Unless you are Indiana Jones, R.E.M. or Echo & the Bunnymen, the eighties were not your best decade. So it is with Doctor Who, whose final nine seasons were overseen by one producer, the late John Nathan-Turner. As we’ll see, in time the producer would become the most divisive figure in the program’s history, but I’m in the school that believes that he certainly started out very well.
The 1980-81 season really was a visual shakeup and it sounded incredibly different, too. Nathan-Turner let the show’s longtime main composer Dudley Simpson know that he was going to pass on his services and use new musicians. He and his first script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, accomplished what Douglas Adams couldn’t and found a pile of new writers. Only one person who had ever directed a Who serial before 1980 was invited back, and only three writers returned. Better still, the directors and designers seemed to be working from the same page at last, and they regularly created alien worlds that felt like they had a space and a believable existence beyond the locations where the plot sends our heroes.
The pantomime-style villains who’d dominated the Graham Williams run were mostly gone, and the Doctor stopped being an all-powerful know-it-all. Tom Baker’s overacting was toned down, and even K9 sounds less smug about everything. So seasons 18 and 19 did look and sound like a new and refreshed program, with some good stories and some that didn’t work so well. I think there are a couple of serials that should have been dumped at the script stage, but until we get to the tail end of Peter Davison’s first year (specifically a story called “Time-Flight” where practically every decision anybody made was the wrong one), even the misfires at least looked and sounded interesting. There’s a real sense that everyone working on the show wants to create engaging television that doesn’t follow a very obvious path.
With that in mind, David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive,” which was the last serial that he’d contribute to the show, is incredibly interesting. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it compelling. The story suffers – at the script level – from some of the same old problems that plague all of television, especially when the speaking parts are so rationed that a lawyer from Earth suddenly becomes a prosecutor on an alien planet. But it looks and sounds so radically different from anything that Doctor Who had ever done, with surprising camera angles, closeups, and especially the lighting choices, that it’s more engaging on a visual level than the show almost ever was. Add a very modern synthesizer score by Peter Howell and it all adds up to something that is admittedly dated, but in 1980, it must have seemed incredibly refreshing.
It’s the only serial that was directed by Lovett Bickford, who passed away just a couple of months ago. Apparently he overspent so badly that he was never invited back, which is a shame. The main guest star is actress Adrienne Corri, who had done the usual run of guest parts in the fun ITC shows of the sixties and seventies but is best known for her small but memorable role in A Clockwork Orange. Laurence Payne, who had played Sexton Blake in a long-running late sixties show for Thames that is almost entirely missing from the archives, has a small part in episode one.
“The Leisure Hive” is famous for its first two cliffhangers, which first show an image of the Doctor being torn, bloodlessly, limb from limb, and secondly see him aged into an old man. I’m pleased to report that both of these moments succeeded in startling our son, and in fact he chose to hide behind the sofa instead of seeing the freaky sight of the Doctor’s arms and head popping away from his body. In the cold light of adulthood, it’s a dopey effect, but boy, was it ever effective!