Monthly Archives: March 2011

THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE DALEKS

I was lucky enough to get an advance look at The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation, a new book published by Aurum Press written by Alwyn Turner. I should probably declare an interest at this point: I’m writing a secret project for Aurum, one that’s not Doctor Who related and quite a long way off. When I can tell you what that is, I will.

The Terry Nation book isn’t – and isn’t meant to be – a biography in the sense of really getting under the skin of the man or listing the gossip, it’s more a survey of the television culture of the time, as personified by Nation. As well as the Daleks, Nation created Blakes 7 and Survivors, and he wrote for all sorts of ITC type shows like The Avengers and The Saint.

The book does a really nice job of capturing the weird life of a TV writer in Nation’s position – trying to balance house style and giving people what they wanted (being anonymous), while making a name for himself (standing out from the crowd). The book is also not afraid to note that, as a writer, Nation was paid to tell tall stories, and was quite happy to tell them about his own life. The reality was that he took work where he could take it.

And he created the Daleks, inspired by actual alien cubes he found in his garden, but like so many artists, his success was not so much the ideas or the art so much as cutting the right deal. Turner does a really good job unpicking the circumstances that led to Nation’s unique arrangement with the BBC. And the central figure wasn’t Nation, it was Steven Moffat’s mother-in-law.

Beryl Vertue worked at Associated London Scripts, a group of writers including (as a very junior member) Terry Nation, ostensibly as a secretary, but really as an agent. I have to admit that having read this book, I’d really like to read one about Beryl Vertue, now. When someone approached the BBC wanting to make Dalek toys, the BBC and Nation scratched their heads, but she sorted out a contract. Nation became rich and bought a flash car and a mansion. Success bred success, and he was soon in huge demand. He jealously guarded the Daleks, and in making sure they were only brought out on special occasions he kept them special.

Later in life, he moves to California to try his hand in the American TV industry. It doesn’t work out. It’s odd, in a way. There would seem to be a lot of US shows in the early eighties he could have worked on. And he also gives up on the UK at the exact point he’s built his brand – the spin off novels made it clear: they were ‘Terry Nation’s Survivors’ and ‘Terry Nation’s Blakes 7’ and ‘Terry Nation’s Dalek Annuals’. Very early on, Nation sees Hollywood as a nut to crack, and he never cracks it.

I’ve never really known where to stand on the Terry Nation issue. As the creator of the Daleks, he inadvertantly and unknowingly had an immense effect on my childhood, and, of course, what passes for my career. I’ve never been able to get into Survivors (Turner makes a pretty convincing case that it’s a show inspired by the dodgy wiring and frequent power cuts in that mansion of Nation’s), but recently rewatched Blakes 7 and even when it’s complete rubbish it’s marvellous. Turner makes some really fun insights and connections. Anyone with eyes can see that there are some … odd … costuming choices, but I hadn’t made the obvious connection between that and the guidelines’ description of the show as ‘Robin Hood in space’. The costume designer just took it literally. See? –

It’s obvious once you’ve had it pointed out to you, isn’t it? Look, it’s Robin Hood in space.

But Nation could also be extremely lazy. His scripts were written quickly, in one take. When he decides to change a character’s name in the first Blakes 7 script, he doesn’t even go back to cross out the old name, he just has a stage direction explaining that X is now called Y. Planet of the Daleks has a second group of Thals suddenly show up because he’d agreed there would be a female Thal, but didn’t remember to put her in the story. One very noticeable characteristic is that in the longer serials, he just forgets things he’s written – freezing temperatures instantly kill Daleks, but two episodes later the Daleks’ plan is to freeze themselves. Skaro’s a completely dead world … with overgrown swamps ‘teeming with life’. His scripts are almost like found poems at times – characters called Tarrant, plagues, countdown clocks, frozen monsters coming back to life, characters who say ‘vital’ a lot. And sometimes … well, watch this.

But a found poem is still poetry. I never wonder whether an episode I’m watching is by Terry Nation or not. This account of his life is an entertaining one, one that places him in context. There were places where I’d like to get under Nation’s skin a little more. We know what he said publicly about the Daleks, but did he secretly resent them? What was the fascination with America, and how keenly did he feel he failed?

I learned a lot from this book, and it’s a great survey of Nation’s career and the industry he was working in, and despite the title it’s about his whole career, not the bits you already know about. Well worth a look.

