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Alien Nation

The Alien Worlds of Terry Nation in Doctor Who

By Peter Adamson

Daleks, Thals, Kaleds and Davros aside, the creative imagination of Terry Nation contributed greatly to the look of Doctor Who's alien worlds. In later years, long after his departure from the series, Nation's works would be interpreted largely as simple variations on a limited theme. Seemingly, his stories contained essential constant themes and scenarios, repeated with diminishing effect until his last story for the series, Destiny of the Daleks, was lauded as an insult both to his creations and their potential legacy within the series. With Nation's fame hinged, as was the series in its formative years, on the success of the Daleks, the writer's other creations have been usually overlooked. Most appeared in stories which fell in the middle of seasons, rarely providing the cliff-hanger tails that the Daleks would monopolise; and none returned, save for a cursory mention in Resurrection of the Daleks. On their own and aside from the Daleks however, Nation's other monsters provide interesting variations on what would be observed to be the writer's enduring obsessions of technology, war, and the nature of fascism.

The Keys of Marinus and the Voord


Marinus is the first of many Nation worlds given somewhat unimaginative names - Aridius is a dry place (being arid), for example, and so Marinus purports to be a world of vast oceans - at that time unique in the Who universe. This however doesn't appear to be the case ultimately, as on this same world we see jungles, snow-blasted mountains, and cities on glassy shorelines of acid seas, all valid features of Marinus. Similarly, there is a great variation of species on there, with at least two seemingly natural intelligent life forms, and possibly more. The plant life which 'sings' is probably just a quirk of alien flora, but the Morpho creatures, the humans, and the Voord of Marinus all seemingly vie for domination of their world. We know little of the rulers of Morphoton, save for their talent for suggestion and exploitation, and certainly the humans behave as every other human does in Doctor Who. The Voord could possibly be another matter.

The Voord, or Voords, were one of the first new monsters to come from Nation after the Daleks, and while at first there is nothing special to see about them, on closer examination they have some interesting aspects. At face value they are literally 'frog men', down to the flippered feet, rubber suits and submersible craft. Philip Hinchcliffe's novelisation of The Keys of Marinus even describes their facial features as 'frog-like', though curiously, the television Voord appear to have no facial features at all, or certainly no 'monstrous' features such as large teeth or huge eyes - the sort of hackneyed physiognomy that would make such monsters as the Drashigs and the Mandrels what they are. In place of a human or monstrous face, the Voord have a head that is black, tetrahedral, and has a spout-like proboscis, which so resembled crosshairs as to make them look almost mechanical. In terms of identification then, they are inscrutable - unable to be read by human terms.

The Voord we do see - the assassins led by Yartek, are put easily enough in the category of 'baddies', and in any other story but The Keys of Marinus such pigeonholing would be permissible. But Marinus isn't so straightforward as it appears. The Voord who attack the city, kill Arbitan, and attempt to claim the Conscience machine for themselves are themselves immune to its pacifying effects. No motive is then given as to why they should want to have control of it. If it were for the 'persuasion' of Marinus' other inhabitants, then surely the mission would be worthless - the Voords' enemies (or prey) already being subject to the machine, the Voord can do as they please. If it were for the freedom of the Voord from the machine itself, then this goes unmentioned, and certainly as Yartek's comrades go unaffected in their murderous duties, they must have developed some form of resistance by then. Another possibility that presents itself is that Yartek's crew are unique among their people in this (assumed?) resistance to the Conscience. Clearly they are cunning and not without intellect - they travel across the acid sea in protective submersibles, and there is a suggestion that the black suits they wear may themselves be protective. In addition they employ stealth, weapons and disguise to achieve their aim - perhaps they are a special group trained to resist the machine they are sent to disable? Nation never stays too long to question the Voords' place in Marinus, and so this question goes unanswered.

As an afterthought, it is no surprise that the Conscience - a typical Nation example of technology gone too far, is a dystopian machine. Initially created to enable Marinus' population to live in harmony, it instead reduced them to isolated groups lacking in willpower and open to exploitation. Perhaps like the Eloi, the frail and ignorant elite of H G Wells' The Time Machine, the population of Marinus is destined to be the prey of their inverse, bestial cousins, the Morlock - like Voord? Or maybe just as Prospero and Morbius in The Tempest and Forbidden Planet respectively contrived to keep their savage, primal natures outside themselves through magic and technology, they would ultimately fall prey to those same urges manifest in the creatures of the world around them (a theme revisited in Planet of Evil). Nation's Voord then, are perhaps not so much the unknown, alien threat from the outside, but an embodiment of the all too familiar banished savagery from within.

Death to the Daleks and the Exxilons


By 1974 it would have appeared that Nation's ideas had all but run out. In the previous year he had re-enacted his original Dalek story in Planet of the Daleks, and in the following year the same story would be revised and Davros introduced. It would be no surprise to viewers familiar with the previous Nation Dalek stories to see that Death to the Daleks would boast Daleks, a miraculous city, and a savage, yet peace-embracing primitive population in opposition. Indeed, by this stage the scenario of 'strangers outside the city walls' would itself be all too familiar. The only game left for viewers would be in guessing who among the various parties was good and who was bad. With the Daleks involved, one would imagine this couldn't have been too hard to guess. Surprisingly then, it is the city which is most interesting in Death to the Daleks, for it is itself sentient and has its own part in the story's background and action. For once it isn't the locale of the Daleks, or anyone for that matter - it having forcibly ejected its creators and original inhabitants, the Exxilons, centuries ago. A supreme example of technology turned upon its creators, it has become a death trap to all intruders, and the action of the story therefore is a race to the city's heart between the Doctor, Sarah and the Exxilons, and their adversaries, the Daleks.

