The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 1

The John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, Volume 1Order this bookStory: Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner (1980-1990) relates the story of his tenure as the longest-serving producer of the series, virtually guiding it through the entirety of the 1980s until the BBC quietly cancelled it. In this volumes, he takes listeners,episode-by-episode, through his work on the show, starting as a studio floor assistant in the Patrick Troughton story The Space Pirates, through his work as production unit manager, through his rise to the position of producer at the end of Tom Baker’s reign. At the end of the second disc, “JN-T” discusses the 1985 cancellation/hiatus crisis and the beginning of production on The Trial Of A Time Lord.

Review: I’ve had both 2-CD volumes of the late John Nathan-Turner’s memoirs sitting on the shelf for some time, but they sat there until a recent listen to fellow Doctor Who producer Barry Letts’ memoirs spurred me to listen, contrast and compare. As with the two wildly different epochs of Doctor Who itself, trying to compare the two showrunners’ memoirs is an exercise involving apples and oranges.

If there’s one word that applies to JN-T’s memoirs, it would have to be “cursory”. I know it’s an impossible task to compress ten years of intensive work into four 80-minute CDs, but I didn’t necessarily expect a set of bullet-point memories from every single Doctor Who serial the man produced. He has to march fairly briskly from one set of memories to the next, and with only a few exceptions, the entire first two discs that make up this volume (later sold as a single 4-CD package) feel incredibly rushed. Even the casting process that led to Peter Davison and Colin Baker taking on the mantle of the Time Lord is rushed. The 1985 cancellation and the making of The Five Doctors may well be the two specific topics that receive the most coverage…. and honestly, I didn’t expect to reach the cancellation in the first 2-CD volume. (Nor did I expect the first of those two CDs to race from the Troughton era to The Five Doctors.)

Some fans may be disappointed to hear that many of JN-T’s memories of various episodes are of extracurricular activities – hanging out at the bar with cast and crew after location shoots (including one hilarious “oh no you didn’t!” anecdote involving a tabloid reporter) and that sort of thing. If you’re interested in a peek into the mood and relationships among the Doctor Who repertory company, such as it was, this is interesting stuff. If you’re wanting to hear warts-and-all dirt on the creative process behind scripts, story arcs and character development, you may find these details frivolous.

If anything disappoints me by the end of the second CD, it’s this: we know a lot about John Nathan-Turner’s work on Doctor Who, and precious little about John Nathan-Turner the man. His love of the theater is already well-known, but little is revealed here that we didn’t already know. Perhaps a little more disappointingly, quite a few of the anecdotes on display are well-worn from convention appearances, behind-the-scenes books, and so forth. I didn’t pop this into the CD player with the hope that I’d be hearing dirt dished, but there was a definite feeling of having heard, frankly, over 50% of it before. Unlike Barry Letts, who discusses giving Doctor Who a moral compass of sorts, JN-T reveals very little in the way of any underlying philosophy behind his era of the show. This was the sort of thing that he seemed to prefer leaving up to the script editor.

These omissions become truly sad in the context that we’ve lost John Nathan-Turner since he recorded his memoirs for Big Finish. There’s no going back to elaborate on any of it (and a later batshit-crazy Doctor Who Magazine interview with his partner, Gary Downie, doesn’t really help matters in retrospect). This is what we’re left with: cursory. And rushed. A pity.

Year: 2004
Author: John Nathan-Turner
Publisher: Big Finish Productions
Tutal running time: 2:18:06