John Nathan-Turner

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John Nathan-Turner
Nathan-Turner at the Doctor Who "Whovent" Convention, September 1986
Born John Turner
(1947-08-12)12 August 1947
Birmingham, England
Died 1 May 2002(2002-05-01) (aged 54)
Brighton, East Sussex, England
Cause of death Liver failure
Occupation Television producer
Partner(s) Gary Downie (1972 – Nathan-Turner's death in 2002)

John Nathan-Turner (born John Turner, 12 August 1947 – 1 May 2002) was the ninth producer of the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, from 1980 until it was effectively cancelled in 1989. He is to date the longest-serving[1] Doctor Who producer.

Early life[edit]

Born John Turner in Birmingham, he adopted the double-barrelled stage name of John Nathan-Turner to distinguish himself from the British actor of the same name, John Turner. He was educated at King Edward VI Aston, where he showed an early interest in acting and theatre. After leaving school he worked as an assistant stage manager and acted at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre.[2]

Doctor Who[edit]

He joined the BBC as a floor assistant in the 1960s,[3] and first worked on Doctor Who in 1969 as part of the floor crew[1] at the time that the series was recorded in Studio D of the Lime Grove Studios. His first story was The Space Pirates in 1969, in which he was credited as John Nathan.

He later served as production unit manager under Graham Williams[4] from 1977 to 1979. He accepted the position of producer for Season 18, the last that featured Tom Baker's portrayal of the central character, the Doctor. He subsequently cast the next three actors to play the role: Peter Davison (1981–84), Colin Baker (1984–86) and Sylvester McCoy (1987–89).[1]

Nathan-Turner's experience under Graham Williams helped form his views for the future of the series. He strongly felt that many people, both within the programme and in the viewing public, no longer took Who seriously. It was also generally agreed that Tom Baker had been allowed too much influence of the direction of the series and that Williams was not willing to confront him. Nathan-Turner, along with the new Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, decided that Baker needed to be reined in and work more co-operatively. For Nathan-Turner's first season in charge of the show, former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts was asked to return in the role of Executive Producer, and acted as an advisor for Nathan-Turner in this period.[citation needed]

Nathan-Turner decided to begin a sweeping overhaul of the series, replacing the original theme music with a more up-to-date electronic beat. He also introduced revamped title and credit sequences, featuring a new face shot of Baker (the original having been taken in 1974). He commissioned costume designer June Hudson to make a new outfit for Tom Baker, giving her carte-blanche (even giving permission to remove the trademark scarf if she liked, which she only gave a new burgundy and purple colour pattern instead). He did, however, insist that question marks be added to the costume.[citation needed]

Nathan-Turner had no writing experience and as a result, choosing stories was left largely to script editors. Nathan-Turner's first major story influence was bringing back the Master, the logistics of which he left to Bidmead to deal with. After Nathan-Turner's first season in charge, both Bidmead and Letts left the series. Letts was never replaced in Nathan-Turner's time in charge of the show, while Bidmead was briefly replaced by Antony Root, and then more permanently by Eric Saward, who was script editor for much of Nathan-Turner's time in charge of the show.[citation needed]

By the end of Season 19, Nathan-Turner decided that the series would benefit by re-using earlier villains and characters – Earthshock enjoyed considerable acclaim with the return of the Cybermen. Season 20 saw the return of Omega, the Mara, the Black Guardian, and the Brigadier.[5] The re-use of classic villains often proved complex for both script editor Eric Saward and the writers. Nathan-Turner, however, was largely focused on generating publicity for the series and casting well-known guest stars. Nathan-Turner rarely used directors and writers who had worked for previous producers; the few exceptions being director Pennant Roberts and writers Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.

Nathan-Turner's tenure coincided with a period of large growth in the show's fan base in the United States, thanks to repeated showings on affiliates of the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Nathan-Turner was a familiar face among the many Doctor Who celebrities who made spot-appearances during PBS pledge drives in support of more Who in America.


