Wednesday 14 August 2013

WTF JNT? or, season structure in '80s Dr Who

Apparently he tried to watch Arc Of Infinity in one sitting

You know, I didn't want to get into the hoary old fan debate of “what exactly John Nathan-Turner did wrong” this soon. I mean, if I see this project through to the end I'll have another eight seasons of his to sit through and Season 21 isn't even the worst. There's also the fact that the debate has been gone over so many times and there are so many incompatible first-hand accounts of what actually happened that it seems kind of pointless to dive into it at this late stage.

Season 21, however, is too good an example of one problem to let it pass without comment. You see, the structure of the season is absolute crap.

We dealt with the season opener, Warriors Of The Deep, in depth last Friday but the quick version is this: it brings back monsters no one would remember, forgets what made them interesting to start with and had to be made with a massive cut in production time due to a general election. The middle of the season features three stories in which at least one main cast member enters or leaves and then is capped off by the infamously cheap and abysmal The Twin Dilemma that rebrands the Doctor as a physically abusive, selfish coward.

Structure is not the strong point of JNT's years in charge. It should be said in his defence that his first season had a good opener and finale but since it began with a bold new look and ended in Tom Baker's regeneration I don't know how much we can credit the production team with actually thinking about it so much as circumstances conspiring to make those stories memorable. Even in Season 18, though, we have the E-Space Trilogy whose middle story was an unused script from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era that had sod all to do with the overarching theme.

Season finales seem to be the worst affected with duds like Time-Flight and The Ultimate Foe, low-key fare like The King's Demons and even Revelation Of The Daleks which looks like an event story on spec but gives the Doctor and Peri practically nothing to do and resolves almost without their involvement in the main plot.

Now, I know we can't expect 1980s television to conform to modern expectations. I can't go into these stories expecting a long season arc, not even in the seasons that claim to have one. The Key To Time, for instance, is more of a background theme than the driving force behind most stories in Season 16. What I can expect, though, is for the producer to know that a season opener should be a belter to grab audience attention and the finale should be an exciting story so they remember to tune in next year.

I can expect this because I know Doctor Who managed this in the 1970s. The '60s were a different beast: the show was on for forty-plus weeks a year and produced with almost zero lead time so seasons didn't really exist, it was a continuous serial. The Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years, however, cracked it.

Pertwee's five seasons have an attention-grabbing opener (New Doctor! New arch-nemesis! Daleks! Three Doctors! New companion!) and close with suitably epic confrontations (Doctor versus fascist UNIT! The Master summons the Devil! The Master versus the Doctor for the fate of Atlantis! Jo leaves! Pertwee leaves!). The Tom Baker seasons make the epic nature of the finale structural by having them be the only six-parters in five out of Baker's seven seasons (today we are counting Shada). His openers don't have the one-line summary punch of Pertwee's but they were usually written by some of the top talent the show had and were consistently well-produced.

Yet somehow in the 1980s supposedly fan-pleasing but general audience-alienating stories like Arc Of Infinity and Warriors Of The Deep seemed like the sort of thing the season should open with. In hindsight, if I had to choose any story to open Season 21 it would be Frontios. Now, I'll have some criticisms of Frontios when I get to it but nothing as dire or systemic as Warriors Of The Deep. It even has a fantastic shock moment when the TARDIS is seemingly destroyed.

But no: twelve years absent monsters and a depressing ending. Still, as I say there are some good stories in the middle.

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