Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented The Daleks
Alwyn W. Turner
Aurum Press, 352 pages
As we reach the end of Book Month here at SciFi4Me.com, and the new season of Doctor Who has just begun, bringing with it Peter Capaldi’s first run in with the Daleks, I thought it would a good idea to take a look at social historian Alwyn W. Turner’s biography of Terry Nation, the man who invented the notorious pepperpots. Make no mistake though, Terry Nation was far from just the creator of the Daleks, even if they are the creation that gave him a kind of immortality.
So who was Terry Nation? Born in Cardiff, Wales in 1930, Nation was the son of a self-employed furniture restorer and a housewife, at a time when Cardiff, heavily dependent on the coal industry, was in decline. His family wasn’t poor, in fact they seemed to be fairly comfortable, but the world he lived in was one of mass unemployment and a sense of hopelessness among the Welsh population. It was an environment that would instill a deep sense of anger against injustice and social oppression that would shape much of Nation’s writing, and influence most of the television series he would create. So too would the war years, where Nation was often alone in the bomb shelter, with his father in the army and his mother working as an air warden. Here he would listen to the radio, with shows Saturday Night Theatre, Appointment with Fear and the new series about the dashing gentleman thief The Saint shaping his imagination. It was a different time in entertainment, so for the horror tales he loved so much, Nation turned to the writings of James and Stoker, Shelley and Stevenson, and the fantastic worlds of Wells, Verne and Haggard.
When one looks at the TV shows Nation created or wrote for, the influences of those classic writers and that particular time in history is clear. Nation didn’t just write the second story of the then fledgling Doctor Who, he also created Blake’s 7 and Survivors, two television series that have been vastly influential on modern television. Blake’s 7 is one of the great cult science fiction series – something of a funhouse mirror of the optimistic vision of Star Trek – and is readily acknowledged as having heavily influenced J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. It also did something that was extremely rare at the time by building season-long story arcs. While common now, they were a rarity in science fiction series in the 70’s. Survivors was his 1975 series about a small group attempting to, oddly enough, survive a post-apocalyptic Britain, and it too was hugely influential, and was briefly revived in 2008. Nation also was an incredibly prolific writer, turning out scripts for Hancock, Out of this World, The Saint, The Baron, The Avengers, The Persuaders!, and MacGyver, as well as writing for radio, film and stage.
For modern science fiction fans, it’s probably the Daleks and Blake’s 7 that Terry Nation is best known for, but if you just know about those iconic creations, you’re missing out on the rich and full life Nation lived. Alwyn Turner’s biography certainly gives deep and broad coverage of those subjects, but he also looks deep into what made Nation the man he was. That childhood in Cardiff ad those wartime years were the beginnings of the kinds of stories he would be telling his whole life, but they were far from the only influences. Nation was also part of the biggest change in British entertainment, as the BBC began to realize that they had to move into popular entertainment to compete with the growing number of independent radio networks. This lead to an explosion of new series and continued into television, and Nation was in the right place and the right time to be a part of it. Interviews with Alan Simpson, Terrance Dicks, Trevor Hoyle and so many more, paint a picture of a man who loved life and storytelling, and if you don’t recognize those names, it’s OK, because Turner takes you through who those people are, and why they are important, as well. It’s not just the fascinating story of a man who invented iconic science fiction stories and monsters, it’s the story of the rise and fall of a particular kind of storytelling, one that would both serve Nation well, and ultimately become part of the past.
With this new series of Doctor Who upon us and in the light of the incredible world-wide popularity of the show, it’s a welcome pleasure to look back at the life of the man who, it could be argued, saved the show for today’s audiences. The BBC wasn’t all that happy with the viewer number for the first serial and desperately needed a success for the show to survive, and along came Terry Nation to help make the Daleks and Doctor Who a worldwide sensation.