Alwyn W. Turner Interview
Alan Stevens interviews the author behind The Man Who invented the Daleks, the new, critically acclaimed biography of Terry Nation.
How did the book come about?
The idea for the book originally came from Sam Harrison, an editor at Aurum, who's a fan of Terry Nation's work and thought there was a story there to be told. My interest initially was in the sheer diversity of that work and in the unique status of the Daleks; the more one tries to find parallels to them in British culture, the more one realizes that there aren't any. I first came across Nation's name in connection not with Doctor Who, but with Tony Hancock, and the transition from being a comedy writer to scaring the life out of generations of children was intriguing enough to make me want to look at his career more closely.
Terry Nation: “The Man Who Invented the Daleks.” But did he?
The title of the book is The Man Who Invented the Daleks, which I know is slightly contentious. Television is a collaborative medium and many others were involved in bringing the creatures to the screen. So I try to pay due tribute in the book to the contributions made by Brian Hodgson, who designed the voices, by Raymond Cusick, Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie in making the props, and David Whitaker as story editor in shaping the rhythms of their speech. And there were others. But ultimately all these were working to bring to life something that was created by Terry Nation. It was his vision and his characterisation that inspired their work. Any one of those collaborators could have been replaced and the Daleks would still have existed in slightly modified form. But had Nation not written the scripts, there would have been nothing. To take a contemporary comparison: The records of The Beatles were the creation of Lennon and McCartney. George Martin as producer is given due credit for his contribution to realizing their ideas, and some attention is even paid to others: Norman Smith as engineer, arrangers such as Mike Leander, various session musicians like David Mason. But they're still the work of Lennon and McCartney. And - to extend the parallel - the basic instrumentation of The Beatles (the two guitars, bass, drums line-up) was derived from The Crickets, the vocal harmonies owed a great deal to the Everly Brothers, the songwriting was influenced by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and others. In the same way that Nation's writing was influenced by H.G. Wells, John Wyndham and others. That's how popular culture works. So the Daleks as seen on screen are the product of many people and many influences. It can be both fun and enlightening to explore those various byways, and much of the book does precisely that. But all roads lead back to the same starting point: The inspiration of Terry Nation. And, of course, one should always bear in mind the old proverb that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. Or, as Nation put it: 'I notice nobody is taking any credit for "The Keys of Marinus".'
Terrance Dicks says that there was 'no resentment' towards Nation from other writers. How accurate do you think this is?
I'm not sure that I can answer that, really. In my experience, writers are not noticeably more saintly than any other group of people, and it's possible that Morrissey had a point when he observed that 'we hate it when our friends become successful.' On the other hand, Morrissey can sometimes appear cynical, bitter and twisted. So anyway, I thought it was worth asking Terrance Dicks if there was any resentment of Nation's extraordinary success amongst the other writers, and that was his answer. I don't have any reason to disbelieve him.
Because they have also been known to claim that Nation was lazy and a poor writer and that anything good in a Nation script was down to someone else, usually them. Even Douglas Adams, whose claims on page 264 re 'Destiny of the Daleks' are not borne out either by the storyline or the script that Nation wrote.
I think I do point out that the claims of Adams and Ken Grieve are exaggerated. Which is not unheard of with writers. Even Nation himself was known to adapt the truth a little. In interviews, for example, he never seemed to mention his first writing partner Dick Barry, with whom he came to London from Cardiff, instead making it seem like a solo adventure. It doesn't necessarily indicate anything more than self-aggrandisement, a tendency to which writers - who tend to be undervalued, especially those working in TV and the movies - are particularly vulnerable. The desire to redress the feeling of neglect is understandable.
On page 150, Terrance Dicks asserts that the Daleks have no value outside of Doctor Who. How accurate do you think this statement is?
I think Dicks is absolutely right in terms of a TV series centred on the Daleks. In essence, the Daleks are a wonderful adversary, but surely they have too many inherent limitations to carry a show in their own right? If The Daleks had been commissioned, then Sara Kingdom, Jason Cory and the android, Mark 7, would have been at the centre of the series. In which case, it's not clear what the point would be of taking them away from their established enemy, the Doctor.
The stories are rarely about the Doctor versus the Daleks-- it’s always somebody else, who represents some kind of ideological force: pacifism, resistance, fascism, etc. We do have some idea of how The Daleks would have gone, as Nation was basing it on “Master Plan”-- in a few episodes’ time, the corrupt politicians would have been showing up, and the Daleks’ foes would turn out to be a fascist Earth.
