Terry Nation (1987)

Here’s Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, talking about his time on the show in a DWM interview. He discusses his hopes for the Mechanoids, his dislike of the Troughton Dalek stories, and his thoughts on Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

“I went to London, where I auditioned as a stand-up comic, and I failed time and time again. Somebody told me ‘the jokes are  very good, it’s you who’s not funny’, and that was hurtful, but then I figured I had to make a living. I was hustling around, and somebody gave me an introduction to Spike Milligan. Milligan wrote me a cheque for five pounds, which was a lot of money then, and he said ‘Why don’t you write a ‘Goon Show’, and if we like it, we’ll represent you. Anyway, I wrote a ‘Goon Show’ that night, delivered it the next morning, and he liked it.

“After two or three weeks of doing that, I was doing a BBC radio show called ‘All My Eye’, and it was fine to have said that you were a comedy writer, but the truth of it is that you’re suddenly faced with the possibility of doing thirty minutes of radio comedy for thirteen weeks, and it was truly an ordeal by figre. I went on to other comedy shows, worked with other writers, and ultimately having worked through a lot of comedy, decided that I wanted to do drama.

“ABC were doing a series called ‘Out of This World’, and I was asked to adapt a story by Philip K. Dick called ‘Imposter’. This was maybe the first science fiction being done in Britain. That was successful, and I did some more episodes. I now had a leg in each camp; I was a drama writer, and I was also a comedy playwright, so I was three-legged in one way, and nobody quite how how to slot me.

“I started to write for Tony Hancock, the most beloved comic in Britain. He had a Thursday night show that was giant, tremendous. We were working in a theatre in Nottingham, and my agent called from London and said ‘The BBC wants you to do a think called ‘Doctor Who’, it’s for the children’s television slot, science fiction’, and I said ‘How dare they? I don’t do things like that!’, but then I’d been asked because of this ‘Out of this World’ story. Well, this particular night, Tony Hancock and I had a big dispute. I wanted him to try some new material, and I’m not sure if I was fired or if I walked out, but the result was that I was on a train back to London, thinking ‘Hey, wait a minute! I’m out of work!’.

“I went and talked to David Whitaker, the script editor of ‘Doctor Who’, and I came up with a story idea. They liked it, they bought it, and that takes us up to where the Daleks started. I don’t know to this day what the enormous appeal of the Daleks was. I’ve heard all sorts of ideas about it, but they were slightly magical, because you didn’t know what the elements were that made them work. I’d been a cinema-goer all my life, and loved going to what were rated in those days as horror movies. Whatever the creature was, somewhere in your heart of hearts, you know it was a man dressed up, so my first requirement was to take the legs off. Take away the humanoid form, and we were off and running.

“Further inspiration came from the Georgian State Ballet, the Russian dance trouple which was performing in London at the time. There was a dance that the women did, where they wore floor-brushing skirts, and evidently took tiny steps, so they appeared to  glide across the stage. There was no suggestion of what form of locomotion they were using. That’s what I wanted for the Daleks. The rest of it comes easily, you put on an eye, and something else for hands. We made a big mistake with the hands, of course, we should have been smarter, but I had no faith in the show. It was the old writer’s axiom, ‘Take the money and fly like a thief’. I really didn’t think that it could work.

“After the Daleks, I was for a short time the most famous writer on television. The press interviewed me, there was mail arriving in great van loads. There was stuff coming to my house that said ‘Dalek Man – London’, and I was getting lots of them. Almost all the kids wanted a Dalek, and nobody was quick enough. The BBC, not being the great commercial operator, wasn’t ready, so there was no merchandising, there were no plastic Daleks, there were no buttons, there were no anything. My God, was that to change! Within the year, there were Dalek everythings.

“Raymond Cusick made a tremendous contribution, and I would love to be glib enough to put it into percentage terms, but you can’t do that. You start with something that’s a writer’s dream, that he’s put down in words, and amended, and added to in conversations. Something starts there. Cusick didn’t get anything, to my understanding. I think they may have given him a hundred pound bonus, but he was a salaried employee, and I think he knew the nature of his work, and it was what he did every week. The copyrights resided with the BBC and myself, and there were lovely legal words to cover these things, so that before they could merchandise anything, they had to have my agreement. I was very lucky. The salt cellar part is the legend: that gave Raymond Cusick the idea for the shape. He was restricted by budget, obviously – it wasn’t a big budget show we were doing. But yes, he made a tremendous contribution. Whatever the Daleks are or were, his contribution was vast.

“For ‘The Keys of Marinus’, I was already aware of what one could do with models, which were fairly new to the BBC. We could do models, and they did make them, and if I had an idea and thought the story was more important, then they could find a way to produce it. They were skillful, talented people.

“You’ll recall that we killed the Daleks, so we had to use the logic that this was trillions of years into the future, and we could now go back in history and find out whatever they did. We had seen them in that city, and they could only travel in that city, so the next generation of Daleks had to have something attached to them. I thought if the menace could be brought to modern-day Earth, it would really make the Daleks supreme in the minds of the public; actually bringing them in so we could see them crossing London Bridge, we could see them coming out of the Thames, that was the idea.

