Friday, October 9, 2009
What sad, remarkable timing it is that I write this review on October 9, 2009, only an hour after learning of the death of Barry Letts, producer of Doctor Who for five years, concluding with this very episode, Robot, Part Four.
Robot really is a fitting epitaph to Barry Letts as it highlights some of the most important contributions that he made to Doctor Who. First, it serves as the unofficial wrap-up to the era of the UNIT family. Numbering only two now (the Brigadier and the newly promoted RSM Benton), the UNIT era, while not instigated by Letts, was one of the more stable and successful eras in the programme's history. Letts didn't necessarily like the concept of marooning The Doctor on Earth, a concept that he was saddle with when he took over as producer during Doctor Who and the Silurians, but he did what he always did in Doctor Who - he made the best of it. Though, in my opinion, probably better in quality, Season 7 didn't pull in the highest ratings of the Pertwee era. The Letts-produced era did, reaching into the 10-million and over ranger during the highly successful Season Ten.
Robot dominantly features Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), a process which Letts had a particular affinity for, and Tom Baker's debut story was also the first story to have its location material shot on videotape. Both of these factors serve to show how innovative Letts was. I've said it before, but it bears repeating - Letts may have overused CSO at times during the Pertwee era, but his production crew would have been nowhere near as experienced in using the technique in later years if it wasn't for Letts. CSO, now known predominantly as "green screen", was mostly used for weather reports and news shows. Letts made it a tool to tell drama. Virtually every blockbuster action movie today uses green screen, to the extent that some movies have been made entirely with digital sets and backgrounds. Letts may have not invented CSO, but he certainly championed it, and, years later, the motion picture industry is the benefactor of Letts's constant innovation.
Letts's two parting gestures to Doctor Who were to cast the newest female companion, Sarah Jane Smith, and the incoming Doctor, eventually choosing Tom Baker, a jobless actor working on a building site, to take over from Jon Pertwee in the title role. While Letts had advice from friends and colleagues, the final choice, as producer, was his. I am not sure if there have ever been two more important, and iconic, casting decisions in the programme's long history. Elisabeth Sladen, as Sarah Jane Smith, is still, to this day, the standard by which all companions are measured. The character of Sarah Jane was also molded by Letts, who saw Sarah as an opportunity to make a strong female presence in the show who still had the innocence to get into trouble. The fact that Elisabeth Sladen was not only asked (twice) to return to the classic series after she had left in 1976, but that she returned in the wonderful 2006 episode School Reunion, to say nothing of her own spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is a testament to Letts's creation.
What more can be said about the importance of Tom Baker's casting? Baker's performance catapulted Doctor Who from a much-loved institution into a staggering cult phenomenon. I firmly believe that Doctor Who wouldn't have lasted as long as it has, nor would it have returned to our screens, if it wasn't for Baker. And all because Barry Letts decided to follow some advice, and a hunch, and trot down to the theatre to watch Baker in the film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I've spoken earlier about how the Jon Pertwee, at times, seemed like a "safe" era. Casting Tom Baker was a big risk, and one that we are still seeing the dividends of today.
I never met had the pleasure to meet the man, but Barry Letts's presence was ubiquitous in Doctor Who DVD extras and documentaries. He not only offered his time to do these, but his expertise in all things Who. Sydney Newman could claim title of Doctor Who's creator, but Letts was, in essence, The Godfather of Doctor Who. He first directed for Who in 1967/1968 on The Enemy of the World. After he left Who in 1974, he stayed on for a couple months to ensure the transition to Philip Hinchcliffe's era went as smoothly as possible. Letts returned to direct again in 1975's The Android Invasion. Letts was named Executive Producer on the show in 1980 to help new producer John Nathan-Turner adjust to his new role. Letts was everywhere throughout the history of Doctor Who, and became one of the foremost experts on not only his time in Doctor Who, but of the entire history of Doctor Who altogether. He was still as sharp as a tack about all things Who, and all things in general, until the end.
Most of all, Letts was a kind, gentle man who was more than willing to give his time and effort to help others. His belief in Buddhist philosophies came through in the episodes of Doctor Who that he produced. The Doctor in the Letts era was stern, at times, but at his core was an overwhelmingly compassionate man. This could have described Letts himself. Barry Letts was a remarkable gift to Doctor Who, and to the world in general, and he will be sorely missed.
RIP Barry Letts (1925-2009)
Posted by Steven at 2:41 PM