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Metal myths

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2011-07-08 Times Literary Supplement.jpg


Alwyn W. Turner


The strange worlds of Terry Nation

345pp. Aurum £20.

978 1 84513 609 3

The Daleks invaded British television screens in 1963. A nation hid behind the sofa, and for two decades playgrounds were filled with the staccato squawks of shuffling children threatening to "ex-term-in-ate". It looked in the 1990s as if the Daleks had themselves been exterminated by the BBC, but in 2005. after a sixteen-year break, Dr Who — the space-time travelling adventure which gave rise to them — returned to its former Saturday night slat, more lavishly produced than before, but still evocatively reliant on period icons, such as the old Police Telephone box which doubles as the Doctor's spaceship, the TARDIS. The reappearance of the "pepper pots on rubber casters" coincided with the return to office of Prime Minister Tony Blair; the Radio Times signalled the joint event with a pull-out poster that mad "Vote Dalek!"

The man who invented the Daleks was Terry Nation, a chain-smoking, socialist spiv who might himself have been invented by Martin Amis. Described by the Guardian in 1966 as looking like a "Welsh James Bond", Nation was, according to his friend Roger Moore, "a great bloke". Raised in Cardiff during the war, "when bombs were dropping and men were trying to kill me', Nation spent his afternoons at the cinema, watching science fiction films, rather than at school. At home he read novels by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, whose plot lines, Alwyn W. Turner shows, reappear in Nation's television scripts. Growing up with a loathing of class pretensions, Nation would repeat a joke about a man being able to trace his ancestry all the way back to his parents.

He skipped university and went to London, where he wrote for Tony Hancock, who might quibble with the title of this book. According to Nation, the concept of the Daleks was his alone, born from watching a performance of Russian dancers whose costumes made them look as though they were floating. "I've had this brilliant idea for some buddies", he said to his wife. "I'm going to call them Daleks." "Drink your tea while it's hot", Mrs Nation replied. According to Hancock, the idea of an android shaped like "an inverted cone, covered in ping gong balls and with a sink plunger sticking out of its head" had been his: "That bloody Nation! He's stolen my robots". Nation, who fell out with a good deal of his colleagues (at one point punching a fellow writer in the face, "because he couldn't stand his Oxbridge attitude"), went on to write episodes of Survivors, Blake's 7, The Avengers, The Saint and The Persuaders. This was British television's golden age, and Nation had the Midas touch. He specialized in stories where characters (although "character", he would concede, might be putting it a bit strong) found themselves in tight spots. Like Nation, his biographer is less interested in psychological development than in telling a good story, and Turner describes Nation as a man who remained much the same all his life. We are not told if he was spoiled by the money he made from the Dalek franchise, whether he was a good husband and father, or what it was he did when he wasn't writing.

Nor are the worlds Terry Nation created as strange as the book's title suggests. It was, Turner makes clear, the 1960s which were strange, and Nation's scripts, rather than taking us into his own dark places. tended to mirror external events. The Daleks were looking for "the final solution" two years after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961; the word "exterminate" "was firmly associated in the public mind with the Holocaust". Nation was writing Dr Who when the Test Ban Treaty signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain triggered the collapse of British support for CND. "I shall speak to him unarmed", says one of the peace-loving Thals, the blonde, handsome and half-naked enemies of the Daleks. "They'll see that I'm unarmed. There's no better argument against war than that." The Thal is then promptly killed by a Dalek death-ray.

A good deal of this well-researched and down-to-earth book is taken up with detailed descriptions of the episodes Nation wrote, some now obscure and most of them produced in a hurry and not revised. These are compared to one another, discussed in the context of what else was being shown on television at the time, and evaluated in terms of Nation's overall achievement. Turner, who takes pleasure seriously, is an excellent cultural critic, The Daleks, he writes, are "the only great popular myth to have been created specifically for television" and he goes a long way towards unlocking their appeal. Terry Nation himself said that he couldn't understand what children liked about them; when the critic Nancy Banks-Smith tried to explain to him at the time that these shell-less creatures encased in metal bodies were symbolic of the destructive power of motor cars. "he couldn't see it. I was very sad really, so I didn't explain to him that the TARDIS was, in fact, a television set".

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  • APA 6th ed.: Wilson, Frances (2011-07-08). Metal myths. The Times Literary Supplement p. 30.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Wilson, Frances. "Metal myths." The Times Literary Supplement [add city] 2011-07-08, 30. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Wilson, Frances. "Metal myths." The Times Literary Supplement, edition, sec., 2011-07-08
  • Turabian: Wilson, Frances. "Metal myths." The Times Literary Supplement, 2011-07-08, section, 30 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Metal myths | url= | work=The Times Literary Supplement | pages=30 | date=2011-07-08 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 June 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Metal myths | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 June 2024}}</ref>