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Johnny Byrne (1935-2008)

April 4th, 2008 (02:03 pm)

Reports are flying about on the net that Johnny Byrne, writer of The Keeper of Traken, Arc of Infinity and Warriors of the Deep for Doctor Who's eighteenth, twentieth and twenty-first seasons, has died.

Byrne had been sounded out about contributing to Doctor Who several times in the late 1970s, following his work on Space 1999 for ATV, and his subsequent move into the BBC's orbit as one of the leading writers at All Creatures Great and Small, which led John Nathan-Turner to sound him out about succeeding Douglas Adams as script editor of Doctor Who in 1980. However, it seems the approaches made by his predecessors and by JN-T were unknown to Chris Bidmead, who, when looking for writers for Doctor Who season 18 that year, remembered Byrne as an former drinking companion from many years previously who had claimed to be a poet. Considering Bidmead's drive to make Doctor Who more scientific and eliminate what Bidmead saw as the influence of 'hippy ideas' and 'Eastern mysticism' which he thought had crept in, the decision to approach Byrne was an odd one. Byrne was a prophet of the psychedelic era, having co-written the novel Groupie with Jenny Fabian; I don't know whether Byrne's work on Space 1999 could be interpreted as especially new age (though a theme of that series seemed to be hierarchical scientific-military establishment faced with long-haired, long-robed collectivism on other worlds) but The Keeper of Traken has been interpreted by fan critics from the time of its transmission in 1981 as representing the classical Elizabethan worldview of spheres, heavenly and social, harmoniously relating to one another; the script is ambivalent about whether this is to be idealised or not.

Byrne's original submission for Traken - which bore some similarities to Meglos in its presentation of two factions, one more rationalist than the other, competing for the succession to the keepership - was heavily rewritten by Bidmead once John Nathan-Turner had identified it as the ideal vehicle for the return of the Master. Bidmead's successor-but-one Eric Saward seems to have been unaware of this when he commissioned Byrne to write Arc of Infinity, on the understanding that it should reintroduce another figure from Doctor Who's past, Omega; and then Warriors of the Deep, with Silurians and Sea Devils. In the latter case especially Byrne's reimagining had little to do with the concepts as originally presented and disappointed fans; the realisations of the scripts on screen were less than inspiring. Byrne's next Who commission, a prequel to Traken entitled Guardians of Prophecy, never made it to the screen. He was later critical of Eric Saward's editing of his scripts, arguing that Saward never escaped his roots in radio writing and that he paid too much attention to the 'literal meaning of scene and dialogue' (Celestial Toyroom, February 1987). He continued a successful career in television as creator and godfather of Heartbeat, whose staff over the years has included several Who alumni.

ETA: See nwhyte here for an aspect of Johnny Byrne's career which I'd not heard of before.


Posted by: brewsternorth (brewsternorth)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)

(psst. Close your italics after "Keeper of Traken" on the third from last line, second paragraph.)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)


Posted by: brewsternorth (brewsternorth)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)

Might be interesting to speculate what Byrne's original ideas for K of T would've looked like onscreen if Bidmead and JNT hadn't stuck their oar in and added the Master.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)

I think that DWM published the original storyline at some point in the 1990s; or maybe it was DWB...

Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)

Ah, that's sad. My respect for Johnny Byrne mostly arises out of his work on Space: 1999 - he created the character of Maya, and I'm one of the few people who actually prefer the second season of that underrated show.

I like Keeper of Traken, but only up to the end of episode three, really. I'm with the Time Team from DWM, who noted that none of the characters react to anything.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 4th, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC)
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Byrne himself doesn't seem to have been a fan of the way the second season went, though he liked at least one of the episodes very much.

As for Keeper of Traken, I've read that Geoffrey Beevers's abiding memory of his one television story as the Master is 'the other producer' - i.e. Bidmead - on set rewriting as much as he could get away with.