthly you get a very effective performance of a revolution.
I don’t mean this to suggest that the John Nathan-Turner revolution was all hype. It wasn’t. What I mean to suggest is that the John Nathan-Turner revolution was stage-managed. It was a carefully designed event. Considerable time and effort was made to have The Leisure Hive appear like a big change. And this is where Miles and Wood’s competing reviews on this story fall flat. Wood stages a cute little experiment of showing people a clip of The Leisure Hive and a clip of The Nightmare of Eden and asking which one was the “slick, modern” production, and takes the fact that Nightmare of Eden was said to look better as evidence that there was no Nathan-Turner revolution. Miles, for his part, goes to great lengths to show how anyone who was paying attention would have noticed the difference.
But neither of them bother to think about the fact that even someone paying no attention at all would notice that one of the most iconic theme songs in television history had changed. What happens after the fade to the Brighton beach is almost immaterial to this. You don’t need to be paying attention. The series is screaming at the top of its lungs “I have been reinvented.” That constitutes a reinvention. Anyone watching would have an immediate and tangible sense that something was different. The question is whether they could have articulated what beyond the superficial.
But in some ways it’s best if they couldn’t. This story and the next are often read as “false starts” for an era that begins in proper with Full Circle. But this attitude misses the point. Nathan-Turner is engaging in a savvier sort of television making than that. There are in effect two Nathan-Turner revolutions that go on simultaneously but at different paces. The first is the visible revolution marked by the paratextual material. The second is a still visible but much subtler revolution, which is slower. Part of this second revolution is the emergence of the paratext as part of Doctor Who, but there are other components of it as well.
These other components also help explain why this was a slow revolution. For one thing, they’re considerably more complex – indeed, Nathan-Turner has some genuine problems with some parts of them, which is why both The Leisure Hive and Meglos are kind of weak as stories. For another, large parts of them are simply a matter of accelerating the changes that were already happening in the late Williams era – most obviously in Destiny of the Daleks and The Nightmare of Eden.
Simply put, Nathan-Turner wanted to change the show from being about comedy to being about visual science fiction storytelling. But he made this change over several stories. In this regard, the change is much like previous changes. Hinchcliffe didn’t just junk the UNIT format and run off cackling in another direction. He engaged in a two and a half year steady separation of the Doctor from Earth-centric storytelling. Lloyd didn’t just abandon historicals in favor of bases under siege in one week. Letts worked within the inherited UNIT structure for six stories before doing Colony in Space.
And Nathan-Turner started with a comedy script from David Fisher that he tried to do a better job with. This had mixed results. His decision to cut out all of the jokes was misguided, not least because it required padding like the absurdly bad sequence in excess of a minute and a half pan across beach chairs on an abandoned Brighton beach. (This also gets at what will eventually prove the more problematic aspect of Nathan-Turner’s use of the paratext. He defended it in an interview on the grounds that they had to reintroduce the series and introduce Baker’s new costume. Left conspicuously unanswered [and courteously unasked] is why the heck the fact that Tom Baker is wearing new clothes would need to be actively introduced or how 90 seconds of beach chairs accomplished any of this.) The result is a story that feels confused, as if it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Which, to be fair, it doesn’t.
But Nathan-Turner also takes a decisive step towards fixing another problem – one that is probably essential to the series surviving the season. Over the course of the Williams era Doctor Who very much became the Tom Baker Show. This is not inherently a bad thing. Tom Baker is a marvelous performer, his Doctor is understandably the most popular of the classic series Doctors, and the Tom Baker Show was reliably entertaining and often much better than anything else going on in an episode. But the Tom Baker Show has one major weakness that Doctor Who doesn’t, which is that if Tom Baker leaves it’s dead in the water.
Simply put, it’s very difficult to imagine how Doctor Who could have survived under Graham Williams if Tom Baker had actually carried through on his frequent threats to quit. Not that Williams couldn’t have done anything else – truth be told Williams probably would have made a better show with someone other than Baker starring in it. But that Baker was irreplaceable within the context of what the show was. And The Leisure Hive goes to considerable lengths to decentralize Baker. Sure, the opening – a 90 second boring shot that finally gives us Baker – is as flagrant an instance of “let’s all cherish the leading man” as the show has ever engaged in, but by the end of the first episode Baker is being rent from limb to limb as he screams. And the end of the second episode dramatically hyper-ages the Doctor into a decrepit old man. It’s a small thing, but it flags that the Doctor is vulnerable. He’s not the narrative center of the universe. And misguided as it is, the reduction in the number of jokes plays at that as well. By removing the means by which Baker dominates the story and making him vulnerable, Nathan-Turner, from the first episode of his tenure, is working to make it so that the show can handle Baker’s eventual departure.
And then there’s the visuals. Which are markedly different. But for that it’s probably necessary to have examples. So, since it’s been a few months, let’s do a video blog, shall we?