It is 50 years this weekend since the world saw the end of the Daleks. Fortunately, the BBC had enough sense to see what a hit Terry Nation’s creations had been, and brought them back a few months later.
Key serial The Daleks (originally “The Mutants”) secured Doctor Who’s success in its early years, and launched a legendary rivalry that has spanned space, time and media. Back in 1986, occasional Kasterborous contributor Dave Rudin had the chance to chat with Terry Nation for the UNYT fanzine. He’s kindly given permission to republish the article here.
Terry Nation is a name familiar to fans of Doctor Who. With his invention of the Daleks, he created the series’ most popular and enduring aliens. He is credited with writing 62 episodes for the show, second only to the late Robert Holmes, who wrote 71. Having written the second Doctor Who story to have ever been made, and no less than five stories in the program’s first three years, Terry Nation is also one of the principal founders of the series.
On June 29, 1986, Mr. Nation was gracious enough to grant an interview to UNYT, along with Tom Beck of The Prydonians of Prynceton and Dave Smith of The Jersey Jagaroth. We wish to thank Creation Conventions for helping to arrange the interview.
Having been associated with Doctor Who since its inception, Terry described the show’s origins in the early 1960’s:
“The BBC had an enormous Saturday afternoon viewing for its sports, and the Independents didn’t have a look-in in the afternoons. They also had a good lock on about 6:30, but they lost a huge audience because that was the traditional time for children’s television to go on. So what they were looking for was a show that could be seen by children and by adults and that would hold the Saturday afternoon audience and take them into the evening programming. That was the main aim of Doctor Who.
“What Sydney Newman (the head of BBC Drama at that time) conceived was this slightly dotty old professor who had a time machine, and he wanted it to be uplifting, enlightening, educational. The Doctor should show up in old Pompeii just before the eruption, he should show up at Gettysburg and listen to the Gettysburg Address.
[pullquote align=”right”]A whole lot of other people had a hand in this… Ray Cusick did a wonderful job… the sound people who helped come up with the voice. [/pullquote]It was in this context that the Daleks were born. “They wanted it to be, as I say, more educational, and he [Newman] absolutely said, ‘I do not want bug-eyed monsters.’ I had said, ‘Could I have the science fiction segments of the piece?’ That’s what I was known for at the time because I’d done some science fiction. I went away, I wrote the scripts… some things had happened and I wrote one episode a day, for seven days.
“I didn’t know this, [but] Verity Lambert, who was the producer, protected me a great deal from what then went on in the BBC when Sydney Newman said, ‘I don’t want this script, I don’t want these shows and I don’t want bug-eyed monsters, and you’re not going to do it,’ and Verity said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ This was her first show, and she was very tough; I mean, really very strong. Verity said, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and we did it, and Sydney Newman, who is an old friend of mine, now has admitted in print many times that he was so wrong, and that Doctor Who wouldn’t be on the air now had the Daleks not been in that first block. And I have no doubt about it – that show would have died after the [first] thirteen [episodes] had we not had the Daleks take off in that massive way.”
Nation described for us the manner in which the physical realization of the Daleks came about. “I described the Daleks with great accuracy in that first script and when I went in to see them I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. They got it.’ Now this is not to diminish the role of the designer, Ray Cusick, who was terrific and made it all work. He did a wonderful job, but they were described very thoroughly. I knew how they sounded, how they moved, how they looked, and it was up to him to make that possible mechanically, which he did, and I think they were terrific. I’m not sure about the half— globes all over the body—-I don’t think I had those in, those were his——but it was a combination of my words and his visual engineering sense that put them together.”
According to Nation, certain people in Britain raised the question of who really deserved credit for the Dalek’s creation. “You see, there was a silly dispute, not between Cusick and I, at that time, but the press wanted to get hold of something to make it difficult, and there were the Daleks doing their great big thing. I mean they were enormous, remember. They were Mickey Mouse. They were the biggest thing that had happened to British television in a long time. So the press said, ‘Poor Ray Cusick, the man who designed these, didn’t get a penny out of it while Terry Nation is making a fortune out of these things.’
“The truth of the matter was that Ray Cusick was being paid as a regular staff member of the BBC and got his paycheck every week. I was a freelance writer… so my risk was always greater than his. So, I didn’t have too many concerns for Ray’s situation. I believe he got all the credit that he should have got for developing the design of the Daleks, but I have no hesitation, I don’t care what anybody else says, I described them, I invented them, I made them the characters they are.
“And having said all that I don’t diminish the tremendous thing—-and not just Cusick. A whole lot of other people had a hand in this. You know, the sound people who helped come up with the voice. I had written lines that were very specifically broken down into (Imitating a Dalek voice) ‘syl—la—bles—so—that—the—thing—would—sound—like—that,’ but then the sound people had to take that and make it sound good.
