Remember Barry Letts
Much like last year's piece on The Road to Perdition, this is a column I didn't want to write.
As I was hitting the keyboard, about to write this month's column, I heard the news that Barry Letts, former producer of Doctor Who, passed away. It wasn't totally unexpected - while watching a recent documentary which featured Mr. Letts, he seemed weak, frail, and not long for this life. But it's still a shock....especially since he was the producer of "my" first Doctor. (It was 1975 - I was seven years old, and my first episode was episode three of Day of the Daleks. But that's a tale for another day)
In response to a Who-related blog post, a fellow comics/geek blogger mentioned that many new Who fans have a harder time getting into classic Who. However, with Barry Lett's passing, we can reevaluate his career and see that, in many ways, he really deserves the title of the "Architect of Who", both with the current and new series.
For that, we have to get into our TARDIS and travel back to 1970 -Doctor Who, after six years, was on shaky ground. Ratings were poor, and a former comedy radio actor named Jon Pertwee would be taking over the role. (This would also be the first time Who would be filmed in color). Although the outgoing production team had set up the Third Doctor's first story, Barry Letts and his new script editor, Terrance Dicks, had their work cut out for them. One of their first commissions - and Letts' first story as producer - was Doctor Who and the Silurians. With its mixture of unique premise (an advanced race of humanoid lizards is revived near a power plant), and mixture of moral ambiguity, Malcolm Hulke's script was worlds away from the "base under siege" premise of earlier Who. With Letts' changing the Doctor's final line at the end from one of "that's an unfortunate thing" to "that's murder" (and I'm paraphrasing), Letts drew a sharp line in the Doctor's morality.
Although inheriting the concept of UNIT (a paramilitary force that dealt with the unknown), it was Letts who fostered a "family atmosphere" both onscreen and off. Granted, when you're fighting alien menaces (remember - at this time the Doctor was exiled by the Time Lords at the end of the coming-to-DVD-in-November War Games), there's not time for much socialization. But the relationship between the Doctor and Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (as portrayed by Nicholas Courtney) moved from slightly adversarial to begrudgingly respectful. Their support - primarily Sergeant Benton (John Levene) and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) helped move the show in a direction away from the traditional children's show to more of a "family" show. The Doctor's female companions ranged from the all-too-short tenure of scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline Johns) to the klutzy yet endearing Jo Grant (Katy Manning) to Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen).
It may be a stretch to connect the UNIT era to the Tyler family of new Who, but by giving the Doctor adequate support, especially in the series then-new Earthbound format, it provided a way of ultimately humanizing the Doctor. Plus, it helped the Third Doctor fight all sorts of menaces. Although initially thought to be an "alien-of-the-week", Letts and Dicks were able to create stories that moved a little closer towards real-world science fiction. Stories like Inferno and Day of the Daleks began introducing science fiction concepts like parallel worlds and the implications of time travel. (Blintovich limitation effect, anyone?) The Green Death examined environmental issues, The Silurans and The Sea Devils examined then-contemporary politics and Carnival of Monsters has been cited as a satirical look at television and its viewers. In fact, under Letts the first multi-Doctor story, The Three Doctors, was written and performed. The Time Warrior heralded the return of the pseudo-historical, and Terror of the Autons was the Blink of then-classic Who, taking everyday objects (such as telephone wires, plastic flowers, dolls, and even policemen) and giving them a power to shock.
It was Terror of the Autons that first introduced the Master, the closest thing the Doctor has to an archenemy. It's hard when looking at John Simms' performance in series three to believe that Roger Delgado, who initiated the role, played it with such finesse, such charm, and such overall cool. His Master was the total antithesis of the Doctor, so much that when I watch stories featuring Delgado's Master...I root for him rather than Pertwee's Doctor. Sadly, Delgado died in 1974 in a car crash, resulting in a loss of spirit amongst the cast and crew. (Letts, Dicks, and Pertwee left within a year of Delgado's passing).
In fact, one of Letts' final duties as producer was to lay the groundwork for incoming producer Phillip Hinchcliffe - most notably in finding Pertwee's successor. He ended finding an actor who was working construction, and who had received training as a monk. His name...was Tom Baker, who for many people is the definitive Doctor. Letts even returned for Baker's last season, easing in then-new producer John Nathan Turner, and continued to maintain a presence in Who via DVD commentaries/supporting materials, writing a book about his time with the program called Who and Me...so in many ways, part of what hits hard about Letts' passing is that, in many ways, he never really left Who.
Maybe professionally, but personally? No. Letts left his mark on both classic and modern Who, and he will be missed.
If you're interested in other overviews of his work, Stephen - one of the podcasters from Radio Free Skaro - blogs an episode-by-episode guide to classic Who. His writing on Letts-era episodes begins here and ends here. In addition, Radio Free Skaro also recently did an episode on Barry Letts which can be found here.
Until next time, keep watching!
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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