R.I.P. Barry Letts (1925-2009)

I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of former DOCTOR WHO producer/director/writer Barry Letts on Friday, Oct. 9. With his passing, another important link to the series’ formative years is gone forever. Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, Barry Letts… (not to mention the Doctors we’ve lost…)

Letts started working on the show during Patrick Troughton‘s tenure, and took over as producer during Jon Pertwee‘s first season. Chief among his accomplishments were the creation of arguably the greatest companion ever, Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen in “The Time Warrior”), and the casting of Tom Baker as the highly influential fourth incarnation of the Doctor! (I’m not looking to start a fight over the relative merits of companions; I’m just saying it can be argued that Sarah is the best.)

I did a little research into Letts’ contributions to the series, I discovered that some well-regarded serials bore his fingerprints. For example, he directed “Terror of the Autons” (which introduced new companion Jo Grant, opposite number the Master and UNIT sidekick Mike Yates) and Pertwee’s swan song, “Planet of the Spiders.” (He also helmed “Enemy of the World,” “Carnival of Monsters” and much of “The Android Invasion.”) His last story as producer was “Robot,” Baker’s first. By the time of Baker’s final tale, “Logopolis,” Letts had become executive producer, and was widely viewed as a shadow producer, looking over newbie John Nathan-Turner‘s shoulder.

Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons

The Third Doctor was never my favorite incarnation, but that’s no reflection on Letts. I know my opinion is in the minority, and that lots of people consider Pertwee’s James Bond-inspired persona to be just…dandy. But to me, the Earth-bound era was just not as exciting. For me, much of the appeal of DOCTOR WHO lies in the limitless storytelling canvas. The Doctor can literally go anywhere and anywhen. It’s hard to conceive of a more open-ended story premise, and I like tales that take maximum advantage of the show’s possibilities. And for me, confining the Doctor to Earth, where he primarily defended London, seemed to hobble to creators. Of course a couple of the most-loved tales on the “classic” era came from here, under Letts’ tenure. And, like most people, I love “Inferno” and “The Daemons” (which he co-wrote with Robert Sloman) “Spearhead from Space,” and I can appreciate how 1970s audiences would have been terrified by the Autons. And where would we be without the Master? But despite my biases, Letts’ stories were always well-made. (Okay, okay, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” but the budget constraints were not Letts’ fault. And let’s see you make a clay dinosaur appear more realistic, especially with primitive chromakey technology!) He used the resources available to make the best serials he could.

So rest in peace, Barry Letts.