Doctor Who News Former Doctor Who chief John Nathan-Turner with Sixth Doctor Colin Baker

Published on May 29th, 2013 | by Christian Cawley

Newsnight Asks: Was 80s Doctor Who Rubbish?

Well no, not really – but that’s just my opinion. But how do you think it will turn out? Will Newsnight be running a hatchet job on the John Nathan-Turner era of Doctor Who this evening?

Former Doctor Who chief John Nathan-Turner with Sixth Doctor Colin Baker

Former Doctor Who chief John Nathan-Turner with Sixth Doctor Colin Baker

The BBC has published a print version of the film by Shaun Key looking at the “naff” era of Doctor Who, and although we don’t know much about what will be broadcast I think we can expect to see former BBC Controller Michael Grade’s famous Room 101 appearance in which he savaged the show.

What we do know is that Ley will be speaking to former Doctor Sylvester McCoy, director Graeme Harper, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and writer Rona Munro (Survival), with McCoy opining:

“‘Even though I was on it, my children would rather have watched The A-Team’.”

But who is to blame for that? I’d wager the show’s stock was so low that even the star’s kids were completely nonplussed about their dad’s latest TV series. Nothing to do with the actor, everything to do with reputation and the behaviour of the broadcaster, which eventually put a refreshed series opposite Coronation Street and let it die.

What is interesting about the article – and perhaps we’ll hear it in the film tonight – is this:

The lesson of the 1980s, though, is not to take it for granted. A powerful producer can drive a programme forward, but in time can also become a barrier to change. Fans can buoy you up, but pleasing them can leave you deaf to the wider audience.

Now, those of us casting a close eye on Doctor Who over the past 30 years known this. But I wonder how easy it is to be aware of something when you’re in the eye of the storm…

Tune into BBC Two tonight at 10.30pm, or catchup with Newsnight after the event with BBC iPlayer.

(Via BBC News)


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About the Author


A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

33 Responses to Newsnight Asks: Was 80s Doctor Who Rubbish?

  1. avatar Ian Gettings says:

    Well, I loved the Davison era and the Sylvester McCoy last two seasons. I don’t get the hate at all – a lot of defining stories and wonderful eps in this era.

    • avatar FrancoPabloDiablo says:

      I too loved Davison and McCoy. But I also loved Colin Baker’s all-too-brief tenure. Vengeance On Varos and Revelation Of The Daleks are up there among the best. Even the stories that were below par (The Twin Dilemma, Timelash) were hugely enjoyable and entertaining – mainly because of Mr Baker’s superb portrayal. If only he’d been given more time to develop his incarnation further. And a different costume!

  2. avatar Gareth says:

    Definitely NOT rubbish! Well, some of it was, but then some of the current series is poor too IMHO. Resurrection, Remembrance, Androzani, some stunners in the 80′s. Bloody Paxman, what does he gain by slating 80′s Who? :)

    • avatar ND says:

      Gareth, Did you see it? It wasn’t Jeremy Paxman presenting and the feature was by one of the chaps that does some of the Doctor Who dvds documentaries. It was actually balanced and only partly truthful insofar that they only seemed to focus on special effects rather than pull apart the poor storytelling of the time

  3. avatar rickjlundeen says:

    Now, I’ve heard quite a few times that kids and families would watch the A Team instead of Doctor Who. Listen….I remember the A Team very well. But I also remember that each and every episode was based on the exact same formula and aside from a couple giggles here and there, it was pretty mindless TV. Again, that’s all good but the majority of even the very worst of Doctor Who in the ’80′s—and true–it was the lowest quality of the 50 years—was still more imaginative and worthwhile than any episode of The A-team.

    Doctor Who losing out to the A-Team is one of the biggest mysteries I’ve ever heard of.

  4. It will be interesting to find out what they say but I’m in the camp where some were really bad but also some were very good but I also don’t know where all the hate come’s from as it was the BBC themselves that killed the classic era and not the fans

  5. avatar rickjlundeen says:

    As a follow up, I think it’s also a good idea to remember that the ’80′s as a whole was lame in a lot of areas. Some bright spots but over all, a very mixed bag of nuts.

    I think Davison, Baker an McCoy all did the job to the best of their abilities, in the face of a lot of behind the scenes drama, politics, and a producer, who, for all his loyalty and love of the show, was not really the best fit as a producer. JNT was in over his head. And of course, the Beeb itself was in a bad management era and quite frankly, the powers that be were ill suited to their positions as well and bad businessmen.

