Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Man of the Daleks

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Terry Nation fashioned SF TV's arch-villains & dispatched Blake's 7 into adventure.

In 1963, a new TV show called Doctor Who aired on the BBC. Approached about working on the series, writer Terry Nation wasn't enthusiastic initially, but something happened to change his mind.

"I was one of the few writers around at the time who had done some science fiction," remembered Nation in this interview conducted before his death in 1997. "At that particular point, I was working with a very famous English comedian, Tony Hancock. He and I were out in a theater in Nottingham, and we had dispute about a piece of material. I wanted him to do it, and he didn't want to. I can't remember if I was fired or I quit, but one way or another I suddenly found myself on my way back to London, out of work—not a situation I ever liked very much.

"My agent had told me about this children's show. It wasn't to be science fiction. As a matter of fact, it was specifically said, 'We do not want any bug-eyed monsters.' This was supposed to be the Doctor and his companions doing historical things. When you came away, you would know what it was like to be at the fall of Troy—something with very educative qualities. I went to talk to script editor David Whittaker, a nice guy, and I told him what I would like to do. He said, 'Let's go for it.' What Nation wanted to do was to create an evil alien race unlike any seen before.

The Daleks were mutated beings, so deformed that they had to travel around in metal casings. The casings had eyestalks for the Daleks to see with, interchangeable arms and weapons. The Daleks' only desire was to conquer and enslave other races, to "exterminate!"

Dalek Dawn

With the broadcast of "The Daleks," Doctor Who went from being a program with a modest audience to a national phenomenon. The public loved the menacing aliens. However, that first story was very nearly scuttled by BBC executives. "There were a lot of fights before it ever got on the air," Nation explained. "The people at BBC hated it. They really hated it. And it was only Verity Lambert, the producer on her first show, who fought for the story and got it on." One weapon that Lambert used to get the Daleks aired was the lack of other scripts to replace the six-episode story.

When Nation wrote that first Dalek story, he had only a vague idea what the creatures might look like. Designer Raymond Cusick actually developed their look based on the shape of British pepper pots. For his part, Nation was pleased with Cusick's work. "My only thought about the design at the time was that it have no legs," Nation said. "I made a very big point of this. I always said one of the great successes of the Daleks, compared to other types of monsters, was they had no legs. Otherwise, somewhere in the back of your mind, you knew it was a man dressed up. With the Daleks that wasn't so. The single eye was also my idea. It was a brilliant design, made from nothing—Cusick did it on sixpence. He was very, very influential, and I'm grateful to him forever for it."

The first Dalek story brought the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions to the desolate planet of Skaro, which had been ravaged by nuclear war centuries before. The Daleks shared the planet with the Thals, humanoids only slightly changed by the ever-present radiation. The Thals wished for a peaceful co-existence with the Daleks that would insure the survival of both races, but the Daleks wanted to exterminate their rivals.

In The Official Doctor Who and the Daleks Book, Nation's co-author John Peel contended that the first story was a poignant reminder to British society about the threat of nuclear war and its possible aftermath. However, Nation didn't remember considering that idea when he actually wrote the story. "That sounds to me like a clever afterthought; I don't recall thinking it at the time. I was aware of a kind of Nazi feeling that the Daleks brought—the fact that no matter what you said, what you did, you were guilty."

Whatever Nation's motivation, he didn't anticipate the audience's reaction. The Daleks seemed to take on a life of their own. The public loved them. There was such a demand to see more of the Daleks that they couldn't stay dead. The second story, "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," found the Doctor and his companions arriving in 22nd century London. They discovered that the Daleks had conquered Earth. With the help of freedom fighters, the time travelers were able to defeat the Daleks and destroy their mothership.

Many of the scenes in this seven-episode story were shot in the streets of London, adding realism. "We had this impact with our first episodes," Nation said. "So to do 'Invasion of Earth,' I wanted the audience to believe that they might go 'round a corner one dark night and there would be one of those things. That was the feeling that I wanted to achieve."

