How the cloister bell rang the changes with John Nathan-Turner’s first year at the helm with Doctor Who Season 18.
Despite being a franchise that has managed the remarkable feat of retaining a single continuity for 59 years, the history of Doctor Who is littered with seismic changes and relaunches. There was the move to being Earthbound in colour in 1970, the American reimagining in 1996, Russell T Davies’ 2005 revivals, and Chris Chibnall’s sudden shift to cinematic visuals and kitchen sink characterisation – not to mention the upcoming “bold reinvention” Davies has promised with his return. But Doctor Who Season 18 will always be remembered as one of the most dramatic.
As the sun dawned on 1980, change was in the air for the show that had then been on television for 17 years. John Nathan-Turner had been working on Doctor Who in one capacity or another since 1969’s ‘The Space Pirates.’ Capable and likeable, over the next decade he moved up the ranks, being recruited as Doctor Who producer Graham Williams’ production unit manager for Seasons 15-17. Then named as Williams’ successor, he was perfectly placed to have very firm ideas about how he felt the show could be improved for Doctor Who Season 18.
Nathan-Turner’s vision involved overhauling almost every aspect of the show to establish it in a new decade. Composer Peter Howell was recruited to record an entirely new version of Ron Grainer’s theme tune; a version which for the very first time didn’t include any of Delia Derbyshire’s original recording. Urgent and pacey, it replaced eerie atmosphere with a sense of exciting forward movement – an effect slightly blunted, admittedly, when its first use on ‘The Leisure Hive’ led into the longest, most ponderous tracking shot in Doctor Who history.
The Fourth Doctor was weighed down by a heavy, carefully designed new look, mirroring Tom Baker’s own feelings about the changes
The incidental music for Doctor Who Season 18 changed too. Long running composer Dudley Simpson, who had created the music for 201 episodes, was informed his services were no longer required and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was brought in to create modern synthesiser driven scores. Add a brand new title sequence of rapidly passing stars, and a neon tube logo, and the entire look and sound of the show had been refreshed.
Even the Doctor himself no longer looked quite the same. Tom Baker was still in place for Doctor Who Season 18, entering his seventh year in the TARDIS. But while his previous outfits skilfully simulated the bohemian style of a man grabbing whatever came to hand each morning, his new all-burgundy look seemed carefully designed.
Moreover, while Baker had often had signature pieces he mixed and matched in different combinations from story to story, his new outfit didn’t vary across the season’s seven stories. It was the beginning of an attempt to make Doctor Who more marketable as a product, giving the Doctor and his companions a consistent, easily identifiable visual identity.
The many heavy layers of the costume, consisting of a woolen greatcoat, velvet waistcoat, shirt, 24′ chenille wool scarf and, originally, a tweed norfolk jacket, visibly weighed Baker down. It was symbolic of Baker’s entire situation. For seven years the actor hadn’t just been Doctor Who’s star but one of its dominant creative voices, whether by shared ideas on the direction of the show or his own considerable force of personality. But Nathan-Turner made clear that this new era could have only one leader, and Baker’s unhappiness with many of the changes showed through in his unusually downbeat performance.
New script editor Christopher H Bidmead brought a mix of scientific jargon and dreamlike logic to the show
To assist him in creating this new template for Doctor Who, Nathan-Turner recruited Christopher H Bidmead as his new script editor. If Nathan-Turner was an experienced member of the show’s production family, Bidmead represented a deliberate step away from Doctor Who’s old guard. Not only had Bidmead never written for the show before, but his only previous writing experience had been half a dozen episodes of short-lived soap opera Harriet’s Back in Town, featuring Doctor Who‘s William Russell as Harriet’s ex-husband whom she may or may not still have feelings for, and a two part story for urban anthology series Rooms. And these followed by almost a decade away from television before taking over Doctor Who.
If Bidmead had difficult corralling much more experienced writers like Terrance Dicks, he had no such problems imposing his own brand of storytelling on the show. Believing that the past few years of the show had become too light in humour and too speculative in science fiction, he sought to inject an element of so-called ‘hard science fiction’ into Doctor Who. Arguably, however, the end result mixes real science terms and ideas like tachyons, entropy and consonant shift into a more mystical, fairy tale like version of the Who universe than we’d ever seen before.
Across the 28 episodes of Doctor Who Season 18 (the longest since the Second Doctor’s era) vampires with hypnotic powers would skulk in their castle stronghold in ‘State of Decay’; a secret black and white world behind a mirror would be explored in ‘Warriors’ Gate’; an ancient wizard in his magic throne would hold sway over a garden that turned the impure of heart to stone in ‘The Keeper of Traken’; and in ‘Logopolis’ another group of wizards would speak aloud their ancient magics to breathe life into the world.
Despite low audiences at the time, Doctor Who Season 18 is now a firm favourite with many fans
Together, Nathan-Turner and Bidmead would phase out the Doctor’s existing companions over the course of the season, with the Time Lord Romana (Lalla Ward) and robot dog K9 (John Leeson) leaving to remain in E-Space at the end of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ as part of the purge of perceived silliness from the show. The E-Space trilogy was also used to introduce new companion Adric, while Nyssa and Tegan arrived towards the end of the season.
Adric was originally conceived by ‘Full Circle’ writer Andrew Smith as an artful dodger type, and ironically proud of the literal gold star he was given for secondary school level maths. But he was largely reconfigured by Bidmead as a precocious teen genius. Nyssa too was a skilled scientist on her home planet of Traken.
But if the average IQ aboard the TARDIS remained more or less unchanged, there was a new seriousness to how they went about saving the universe. However the Doctor himself was the most solemn figure of all, and his cheery smile was rarely seen as Tom Baker reconsidered if there was a place for him in Nathan-Turner’s brave new world.
The sudden charge in the format and character of the show sent shock waves through contemporary audiences. Perhaps because of this resistance to change, most of the season stayed outside the Top 100 shows for Doctor Who‘s worst ever chart performance, with an average of 5.8m a week at a time when there were only three channels.
But over time, Doctor Who Season 18’s reputation with fans has grown, and many of its innovations have become parts of the show’s iconography. ‘Logopolis’ is the first appearance of the Cloister Bell, still sounding to warn of universe-shattering danger as recently as last year’s ‘Flux.’ Meanwhile, for the first time a Doctor’s final story is largely preoccupied with the Doctor’s imminent doom – an approach that would later become the norm.
By the end of the season, John Nathan-Turner’s transformation of Doctor Who was complete and the template had been set for the rest of the decade
Doctor Who Season 18 was ultimately Baker’s final year in the role. Christopher H Bidmead also departed at the end of the season and, save for a couple of Doctor Who scripts over the next couple of years, he didn’t work in television again.
But John Nathan-Turner went on to become Doctor Who’s longest-running producer, staying for the nine seasons until the show went on hiatus in 1989. And in casting his recent All Creatures Great and Small colleague Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Nathan-Turner finished Season 18 with his total transformation of Doctor Who complete.
What do you think about Doctor Who Season 18? Is it one of your favourite eras? And which changes introduced by John Nathan-Turner do you think worked, or didn’t work?
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