  6. avatar John Shandler says:

    My young daughter loves the Sylvester McCoy era. Andrew Cartmel was so far ahead of his time. What they did with the budgets back then was incredible considering how low they were.
    Yes Time and the Rani, Paradise Towers and Silver Nemesis were not that good. The Happiness Patrol could’ve been better. But I have a real appreciation for what they did towards the end.
    I have to say that I didn’t like the Eric Saward era though. People blame JNT but Eric Saward is responsible for the bad run of stories through Colin Baker’s era- and he was a fine Doctor. JNT was to blame for the costume though.
    People fell out of love with DW during the ’80′s though. It happens. It will happen again. DW will stop sometime, then start again in the future.

  7. avatar Elwood says:

    “Rubbish” is a bit strong. The show was not as good as it was in the 60s and 70s, and not as good as it is today, either. When the show had a subpar episode in the 60s it was because they were trying something different, perhaps something they weren’t quite able to pull off. In the 80s, the subpar episodes were because they were not ambitious enough. Definitely the show’s nadir, from the writing to the costumes to some of the guest stars’ performances. But I wouldn’t say the show was garbage, just not what it could have been. When I try to convince my wife that “classic” Who is worth watching (she loves NuWho) I stick to the “golden age” of 1969-1983 to make my case.

  8. I still believe that Doctor Who dealt with the controversy of death in a more educational way rather than the A Team…the problems that JNT encountered was unfortunately part of his own making, and I still believe that while he adored the fans of the show, he became too heavily involved in their opinions and tried to continuously please them. I do agree with the previous poster in the fact that the powers at be were not passionate or interested in the show, and although were put into positions of responsibility, had no clue on how to run the show properly or professionally which was a mighty shame, perhaps lack of experience and training too played a considerable role. However, after all of this, I still enjoyed Doctor Who in the 80′s and never once criticised it, and now I have had the pleasure in collecting them on DVD for nostalgic purposes.

  9. avatar TonyS says:

    The 1980s was when ITV learned to fight back. I really enjoyed Doctor Who in the 80s. McCoy and Davison are in my top three favourite Doctors (just behind Troughton). There was a lot wrong with the programme in those days. But there was so much that was right and a joy to behold. I think that some of the blame for what happened to the programme was that the production office tried very hard to please the fans- who promptly turned on them! For all his faults JNT genuinely loved the programme. The fans didn’t always treat him very well. The other big problem is that the BBC fell out of love with the programme.

    Let’s remember that JNT turned the programme round in season 18. Season 17 had been an embarrassment. Tom Baker had been in the role for so long he seemed to be having trouble separating himself from the role. The part was played as a joke. The effects and storylines were tired. With the exception of “City of Death”. From “The Leisure Hive” on it felt like a different, more professional programme. There were clunkers. The very next story in fact. But there was “Keeper of Traken” and “Warrior’s Gate” too.

    No the programme was not rubbish in the 80s. It was up against effective opposition from shows such as “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and “The A Team” . And a corporation that didn’t want it at all.

  10. avatar FrancoPabloDiablo says:

    Once again, praise for Davison and McCoy but Colin Baker cruelly overlooked.

    • avatar TonyS says:

      Yes. Sorry about that. Colin Baker made an excellent Doctor. Unfortunately he didn’t get the chance to shine on tv. He really comes into his own in the audio adventures. I’ve met Mr Baker and a lovelier chap one could not hope to meet. He is and always has been a great advocate for as programme that didn’t treat him too well during the 80s.

  11. avatar vortexter says:

    I loved the whole of the Davison, Baker and McCoy years. In my opinion there wasn’t a dud among them. If I watch a JNT story on I tend to watch it all the way through without fast forwarding or skipping a bit. I think it was the time when fans were becoming a bit vocal about their opinions towards the end but he worked miracles with the budget and presented something unique at the time. The only thing I would occasionally criticise is the certain guest stars who were questionable at best. Beryl Reid springs to mind but then others were perfect like Ken Dodd as the toll keeper and suited the role well. The JNT years sit proudly on my DVD shelf.

