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Doctor Who and The Nightmares of The Man Who Created The Daleks

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As mentioned in a previous Huffington Post blog, last century I interviewed Terry Nation, who created the Daleks for the BBC TV series Doctor Who. We talked in 1978, during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 1975-1990. Terry Nation died in 1997.

I met him at the Reform Club in London's Pall Mall (the base for Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days) and talked about the fantasy world which he had created. I thought he was rather shy and insecure. I think he was a new member of the Reform Club and rather over-awed by the fact a middle class boy like himself had broken into what he saw as 'the Establishment'.

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What did you think when you heard about Doctor Who for the first time?

I didn't have any confidence in the series. I read the brochure at the briefing and said, "There's no way this show can ever succeed." And I don't think it could have done if it had followed the route that they had planned for it.

What was that?

That it actually went into historical situations and was reasonably educational. That was the direction the BBC wanted to take and Sydney Newman (BBC TV's Head of Drama) was bitterly opposed to any bug-eyed monsters. We could go into the future, but it had to have a relatively scientific base and it was going to be 'good solid stuff'. He violently objected to the Daleks when he saw them in the script. It was only the determination of the producer Verity Lambert that got them on. Or maybe it was the fact that the BBC had to go on. They'd had them built and they'd spent so much money they had to go on. Nobody had faith in them, including myself.

How did you originally visualise the Daleks?

I knew that I didn't want them to be men dressed up. That was my first personal brief. I had seen the Georgian State Dancers - the girls who move with long skirts and appear not to move - they just glide. That was the kind of image I wanted to get. I knew what the voice would sound like, because it had to be mechanical and broken down into syllables all the time. I made a few mistakes.

Such as?

The hands. They became enormously cumbersome. I made a few mistakes about being able to go up stairs and things of that sort. I made the cardinal mistake of killing them off at the end of the first series, which had to be rectified. But what actually happened with the BBC was that episode one of The Dead Planet came up. It was quite a good eerie beginning and, at the end of it - the last frame of the picture - we saw a bit of a Dalek. We didn't see a whole Dalek. And the phones started to ring. People saying, "Christ, what is that thing?"

A week later, the Dalek appeared. And a week after that the mail started to arrive. And then it mushroomed. As a writer, you are a very anonymous figure. Nobody notices your name on the screen. And, for the first time in my life, I started to get mail. It wasn't just a couple of letters. They were coming in by the sackload. So I twigged I had something going for me here: something was happening. And, of course, the BBC twigged it as well and they knew they had to change the direction that Doctor Who was intended to go in. So a lot of the stuff that they had prepared was put aside and they went much more into the science fiction area. And I think that actually established the ultimate pattern of where it was going.

The series has never really caught on in America. Why do you think that is?

It's played now in syndication.

But the networks were never really interested, were they?

No, well how could they be with the quality of the production? There was always a certain sort of Englishness about it. It was very much a domestic product, I think. I went to the United States in 1965 and said I wanted to make a series called The Daleks. I went there to hustle and got very close to doing it.

What sort of series would it have been?

There would have been no Doctor Who because I had no copyright on the Doctor character. But I could take the Daleks away and do it. I might have to pay the BBC something for their interest in the design, but they're my characters. Indeed, the BBC was going to go with me on this series at one point. But they weren't - at that time - a very good business organisation. And the whole thing sort of crumbled to dust. And then I'd moved on to something else: I think I'd gone on to The Saint. And from there I went on to The Baron and on to The Avengers and straight on to The Persuaders. And each one of these is a big block of your life. There was never time. Hence, when the BBC wanted the Daleks again, I wasn't available to write them. So other people wrote those episode but they never understood the nature of the Daleks as well as I did.

So what was the nature of the Daleks? You must have based them on a real person or a number of real people, did you?

I can't isolate one character. But I suppose you could say the Nazis. The one recurring dream I have - once or twice a year it comes to me - is that I'm driving a car very quickly and the windscreen is a bit murky. The sun comes onto it and it becomes totally opaque. I'm still hurtling forwards at incredible speed and there's nothing I can see or do and I can't stop the car. That's my recurring nightmare and it's very simply solved by psychologists who say you're heading for your future. You don't know what your future is. However much you plead with somebody to save you from this situation, everybody you turn to turns out to be one of 'Them'. And there's nobody left - You are the lone guy.

The Daleks are all of 'Them' and they represent for so many people so many different things, but they all see them as government, as officialdom, as that unhearing, unthinking, blanked-out face of authority that will destroy you because it wants to destroy you. I believe in that now - I've directed them more that way over the years.

Presumably by writIng about the future, by creating your own future, you're making what lies at the end of the road, at the other side of the windscreen, less frightening because it's less unknown and because you're controlling it.

Yes, I mean, Doctor Who comes out of it alive, however bad the problem. The good guys, if they don't win exclusively, at least come out winning that particular round of the war. Doctor Who doesn't win the war, but he wins a battle.

You once said all your writing was about survival.

Yes, well, it's a theme that's actually gone through my work enormously. I see minefields all around me: I'm not that confident. I've been going back and forth from London to Geneva (working on a new project) and it may be like Walter Mitty, but I'm in that aeroplane and I'm waiting for the moment when they say, "Can anybody fly this aeroplane?" - And I can't, but I know that finally I'm going to be the one that has to do it.

There is menace all around you. It's a fairly dark world out there. It doesn't infringe very much on my personal life but, when I listen to any news broadcast, I think, "God! I might be living in Beirut. I could be one of those people in Beirut being shelled every day of my life." As a wartime child, I grew up when bombs were dropping and men actually were trying to kill me - not personally, but they wouldn't mind if they killed me.