JNT

On a Web forum that I will not mention, a viewer on a voyage through Classic Who asked a question, before he set forth through season 18. He understood that JNT was a topic of some controversy, and wanted to know what he was in for over the next nine seasons. Is it that everyone hates JNT? What’s the deal with this era, exactly? My response:

It’s a tricky and complicated question, and to answer it we need to be careful about what exactly we’re talking about. Are we criticizing JNT as a person? Are we talking about his creative judgment? Are we talking about his approach to being a producer? Are we using JNT as metonymy for the show itself under his watch? All of these are different questions, each with a complicated and inconclusive answer.

The easiest and least troublesome topic is the show that he presided over. To that end, obviously everyone has their own view but these days you’ll see a fair consensus that JNT’s Doctor Who both began and ended well; it’s the stuff in the middle that’s up for debate.

Others have said the same here, and to my view it’s true; broadly speaking, seasons 18 and 25-26 are amongst the best Doctor Who that’s hit the TV. They’re the most consistently authored portions of the classic series, with strong views about how to use the show as a platform to communicate ideas. You get that in bits and pieces elsewhere, particularly with writers like Malcolm Hulke, but it’s rarely this focused before Davies comes around.

Part of the reason for this is, as Homunculette says, JNT’s approach to his job. And here we’re starting to get a little dicier, in that we’re starting to approach JNT as a person. But we’ll come to that slowly.

More than any other producer on the show, JNT kept rigidly to the letter of his role. He was not a creative person, by any stretch of the imagination, and his only input to the show’s content tended to be superficial: how things looked, how they were presented, what kinds of gimmicks might get people talking and increase viewership. JNT came up through the system, as a floor assistant, floor manager, and so on. When he took over the show, it was because he had put the work in and it was his time — not because he had a creative vision. The BBC was concerned about giving him the job, so for his first season they set up Barry Letts to oversee. From season 19 on, though, JNT was on his own.

With JNT’s focus almost exclusively on the practical nuts-and-bolts of balancing the budgets, networking, and getting the show made, with a growing side shift of promotion, that left the burden of the show’s “content” almost exclusively with the show’s script editor. So from a creative standpoint, under JNT the script editor basically is what we would now call a showrunner, except with little tangible executive power. They were solely responsible for the show’s creative vision.

Ergo, under JNT the show is only ever as good as the script editor. Beyond just the high-level vision and practical talents, the script editor’s relationship with JNT, and their ability to cope with the logistical demands of the job, tended to determine the show’s ultimate quality. Bidmead had a strong idea for what to do with the show, and was able to both cope with and incorporate JNT’s odd executive decisions and to push back when JNT’s decisions weren’t going to work in the show’s best interest. Cartmel had one of the most intense visions of anyone who has had creative control over the show, had a very strong knack for finding and nurturing talent, and had the fortune of landing his job in an era where JNT had pretty much checked out, allowing Cartmel to proceed without the degree of weird micromanagement that Bidmead and Saward faced.

Eric Saward is… a very polite man, and a reflective one. He’s also a perpetual victim. You listen to him long enough, and somehow through all his self-effacing eloquence he has an explanation for how everything is someone else’s fault. This negativity and lack of ownership comes through in his work; where Bidmead or Cartmel would find a way to work with and incorporate JNT’s dictums, Saward would just push back, say, “Oh, that’s awful,” and then fold and stand away, with the attitude of “Okay, you brought this on yourself.”

You do this enough, on enough levels of production, and it’s going to affect what ends up on-screen. And boy howdy, does it. Increasingly, as Saward’s resentment grows over the years. This is not to say that Saward is without talent or virtue, and that nothing good ended up resolving under his tenure, but for whatever reason there’s a lack of creative guidance here. Whatever coherent voice comes through tends to do so accidentally, and it’s not very pleasant.

Which brings us to JNT as a person. Accounts here vary widely depending on who’s speaking, but it’s fair to say that JNT was a strong personality. He had his views and his notions, always presented as a strong, definitive objective yet often based on a whim or whoever talked to him last. (E.g., he cast Colin Baker as the Doctor after enjoying his company at a wedding reception.) Again he had no understanding of the creative process, which could make him paranoid about what writers and artists were “up to.” He was terrified of someone trying to sneak a message into the program that he didn’t understand, that might make for a PR disaster.

