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A tribute to 'Doctor Who' legend Barry Letts

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A tribute to 'Doctor Who' legend Barry Letts
Last week, Barry Letts passed away at the age of 84. The name might not be greeted with instant recognition by the hordes of new Whovians roaming the globe, but without him Doctor Who might not have made it past one decade, let alone four. Involved behind the scenes between 1967 and 1981, including five years as a producer during the iconic Jon Pertwee era, Letts was responsible for a series of inspired creative decisions that boosted the programme's fortunes. As a tribute to the man, here are some of his achievements:

Saving the show

Towards the end of the Patrick Troughton era, public interest in Doctor Who appeared to be fizzling out - a far cry from the glory days of Dalekmania in the mid-'60s. Ratings fell as low as 3.5 million for the Second Doctor's last story in 1969, a very poor showing in the pre-multichannel age. Unsurprisingly, doubts soon surfaced over the show's future. Taking over as producer for both Jon Pertwee's debut in the title role and the first foray into colour, Barry Letts quickly masterminded a revival in the fortunes of the Time Lord and ensured that Doctor Who was a popular Saturday teatime viewing choice for families once more.

Heightening emotions

Although Russell T Davies is quite rightly acclaimed for elevating the emotional content of Doctor Who, Letts greatly boosted the moral compass of the show when he took over. In just his second adventure in charge, The Silurians, viewers were alarmed to see their sympathies veer towards the perceived monsters of the piece instead of the humans. The climactic events of that story, as The Doctor fights to prevent the humans committing genocide on the freshly awakened Silurians, are still immensely haunting and powerful almost 40 years on. In addition, Letts, a Buddhist himself, introduced a newfound spirituality into the programme.

Introducing The Master

Pertwee's second season in the Tardis kicked off with 'Terror Of The Autons', which not only featured the return of the plastic-loving Nestenes, but crucially introduced a new arch nemesis for The Doctor. His name? The Master. Letts's move to have a fellow Time Lord as his foe, with frequent appearances, was bold and creative, and paid off superbly. Much of that success lies in the, ahem, masterstroke of casting Roger Delgado in the role. It says a great deal that the character lives on until this day and will be sending kids scurrying behind the sofa this coming Christmas.

Creating a family unit

Prior to the Letts/Pertwee era, The Doctor had travelled around the universe with a revolving bunch of disparate companions with whom it was hard to get attached to. The Tardis lineup saw more changes than the Sugababes. However, Letts populated the show with a regular fixture of dependant figures like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Sergeant Benton and Captain Mike Yates of UNIT, who all gave viewers a comforting sense of stability for several years.

Both the Brigadier and Benton had first appeared alongside Pertwee's predecessor, but were far from regulars at that stage. Their support was also vital in ensuring The Doctor's exile on Earth was a fun and hearty romp instead of a stale sojourn.

Hiring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen

Move over Sir Alan Sugar. When it comes to hiring the right personnel, he is nothing compared to Barry Letts. Having seen unknown hod-carrier Baker in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, Letts took the goggle-eyed aspiring actor away from the building site and into the Tardis in 1974. Only David Tennant has come close to rivalling the jelly baby aficionado's popularity in the role.

Furthermore, Letts employed Elisabeth Sladen as inquisitive young journalist Sarah Jane Smith in the previous year. Fast forward to 2009 and a new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures is at the forefront of CBBC's Autumn schedule. That's a true testament to the inspired decision-making of Barry Letts and how well his work for Doctor Who has endured over the years. RIP.

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