Dalek Day

The Doctor and the Daleks were so popular in Britain that two movies were produced. loosely based on the first two Dalek stories. Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor, an eccentric scientist from Earth who built a time machine called the TARDIS. He differed substantially from Hartnell's TV character—a mysterious alien exiled from an unknown planet who had stolen his TARDIS and didn't know where or when it was going.

In 1965, BBC executives decided to produce a 12-episode Dalek story: "The Dalek Masterplan." (It must be noted that episode seven was a Dalek-free Christmas story, "The Feast of Steven.") The project's scope increased when another episode was added to the program's schedule that season. Yet another Dalek story, "Mission to the Unknown," featured no regular cast members, who were on vacation. The story became a preamble to the later 12-episode epic.

Nation wrote most of the episodes, with the program's script editor, Dennis Spooner, doing the rest. "It seemed exciting at the time," said Nation, "and very flattering that someone would want to do 13 of them. It was a mistake to do, of course, a terrible mistake. It was overexposure. The Daleks should be seen in very short takes. I'll tell you this now: They can be exceedingly boring if one's not very careful how one uses them. I thought that they were strong enough to carry the series. They weren't. One should only use them as a threat, as a menace. They should sweep in, do their mayhem, and sweep out. It wasn't until years later that I renli7ed how boring a conversation with a Dalek was. This is why Davros came into being—to take some of the weight off those long, Dalek-type conversations."

As revealed in the first season featuring Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, Davros was the creator of the Daleks. "Genesis of the Daleks," the tenth Dalek story in the program's 12 seasons, irritated some fans because it seemed to contradict Dalek origins. In "Genesis," Davros used his scientific knowledge to create heartless mutations that he called the Daleks. In "The Daleks," their mutation had been attributed to a long nuclear war. Nation explained the apparent contradiction. "I took the line that all of history is seen from a different viewpoint. If you saw the Battle of Waterloo from a hill to the North, [your report] would be very different from one who had seen it from the South. I was going over the same ground, but quite differently. Most of World War II is on film, and our understanding of it is changing all the time. New documents are coming to light, and new things are happening, new research. So, yes, I think things change."

Dalek Dusk

At the end of the 1960s, Nation attempted to take the Daleks out of Doctor Who, hoping to start a new TV series with the monsters in the United States. In Who's "The Evil of the Daleks" by Whittaker, featuring the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), the Daleks had been completely destroyed. Nation's attempt at a new series was unsuccessful, and eventually the Daleks returned to Doctor Who to menace the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) in "The Day of the Daleks" by Louis Marks. Originally, the Daleks weren't a part of the plot, but producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt that the story needed improvement. However, because Nation retained half-rights to the Daleks, they had to obtain his permission to use the creatures. Nation approved that story, but he didn't like the final three Dalek stories, written by others, filmed before production of Doctor Who was suspended in 1989. He said, "The truth of the matter is, I don't believe that anybody would care about them as deeply or understand them as I do. These are my children, and I understood them pretty clearly and knew what they were capable of and what they weren't. I also knew how to write those stories.

"This is going to sound terribly immodest, but I believe I did them better than anybody else. And so when I saw them, and I saw what the producer [John Nathan-Turner] was doing at that point, I thought, 'He didn't give a damn about the show at all. He was concerned about the externals, new music, new titles, new effects, and his own personal career.' I didn't like anything that they did with the Daleks. The writers didn't feel the mystery of them, the fear of them. And it is fear; you have to have fear coming out of them."

In 1968, Nation—who had also written for The Saint and other TV series—was appointed script editor for the sixth season of The Avengers, a job he thoroughly enjoyed. "It was wonderful work," he said, "as much as it's ever wonderful. There are always worries and concerns, like, 'They're going to need a script tomorrow afternoon.' I was working with a man, producer/writer Brian Clemens, who was terrific. He was very fast, very able and very inventive. We had enormous fun with that show. Both of us were old movie buffs. We. would think of old movies that we wanted to play with. I had great regard for Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lone movies, and I was able to do an episode with characters rather like them in it ["Legacy of Death"]. We had a lot of fun on that show, but it was hard work because the standard was very high."

