Having started out as a writer with radio drama scripts for BBC Radio, Saward's involvement with Doctor Who began when he was invited by script editor Christopher H. Bidmead to submit a script for the show, which became "The Visitation".
Shortly thereafter he was appointed as script editor. During his tenure, Doctor Who saw a big increase in the levels of violence and Continuity Porn. However, his relationship with producer John Nathan-Turner was an acrimonious one, with the latter's insistence on hiring new writers instead of commissioning scripts from veteran ones repeatedly getting on Saward's nerves. Eventually, Saward managed to successfully convince longtime writer and personal idol Robert Holmes to pen the show's 20th anniversary special. When Holmes proved unable to meet all of Nathan-Turner's requests, the duty was handed to Holmes' co-worker Terrance Dicks in his final script for the show, with Holmes instead writing the Fifth Doctor's final story, "The Caves of Androzani".
Tensions especially grew after the casting of Colin Baker as the Doctor. Saward felt that Baker was a poor fit for the role, and deliberately sidelined him in the show's scripts in favour of other supporting characters. The final straw, however, came when Holmes died before finishing the script for Season 23's finale, "The Ultimate Foe". Saward completed Part Two based on Holmes' outline, but clashed with Nathan-Turner over the choice to preserve Holmes' Bolivian Army Ending; at the time, the show was on the verge of cancellation, and Nathan-Turner feared that the ending would be a perfect opportunity for BBC executives to take the show down for good. Thus, Saward quit the show and took the script for Part Two with him, requiring Nathan-Turner to commission a new one from Pip and Jane Baker while being legally barred from disclosing any of what Holmes and Saward wrote; ironically, the episode bore a close resemblance to the original outline anyway, apart from ending on a more optimistic note. Saward would never work in television again.
Despite the rough circumstances of his departure, Saward continued to contribute to Doctor Who after its cancellation in 1989, writing linking narrations for audio releases of missing episodes, several short stories and novelizations from his tenure as script writer, and the comic spinoff Lytton.
Doctor Who stories written by Saward:
- "The Visitation"
- "Resurrection of the Daleks"
- "Attack of the Cybermen" (reportedly co-written by Ian Levine; credited as Paula Moore)
- "Revelation of the Daleks"
- "Slipback" (a radio play broadcast during the 18-month hiatus.)
- "A Fix with Sontarans" (a crossover with Jim'll Fix It)
Tropes in his work include:
- Alan Smithee: The Season 22 Doctor Who story "Attack of the Cybermen" was credited under the pseudonym "Paula Moore". It is generally accepted that the script was largely written by Saward, based on ideas from the show's unofficial continuity advisor Ian Levine. Saward himself could not be credited due to BBC rules against script editors writing for their own shows.
- Bloodier and Gorier: Saward's tenure as Doctor Who script editor saw the highest levels of violence in the show's history. "Resurrection of the Daleks", which Saward wrote himself, featured no fewer than 75 onscreen deaths, famously outpacing The Terminator, while the heavy violence of another Saward-penned story, "Revelation of the Daleks", was directly cited by BBC controller Michael Grade as what made him implement an 18-month hiatus between Seasons 22 and 23.
- Continuity Porn: His tenure as Doctor Who script editor saw a huge increase in the amount of continuity references. In some stories, this reached Continuity Lockout levels, requiring detailed knowledge of stories broadcast 10-20 years earlier (including some that were missing from the BBC archives) to be comprehensible.
- Crapsack World: Many Doctor Who stories written and/or script edited by Saward featured settings like this, more so than any other era of the show. Examples include "Frontios", "The Caves of Androzani", "Vengeance on Varos", Timelash" and "Revelation of the Daleks".
- Creator's Favourite: He was very fond of the Cybermen. He brought them back for their first appearance on the show in seven years in "Earthshock", and insisted that writer Terrance Dicks include them in the 20th anniversary special episode "The Five Doctors", despite Dicks' personal dislike of them.
- Creator's Pest: Bizarrely enough, the Sixth Doctor himself. Saward's disapproval of Colin Baker's casting led him to minimize the role of the Doctor as much as possible in his Doctor Who scripts, most notably "Revelation of the Daleks".
- Darker and Edgier: Producer John Nathan-Turner had already instigated the shift when he took over in Season 18, but Saward's time as Doctor Who script editor particularly cranked it up. Notably, "Earthshock", written by Saward himself, featured the first death of an established companion in the show's history.
- "Everybody Dies" Ending: Stories written by Saward invariably featured a high body count.
- Hostility on the Set:
- His relationship with Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner became increasingly strained over the course of their five years working together, as a result of numerous creative disagreements. This culminated in Saward Rage Quitting his post as script editor during the production of the Season 23 ("Trial Of a Time Lord") finale "The Ultimate Foe", and withdrawing permission to use his script for the final episode (resulting in Nathan-Turner having to hastily commission a last-minute replacement script from Pip and Jane Baker).
- One of his many disagreements with Nathan-Turner was over his casting of Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, who Saward felt was not suited for the role. This has resulted in a strained relationship with Baker himself that continues to this day; the pair have never appeared on a DVD commentary together despite Saward being involved with the production of almost all Baker's Doctor Who stories.
- Pastiche: Saward had a tendency to emulate writers he respected. "The Visitation" uses Robert Holmes' formula, "Revelation of the Daleks" was heavily inspired by Evelyn Waugh, and both "Slipback" and the novelisation of "The Twin Dilemma" ape Douglas Adams. Critic Elizabeth Sandifer suggested that Saward's biggest problem was that his taste exceeded his talent at the time - he was made the series' script editor after his very first television script, and never fully developed the skills and confidence to find his own style.Elizabeth Sandifer: "[As] the first produced television script of a writer Ė itís got considerable potential. Yes, itís a Robert Holmes knock-off, but itís mostly capable and heís ripping off the right stuff. Itís just that nothing about it screamed ďthis is the man who should be in charge of shaping the writing for Doctor Who for the next five years.Ē It may have screamed ďtake this writer under your wing and in three years youíll have a good writer,Ē but thatís not what the program did."
- Pinball Protagonist: Saward had a habit of shoving the Doctor off to the sidelines to focus more on the supporting characters, often resulting in stories where the most the Doctor can do is avoid getting himself or his companions killed (and not always succeeding). This was especially the case with the Sixth Doctor, thanks to Saward personally disliking the casting of Colin Baker in the role; "Revelation of the Daleks" in particular takes until the middle of the second episode, over an hour into a 90-minute story, for the Doctor and Peri to even meet anyone directly involved with the plot.
- Self-Adaptation: Saward wrote the novelizations of nearly every one of his scripts. The sole exceptions were "Earthshock", which was novelized by Ian Marter (who played Fourth Doctor companion Harry Sullivan), and "A Fix with Sontarans", which was never novelized.
- Self-Plagiarism: In his first Doctor Who script "The Visitation", he re-used the character of Richard Mace from his radio plays.