The castor way
Forget Davros, it was Terry Nation who created the Daleks. Kim Newman on the work of the `Doctor Who' writer who died last Sunday
Thursday 13 March 1997
The first serial ran an uninspiring course, with William Hartnell's crotchety Doctor, granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and two staid teachers - there to explain the history - helping cavemen make fire. Then Nation's seven-part serial The Daleks turned the fortunes and the intentions of the show around. Newman, with Reithian public service broadcasting in mind, wanted a science fiction series without "bug-eyed monsters". Nation, realising that the show's viewers wanted better bug-eyed monsters, introduced the most successful homegrown British monster since John Wyndham's Triffids.
The Daleks, fascist pepperpots trundling around a metal city on their nuclear-devastated homeworld Skaro, were often mistaken for robots but are actually early instances of what are now called cyborgs. They are mutated former human beings turned into rarely glimpsed tentacular blobs, encased in a mechanical armour-cum-weapons-system. At first, and on location shoots, they were hampered by the need for a flat surface to roll over, but later series either gave them more mobile slaves (the Robo-Men or the gorilla-like Ogrons) or turn the old joke about them not being able to climb stairs against the sneerers by hovering upwards.
With the introduction of the Daleks, Doctor Who became essential viewing. Children frog-marched around playgrounds with arms out and boxes over their heads squawking "ex-ter-min-ate!". My sister and I won a fancy dress competition as eight-year-olds by trundling around in cardboard armour. Other Who monsters were more frightening, but there was something oddly endearing about the Daleks.
Though he contributed a few non-Dalek stories to the series' lengthy run, Nation's major contribution remained the development of the monsters he had created. Others came up with the Cybermen, the Time Lords, regeneration, Unit and the Tardis, but the inhabitants of Skaro were Nation's province. Their greatest impact, making the cover of Radio Times and launching a wave of merchandising, came with The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964. Unsettlingly juxtaposed with the ruins of London, Daleks wander across Westminster Bridge or emerge from the Thames at World's End.
The most ambitious serial ever attempted by Doctor Who was The Daleks' Master Plan (1965-6), co-written by Nation and Dennis Spooner, a 13-part epic that spans space and time, and does its best to sum up everything the show had let slip about the Doctor's origins and intentions.
Though visually appealing, the Daleks are limited in their story potential. They bark, receive and obey orders, exterminate cringing victims (monochrome image flashes negative) and are constantly thwarted in schemes of universal conquest. Nation abandoned his monster children for some years, going over to ITC to work on such well-remembered Dayglo pulps as The Avengers, The Saint, The Baron and The Persuaders. When Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee faced the Daleks, other hands provided the scripts, until Nation was lured back for Planet of the Daleks (1973), a late-period Pertwee serial.
However, his masterpiece is Genesis of the Daleks (1974), a return to the original story, revising what we were told in 1963 by showing the mad scientist Davros - with his Dalek-skirted wheelchair, proto-Dalek artificial voice and a single mechanical eye in his forehead - in the process of developing a disability aid-one-man tank which is the prototype of the universe-threatening monsters.
There was one more serial - Destiny of the Daleks (1979) but Genesis was really the last of the Dalek stories. Again, other hands took over for other Doctors - accepting thankfully the gift of Davros, who gave the mechanicals some character at last.
In the meantime, Nation (originally a comedy writer for Tony Hancock) scripted the underrated Frankie Howerd horror comedy The House in Nightmare Park, and created two "grown-up" science fiction series for the BBC, Survivors - a "realistic" epic of the slow recovery after a plague has wiped out most of humanity; and Blake's Seven - a cynical Star Wars with washing- up bottle spaceships and an increasing dose of bizarre camp. In this phase of his career, Nation seems to have wanted to be Britain's answer to Glen A Larson, but a stubborn sense of gloom and grit resisted the bubblegum franchising of a Battlestar Galactica - at the end of Blake's Seven, the Evil Empire wins.
US post-war science fiction tended to be about the Cold War, with even the Klingons acting as much like Soviets and Mongol conquerors. In Britain, Nation was using World War Two - when the Daleks invade Earth, there are collaborators and a resistance movement, and the BBC loved filming on the real-life bomb sites still littering London in 1963 - and all his villains seem like Nazis in disguise. However, as revealed in the great moment when Tom Baker's Doctor refused to abort the genesis of the Daleks because their great evil would force the rest of the universe to co-operate, he was also canny enough to present anti-fascism as a muddling-through collection of grumpy, disparate factions. Maybe his greatest contribution was in teaching generations of children to resistn
Obituaries, page 18, main section
A nation remembers...
"Terry Nation's contribution to the series was the thing that made Dr Who, turning it from a Saturday tea-time programme into a national institution"
David Howe, author of Dr Who in the Sixties, Dr Who in the Seventies and Dr Who in the Eighties
"Simply a man of great imagination who knew how to tell a great story"
Verity Lambert, Dr Who producer in the Sixties
"Terry Nation made Dr Who the success that it became, he created the first British multimedia character, and what became known as `Dalek mania' "
Kevan Looseley, Who International,
East Ham, London
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