Dalek Dozen

In 1978, Nation created his other great claim to SF fame, Blake's Seven. "I don't know what gave me the idea," Nation said. "I know I wanted to do another science fiction show. The idea of 'The Dirty Dozen in space' seemed to be a good one. The BBC wanted me to do something, so I came up with this idea. The particular head of department immediately said, 'Yeah, OK, go with it.' By the time I got back to my home in Kent, four or five hours after I'd had this meeting, my agent was on the phone and said, 'Yeah, they want to do Blake's Seven. But they want you to do all 13 [episodes] of the first block.' To which I said, 'Yeah, fine, fine.' Thirteen hours of any subject is a lot of work." Nation wrote the entire first season of Blake's Seven as well as the second season opener.

Blake's Seven followed a band of rebels battling an evil galactic federation. While Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) was a freedom fighter, the rest of the group were criminals of all sorts. (Nation discussed B7 and the Daleks in previous STARLOG interviews; see issues #106, #117 & #150.) Thomas (and the Blake character) left the series after the first two seasons, but made two later guest shots in the remaining two seasons. The cast was constantly changing, with only Vila (Michael Keating) and Avon (Paul Darrow) on hand for the entire saga.

The series ended in an unusual way. In the last episode Blake returned, only to be killed by Avon. The rest of the group was killed by Federation troops. The episode ended with Avon smiling, and pointing his gun at the troops. Closing credits rolled to the sound of gunfire, instead of music. But Nation disliked this downbeat finale. He said, "I think the fourth season was totally out of hand. It's the same thing as the Daleks. I just told you, nobody cares as deeply as I do. I had a very good, long-suffering script editor [Chris Boucher] on that one. I think he just wanted to be out of it by that time. And I was here in America."

Rumors of Blake's Seven resurfacing as a movie or TV series continued, but Nation was never approached by anyone to do it. He said, "That series has a lot of life in it. But nobody has leapt at it and said, 'Let's do it again,' yet, though people talk about it all the time."

When Terry Nation died in March 1997, he left behind many hours of television adventure for fans to enjoy. "I've had a long career," he said. "I know, I think you can actually look at a body of work , now. One of the things I'm proud of is that I got my shows on the air. Many very good I people didn't."


Exterminate! The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) stands face to—nozzle?--with his most implacable foes, and Nation's most enduring creation, the Daleks.

Writer Terry Nation helped turn the BBC's educational kids' program Doctor Who into Britain's longest running SF series.

Nation's other SF success, Blake's Seven, was a "Dirty Dozen in space" adaptation where a band of criminals rebel against an evil federation.

The Daleks (here posing with Doctor alter-ego Peter Davison, center) became so popular they were featured in multiple Who episodes and two films.

Though Nation loved his tin tyrants, the BBC felt otherwise. "It was only Verity Lambert," the writer said, the producer on her first show, who fought for the story.

Agent of Fortunes. Besides his SF work, Nation also enjoyed writing for The Saint and The Avengers.

Eventually, Blake (Gareth Thomas) was mustered out—but not his name, which branded the series until its end.

Salt-Shakers of the Apocalypse. Nation attributed the Daleks' success to their truly look. "Otherwise," he noted, "you knew it man dressed up."

After decades of success, the Daleks' chilling reputation cooled. "The writers didn't feel the mystery of them," Nation lamented, "the fear of them."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Shook, Karl (number 259 (February 1999)). Man of the Daleks. Starlog p. 66.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Shook, Karl. "Man of the Daleks." Starlog [add city] number 259 (February 1999), 66. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Shook, Karl. "Man of the Daleks." Starlog, edition, sec., number 259 (February 1999)
  • Turabian: Shook, Karl. "Man of the Daleks." Starlog, number 259 (February 1999), section, 66 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Man of the Daleks | url= | work=Starlog | pages=66 | date=number 259 (February 1999) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024 }}</ref>
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