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…