Nathan-Turner made a number of controversial changes to the series. For The Leisure Hive, his first story as producer, he replaced the version of the Doctor Who theme tune which had been used, with some alteration, since the show's beginning with a new, "modernised" version of the music. In Season 19's The Visitation, he had the sonic screwdriver, which had been a constant in the show since the Patrick Troughton era, destroyed. (Eric Saward, who wrote the story, initially only meant to remove it for a single episode as he thought that the Doctor "had an entire cabinet full of them", but Nathan-Turner vetoed the original idea under the belief that the screwdriver was an example of Deus ex machina). Early in his producership, BBC controllers moved the show from its Saturday evening slot to air on Monday and Tuesday of each week. Despite a degree of outrage, it did not damage the Series's viewing figures. He also oversaw the removal of K-9 from the series — though he did commission the pilot of K-9 and Company.[6] He even decided for the TARDIS to lose its iconic police box shape during a story (Attack of the Cybermen), though its familiar interiors — modernised in high-white — were more heavily used than at any time since the 1960s, giving the (now multiple) companions an on-screen home.

Nathan-Turner's changes to the programme were initially well received by Doctor Who fans, to whom he extended an unprecedented degree of welcome. Editors of non-professional magazines or "fanzines" were granted interviews by Nathan-Turner in the Who production office. Although he did not divulge the contents of forthcoming storylines in such conversations, he spoke in-depth and at length about his approach to producing the show.[citation needed]

Criticism of Nathan-Turner's production of Doctor Who ranged from including too many back-references that might limit writers and confuse casual viewers, too much violence in Colin Baker's first full season in 1985,[7] his reluctance to use writers and directors from the series' past, to the casting of guest stars from light entertainment such as Beryl Reid, Rodney Bewes, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd and Hale and Pace. He was criticised for selecting Bonnie Langford as a companion and also for choosing others based on "gimmicks", such as the character of Tegan Jovanka (an Australian flight-attendant) in the hope of getting more popularity for the show with viewers in Australia. According to Peter Davison, this was also true for the American character Peri Brown (in an attempt to endear the show more to the US). Davison has claimed that Nathan-Turner's decision to introduce an American companion in an attempt to appeal more to the American market was one of his reasons for leaving the role, because he felt it was wrong for the series, and he realised the series was out of his control, and he could do nothing about decisions he disagreed with.[8] Nathan-Turner also received criticism, including from former series producer Barry Letts, for introducing the question mark motif to the Doctor's costume. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have all admitted they were never completely happy with their wardrobe in the series. Davison disliked what he considered the "designer" look of his cricket attire, Colin Baker didn't approve of the tasteless multi-coloured outfit he was given (as he detailed in the documentaries The Story of Doctor Who and Trials and Tribulations), while McCoy was dissatisfied with his pullover covered in question marks.

Nathan-Turner's casting decisions for the central role of the Doctor have also been subjected to criticism. Former script editor Terrance Dicks said of the three actors he cast: "The magic wasn't quite there."[9] Former producer Philip Hinchcliffe claimed that the series "became a bit pantomime for me" following Tom Baker's departure and his successors lacked the "moral conviction" that the earlier actors brought.[10] Nathan-Turner's script editor between 1982 and 1986, Eric Saward, also disagreed with the casting of Colin Baker in particular, claiming that Baker lacked "the energy and eccentricity that the part calls for", and complained that Nathan-Turner hadn't discussed casting decisions with him. Saward was also unhappy with the casting of Bonnie Langford, arguing: "I don't think she can act, let alone bring anything to the show."[11] Dicks was particularly scathing of Nathan-Turner's production in a 2013 interview: "There was a decline without a doubt. I think the people working on it, particularly John Nathan-Turner, were not fit for purpose, as it were. Colin Baker, for example, never got a chance with that silly costume, which I thought was a great shame. I was sorry but I wasn’t surprised when they took it off."[12]

In 1985, BBC One controller Michael Grade enforced an 18-month hiatus on Doctor Who and publicly criticised the series as tired, violent and unimaginative.[13] In 1986, after the series had returned with its number of episodes cut, Grade insisted that Nathan-Turner replace the actor he had cast as the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, in order for it to continue.[7]