JNT’s judgment tended to reflect what made for an easy production and clean books, and not having to deal with tempermental artists and things that were beyond his understanding. So, for example, regarding the end of season 21, he considered Caves of Androzani something of a disaster because of Graeme Harper’s unconvential behavior, Saward’s commissioning of an established writer who had more political pull than JNT, and generally a sense that the whole production was out of control. Meanwhile, he thought that The Twin Dilemma was the best thing he’d ever overseen, because it was produced with no fuss, it came in under budget and to technical standard, and it reflected well on him with upper management.

So, he was a tempermental person of questionable judgment and fitness for his job. He was loud and assertive, and due to his own prioririties often focused on the least helpful of all possible topics. Like when he demanded that Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and everyone stop wasting time researsing for the show because he wanted to do a highly public Christmas panto. Promotion always trumped production, and production always trumped creativity.

He became obsessed with the growing fan community, and started to weigh decisions based on how they would go over with the convention crowds, the fanzine editors, the letter writers, and particularly the alpha fan hangers-on; the people who would regularly come by and hang out in the viewing gallery at Television Centre to schmooze with cast and crew and watch the show being filmed. The Ian Levines and company.

Which brings us to Marson’s book. JNT was of course openly gay at a time when this was still socially, even legally, dicey, and so understandably he indulged in the gay community that surrounded the show at the time. Which is neither here nor there, except that when you’re in a position of power and you use that position as a tool to exert that power over those who are vulnerable… it creates a problem.

It’s unclear that JNT was ever explicitly predatory, though he certainly enjoyed the fruits that his position brought him. However with his partner, Gary Downie, there is no mistake. He was a sexual predator, who used his position on the show to actively, aggressively pursue underage boys. Richard Marson includes in his book an anecdote from his youth where he personally had to run into an empty room and hide under a table to escape from Downie. Marson plays off his own experience for the surreality of the moment, but throughout the book he makes a damning case against Downie, all the time sketching JNT as an elusive, all but unknowable figure behind all that bluster.

So, the JNT era of Doctor Who is… controversial. As is the man who oversaw that era. My suggestion is to keep JNT in mind as a background notion, but in viewing those last nine years of the show to focus more intently on the script editor. The show’s whole creative model shifted over that period, and you can’t look at it in the way you’d look at any other period of the show, or draw conclusions the exact same way. More so than any other period of the show, before you make up your mind about what you’re seeing, there’s a tangle of asterisks to consider. Why are you seeing what you’re seeing? Why was it made the way that it was? Well, let me tell you a story…

SR388: A Spelunker’s Nightmare

[ The following post is assembled from fragments of discussion from July 2014, October 2014, July 2016, and August 2017. ]

Long before that AM2R thing, which is exactly what a cynical observer would predict from a fan remake, I’ve often rambled about ways to do a sensitive update of Metroid II, that (unlike AM2R) honors the original game’s tone and thematic material and develops it even further, makes the game even more awkward and upsetting to play:

I still think the best way to tackle a remake is to consider the affect of the original, and try to recreate it. The original is claustrophobic, in part due to feeling lost — sameness, lack of a map — in part to the screen.

So, make light a scarce quantity. The world would be desaturated and have a big focus on environmental light sources — lava, certain bioluminescent plants or animals, Chozo technology. At times it’s hard to see anything. Sort of a Silent Hill aspect.

Samus’s suit may project a slight glow around her, reflecting on things. Generally the glow would extend about as far as the boundaries of the GB screen. Occasionally more or less. The glow from Samus’ suit would give things a sort of monotone hue. Maybe greenish, from her visor.

If you wanted to expand on the game, you could give her various kinds of light beam. Or make her suit glitch out. Maybe special heat and X-ray visors would be needed to navigate certain areas. Glitchily. It would be all grainy and prone to error. Make it go totally dark, for a scripted segment here or there, in the spirit of those segments where you have to blindly fumble around in ball form. Maybe you have to navigate by noise and touch. Maybe a sort of a sonar, so you can hear when the Metroids are getting close.

