At long last, Doctor Who is becoming a household name in the United States. The British sci-fi institution is poised to make the transition from cult phenomenon to just plain phenomenon, thanks to a charismatic cast and clever long-form plotting. (A big marketing push from BBC America hasn’t hurt, either.) Doctor Who, which premiered in 1963, brings with it a rich backstory of centuries-spanning plotlines, colorful supporting characters and shudder-inducing villains.
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Of the latter, none have inspired more nightmares—or, paradoxically, more affection—than the Daleks. These creatures, feeble organic bodies hidden inside robotic shells, are the ultimate xenophobes, ruthlessly scouring the universe to exterminate all life that is Not Dalek. Pitiless, remorseless, impervious to bargaining or appeals to reason, the Daleks are like unto a force of Nature, willing to obliterate Reality itself (and themselves with it) if it means the annihilation of inferior life forms. Pretty ambitious for a monster that looks like a rolling garbage can kitted out with a plunger, a wire whisk and a telescope.
To call the Daleks “wildly popular” understates the case. The media frenzy surrounding last weekend’s midseason premiere of Doctor Who pales in comparison to the Dalekmania that gripped Great Britain in 1964 and 1965, when Dalek toys and merchandise were flying off the shelves and Doctor Who was beating the Beatles for TV ratings. Alwyn W. Turner’s The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation is the first full-length biography of the writer who ignited this sensation.
Many authors have tried to analyze the appeal of the Daleks, but Nation, their creator, does not seem to have been one of them. He was the very epitome of the jobbing writer, moving from one assignment to the next in search of a breakout hit, and always an entertainer first and foremost. He grew up reading the pulps and brought their unpretentious, bare-bones storytelling approach to his TV work. His scripts for adventure series like The Saint, Department S and The Avengers abound with chase scenes, ticking time bombs, and desperate firefights, given flair by his pacing and his knack for heightening tension.
There’s a charmingly ad hoc quality to Nation’s career, which began in comedy. He had no particular gift for it, but comedy was where the jobs were. An inexperienced youngster like Nation, freshly arrived in London from his native Wales, might sell, not a script, but a single joke to popular radio or TV comic, and might even—on the strength of a handful of good gags—land a staff-writing job. This Nation did. Hailing from a lower middle-class family, always insecure about money, he threw himself into any writing job he could score—one-off plays, series proposals and single episodes—pounding them out in single drafts, freely recycling his own jokes and plots, never seeming to take his craft too seriously. And then Doctor Who came calling.
Fittingly, it was combination of chance and oversight that led to Nation ending up with a share of the profits that the Daleks generated. His agent had simply crossed out the copyright clause on his BBC contract, assuming that it would never be relevant. Nation made a handshake agreement that gave him half the merchandising rights and first approval over any subsequent use of his creations. And with that, his fortune was made, and it was all country houses and champagne breakfasts for Nation.
Given financial security and a (relatively) free creative hand, Nation produced a run of dark, challenging work in the 1970s—the post-apocalyptic saga Survivors and the twisty, morally ambiguous sci-fi epic Blake’s 7—that showed him capable of dealing with more adult themes than the frothy adventure series that made his name. But he never lost his entertainer’s instincts and even his later works were replete with long chases down corridors, shooting around corners, twisted ankles and convenient trap doors.
Turner’s book is exhaustively researched and heavily annotated, which seems at first excessive—300-plus pages is a long time to spend on the life of a man to whom, in the final analysis, very little actually happened. But Turner has done something far more interesting here than merely tell the story of Nation’s life. He uses that life as a lens for examining a fascinating transitional time in British broadcasting history—when radio was beginning to be superseded television, the medium’s storytelling potential was first being tapped in a serious way, the BBC monopoly was broken and the old roomful-of-writers approach was giving way to a new breed of auteur-driven drama.
Nation, ambitious to the last, always dreamed of cracking the American market. He never quite managed it in his lifetime; the closest he ever came was writing a few episodes of MacGyver. But as Turner’s subtitle suggests, Nation was the maker of strange worlds—and perhaps none stranger than the one we’re living in now, 15 years after his death and almost 50 years after his first Doctor Who storyline premiered, where you can buy Dalek figures at your local Toys R Us, and the Doctor and his companions are still on the run, chasing and being chased down endless corridors, with hidden time bombs still counting down inexorably toward zero.
Jack Feerick was born in an abandoned Black Mariah, lives on the corner of Bedlam and Squalor, and when his typewriter has been drinking acts as Critic-at-Large for Popdose.com.