Posts Tagged ‘Terry ****ing Nation’

Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.


Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.


The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…


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I’m always a bit uneasy when people start likening Doctor Who to a religion (no-one’s ever been killed over the UNIT dating controversy, after all), but nevertheless quasi-theological jargon inevitably seems to infiltrate fan discourse concerning the programme (sorry, I must have been reading too much James Chapman). Canon and incarnation are just two words which have acquired their own very specific fan currency, and more recently it’s become very common to talk about ‘the pilgrimage’ in a fairly off-hand way.

Now, this does not in fact refer to a physical journey to sites of historical Doctor Who interest (though such things are not unknown: I went out of my way to visit Lime Grove, where the first episodes were recorded, last time I was in west London), but to the endeavour of sitting down and watching the complete run of episodes in chronological order. It’d probably be exaggerating to say that this has become a rite-of-passage for any fan of old-school Doctor Who, but the fact that the entire run of episodes and soundtracks is now widely available has certainly made it a more accessible prospect. (I did my own pilgrimage back in 2001-2002, when some stories weren’t even out on VHS, and without access to recons – still took me nearly a year, but I’d recommend it if you’re serious about the programme.)

It seems like a fairly obvious idea to not just do the pilgrimage, but document it in some form – I reviewed every story on the DWRG, for example – but it’s difficult to find a new and interesting angle on this. Step forward, then, Neil Perryman, whose unique approach to the pilgrim experience is the basis for his new book Adventures with the Wife in Space.


Not being terribly active in on-line fandom, or indeed any other kind, I missed the rise to cult celebrity that Neil (and more particularly his wife Sue) now enjoy. I first became aware of them simply because their contribution to OUTSIDE IN: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers (still on sale at only $24.95 – and yes, of course this is a brazen plug) was the piece next to my own, but when I eventually checked out their website I found it every bit as funny and addictive as everyone else.

Neil’s idea, which must fall into the so-simple-it’s-genius category, was to do the pilgrimage with his wife, who was not a fan of the series, and record her reactions to and opinion of every story along the way. This may sound a bit dull, but doesn’t quite suggest the full Sue Perryman experience, which includes a woodworking obsession, abuse screamed at the TV, an uncanny ability to misidentify famous actors, and a refreshingly disrespectful attitude to many of the series’ sacred cows.

(Respect is obviously due to Neil for his sheer ambition. One of the first things I did after setting up home with a spouse who came from a country where Doctor Who was utterly unknown was carefully introduce her to the Eccleston series, and possibly my proudest moment of that brief, ill-considered entanglement was when I returned home one evening to find she had got bored with waiting for me and had watched Father’s Day and the start of The Empty Child in my absence. She still gave the 20th century series pretty short shrift, though, abandoning Carnival of Monsters midway through episode one (sorry Neil).)

Now, the spin-off book which the Perrymans have released is not, truth be told, a bound version of the website, probably with good reason. Instead it is partly a behind-the-scenes account of the whole experiment, partly a biography of Neil. It falls into three parts – Neil’s life as a young Doctor Who fan, his time with Sue prior to beginning their epic voyage together, and then the nitty-gritty of doing the pilgrimage (and doing it in public, too).

How much this will appeal to you will inevitably depend on your interest not just in Doctor Who but in the realities of life as a Doctor Who fan. I find myself in the odd position of emerging from this book with a feeling of great kinship with Neil Perryman – he’s a bit older than me, but we share many of the great touchstone experiences of late-70s and early-80s Doctor Who fans – but also harbouring the vague impression that he’s a slightly alarming depressive sociopath (and I say that with the greatest respect and affection, naturally). To his credit, the portrait of Sue he presents is so unfailingly positive and so clearly coloured by his love for her that it’s quite hard to be sure just what she’s really like as a person, except I’m very certain she is interested in carpentry.

Still, there’s some fascinating information here on the background to the Perrymans and their relationship – possibly more than some people would really wish to have, given that we learn that the first time the two of them got, er, very well acquainted was during a repeat of The Curse of Peladon on UK Gold. My instinctive reaction, which may be psychologically illuminating, was ‘Poor Neil – I hope he got to see it eventually’ – personally I never have any problem in waiting for the break between episodes (the gap between parts two and three of The Seeds of Doom will always have fond associations for me for exactly this reason, for example).

Neil and Sue are both funny writers and the subject matter is obviously appealing to me, but quite how much it’s going to attract anyone not aware of the blog I’m not entirely sure, let alone anyone who’s not pretty heavily steeped in Doctor Who. But it’s a fun and occasionally touching read, even if they have raised the bar unreasonably high for anyone considering doing the pilgrimage in public in future.

(For the record, the idea of doing my own pilgrimage again has occurred to me, but I’m not really in a position where it’s feasible at the moment. Plus I’m coming towards the end of the complete run of both The Tomorrow People and Kolchak, with the original series of Star Trek looming on the horizon, so it’ll have to wait.)

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