The Gray Tradition Monomyth

I think it’s probably useful if I try to list the characteristics the books in what I’m calling the ‘Gray Tradition’ have. This is a working list, not a complete one. Not every book does all of these, and I’m not at the stage yet where I can say which of these are necessary or sufficient. As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m seeing what I think are patterns, where I’m starting to make links. I don’t have conclusions at this stage.

Note that the treatments of the subjects can be extremely varied. Also: some of these concepts are in ancient folklore and as old as storytelling, while, looking at them, some are clearly rooted far more locally: in the counterculture of the sixties. I would like to look at how these things originated, how they were popularised.

As you can probably tell from those caveats, I’m thinking aloud here, rather than carving into stone and I would welcome any help. I don’t give any examples here, I’m going to come up with a (similarly rough) list of books that I think fit soon. For some sense of who I’m talking about, I named some authors in the first post in this series.

So, the books of the Gray Tradition tend to:

Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.

Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.

Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.

Be written by men.

Have a protagonist who starts in the mundane world, even a hyper-mundane one. He either lives in some grimy, dark city or occasionally a faceless suburb. Their life is one of routine, although it’s often monotonous rather than actively dangerous.

The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.

People are conformist. Even a counterculture, if one is presented, is bound up in rules and hierarchies.

History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.

The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.

Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.

Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.

The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.

Characters play strategy games, often chess, and see the game board as a microcosm of real life.

They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.

There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).

There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.

The protagonist undergoes some profound and permanent physical transformation, often disfiguring or at least which leaves them unable to pass as a normal human. They often choose to do this, even though they don’t (can’t) understand all the implications until the transformation is complete.

The protagonist often develops some psychic ability: precognition, telepathy or some form of mind control. The implication is that the protagonist is the first homo superior – the next stage of human development. The characters with these gifts tend to have weird eyes – a straightforward concrete way of indicating ‘they see differently’.

The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.

Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.

Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.

The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.

If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.

The books often have utopian themes. We see a better society, or even a plan to enact utopia in our world.

They are violent. There are disasters and wars that kill millions, the protagonist often fights hand-to-hand battles. He, or at least his allies, often have no compunction about killing. (One of the things the hero must do, in fact, is lose his compunction to kill). Building a better world inevitably means destroying the old one – many will die.

Again, I don’t know if it’s significant or why it would be, but the weapon of choice is often a blade.

They tend not to explore identity issues like race or gender. At first glance, this is a very white, male genre. This is changing, I think.

Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF BRILBURN LOGUE

The sleeve notes for the Bauhaus album Masks (1981) includes the following poem, credited to Brilburn Logue:

This is for when the radio is broken and crackles like uranium orchids
This is for when the fohn-wind rattles the telegraph wires like a handful of bones
This is for when dream ambulances skitter through the streets at midnight
This is for when you get caught in a sleep-riot and the sky is out of order
This is for when your sex is full of voodoo
This is for when your clothes are imaginary
This is for when your flesh creeps and never comes back.

The poem appears on the cover of the album This is For When Live.

And this is a ‘clean’ copy of that cover:

You can hear it recited on the version of Double Dare on the live album Press The Eject and Give me the Tape. It’s not read by the author, and starts with ‘-graphy, doubled up’ and ends with the line ‘when your flesh creeps and never comes back’. You can download the track from Amazon.

This is the only work I know of credited to Brilburn Logue, but there’s no great mystery. ‘Brilburn Logue’ is a pseudonym for Alan Moore, at this point very, very early in his comics writing career – he’d just turned down the chance to write the main strip for Doctor Who Monthly (having written a number of back up strips for the magazine) and started preliminary work on Marvelman and V for Vendetta.

The only other ‘Brilburn’ I’ve been able to find is Conrad Veidt’s character in Abend-Nacht-Morgen (a lost 1920 silent film – “Brilburn, her brother, is a ne’er-do-well who bums money from his sister. He influences his sister to have Chester buy her an expensive pearl necklace, so he can steal it”, according to imdb user Arne Andersen). Moore might have picked ‘Logue’ simply because the suffix ‘-logue’ is used to denote forms of speech and writing – prologue, monologue and so on. It’s an amusing coincidence that that speech therapist Geoffrey Rush plays in The King’s Speech is ‘Lionel Logue’.