‘And all of those things. Nobody creates something all by themselves. It is a tremendous input from a lot of people. Television or movies are a group art. I hesitate to use the word ‘art,’ but they are a group product, anyway.”
Although pleased with the final physical form of the Dalek, Terry said that he would have still liked to have made some improvements had the proper resources been available. “I’d liked to have given them a better hand, a better grasping tool to work with,” he said. A set of interchangeable Dalek arms had once been tried, “but that even got too complicated.” The other improvement Nation said he would have liked to have made was in regard to the Daleks’ mobility.
“If British special effects were better, I guess I would have some kind of jet lift for them so that they could float upwards. And I think in some of the books and comics and annuals that we’ve done we’ve actually had that. They had jet platforms, but they are more easily drawn than actually made.”
When writing that first Dalek story, Nation said that he intended it to be the Daleks’ first and last appearance, having killed them off — something he later regretted “What a dummy I was,” he recalled “I then had to think very hard how to get them back And, I have had in every contract with the BBC for other people to write my things that nothing is to be killed off, nothing is to be permanent or finalized.”
That first sequel which Nation wrote saw the Daleks invading the Earth in the 22nd century. Was it his idea to have a futuristic Earth scenario? “Yeah, it was mine. You’ve got to now see what was happening socially with the Daleks. Every child in Britain was a Dalek. All they had to do was put a cardboard box over their heads and go around saying ‘I will ex—termi—nate,’ and there were schoolyards everywhere were filled with kids doing this very thing. So we had the situation I thought I wanted to relate it now to Earth so the children can actually believe these creatures are here on Earth.
[pullquote align=”right”] The futuristic Earth scenario was mine. Schoolyards everywhere were filled with kids going around saying ‘I will ex—termi—nate,’. I thought I wanted to relate it now to Earth so the children can actually believe these creatures are here on Earth.[/pullquote]“So we set it a little into the future, and had them invade Earth, and I think the Doctor comes back to a London where some odd things have happened. The Battersea power station, which had four great funnels, only has two now. There’s rubble everywhere, and they’re down beside the Thames, and we got the Dalek to come out of the water, out of the Thames. We used to work very hard on those first appearances of the Daleks: ‘How should they first show up?’”
In those early episodes it was said that the Daleks were a product of natural mutation following a neutronic war, and that they lived inside their metal casings to protect themselves from radiation. In Terry Nation’s 1975 story, “Genesis of the Daleks,” we are given a different history—that the Daleks were developed through deliberate chemical mutation by a brilliant but twisted scientist called Davros, and that the metal casings are travel devices meant for mobility, not protection against radiation. Are these views of Dalek origins consistent with each other?
“No, it isn’t consistent in any way,” Terry explained. “I have always made the excuse that history is a viewpoint. The Battle of Waterloo as seen from the hill on the east would look very different from the Battle of Waterloo seen from the hill on the west History is a perspective, and I believe when I finally revealed the history of the Daleks it was a rationalization off all the things that I then knew about them, and is probably the true history.
“I had seen the Daleks at some point in their life span in the early episodes, but the later one, I think, was the true genesis of how they came to be, and how Davros came to be, and how we moved from humanoid to slightly mechanical to [fully mechanical].
“I did not know about Davros when I wrote those early episodes Let’s say — we’re talking rationale now — that I learned about him later in my investigations into the Dalek history.” Thirteen Dalek stories have been produced to date on Doctor Who, five of them by writers other than Terry Nation, including the two most recent stories, “Resurrection of the Daleks” and “Revelation of the Daleks” by Eric Seward. Terry gave us his views regarding other people writing for the Daleks. “I’ll be honest with you — I don’t like other writers writing my work I don’t think they do it as well as I do, and that is not just straight immodesty. I know the Daleks better than anybody else. It’s my child, so I know how that kid reacts best. I think they’re very competent story writers, but it’s not the way I would do it. That’s all. I really have great regard for them as writers… but it’s probably not fair to ask me because going to say, ‘No, I don’t like the work of the other writers who did my creation.’”
Terry spoke of one major reason why he felt other writers were not always successful in their handling of the Daleks. “The other, thing about the Daleks which not too many people know is that they are immensely boring. These creatures should never be allowed to say more than a couple of lines at a time because (imitating a Dalek voice) ‘it—is—ve—ry—bor—ing—to—hear—a—voice–say—this-and—say—we—are—go—ing—to—in—vade—the—Earth—to—mor–row. -We—arc—go-ing,’ and it goes on and on, and so it’s slow and the pacing goes from everything.
“I cut their lines down to nothing when I finally realized this… I have to find a way of somebody else making those things. That was really one of the wonderful things about Davros. He could verbalize on behalf of the Daleks and say all those longer speeches that I was never able to do with the Daleks. They should not be overseen, we should see the Daleks for only brief periods of time. Don’t let them stay on the screen too long, because again they lose their mystery and attraction, so take them off the screen as much [as possible].