Okay, the Doctor doesn't normally initiate the conflict, but we access those stories through the Doctor, and his involvement is crucial to our perception of what's happening. Even when he's behaving a little questionably, in the first few stories, we are expected to buy into his position as a (self-appointed) independent arbiter of morality.
But I would argue that this is only the case because the show is called Doctor Who. Remove the Doctor, and his role would migrate to someone else. As for The Daleks, it's clear from Nation's pilot episode how his three new leads would have lined up: Cory on the side of the establishment, Kingdom nominally on the side of the establishment at first, but her compassion allowing her to resist both it and the Daleks, and Mark 7, an android who can be mass-produced, as a possible fifth column.
I'm not suggesting that the characters intended for The Daleks were no good. There is potential there in the trio and, as you say, sufficient variety to provide conflicts between them. But they're not the Doctor. He remains one of the great creations of British television, a wonderful original, endlessly capable of reinvention. Why lose that?
Because he doesn't belong to Terry Nation. The Doctor may be a great creation, but he's not irreplaceable, and this role can and has been filled by others, even within the Doctor Who series itself c.f. Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor.
Just to be clear: I'm not writing off the idea of The Daleks as being completely without value or merit. Even if it hadn't been a major hit, it would still have had its own interest. And it would have given Nation a foothold in the US, which might have opened up other possibilities. I just have the suspicion that a 'solo' series could have seen the end of the Daleks. They had already passed their initial peak of popularity and had The Daleks gone ahead and not proved successful in America, it doesn't seem implausible to me that there would be people at the BBC rubbing their hands and saying, 'I told you so.' Doctor Who had plenty of detractors within the Corporation, and I'm sure there were executives who resented the deal that allowed Nation a 50% stake and would not have been displeased to see him fail.
ITC, particularly Anderson, would seem to be a natural fit for a series like The Daleks, and there was already a connection, with the Daleks appearing in the TV Century 21 comics. So why didn’t Nation approach Lew Grade with the idea?
Nation had of course worked for ITC on The Saint and, particularly, on The Baron. And you're right, they would seem an ideal company to take on The Daleks, but I'm not convinced the BBC would have let it happen, in that the BBC wouldn't have countenanced letting their (half-)copyright properties being taken up by a domestic rival. Things are different now, following the rise in the 1980s of independent production companies, but such things didn't happen in the 1960s.
Terry Nation is also famous for creating Survivors and Blake's 7. Now, on page 242 you say that, 'Blake should have been a Jimmy Garland in space,' the latter having appeared in the first season of Survivors. However, considering that Jimmy Garland was an aristocrat/establishment figure who basically wanted to bring back serfdom, how good an idea do you think that is?
In that comment, I was thinking more of Jimmy Garland's persona as devil-may-care swashbuckler than his socio-political position. Within the conventions of an adventure story – and at heart both Survivors and Blake's 7 are adventures – the essence is what the characters do and how they do it, rather than what they believe about the structure of a future society. My point was more that Garland had an element of glamour which, in my opinion, wasn't really there in the screen portrayal of Roj Blake. Garland's claim to rule – as is conventional within the genre – is rooted in a sense that he is a natural leader. He's a hero not because of his inherited position, but because by his actions he reveals himself as a leader. The group he's opposing are not seen as building a progressive, democratic society. It too is centred on a single figure, Knox, and crucially we can tell Garland and Knox apart not by their politics but by their morality. With his military training, Garland could easily kill Knox but chooses not to; Knox has no hesitation in trying to kill Garland. To repeat the point: it's the moral stance, the mode of behaviour, that defines a hero, not their political agenda. The same is true of Roj Blake. The conflict between Blake and Travis in 'Duel' is rooted in the same duality as that between Garland and Knox.
But both are subverted within their respective series, as it's Garland's determination to keep his word which leads to him being captured and tortured by Knox, and he has to be freed by Greg Preston, while, although Blake shows restraint in 'Duel,' which Avon respects, at the end of the day Avon kills Travis. In other words, you can only take the moral high ground when you've got an ally with rather more flexible morals to help you out. Finally, neither Knox nor Travis ever learn anything from their experiences, in fact both view their opponents' virtues as flaws and completely unrealistic for the society they're living in.
If we want to find a coherent philosophy in this, then you're correct to point to the fact that Knox and Travis don't learn. Nation doesn't suggest that setting a good example will convert your enemies. But it may well bring out the best in your friends. Greg has no desire to join any nascent community, but he acquires responsibilities as a result of being with Abby and Jenny. Avon may not be a conventionally moral hero, but he does keep Blake's crusade going, against his initial better judgement, when he simply wants to save his own skin and ignore the Federation.
Alwyn W. Turner. Thank you.
This interview has previously appeared in Celestial Toyroom Issue 399.