Following the difficulties of Season 23 in 1986, some believe that he in fact was growing tired of the programme. In a documentary about the "end" of the series, some people claimed that Nathan-Turner approached the BBC about leaving the series, but had been told that if he left, the series would be cancelled. Some even state that despite the controversy, Nathan-Turner was likely the only element left holding the suffering series together for its last three seasons.[citation needed]

Supporters of Nathan-Turner's reign argue that the producer was not solely to blame for the series' decline in ratings, and that blame should instead be levelled at the hierarchy at the BBC, funding issues, ratings calculation methods, the decline of in-house drama production, and the decision to move the series around the schedules, which ended with the series being scheduled opposite the popular ITV soap opera Coronation Street during its final three years.

Nathan-Turner also helped introduce the character of Ace at the end of Season 24. By the end of Season 26, Nathan-Turner was aware that the show would likely not return the next year and asked Cartmel to add more weight to the conclusion of the final story, resulting in the Doctor's speech at the end of Survival, which was recorded on 23 November 1989.

Later career[edit]

Nathan-Turner continued to be involved in Doctor Who-related events. After the series ended in 1989, and until shortly before his death, he would go on to produce and write several Doctor Who videotape documentary releases during the early 1990s: The Hartnell Years, The Troughton Years, The Pertwee Years, The Tom Baker Years, The Colin Baker Years, Daleks: The Early Years, Cybermen: The Early Years, and a special release of the unfinished story Shada.

Nathan-Turner also co-wrote the 1993 charity special Dimensions in Time,[14] and co-presented the BSB 31 Who programmes during their 1990 Doctor Who Weekend. He made his final contribution to the series when he appeared in a retrospective on the 2001 DVD release of Resurrection of the Daleks.

Personal life[edit]

A long term drinker and smoker, Nathan-Turner was in poor health in the last year of his life. He contracted an infection and died of liver failure just over a year before the announcement by the BBC that the show would be revived, with new episodes to air beginning in 2005. Openly gay, Nathan-Turner was survived by his long-term partner, Gary Downie, a production manager on Doctor Who. Downie died on 19 January 2006. Downie spoke, in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, of his time with Nathan-Turner.

Nathan-Turner lived for many years in London with a home also in Saltdean, Brighton.[citation needed]

Richard Marson's book, The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (2013), alleges inappropriate sexual behaviour on Nathan-Turner's part. It claims Nathan-Turner and his partner, Gary Downie, were preying on male teenage fans during his period as producer of the series. The age of consent for gay males at the time was 21 in the UK.[13]


  • Doctor Who - The TARDIS Inside Out (May 1985, Picadilly Press Ltd., by John Nathan-Turner and illustrated by Andrew Skilleter, Paperback; October 1985, Random House Children's Books (library), Hardback)
  • Doctor Who: The Companions (November 1986, Picadilly Press Ltd., by John Nathan-Turner and illustrated by Stuart Hughes, Paperback; January 1987, Random House Children's Books (library), Hardback)
  • JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner By Richard Marson (May 2013, Miwk Publishing Ltd.)


  1. ^ a b c BBC (3 May 2002) Doctor Who producer dies BBC. Accessed 15 August 2008.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Death of former Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner" (Press release). BBC. 2002-05-02. 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b "Doctor Who - A Brief History of a Time Lord - Colin Baker". BBC. Retrieved 29 November 2013. 
  8. ^ Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "Warriors of the Deep" (1984, 2008)
  9. ^ Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "The War Games" (1969, 2009)
  10. ^ Voice-over commentary on the BBC DVD "Revenge of the Cybermen" (1975, 2010)
  11. ^ "The Revelations of a Script Editor. Starburst. Issue 97. September 1986
  12. ^ Harrison, Ian (22 November 2013). "Doctor Who writers Neil Gaiman and Terrance Dicks talk to The Reg". The Register. Retrieved 10 April 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Matthew Sweet "JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner by Richard Marson – review", The Guardian, 22 March 2013
  14. ^

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Graham Williams
Doctor Who Producer
Succeeded by
Peter V. Ware (as title)
Philip Segal (as showrunner)