There might be an attempt at a map, but it doesn’t work right. Glitchy. Staticky. Suggests non-Euclidean space. Some key parts of the interior may not make any sort of euclidean geometric sense. They kind of don’t, already.

This would also play up some of the Zelda-style risk-and-reward progress limitation. You CAN go down there, but… should you?

Also see: Dragon Warrior, Phantasy Star II, Lost in Blue.

But, that’s if I were pressed to reinterpret the game. Insofar as its native form on the Game Boy, Metroid II is basically perfect. The worst I can say is that the control can get a little mushy at times. Speed up Samus’ movement by 125%, maybe tighten collision and response time. Little stuff like that.

Something I really dig about Metroid II is that as designed, it wouldn’t really make as much sense on another console. If you play through as an adult, with a modicum of design literacy in hand, it soon becomes clear to what extent the game actively uses its technical and conceptual limitations to say its own thing.

Unlike Super Metroid the world that it draws doesn’t feel like a playground set up for your benefit. It’s just there. If it’s confusing, then it would be, wouldn’t it. You’re invading this space that was never meant for a thing like you.

The game’s affect is just so subjective.The way the Spider Ball is used nails down how unfriendly the space is. This is a space where we really shouldn’t be, and it’s just by the skin of this overpowered miraculous thing that it works.

When you get to the cramped corridor forcing you to draw a visual parallel between Samus in ball form and the unhatched Metroid egg, there’s not a lot of space left (as it were) to question how expressive the design is meant to be.

It’s supposed to be claustrophobic. It’s meant to be disorienting and upsetting. You’re supposed to lose your way and freak out, the way you probably would in reality if you were dropped into an unmapped hole in the ground on an alien world. Or even ours. Even if mapped. It’s meant to be distressing, in no small part because you shouldn’t be there. The mission is wrong. You are playing the bad guy.

That’s not reading into it. In its closing moments the game tells you how you messed up, and Fusion‘s plot is based on this revelation. (Another irritating thing about Super Metroid is how it not only glosses over this failing; it compounds it. But Fusion gets the story back.) Fusion also gets the claustrophobia and tension back, in a shifted form, where Super throws them out in favor of Whee Shiny Perfect Action.

As far as how Metroid II uses the resources it has, the only thing I would treat differently is the lava. To quote one of many earlier discussions on the topic,

That goddamned lava. What is that? Of all the ways to limit progress. I mean… I can make up some silly theories that kind of work. But how arbitrary is that? At least it’s an apparent phenomenon of the gameworld, even if it’s triggered by discrete player-dependent flags.

Instead of progress clearly resulting from the player’s action it’s just, “What the hell was that rumble? Oh… there’s… a route here. Was it here before? I don’t think so.” Granted, it doesn’t affect me when I’m playing. It’s just in retrospect that it’s so incredibly clumsy and weird.

Of course the game is pretty linear, and it can’t let you miss a Metroid. If there were some narrative rationalization, maybe that would be enough. But then you’re in danger of needless exposition.

On reflection, I would add a horrible piercing screech after the extermination of each set of Metroids and before the earthquake and lava drain. Each time, as Samus strayed deeper into the caverns, the screech would get louder and longer, while the screen would shake with ramping violence. Toward the end, it basically would peak all of the sound output and leave the game a nauseating shaky-cam mess for minutes at a time.

This would serve many purposes.

  • It would make the game more disorienting and upsetting to play.
  • It would introduce the Queen early as Samus’s opponent.
  • It would establish the Queen’s growing pain and anger.
  • It would help to underline that maybe Samus isn’t quite doing the right thing here.
  • And it would resolve the structural weirdness around the lava, which as it stands is a VERY CONVENIENT and unexplained progress limiter.

All of this would be totally doable on the Game Boy. Pretty easy, even, in this engine. Everything’s already set up, pretty much. Just add a screech that gets louder and longer each time, and make the screen rumble longer and more violent each time. That’s all! But, it would make such a big difference to the game’s narrative flow, logical consistency, and thematic unity.