“Let people know they’re there — they are menacing, they are around — but don’t overuse them. These are elements that I would try to tell to any writer who is coming up to do a Dalek show, but they miss it. They miss the truth of the matter and they think the Daleks are so powerful and they can be anytime you want them ‘Just put ‘em up there and they’ll save the day.’ That’s not true. They have to be used very carefully and very sparingly.”
Maintaining a proper image for the Daleks is something important, Terry explained, but he also told of one occasion when he decided to ease the standards in order to help out a friend .
[pullquote align=”right”]I’ll be honest with you — I don’t like other writers writing my work I don’t think they do it as well as I do, and that is not just straight immodesty. I know the Daleks better than anybody else.[/pullquote]“The man who gave me my very first break in the business was a man called Spike Milligan, a wonderful guy. And when I was a starving, out—of—work comic, he gave me ten pounds ‘— a lot of money then. For nothing. He said, ‘God, you look awful, you haven’t eaten Here’s ten pounds. Now we go on fifteen years later and I was getting desperate calls. Spike had done a sketch using a Dalek. We had protected the Dalek image enormously. We didn’t let people use them in comedy sketches. We tried to not let them be seen as figures of fun. Spike rang me and said, ‘We’re in terrible trouble. I’ve got this sketch and I’m told I can’t do it because you won’t allow this to happen.’ And I was finally very happy to say, ‘Hey, be my guest. I’m paying back the ten quid now. It’s yours. Do it.’
“I believed, and I still believe, that the Daleks are strong enough to stand up to that kind of fun moment. Just as you can make fun of them in cartoons and books, they are strong enough to stand up to that .My agent said, ‘You’re crazy, don’t let them do it,’ but I wanted to do that, so that was nice to be able to do it.”
Another thing that Nation wanted to do, unknown to many American fans, was to bring the Daleks to American network television! It was following the time of the 1967 Patrick Troughton story, “The Evil of the Daleks.” Terry explains the rest:
“I raised a million dollars privately to make a picture. A spokesman for the BBC said they would become co—partners in the venture. I wrote the script. I came here to ABC, who expressed considerable interest in it. This is not to say they were making a commitment, but they were very interested. I went back and I started in to east and get a director and a designer. The designer started working, I booked the studio, and then my finance man went to conclude things with BBC, and the man who had committed BBC for the other million bucks had no authority so to do and suddenly my fifty per cent backer was gone!
“The BBC actually didn’t have that — or the man that I had been dealing with did not have the power to do that . Whether he realized it or not I don’t know, but I then had to cancel the studio. It cost me personally a lot of money to pull that operation out. And I had a studio that was standing by, and I was going to be shooting in a week’s time — that’s how close it got when we lost the money — and I was not about to put up my own money, because it’s traditional that you never finance your own things.
“They [the BBC) wanted to be partners with me at that point. They wanted to do it, but the guy was talking without the authority. There might have been a long fight through and we might have got it [the proper authority from BBC], but my studio was gone, my dates were gone, everything was shot by that time, and so my position as a producer was put into great question because I didn’t pull it off.”
Terry was asked if he had every considered writing an original Dalek novel. “Not I, no,” he said “I don’t have time to do a novel I’m a writer of film and television. I have written two novels, but no… I don’t like to do that. I’ve never novelized any of my stories and I’ve always allowed somebody else to do that mainly because when I’ve written it, I’ve written it. I don’t want to do it all over again, so no, I don’t think I want to do that. Anything is possible, isn’t it? I mean, if somebody, a publisher, came along and said, ‘Here’s a million bucks,’ yeah, I’d write a Dalek novel. As I say, nothing is impossible, but it’s unlikely, let’s just put it like that.”
Regarding the novelization of Dalek stories not yet in book form, Nation said that he and his attorney are currently trying to work something out “I think what we’re looking to is doing almost a collected edition of Dalek books I won’t be held to this, and I’m very happy — I mean, if Eric [Saward] wants to novelize his Dalek scripts I’m very happy he should do them, but then he and his agent have to come to a deal with my agent on how we release then, and how we split whatever comes from it, and so on. It’s all money.”
On the subject of licensing and copyrighting, Terry described the effect the Daleks had on the BBC’s merchandising department.
“I can tell you that BBC Enterprises was a tiny little hole-in-the-wall operation until the Daleks. The people who were there then actually say that it was the Daleks that turned BBC Enterprises into a bigger operation, and they began to realize that they had properties to sell, they had something to go out and sell As a result they became a huge operation.”
Terry Nation, thank you!
And thanks again from Kasterborous to Dave Rudin.