    • avatar chris says:

      Even the worst of 80′s Who is better than sitting through a Newsnight snorefest,it was probably better produced too.Davison,Baker and McCoy all put in great performances,no matter what quality a particular story had,or lacked.And if you like all of 80′s Who then great,you have nothing to be ashamed of.

  12. avatar authorman94 says:

    Y’know, as someone who was born in 1994, I missed Who’s 80′s run as it came on. However, having caught up during the previous year, I find it to be overall okay, with some good and some bad. On the bad side, some episodes were pretty diabolical (although many from the Graham Williams era could be as well), with “Terminus”, “Vervoids” and all of McCoy’s disastorous first series being good examples, some of the companions not being as developed as they should be (I never really liked Tegan much) and, of course, the bad effects from 1983-1987. However, to counter that, Davison and Colin Baker are excellent Doctors (and I’ll defend Colin’s Doctor to the bitter end), and McCoy is just excellent from his second series onwards (and I’d say his last is one of the best in the show’s history). You also have Ace being introduced towards the end, and I think she’s the best companion of them all (but that’s an argument for another day), and when the episodes were good, they were some of Who’s best (“The Visitation”, “Earthshock”, “Caves of Androzani”, “Vengeance on Varos”, “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “Curse of Fenric”), and I’ll even say Season 22 is underrated (*dodges tomatoes and rotten fruit*). So, I have mixed feelings, but I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone says it is.

  13. avatar TimeChaser says:

    1980s Who was no more rubbish than 1970s or 1960s Who. Every era is going to have its highlights and low points. The 80s gave us some brilliant an imaginative stories, some of the best in the series. I think its silly when people look at one era of the show and try to kick it down. You have to look at the series as a whole.

  14. avatar Koth says:

    Doctor Who in the 80′s became an embarassment to Grade and the Beeb which is why they tried to lose it in the schedules. Then when they needed the money for Eldorado Doctor Who was the first to go.

  15. avatar vortexter says:

    I doubt I’ll even watch the item on Newsnight. 50th anniversary year and people are still trying to put a negative slant on a standout show like ‘Who’. Amazing stories, great acting and design not to mention the strong morals throughout and its still the butt of jokes or ‘look at the set wobbling’ remarks. This should be a celebration piece, not a hack job.

  16. avatar Jon Roberts says:

    I liked Davison and Mccoy but I really loved Colin Baker as the Doctor, I agree some of his stories were a bit ropey but that was not his fault. The 80′s very much reflected the decade itself, fans looking back to the current era in say 20 years time might say about Matt Smith’s era as sooo 2010′s. everything is relative. All era’s of Who have been great at times and bad at times, its just the way it goes.

    • avatar TonyS says:

      Well said, sir!

  17. avatar Bob James says:

    Every era, has its share of misfires and stumbling, and the eighties being made under JNT is no exception. Did JNT stay too long? I thought so, but it also seemed that no one was “waiting in the wings” with any great vision to take over the mantle, and do something with the show to revitalize it, and take it further. Had JNT been allowed to move on, the show would most likely have ended right then. Peter Davison and Colin Baker’s contributions speak for themselves, despite some inconsistent writing during their eras. The last two McCoy seasons were superb, and had the show had the BBC’s support, and a new showrunner with some vision, it could have gone further. Also to be taken into account is the massive behind the scenes turmoil an embattled JNT had to take on to keep the show alive. The “hiatus”, Michael Grade’s hostility, the BBC’s upper management indifference (hello, Jonathan Powell), Colin Baker’s rude dismissal, and actual (as opposed to imagined) falling viewing figures all contributed to its demise. There was no RTD or Steven Moffat standing by, and no desire or respect for the show on the BBC’s part, and so Doctor Who became what was viewed as an expensive liability. All things considered, JNT, Andrew Cartmel, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and some exemplary writing still produced some brilliance at the end there. But time was just up……….

  18. avatar dr jon says:

    Dr who in the 80s was a rollercoaster ride what I mean about that is it was up and down, peter davisons time on who was on the whole good viewing. He really did well after taking over from tom baker. Then poor colin baker had it bad, his first season was fine apart from his first story twin dilemma,and it didn’t help the six dr when they dressed him in stupid costume. Also they made him to be disliked as a dr, which is a shame as colin baker is a good actor. Also the gave the programme a 18 month break then shortened the next season to just 14 episodes and gave it a not very good story arch most of which was in a crown court. Also they changed the music but not the visuals, and lack of money. Then poor colin was sacked. Then came slyvester dr no7, his first season was not very strong in the storyline making him to comedic. And also put the show on at the same tme as coronation street. Then in slyvesters last season the series began to get better, the dr became less comedic and more dark the storys were good and sometimes great. But it was to late the ratings were down shame, as brig bambera had once said in battlefield. And the bbc pulled the plug how self destructive they were.

