John Nathan-Turner (1987)

Here’s John Nathan-Turner’s guide to season 24, in which he discusses the casting process for Sylvester McCoy, his first meeting with Andrew Cartmel, and how ‘Time and the Rani’ has the best special effects he’s ever seen on television.

“Andrew Cartmel was suggested to me by his agent. He’s a writer, relatively young – in his twenties – and I read an awful lot of his stuff which I thought was smashing. We then met, to find out whether he’d be interested in finding out more about television as a script editor, and he leapt at it. If you’re going to have a new script editor, you want to capitalise on him, and what was most exciting about Andrew was that we sat and chatted about ‘Doctor Who’ and a sparky conversation happened – there were things we agreed on, things we disagreed on, and things that sent us off on tangents, and that’s the best kind of environment for a producer to work in. If the producer has a script editor who totally agrees with everything he says, or totally disagrees with everything he says, it becomes a stifling of everyone’s talent.

“I think ‘Time and the Rani’ has some of the best special effects that I have ever seen on television. It’s a very interesting story, it’s not highly complex, but really what you’re trying to do is to profile the new Doctor, and to make him showy and to the fore. Similarly, with someone like Kate O’Mara, you want there to be a good section with her. I think it’s a cracking good story for the new Doctor to embark upon. I approached Kate first. She loves the series, and she agreed to do it even before seeing a script. She gave me an early go-ahead, and that meant I could commission the story.

“I think what Stephen Wyatt has created with ‘Paradise Towers’, quite brilliantly, is a different way of speaking and a completely new way of life for a new civilisation. It’s been thought through all the way along, how people eat, how people live, and most specifically how they talk. There’s a very interesting way, for instance, that the Kangs speak. It’s that fullness of characterisation that has attracted the likes of Brenda Bruce, Liz Spriggs, Judy Cornwall, Richard Briers and Clive Merrison.

“Malcolm Kholl is somebody that Andrew knew. ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is a sort of pastiche; music plays an important part in the script. Malcolm has specified which numbers are the background to which scenes, so that virtually all, but not all, the music has been selected by the writer. Really, I would hate anyone to call this ‘Doctor Who – The Musical’, but it’s the closest the show will ever get, because music was such a focal point in the 1950’s.

“Ian Briggs’ ‘Dragonfire’ is a relatively traditional story, in the sense that it’s studio-bound and ‘Doctor Who’ started out as a studio-bound programme. It’s a very nice cast again. Tony Selby returns as Glitz, and we’ve got Shirin Taylor, Tony Osoba, Patricia Quinn and Edward Peel. It’s all set on an ice plant.

“Altogether, I think the whole season is varied and well balanced. There’s no similarity between stories or styles of writing. I’m rather excited, but still tentative. We’ve certainly heightened the humour – but it’s not silly like ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. I think there’s a lot of character humour, which is the best kind, because it comes from the essence of the part. There’s also the wit of dialogue, and there’s Sylvester McCoy – he’s very witty and amusing. Very inventive, tremendously physical, and he wants to do his own stunts, which he’s very good at. He was suggested by his agent, so I went along in January to see him in ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ As a result, I met him and chatted to him. And there we were. So the thought that agents’ letters are a waste of time, that they’re never really read and are just thrown into a bin, really goes out the window.

“I devised Melanie Bush as a character in July 1985, but as it wasn’t too important at that point, I never started to think about the casting. Then in December, I happened to be up in the West End, when I phoned Barry Burnett, Colin Baker’s agent, to see if he wanted to meet for a chat. I thought, as one does when meeting agents, who else was on his books, so you can make polite conversation. I remembered Bonnie Langford, and realised that she fitted my concept of Melanie as this health fanatic perfectly. I asked about Bonnie, but said that I doubted she’s want to do it. But Barry thought it was just the sort of different thing she’d been looking for, and so it went from there. The background I’d already created for Melanie in my book, ‘The Companions’, with the computer fraud involving the Master, was really a brief to writers who might want a background reference for her. I never intended to take it as established ‘Who’-lore. Indeed, we went right against it during the trial, because she didn’t know who the Master was.”

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