books

J N-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (review)

With a little tweaking, Richard Marson’s tell-all biography of the late John Nathan-Turner could easily replace its subtitle with that of Peter Hook’s wonderful memoir on the Manchester club scene of the 1980s, The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, as its subject’s tenure as producer of Doctor Who reads like a case study on how not to run a television series. Of greatest interest to Who fans will likely be the vast range of commentary Marson culled from program insiders, especially the insights from actors, directors, and writers of the classic series. Some of the heavy hitters include Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, who played Doctors five through seven, along with the actors who played companions Ace, Peri, Mel, Tegan, Turlough, and Adric (Sophie Aldred, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Matthew Waterhouse respectively). What emerges over the course of nearly 400 pages is a portrait of an ambitious, flawed, and ultimately tragic figure whose insecurities both fueled his success and led to his downfall.

The consensus, as far as Marson and those interviewed for the book are concerned, is that J N-T (as the producer was known) excelled at the art of spectacle. As soon as he took over as producer, he commissioned new titles for the show and an arguably catchier (for the times) version of the show’s trademark theme music. He’s also responsible for giving the Doctor a “uniform,” most noticeable in the question marks that started showing up in the Doctor’s costume during Tom Baker’s last season in the titular role. Along similar lines, the producer also did all he could to keep both the show and himself in the spotlight, including grabbing headlines by giving the Doctor new companions on a fairly regular basis and making himself a celebrity in his own right. One of N-T’s favorite poses involved pointing a finger in the face of any celebrity he was being photographed with, a move that insured he could never be cropped out of the picture.

J N-T’s intense focus on the marketing of his show, however, came at the expense of paying attention to its writing, and the book is full of commentary from writers, directors, and script editors who express frustration at the lack of direction they received under the producer’s tenure. Indeed, even as N-T pursued headlines and press coverage from British tabloids and Doctor Who fan magazines alike, the fans grew increasingly displeased with his work as producer and, at least in Great Britain, voiced their displeasure through the very channels N-T used to promote the show. The result was increasing paranoia on N-T’s part, a situation that wasn’t helped by the BBC’s waning interest in the show.

Tellingly, it turns out the BBC Enterprises (roughly speaking, the merchandising arm of the BBC, now known as BBC Worldwide) kept funneling money to the show to keep it in production even as ratings started to slip. Though fewer viewers were watching the show, sales of TARDIS key chains and toy sonic screwdrivers were bringing in plenty of cash — a lesson, Marson is quick to point out, not lost on contemporary producers of the program. Indeed, when one considers the plethora of Doctor Who toys currently on the market, there’s an argument to be made for the idea that the Doctor Who program exists at least partially to promote sales of Doctor Who merchandise and ensure the longevity of the Doctor Who brand.

In terms of style, Marson adopts a journalistic tone throughout much of his book but also offers his own opinions and analyses where warranted. A chapter on N-T’s sexual exploits and exploitations (title “Hanky Panky”) comes off as somewhat sensationalistic but is balanced out by the rest of the book. Despite his flaws — and they were apparently numerous — J N-T emerges from J N-T as a sympathetic figure whose desire for love and acceptance in all of their forms led to great heights and, tragically, greater lows.

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Free PDF E-Book from The Permanent Press

Whenever aspiring writers ask me for advice on finding a publisher, the first thing I say is to read a wide range of books from a wide range of publishers to find the right “fit.” Of course, that can get expensive after a while, so here’s some good news. The good folks who published my first two novels, The Permanent Press, are offering one of their titles free of charge: The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann. (Click here for a review I posted a while back.) For information on this offer, visit the blog of Martin Shepard, a co-publisher of The Permanent Press: The Cockeyed Pessimist. Even if you’re not an aspiring writer, this is an offer that’s tough to beat — a good book from a press that has my deepest respect, and it’s free!

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More Sketchy Thoughts on Slaughterhouse Five

A while back, I posted some thoughts on whether or not Billy Pilgrim is hallucinating when he’s visited by aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I’m teaching the novel again this week, an my thoughts have turned to the issue of free will in the novel. The reason this came up is that a student asked whether Vonnegut believed in predestination. Here are my thoughts…

I don’t think Vonnegut personally believed in predestination. He was a humanist and an atheist. Since humanism asserts that people should work to benefit society, my guess is that he also believed that people had free will, since working to benefit society (as opposed to choosing not to do so) requires a decision.

Nonetheless, predestination is a major theme in Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, much of the novel reads like a debate over the legitimacy of free will over predestination. On the predestination side of the argument, there’s Harrison Starr’s theory that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel; i.e., war, like glaciers, is inevitable, so there’s no sense in trying to stop it (3). But on the “free will” side of the argument, we have the fact that Vonnegut ignored Harrison Starr’s advice and wrote an anti-war novel anyway.

Yet this act of free will — the decision to write a novel that might influence its readers to reject war — is itself haunted by doubt, as exemplified by the Tralfamadorians’ understanding of time and space. The Tralfamadorians, we learn, find free will to be a foreign concept because they see the past, present, and future all at once (86). At the same time, though, there’s something terrifyingly absurd about that vision: they know how the universe will end, and they don’t do anything to stop it. From their perspective, it had to be done.

Professor Rumfoord, the military historian, echoes this sentiment when he tells Billy that the bombing of Dresden “had to be done” (198). Of course, the fact that it’s Rumfoord telling us that it had to be done — and that Rumfoord is described as “a hateful old man–conceited and cruel” suggests that we’re not supposed to agree with him (193). That Billy stands up to Rumfoord by saying “I was there” suggests that he’s exercising some degree of free will, just as Edgar Derby exercises free will when he stands up to Howard Cambpell elsewhere in the novel.

I’d also argue that Vonnegut’s concerns over free will can be seen in the idea that Tralfamadorians see humans (and all creatures) as machines (154). I want to complicate this image a little bit by suggesting that we can replace “machines” with “computers” or “robots,” and that the actions of the kinds of machines we are (in Vonnegut’s view) are therefore dictated by software or a kind of code. In other words, while some things are hardwired into our physical makeup (e.g., instincts), something else is responsible for the decisions we never really think too much about. That “something else” is the set of cultural norms and assumptions into which we’re born (comprised of many things, like myths, religion, manners, attitudes, and unspoken rules).

This “software” (our assumptions) causes us to see the world in a certain way (or frames our perceptions). Building on the idea that Vonnegut is not in a position to judge his characters as good or evil (or as heroes or villains), he’s basically recognizing that each character’s definition of “good” or “true” hinges on the “software” that his or her culture has been installing since birth. Thus Billy doesn’t judge Rumfoord’s assessment that “It had to be done” because that assessment is “true” to Rumfoord based on everything he’s ever read or been taught to believe.

The challenge that Vonnegut poses to us, I think, is asking us to recognize that even if we are machines, we have the capability to reprogram our software. In other words, by writing a book like Slaughterhouse Five, he’s saying that once we recognize the cultural assumptions that dictate many of our actions, we can question and eventually change those assumptions in a way that will allow us to avoid the fate of the Tralfamadorians.