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.