Tuesday, May 1, 2012

RIP JN-T, 10 years later

May 2002 was a pretty crappy time for me. I'd become involved in an arts organization I will not name, thinking it would be a great experience as well as a step forward in my film career. Instead it was one of the grimmest experiences I've ever had, due to some very ugly personal politics that arose.

I'd been promoted to a high position in the organization because some officers above me were not getting along with a colleague and suddenly quit. I thought I could sort out the resulting mess, and I was wrong. I wanted to leave the organization in better shape than I found it, but by the end of May it became clear that this was not going to be possible.

By the end of that month, I found myself thinking of John Nathan-Turner. He was the producer of Doctor Who during the 1980s, and played a large role in promoting the show in the US. Doctor Who was still near the peak of its popularity when “JN-T” (as he was widely known) became producer in 1980. By 1989, the show had been canceled after years of declining ratings and viewer dissatisfaction, for which JN-T was often blamed.

I didn't know a huge amount about the show's behind-the-scenes history at that point. But from the few available books I'd read on the subject, I got a sense that JN-T stayed aboard the sinking ship longer and longer, thinking that if he fixed one more crisis he could leave the show in good health … and ended up still in charge when the show was finally canceled, thus forever taking the blame for its demise.

I decided I would learn from his example, and not make the same mistake. As much work as I had put into the organization, and as much as I cared about its continuing success, I decided to resign my post and let it become someone else's problem. I eventually cut my ties with the organization entirely. It was a painful and devastating decision, but necessary for my mental health.

I then found out that JN-T had passed away on May 1, at a relatively young age. Doctor Who Magazine published a tribute issue in memory of the former producer, and when I read it it hit me hard. The issue described at length the personal attacks JN-T had endured during his time on the show, from both colleagues and fans. Friends praised him for keeping his chin up, continuing to do his work as best he could, and not sinking to the level of his attackers.

Misery loves company, so the saying goes, and I took great consolation in reading about the ups and downs of his time on Doctor Who, feeling that I'd walked a mile in his shoes. Disturbingly, I knew that this story was seeing print only because of his passing – to some degree, I owed my sanity to the fact that this man died exactly when he did.

But I never met the man. Over the years I've seen and read interviews with various people who worked with him, and certain themes have emerged. People seemed to like him socially but not entirely trust his artistic judgment, feeling that he didn't have the greatest understanding of scripts. Worse, he apparently felt a need to be the boss at all times, and would lose his temper if he thought someone was challenging his authority. So at least some of the criticism he endured may have been justified.

JN-T craved the approval of fandom, and made a number of personal appearances at conventions and on talk shows. By putting himself so much in the spotlight, he may have made himself a target. Years before the Internet was widespread, Doctor Who was the first geek franchise to allow the fans to have a say in the show's creative content. JN-T gave fan Ian Levine the unofficial role of continuity advisor, letting him insert references to old episodes as well as select old clips for use in flashbacks. Some fan-made artwork was also used in the show itself, including lapel badges worn by the Doctor himself (as played Colin Baker in the mid-80s). It's now felt that this emphasis on fan-pleasing in-jokes was detrimental to the show. It's a cruel irony that the historians asserting this view are probably the very fans who were demanding that kind of fan service back in the 1980s.

Perhaps the lesson is that fame is fickle, and that by putting yourself in the spotlight you make yourself a target. Some people have a knee-jerk assumption that anyone who reaches a position of fame and authority couldn't possibly be flesh and blood like you and me, but must be evil robots whose sole purpose is to add to the sum of human misery.

As an aspiring young filmmaker with big dreams, it never occurred to me that becoming successful and achieving your goals could make one a target of hostility, often from people you don't even know. This has become even more true in the Internet era, when an offhand Twitter remark can provoke a firestorm and wreck a career.

A more recent Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffatt, said in an interview that you can try to be a pandering crowdpleaser, but if the audience isn't surprised enough then they'll get bored. Whether John Nathan-Turner learned this lesson is hard to say – by his last couple of seasons he had apparently begun to cut himself off from fandom, and the episodes from those last two years are often considered to be among his best.

So the greater lesson might be that you can't please everyone all the time, and that all you can really do is maintain your integrity and do what you think is right, even when it would be easier not to.

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