Would this change be on-the-nose, in terms of the game’s themes? Maybe. But done well, it wouldn’t be clear what was happening at first. It’d just add a layer of “huh?”, growing to “oh hell.”

Right now there’s little feedback to completing each wave, and the mild rumble has little impact, the lava drain nothing like an explanation. This would add at least a sense of intentionality to the design, which as designed leaves room for interpretation, yes, but also feels sloppy.

Significantly, all of the scream’s and the rumble’ thematic resonance becomes clear only in retrospect. You get ramping uncomfortable chaos as you burrow in, but aside from feeling increasingly intimidated, it’s only clear what’s happening when you finally meet the Queen, which snaps it all into focus.

Currently there is no clear moment of epiphany, and the Queen’s role consists of sitting there, unseen, until you burst in and kill her. The epiphany comes with the egg, which is great. Really great, actually. But its significance would be enhanced, coming out of the catharsis of that encounter with the thing that had been expressing pain the whole time. “Oh hell,” you’d think, “so that’s what has been happening all along. What… does all of this mean? What have I done?” And then, a baby Metroid imprints on you.

You’re still free to interpret however you like, but this gives a touch of emotional feedback and clarity to undermine any sense of bravado. And all it is is a screech and a more violent screen shake. That’s all it takes to snap it all into focus.

Dig Dug and the Intersection

From birth to death, people are influenced by everything and everyone they encounter. The earlier an influence occurs, the greater the shadow it casts over every subsequent experience. The best that a parent can do is to try to give a child a useful framework to allow her to adapt and deal with those experiences on her own.

To survive, people will and must adapt to whatever is around them. That’s what learning is. Learning changes a person. And the thing about learning is that it can’t happen in a vacuum. Each of us is born with just two eyes, yet to understand a thing you need to see it from all angles. To expand one’s perspective, one needs to consult with other people; compare and contrast views, to try to find the fullest and clearest picture.

The more perspectives that you take in, strip down, and fit into the puzzle, the greater that your own becomes. If you take the view that your perspective is who you are, then as it grows, so do you.

Without the benefit of interacting with others, sharing one’s experiences, listing to theirs, arguing, butting heads, and verifying the boundaries of one’s world, a person has no chance to build her own identity — the complex, faceted lens which will allow her to survive in a complex, faceted world. Rather, she will live out her life as an avatar of her formative experiences, attempting to kludge every situation with the same hammer, unable to distinguish one dimension from another. It would be like setting Dig Dug free in the world of Grand Theft Auto.

He’s a 2D character armed with a tire pump. He’s going to keep walking to the right, and won’t even know to turn his head when crossing the street.

Assuming one has the opportunity, the weight of one’s experiences, and therefore influences, will occur far outside the influence of one’s parents. It’s the job of one’s parents to provide the resources to make the most of those experiences. It’s the job of the child to actually have them.

The Zombies of Nostalgia

One of the things I find inane about British Doctor Who fandom is that even those too young to remember the original show tend to get caught up in its nostalgia value more than its actual content and message. It’s like they don’t like the show for what it is and does, but for the other associations that it brings to mind — of childhood, of times long past.

For all of my moping about the 1980s, and attempts to reconcile new things with my experiences of childhood, I don’t… really consider that kind of a mentality very constructive. In this case I also think it gets in the way of appreciating what the show really is about — which is a shame, as the show’s message is both unusual to mainstream TV and, I think, one of the most constructive messages around.

Here’s something I wrote a few months ago on a Web forum that I keep telling myself to avoid, as it eats up too much time and doesn’t give me back much in return — except maybe the opportunity to think about things that aren’t doing me much good to think about right now. The question was, what is it about this show that appeals so strongly to people, to allow it to last for so long? Most of the responses were about nostalgia, which irritated me enough to respond in my own grouchy way.

Yeah, I, uh… Coming from a US perspective, where it’s always been seen as something for college students and usually shown late at night, into the early morning, I wouldn’t say that these are fundamental or intrinsic parts of its appeal. I didn’t really get into the show until I was in my twenties, and that was because of the intellectual anarchy of the thing.