“You don’t kill off Carole Ann Ford! Didn’t she marry, or meet someone? That was ‘happily ever after’ and off we go again.

“The Chase was really the demand of the public. They kept saying ‘Can we do another Dalek story?’. We’d done them in their city, we’d done them on Earth, so let’s have a kind of chase through space. It’s a fun thing to do anyway, and we could go through times and locations, and that’s what we set about doing.

“They were so hot at that time, you couldn’t avoid The Beatles. I remember with great pride that the commercial channel was running the Beatles when they were really at their peak, at the same time as a ‘Doctor Who’ episode with the Daleks, and ‘Doctor Who’ got the ratings. I was pretty pleased with that.

“With the Mechanoids, you had your eye on the chance that anything could possibly catch on. The Mechanoids were manufactured as toys, but of course they didn’t take off. I remember the final battle of the Daleks against the Mechanoids. I set a city way up above the trees in the jungle, and the director did a stunning models battle. I haven’t seen it for years, but it’s a knockout battle.

“With ‘Dr. Who and the Daleks’, I was giving it away at this point. I’d done that story, my name was going to be over it anyway, it was all going to be based on my work, and David Whitaker was eager to do it so that’s what we did. I would have gone back very much closer to the thing we did on television. I’ve seen those first seven episodes, and they are really good. They are very well-constructed. I thought Peter cushing played the Doctor very well. I would have liked to have seen a little more snap, but he was very loveable, and that’s the way he wanted to play it. Bill Hartnell was, for me, the epitome of what ‘Doctor Who’ should be: a snappy, bad-tempered, absent-minded professor, whose interest in science and needing to know would lead them into terrible problems. Bill was absolutely perfect at that.

“‘Mission to the Unknown’ was clearly one that they brought me in for because I knew the show so well, and could turn one out quickly to cover all the problems. People were probably having holidays and stuff like that, and I think I used the episode as the central theme for the next big one I was going to do. I wanted to give a little trailer for that.

“Somebody up top at the BBC thought that if we had three months of it, we could really make an impact. It was a terrible mistake to think that you could do three months of the same thing, but we did. I don’t know how the figures went, but I imagine by the end, people were getting very bored with the Daleks. Dennis Spooner and I didn’t write them together, because I was working on ‘The Baron’ at that time. We may have met on a few occasions, and given a broad direction as to where the show was going. Dennis was script editor at that time, and we talked about it, and I went away and did my six, and he did his six. We certainly didn’t write them together.

“I think it was a tradition of the BBC that you did a special for Christmas, and we figured we were going to be playing at that time, so we would do one as well. At that time, the most staid of our English news readers would turn up in comic variety shows, and they would do something out of character or funny. On Christmas day, anything seemed to go, and I guess that’s what we wanted: something very bizarre and strange.

“I didn’t like ‘Power of the Daleks’, and I responded very badly to them. The Daleks were something that I understood better than anybody else. It appeared that they were simple robots, and all you’d have them do was say ‘Exterminate’ and you’d have it made. They were very much more complex in the way they should be presented. I didn’t like David’s episodes, where he had them being very sweet, and very polite; that seemed totally alien to me. This is not to say that they were not good episodes; this is just my personal opinion.

“I had known Jon Pertwee for a long time, and I knew what he was trying to do with the part. We were in the height of the 007 period, and everybody was trying Bond movies; I think that’s how Jon saw the role, a little more dashing, a little more daring, and a little more physical. He didn’t like the Daleks, but I always believed that he didn’t like them in the same sense that actors do’t like playing with children or dogs: because they are scene-stealers.

“The Daleks, when they have to make any kind of speech, are immensely boring characters. You can’t have a Dalek doing four or five sentences in a row, so I wanted someone to speak for the Daleks. This thing that was half-man and half-Dalek was a perfect example of this, and I made sure that he was not killed in that one, because we had killed off the Daleks once. He became a very good plot piece, and anyway, any crazy old mad professor is wonderful to have around.

“The Android Invasion was a nice idea. It was an intriguing mystery, and I quite liked the idea of setting up a bizarre situation… I don’t know if you remember the till in the pub, filled with coins of the same year; stuff like that. I don’t think the story fulfilled my vision, but overall, I think it was an interesting story.

“It was a fairly boring thing to have this regeneration of Romana in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’, and I thought it would be funny if we could say ‘No, I don’t like that body; I’d like a different nose’, so it was done for a moment of comedy and light relief. Nobody at that point believed that years later, the show would be examined with such microscopic intent. While it may be an issue for some of the fans, I can tell you that it was just saying ‘That’s a funny bit – let’s do it’.

“They always ask me if I’d like to do the next Dalek story, and when I say no then they say, may we have permission to do it? I felt in Sylvester McCoy’s early episodes, he was desperately seeking a character, but by the end of it, he was tremendously capable, and looked very promising. That age thing doesn’t seem to matter with him, because he’s an interesting face anyway. I really hope it works for him, and if this honest comic figure can snap everyone to attentino once in a while, then we know that there’s a core of iron inside him, and that would be good.”

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