  19. avatar dr jon says:

    I just hope the bbc realise what mistakes they made in the 80s doe’s not happen now. It doe’s worry me the rot has all ready started shortened seasons and up against britains got talent. I hope I’m wrong.

  20. avatar Paul McGann's Cat says:

    As a 35 year old the eighties for me was a definitive period in my entertainment life. Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, the Chris Reeve Superman movies, the TOS Trek movies – these were all things I digested willingly. When it came to TV I liked nothing better than a diet of He-Man, Knight Rider and Doctor Who! For me, as cheesy as it often was, the 80s Who is very much my era. Hartnell to Tom Baker is something I discovered in my late teens. But as a child there was very little I would rather do then watch the Davison – McCoy episodes. Starting with Frontios I have memories of all of the key moments of the era, such as the regeneration of Davison into Colin Baker and McCoy’s curly wig. Was Colin’s costume vulgar? Yup. Were the question marks on the outfits silly? Yep. Were the cheesy guest stars bit silly? Yup. But there was something so pleasingly eighties about the whole era that I can’t help but love it. As much as I rate the eras of the earlier Doctors as being better all round in terms of productions values, scripts, acting and so on, I have to admit then when, for instance, I saw the Doctor flashbacks a few weeks ago it was Colin Baker’s frock coat that got one of the biggest squees from me.

    Eighties Who is an absolute treasure!

    • avatar zarbisupremo says:

      I had a similar childhood, although my memories of Doctor Who go back a wee bit further. Ghostbusters was my favourite film for several years, I still love the Indiana Jones films too. I’ve only just recently noticed that Prince Adam from He-Man wore a pair of purple furry knickers over his white tights :-o.

      I remember when Revenge Of The Cybermen came out on VHS, one of my mates said he had it (we were only 5 or 6), and he told me that there were Daleks and K-9 in it too. I was somewhat disappointed when I read the Target novelisation a few years later.

      The ratings were consistently high during the first half of the 80s, up to the end of season 22, then after the hiatus, they dropped pretty sharply and never recovered. The series should have came back with a bang after that, but unfortunately the production team came up with a very risky idea for a season-long story, which I think, in hindsight, was a big mistake as it alienated many viewers who might otherwise have watched it. I thought seasons 23 and 24 had a very panto-ish quality about them, especially season 24. An example being some of the costumes from season 24, which looked like they’d been borrowed from light entertainment.

  21. avatar Geoff says:

    I don’t think it was any worse than any other era of the show, everyone else has clearly made that point already. I think the problem was the culture of the time. If you look at the BBC in the early 80′s when 5 came in the TV landscape was much the same as in the 70′s. By the time 6 came along things were changing. Jonathan Powell wanted to make glossy aspirational dramas like Howard’s Way, they weren’t interested in a show like Doctor Who and were just a bit embarrassed by it. Now all that is fine in my book but what I don’t like is the ensuing arrogance that went with it, namely: I don’t like this, it doesn’t fit my personal vision of what we should be about so it has to go. No regard for the section of the audience (which wasn’t as small as they’d have you believe) wanted.

    If the show had been rubbish it wouldn’t have remained in the affections of the public the way it did during those long years it was off air. RTD demonstrated that all it needed was a producer with a new vision. JNT was desperate to move on for his last few years but they just couldn’t be bothered to marry the show to a new producer with new ideas and so an imaginative and profitable franchise was allowed to just wither away. Shame on them.

    I feel for JNT who carried to his grave the weight of being the one who (in his view) killed Doctor Who and I feel for Colin and Sylvester for having to work in an environment where their creative abilities were squandered due to the attitudes towards the show….

    And on a far more shallow note: how can any show that features Nicola Bryant in a pink spray on Lycra top possibly be considered rubbish. I was 13 when I saw that and was never quite the same again!

