I believe there is menace all around us – Terry Nation
Last Saturday saw the return of Doctor Who and a new and impressive Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi. It was a somewhat uneven episode in places, but Capaldi made a good first impression, with an elusive and spiky performance. Next Saturday he faces the litmus test of all Doctors – his first encounter with the Daleks.
It’s difficult now to imagine Doctor Who without the Daleks but they weren’t part of the original plans for the series when it started in 1963. Doctor Who was intended to have a rather more educational approach and there definitely weren’t to be any alien monsters. It was the arrival of Terry Nation, who had previously been writing for Tony Hancock, that changed all that. He created the Daleks, mutated, hate-filled creatures in metal shells that didn’t just secure the series popularity but became pop culture icons in their own right. It was a design that could only have come out of the 60’s . The repeating shapes – hemispheres and slats and panels – are pure pop art, while the harsh, angular overall form has something of minimal art about it. These are creatures of mass production, undermining the very notion of individuality in the same way that artworks of the 60’s questioned the idea of a single, original piece.
They weren’t Terry Nation’s only contributions to the SF genre. He also created Blake’s 7, a late 70’s/early 80’s television tale of rebellion against a corrupt galactic Federation. It’s routinely compared to Star Wars, normally to its disadvantage because of its miniscule budget. However this rather misses the point. If Blake’s 7 was a version of Star Wars, it was one where the rebels were psychopaths and incompetents and the Empire was in more danger from the selfish appetites of its own leaders.
Nation’s work on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 reveal a very pessimistic creative world view. When the Daleks occupied Earth, they found support from people ready to sell out their fellow humans. Blake, the supposed hero of his titular series, would have plunged the galaxy into chaos and was ultimately undone by his own arrogance and secrecy.
But it wasn’t just the individual characters that reveal this cynicism. Nation’s last episode of Blake’s 7 – not the last of the series, though that was his plan – revealed that humanity will ultimately regress into a savage, animalistic species (it’s not his fault that budget limitations meant that it looked like mankind was just going to invest in cheap monkey costumes from the nearest fancy dress shop). In a short story written for the Radio Times called We Are The Daleks, he suggested that his evil creations were another dark future for the human race.
Two images feature recurrently in his work – the wasteland and the city. The wasteland is almost always the remains of a civilisation that has fallen due to war, invasion, a virus or climatic change. The city is usually a mechanised, computerised space in which humanity is absent or enslaved. The city is eventually destroyed by the savage outside. Everything ends in ruin – our technological creations run ahead of us, turn against us and we are left in the debris. For Nation, peace between humanity and technology is seemingly impossible.
For all his nihilism, Nation is great fun. He writing can be as ridiculous and camp as Flash Gordon. Servalan, the main villain of Blake’s 7 is somewhere between Lady Gaga and Marc Almond, conquering the galaxy in an endless succession of OTT outfits and oozing sex appeal. And there was enough of a child in him to know that kids would always want to put a box on their head and shout ‘Exterminate’. But there was that darkness at the edge of it all. The menacing possibility that the future will be a ravaged landscape of ruins.
Last year I took some photos around Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds. A couple of my friends commented on how much the place reminded them of certain episodes of Blake’s 7
Armley Mills is something of an industrial relic. Textile, railway, cinema and manufacturing technology from the 18th century onwards is on display, some of it completely restored and some of it in a state of disrepair. There is a small recreation of a 1920’s Cinema and a huge spinning loom.
Different times rub shoulders with each other inside the mill building while the grounds outside are full of brick workrooms. It could do with money, parts of it look almost abandoned. And yet all of this gives it a very distinct feel – the works of industrial man meeting with the decay of those works. Somehow I think Terry Nation might have been happy to set a series here. And it really doesn’t take much to imagine Daleks gliding about the place.