At its most basic level the show is about curiosity and taking the initiative to understand things beyond their surface appearance. I mean, it’s about a guy who looks human but isn’t, who explores all of time and space in a ship that looks like a police phone booth but isn’t. Even the most basic surface details, like that man’s face, are always in flux. For all of the small revelations over the years, the show’s backstory is still basically a big question mark. The show’s whole message is that what matters isn’t the facts, isn’t the answers. It’s the reasoning and the questioning. It’s about the way you approach things, not what you find.

Troughton pretends to be a bumbling fool, to cause people to underestimate him — taking advantage of others’ inability to see beyond that surface.

Pertwee takes the time to understand the Silurians rather than just assuming that they are monsters.

The Autons are terrifying because of how they subvert appearances, and the questions that they raise about what we take for granted.

In “The End of the World” Eccleston dismisses assumptions about posterity, anxieties about mundane problems, even the importance of our Earth in its own right. Really, the greatest surviving memory of human culture is Soft Cell? Oh well, people did good things. They made new opportunities for others to do good things. They moved on. Everything dies, and nothing really matters all that much. The only constant is change; adaptation. The willingness to see things differently, do things differently, try new things. That’s all there is in the end.

So, I would say that it’s the show’s attitude that stands out — at whatever point in one’s life that one might encounter it. And likewise to me, it’s those eras and those stories that best embody that attitude that most hit home.

And of course all of that passed without comment, while everyone afterward kept going on about nostalgia, and quoting earlier posts that reinforced what they were saying. So… here, just because I like feeling validated sometimes, I’ll quote something of my own.

This AV Club review of “Rose” serves well, I think, to explain why I broadly like the Davies era so much, and find that its spirit better typifies the show’s original ethos better than most of the eras in between (and since).

The emphasis then isn’t on the Doctor providing answers, but rather on Rose asking the right questions and being willing to listen to the answers. As the Doctor himself notes, Rose doesn’t believe him when he says the plastic men are trying to invade Earth and conquer humanity, but she’s still listening. She wants more from her life, which is why she ultimately accepts the Doctor’s offer, but she also just wants to understand the impossible things that are going on around her. And it isn’t just her interactions with the Doctor that are important. Her trip to Clive’s shed is also useful in reminding the audience how insane the entire concept of Doctor Who truly is. Even though Clive is basically right—he misses out on the time travel aspect, but since the Doctor is effectively immortal, it’s hard to not give him passing marks—and Rose is wrong when she dismisses him as a nutter, the key there is that she is wrong for the right reasons; Rose isn’t going to abandon all logic and reason without some fairly compelling evidence. And that fact makes the moment Rose finally steps inside the TARDIS all the more magical.

If you haven’t seen the AV Club’s Who coverage, it’s pretty darned good in general! In particular I think the reviews of (the recently miraculously recovered) Enemy of the World and Web of Fear are pretty much on-target. They’re more forgiving than I tend to be, but then I’m a cranky one.

Pippenjane

Time and the Rani doesn’t particularly try to be realistic. To start with, it’s clearly written as a farce. Beyond that, several times it deliberately breaks the reality of the situation to (not to make it sound more sophisticated than it is) make some kind of meta-commentary about the show and the way it’s perceived. There’s the business about the Doctor being horrified at a vision of Mel’s face, and whatnot. If that’s not the 1987 equivalent of “the windows are the wrong size”, I’ll eat my left shoe.

The unreality of the thing has always struck me as rather the point. All the awful things in it aren’t so much awful in their own right as they are, on some level, a commentary on the lazy way the show is often put together. And in that, I think it’s mostly pretty on-target and hilarious.

I realize that the script was already sitting there and that Cartmel was less than thrilled with it, but the subversive, postmodern sense of humor strikes me as all him — rebelling against a by-the-numbers script that served no purpose and had nothing to say by turning those qualities on their heads. It calls to mind the “fanboy” in Greatest Show and the philosophical guard in Dragonfire, if a bit broader and less informed. More of an outsider’s perspective — which he was, at the time.

Davies does this all the time now — Love & Monsters, for instance. Which I realize isn’t everyone’s thing, but… well. Major difference is, he does it better.