Once a proud and advanced race, the Exxilons were evicted by their home, and now sport wooden spears and sackcloth clothes, wandering around the desolated landscape having forgotten their origins. Origins play another part in the Exxilons' history it seems, as it was they whom the Doctor imagines probably influenced Aztec civilisation on Earth while they were still capable of interstellar flight. This doesn't lead the story anywhere though, and as the Doctor notes, it's hardly a moot point. The one thing that separates this scenario from that of the first Dalek story is that the Thal-like Exxilons have no diametric opposites waging war on them from within the city. Rather like the Voord before them, their motive to infiltrate the city is one of pure survival. That it is their own creation turned against them is already a familiar theme in Nation's stories, and will be revisited yet in two different ways.

The Android Invasion and the Kraals


In a first for Nation, the Kraals present a slight departure from Nation's version of alien culture. In the Kraals we see a population forced into technological advancement through a combination of war and environmental collapse, but who by all accounts remain masters of their creations. Traditionally the Kraals stand on firm, well-trod ground of course. They are even reminiscent of the elves and dwarfs of Scandinavian mythology and the Greek god Hephaestos, who, whilst repugnant in appearance, are capable of creating the most beautiful and intricate artefacts and machines. Closer to home, they represent Nation's enduring theme of future and alien society: technological advancement and generations of (nuclear) warfare bringing one's own society to ruin. The Kraals are typically represented by two types: the scientist and the warrior; just as the Kaleds and Thals were separated. Instead of being in opposition the two types work together for the survival of their species, but typically for a race bred in war, their solution is unimaginative, and painfully easy for their enemies to turn the same devices against them. The Android Invasion was ostensibly based on Cold War tactics of 'sleeper' spies and the military out-thinking their opponent by aping his behaviour. A strange and expensive action for a race on the brink of extinction, and yet if most of the Dalek stories are to be viewed also as last-ditch attempts by a threatened race, the Kraals' use of robot duplicates and militaristic, genocidal tactics is nothing new, certainly in a Terry Nation story. What is interesting in its omission is the absence of the now traditional Nation dichotomy of warrior and scientist in opposition, and indeed, when the Kraals and humans of The Android Invasion meet, they are meeting as strangers for the first time.

Destiny of the Daleks and the Movellans


Thus far in Nation's Dalek stories, the Daleks had encountered threat through their own racial opposites - the purebred Thals, if not in name, then at least in mimesis (the Exxilon). Not since The Chase had Nation sought to set his creations against an equal alien foe besides the Doctor. In Destiny of the Daleks he finally does, in the fair and deceptive form of the Movellan robots.

Beyond the Exxilon city, and in unnatural progression, the robotic Movellans are the next logical step in the theme of 'technology turned on its masters'. Foreshadowed fifteen years before in the Mechonoids of The Chase, their origins are unknown and go unexplained, but it is almost certain that they were created to think and act independently yet logically, whilst filling the traditional servant role of the robot in organic society. At some point they became separated from their creators - most likely through their own devising. It is also not explained why they are at war with the Daleks - presumably the two groups merely chanced to cross one another's paths, and little else was required to trigger mutual animosity - or whatever animosity is to a logical robot.

Speaking of logic, the Movellans are quite clearly a curious contradiction. For being so dedicated to such a strict law, it is odd that they would choose such a simple tactic of disguise, and repeat it so readily. If the Daleks and Movellans had been at war for as long as is claimed - surely the robots could have come to some sort of progression beyond their appearance which, it has to be said, carries no truck with a Dalek. If they really were the greatest threat to a self-styled superior species, wouldn't they see the logic in adopting a like form of their enemies? To not do so could suggest insecurity, or merely dependence on one form of appearance - both traits of the Daleks, neither typical robotic traits. Curious indeed. It is this paradox which qualifies the Movellans as an alien race - they retain obvious links to their creators. Someone must have made them, named them and designed them - they are the product of an aesthetic, albeit a calculated one, and yet they deny all of these things in their philosophy of total adherence to logic. In order to compound this sterile notion, the Daleks are also becoming more robotic and logical, having to resort to reviving their hitherto fallen creator to provide them with the illogical edge that will earn them victory. In both cases then, either side of the Movellan-Dalek war is intrinsically tied to their respective creators. That the Movellans' creator goes uncredited is intriguing, and once again, rare for Nation, who had provided more than one story of origin for his most famous creations. Perhaps then this is the most alien element of the Movellans themselves - they really are the unknown, appearing unannounced and unfamiliar whilst in an all-too reassuringly familiar guise, and disappearing (through no motivation by Nation admittedly) in just as mysterious circumstances by the next Dalek serial.

It is this element of the unfamiliar - that which does not exist long enough to be read and understood by the viewer, that is the essence of Nation's alien creatures. While this surely came about as a result of the continuing experiments of a succession of producers and script editors, the other Doctor Who monsters of Terry Nation have never been revisited on the small screen, and have thus never invited further scrutiny. They remain half-sketches, variations on well-worn ideas and traits. They could be allegorical of human society in the way that in some stories the Daleks became pastiche, but such comparisons lack any real substance. They could even be a pastiche of the Daleks themselves, but this is not a clear enough likeness to draw any conclusion other than that lingering unknown, unfilled background which accommodates Nation's alien races and remains when their all too familiar and recognisable framework has been removed.

This item appeared in TSV 51 (June 1997).

Index nodes: The Keys of Marinus, Death to the Daleks, The Android Invasion, Destiny of the Daleks