When you’re new to Doctor Who and looking through its immense history there is a period of time that seems to stick out like tomato soup vomit on the Mona Lisa. This would be the period of 1980-1989; when a man named John Nathan Turner was the man in charge.
From the very beginning every decision he made was controversial. He would push the show in directions that the viewers and technology of the time often weren’t ready for. His ideas were huge, but his budgets were barely adequate to produce an elementary school play. The stories he wanted told were exciting and larger than life. Unfortunately he knew very little about storytelling and often hired the writer who could get the job the fastest rather than do the best work. It was a wild and unpredictable time in the Doctor’s life, and no matter what anyone thinks, it is in its own way iconic.
The first time I saw the Sixth Doctor, Collin Baker, dressed in his amazing technicolor coat, holding a rainbow umbrella over his head of golden curls, I thought, I’m staying far away from those episodes.
At first glance the JNT years appear to contain everything that’s wrong with low-budget sci-fi in the ’80s. The costumes were one step above reject Halloween costumes on the discount rack at KMart. All the colors were wild and splattered everywhere. It was big and over the top. Stronger than all of that however is the passion behind the man running the series.
Despite his obvious misguidedness, John Nathan Turner was someone with an intense love for Doctor Who. He believed in it when the BBC wanted it gone. He fought for it every day. He wanted the show to go places and do things that no show other than Doctor Who could do. His drive and passion were what kept that show going for those nine years. I would even go so far as to say that without him Doctor Who would not exist as we know it now.
I remember the ’80s. A little bit. I remember being three years old. I remember talking to some neighbor about Reagan being the president. I also remember watching Star Trek with my mom on a local station. It came on late at night on the weekends, I think, and it was preceded by a short program called Star Gazer hosted by Jack Horkheimer (it was called Star Hustler in other areas of the United States).
This little guy would come out against a terribly tacky blue screen of some stars and planets, then talk about what you could see in the sky if you went out and looked up. The intro had this whistley theme music that was perfect for the time slot and the images on the screen. Having this PBS program paired with the original Trek always got me jazzed to star gaze myself.
I remember once walking home with my dad and looking up at the stars. I saw the Enterprise cruising over my small town with the theme of Star Gazer playing over it. That was the first time I can recall having science and science-fiction influencing the way I regarded the cosmos.
Since that time, I often have images of space combined with a light, whistley techno sound, not quite the Star Gazer theme, but close. When I focus on this sensation further, I start to imagine a palace of neon lights traveling through the universe. It’s an image I can’t explain. My only theory is that it is some kind of amalgamation of everything sci-fi oriented I cam across at that young age.
So when I finally came to watch some of the ’80s episodes of Doctor Who, I was floored to see this intro:
All those colors bursting through space, the jester grin, and techno music was almost like seeing a realization of this strange brew that had been residing in my head for years. After feeling a kind of kinship with the opening sequence, I decided to delve deeper into this weird and often disrespected time-span in the Doctor Who legacy.
I found nine years of stories that were very far from perfect. Some were outright silly or even bad. But if you look at any extended period of time in a show’s existence you’re bound to come across those moments. If you keep looking though, as I did, you find some truly innovative and brave moments as well. It even contains The Caves of Androzani, which many fans consider to be the finest Doctor Who story ever produced.
My personal favorite things to come out of this time was the casting of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and the invention of , one of my favorite companions, Ace. (I plan on doing an entire post about the McCoy years)
I also love an underdog. JNT was certainly that. People beat on him all the time. They blame him for the show being canceled in 1989. They say if he didn’t make all those shoddy decisions, like all those question marks all over the Doctor’s clothing, the show would have lasted even longer.
Well, that remains to be seen. No one can say for sure how true that is. What can be seen, and what can be said for sure, is that Doctor Who is the show that always changes. It is constantly reinventing itself and bringing new and fresh ideas to life. And JNT kept the essence of the show alive by doing exactly that.
When I watch those episodes I feel an intense nostalgia for something I’ve never really experienced. These are episodes I’ve never seen. Yet I feel as though they’ve always been with me. Something about them lives inside me.
It’s like walking home with my dad and gazing at the stars all over again.