  22. avatar Christopher Martin says:

    I didn’t watch the report but I did read the article on the website. I found it be fair and well-balanced. The poor parts it highlighted were poor as the good parts were equally good. McCoy was excellent and his final two series were also good. However, it’s clear that the programme never really adapted to its lower (relative and real) budgets, which is ultimately why it was perceived as poor. While good writing is the starting point for television, executions is just as important.

    As fans we should stop being so defensive of the show. It SHOULD be critically analysed and poor parts criticised while good parts lauded. It’s slightly tiring to hear all the comments that because this is the 50th anniversary we should write a hagiography for the show. It doesn’t serve any of us. An earlier post said some things were good and some things were poor – it’s true of any long running show.

    Colin Baker gave a misjudged performance in a truly dreadful costume with some poor scripts and some really, really poor execution. It’s not a personal attack on either Colin or the show to say this…it’s clear from Big Finish where he brings all the warmth his TV portrayal doesn’t have that he is a fine actor, but not necessarily when he was playing the Doctor on TV.

    I’m watching the Hartnell / Troughton era at the moment and quite frankly some of it is poor. Hartnell’s third series is inconsistent and sometimes laughably bad (I watched the surviving episode of The Celestial Toymaker last night – awful!. Doesn’t change how I feel about the show, they are just parts I like less than the parts I like more.

  23. avatar Mugen Pharoah says:

    I love eighties Who. I was probably an unusual kid in that I watched Doctor Who in preference to the A-Team (as watched by most of my peers). Even when my brother’s attention drifted post-Davison I stuck with it. I say stuck with it but that implies it wasn’t very good. I was transfixed. I loved Trial of a Time Lord when it was first aired. It felt like the most important thing I’d ever seen on TV!

    JNT’s ‘kisses to the past’ encouraged me to look back to the history of the show, conveying a sense of mythology that nothing else could offer.

    80s Who is always being given a kicking but like many posters have said neither better nor worse than the 70s or 60s when you remove the gloss of nostalgia.

  24. avatar Bob James says:

    In my opinion, Doctor Who since its return in 2005 has been much more consistent in quality than any of the classic run.The writers seem to have less of a straightjacket on what they can do and where they can take the characters. The production values and standards are much more consistent. The classic era (including much of the eighties) definitely made the 2005 return possible, and what we have now would not exist without it. But as noted several times over in the above comments, every era has high and low points. I’m just as embarrassed about a lot of Tom Baker’s moments during the Graham Williams era, as I am about, say, “Time And The Rani”. I thought Tom stayed on way too long, and it took JNT coming into Tom’s last year to bring him back onto the rails, so to speak. I think JNT stayed on way too long, but we know in retrospect, that there were mitigating reasons for that. I think that, all things considered, Doctor Who has shown that it is possessed of a transcendent quality, and that it has a potential for longevity that very few other shows possess. It’s open to change, to transformation, to evolution. The show can regenerate! That’s why it survives, not just on television, but in other media as well.

  25. avatar Orcrest says:

    Lazy writing and poor casting of the sixth and seventh Doctors was a large part of the problem. The actor who plays him must be at the top of his game and have that something special. Baker and McCoy whilst decent actors were not of the calibre of what had gone before or what we have had since.
    A lot of the scripts were plain boring and that lead to falling ratings and the cancellation of the show in the 80′s

  26. avatar Geoff says:

    I disagree about lazy casting, Colin and Sylvester are both fine actors. Remember at the time Doctor Who was an affectionately thought of but low rent TV show. Colin is my favourite Doctor and I think Slyv took the part in a really interesting direction but if the profile and money had been there I’m sure they would have cast bigger names of the day. I think JNT, Andrew Cartmel, Eric Saward, Dr 6 & 7 and the whole crew made the best of the resources available at the time and I don’t think it’s very fair to knock them so harshly with the benefit of considerable hindsight. As Bob points out the Graham Williams era is frequently far more tatty and ott but because it holds affection with a certain Oxbridge set is never subject to the same critical view.

    • avatar Orcrest says:

      Perhaps I am being a tad harsh, and I don’t disagree they are fine actors, but would you class them in the same same league as Ecclestone,Tennant and Smith? I do however maintain that the actor who plays the Doctor carries the show. The Williams era holds up well because of Tom Baker’s charisma and portrayal of the Doctor, often with poor material.
      Also, I actually thought it was poorly casted and lazily written(often) at the time, hindsight has only crystallised that view.

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