Terry Nation and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Terry Nation and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

by Dr Andrew O’Day

Terry Nation’s work draws on that of other writers, on his own episodes from the same series and on his work across different series. For example, his first Dalek serial for Doctor Who bears resemblances to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine with the evil Daleks in some respects paralleling the carnivorous Morlocks and the peaceful Thals paralleling the childlike Eloi. Furthermore, this first Dalek serial echoes Pathfinders to Venus (1961) with the first episode title ‘The Dead Planet’ echoing the third episode title ‘The Living Planet’ and with the appearance of a city but in the original there not being monsters within that city. Nation additionally repeats his own ideas: his Doctor Who Dalek serials frequently begin with the female companion being stalked by a figure who will turn out to be friendly and the race in ‘Death to the Daleks’ (1974) are the Exxilons suggesting ‘exile’ while the Muto in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975) is Sevrin suggesting ‘to sever’ the impure of the Kaled race. The Blake’s 7 episode ‘Deliverance’ (1978), meanwhile, sees Meegat (whose name is, as Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore note (2003: 54-5) an anagram of ‘gamete’) guarding a rocket full of genetic matter that can lead to new life and a new body politic while ‘Terminal’ (1980) sees an egg and pessimistically suggests evolution causing bodily and national bestiality. Moreover, Nation repeats notions across different series he was involved with. For instance, as Alwyn W. Turner notes, The Baron episode ‘And Suddenly You’re Dead’ (1966), co-written with Dennis Spooner, with a mad scientist offering a killer contagious virus to anyone who can meet the asking price, slightly prefigures the premise of Survivors of a deadly virus infecting a Chinese scientist in a lab but being inadvertently transmitted around the world (128).

H.G. Wells' The Time Machine
The Time Machine - a Morlock threatens a timid Eloi

Nation also echoes his own episode titles in his work as well as the similar title of his first Dalek serial echoing Pathfinders as noted above. For example, the title of the series Survivors echoes the title of episode two of his first Dalek serial for Doctor Who ‘The Survivors’ (1964). However, in the Doctor Who serial ‘The Survivors’ have lived through an atomic war whereas the series Survivors sees a number of people having endured a plague. Nation’s Doctor Who serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and his series Survivors with its episode ‘Genesis’ were transmitted at roughly the same time (1975). ‘Genesis’ concerns the root of a society following the plague headed by trade unionist Arthur Wormley. Wormley’s name echoes the serpent in the Garden of Eden. ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, meanwhile, is an origin narrative for Nation’s evil creatures. The title of the Blake’s 7 episode ‘Countdown’ (1979) echoes the same title for The Baron some 10 year earlier (1969) though the countdowns are different in both. In The Baron the lead John Mannering, who is captured, had to escape and intercept one of the villain’s henchmen before the henchman got to a man with information about a valuable sword. Meanwhile, the Blake’s 7 episode revolved around the necessity of diffusing a bomb which would destroy all life on the planet Albian and was planted by the Federation to prevent insurrection.


Survivors participates in the genres of science fiction and the sub-genre of apocalyptic science fiction, and alludes to Biblical epic. The series was advertised as science fiction in the Radio Times, which quoted a line from Nation’s script referring to the present-day characters as belonging to the ‘generation which landed a man on the moon’, thus referencing the Apollo space programme, with the series exploring the consequences of a world-wide plague on technology. The title sequence highlights that science fiction premise of the programme of an accident in a science laboratory by a Chinese scientist leading to the escape of a deadly virus, spread through the international networks of aeroplane travel. Survivors connects with specific 1970s fears about scientific research and warfare (especially the danger posed by Communist China) and prefigures more current fears of disease seen, for instance, in John J. Nance’s Pandora’s Clock (1996).

Terry Nation's Survivors

The title of the first episode of Survivors, ‘The Fourth Horseman’, invites an intertextual connection with the Biblical Book of Revelation and the four horsemen of the apocalypse: ‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see./And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth’ (Revelation 6: 7-8). The image of the fourth horseman has been a prominent one ever since, seen in medieval paintings (such as one by Beatus of Liebana), medieval manuscripts (such as the Douce, Trinity and Bamberg Apocalypse and MS Ludwig) and in books. Nation’s title conjures up widespread cultural associations, just as do more recent programmes such as Millennium, which featured a 1998 episode concerning a plague, using the same title, and Charmed’s episode ‘Apocalypse, Not’ (2000) in which the fourth horseman becomes an on-screen character. But, unlike Charmed, for instance, Survivors is best described as speculative fiction, since it is about what happens to individuals and groups of people after the scientific accident and how a new backward society is able to cope.

The Baron
The Baron

Nation had obviously been thinking about The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as far back as his episode for The Baron ‘Red Horse, Red Rider’ (1966). However, in the case of The Baron The Four Horsemen did not signify apocalyptic fiction but rather were connected to the action adventure genre. John Mannering gets a message to buy The Four Horsemen, a famous statue which featured in the narrative rather than a horseman simply being in the title, and travels to Khakania, a country gripped by civil war. The sale of the statue is intended to fund the rebels, and The Baron tries to escape with the rebel leader’s daughter and the statue but is pursued by the secret police. There is a gun fight at a road block and a fight on a train on which Mannering is attempting to escape with the statue. Moreover, a rebel, Miros, who had helped Mannering and the daughter escape turns upon them when he is caught trying to depart with the statue for money. The title of The Baron episode alluded to a different horseman, the red rider on the red horse, signifying war, though fits in with Nation using similar titles, but the episode ends with Mannering pointing out that for those who believe the white rider on the white horse signifies hope. Mannering had indeed explained earlier in the episode the significance of each of the horsemen: that while the pale rider on the pale horse represented Death and the black rider on the black horse represented famine, the white rider stood for Christ.

The episode ‘Red Horse, Red Rider’ was closer generically to other episodes of The Baron and other ITC series. These include action adventure series that Nation wrote for including The Saint (1962-69), Department S (1969-70), The Persuaders! (1971-72) and The Protectors (1972-74). The ITC series The Champions (1968-69), which Nation wrote for, is telefantasy, where the leads are imbued with special powers following a plane crash, but the emphasis is on action adventure. That said, Nation’s Survivors does, like The Baron and these other programmes, include action adventure as individuals and groups struggle to survive in a world devastated by a virus. 

I’d like to thank my closest friends Tim Harris, Richard Harris and Simon Heritage for their support, Dr Matthew Kilburn and my other Facebook friends for encouragement, my ‘Muse’ Dr Anjili Babbar for her inspiration, and Professor Jonathan Bignell for introducing me to Survivors when we wrote our book on Terry Nation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).

References: The Man Who Invented The Daleks by Alwyn W. Turner (London: Aurum, 2011), Liberation: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to Blake’s 7 by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore (Tolworth: Telos, 2003).

About Andrew O'Day

Andrew O'Day is a published author with a BA in English Literature, a Masters in Theatre Studies and a Ph.D in Television Studies.

Andrew is currently Executive Producer for Baby Dog Films' 'Once a Year on Blackpool Sands' and 'Beautiful Monster.'

His website can be found at https://www.hrvt.org/andrewoday/index.htm

Published on April 22nd, 2021. Written by Dr Andrew O'Day for Television Heaven.