The Man Who Invented the Daleks
The Man Who Invented the Daleks -- A Review and Personal Reflection
By Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 399
When I was a very small boy my mother used to go shopping and leave me to “look after the house.” She would tell me she would “only be an hour at most,” but when you're a child, one hour can seem a very long time indeed. Intense isolation can play strange tricks on the mind, and after three hours of being completely alone, I would see a shadow flicker past the window. I always assumed it was my mother returning, and would run out into the kitchen to greet her, but find nothing. I'd then check the coat hooks, and this was important, because if my mother hadn't returned home, then there was something else hiding at the top of the stairs. I couldn't see it, but I could feel it occupying the whole of the landing, and as the afternoon wore on, and the house got darker, so the presence grew as well. I would call up to it. “I'm a policeman,” I would say. “You have to go away. You can't stay here. The army will be arriving soon.” And then, in my rising terror, I would say, “the man who lives next door really is a policeman. His name is Mr Preece, and when he comes home for his tea, I'll go round and fetch him.” But the presence remained, as it knew all the doors were locked.
Reading Alywn Turner's biography of Terry Nation, The Man Who Invented the Daleks, brought this memory back. Terry Nation was also an only child, and he too suffered times of extreme isolation. “My dad went off to the army and my mother was an ARP, an air-raid warden,” reflected Nation, “I used to spend nights alone in an air-raid shelter. And I would make up stories for myself – I was entertaining me in those days.” Much of Nation's own work is dominated by loneliness. Every Doctor Who story Nation wrote features an isolating, or deserted location. Devesham is an empty English village, Marinus is an island of unnatural stillness, and London, circa 2164, is a city of uncanny silence and decay. Even Skaro has a sense of all-pervading emptiness, and this preoccupation is also carried into the shows he was to later create himself. Both Survivors and Blake's 7 feature eerily deserted landscapes, and a sense of the forlorn.
This is how the Zen computer from Blake's 7 describes the planet Aristo. “The land masses are arid and support only primitive plant life. Nine tenths of the planet is covered by water which is highly acidic. The level of the oceans is constantly rising and they now virtually cover all traces of the cities built by early civilizations. Life is evolving in the oceans. An amphibian species have begun to develop.” And on page 99 of his Survivors novel, this is how Nation himself describes Britain after the Death. “The landscape was as silent as it was empty. It was a silence that sometimes awed them. Sometimes frightened them. It surrounded them, tangible and strong. Their voices seemed diminished by its power. It absorbed any sound they made, rapid in filling any space that noise rent in it. The silence was an unending requiem.”
Many of Nation's villains attempt to counter the silence by filling it with cancerous, entropic activities. Arthur Wormley, of Survivors, is trying to live the lifestyle he had before the Death, raiding and enslaving his neighbours in order to maintain it. The Federation is also selfish and unstable, its ultimate decay and collapse underlined by Nation's Blake's 7 episode “Terminal,” where the future of humanity is shown to be a regression into bestial savagery. Then we have the Daleks, who attempt to fill the void with hatred and break the silence with their screams of “exterminate.” Conversely, Nation's various heroes, in opposing this, are also trying to deal with the existential crisis in their own way: Blake, by fighting the Federation with no real idea of what he wants to bring in to replace it, Abby, by channelling her fears for her missing son into becoming a mother-figure to the community of survivors, and Dortmun by throwing himself and his finite resources into the development and use of what turns out to be an ultimately futile weapon against the invading Daleks. For Nation, the actions were different but the inspiring principle was the same.
The Man who Invented the Daleks is probably the most comprehensive biographical review of Nation thus far, and seeing Nation's life and work from start to finish allows the reader insights into the themes and nuances of his writing. People who know Nation mainly from his Doctor Who work will find lots to enjoy about Nation's early career and his less science-fiction-oriented stories. However, there are few insights into Nation's actual character that aren't already fairly well known, and the author is more interested in the themes that predominate Nation's independent television work than the writings he did for the BBC; while it can be insightful to consider The Persuaders!, The Baron, The Saint et al., reading the themes of these programmes onto all of Nation's work may not be the most useful basis for analysis. On the whole, however, I would say it is recommended reading for any fan of what was, without a shadow of a doubt, the golden age of British television.