Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastating damage to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19
Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26
Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36
Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.

Remembering Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks

British writer Terrance Dicks passed away on August 29th.  He was 84 years old.  Dicks worked on such varied projects as the spy-fi series The Avengers, the soap opera Crossroads, and the BBC’s Sunday Classics series of literary adaptations.

However it is for his lengthy association with the science fiction series Doctor Who that Dicks is best remembered.  He first became involved with Doctor Who in 1968 and worked on various incarnations of the show right up until the time of his death.

Terrance Dicks

As Dicks himself readily admitted in his humorously self-effacing style, becoming the assistant script editor on Doctor Who in 1968 was as much a case of him being in the right place at the right time as it was his abilities as a writer.  He came onboard during the show’s fifth season, Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Doctor, during the production of the serial “The Web of Fear.”  Dicks’ enduring memory of that story was the production team’s futile efforts to make the robot Yetis’ roars sound less like a flushing toilet.

The first story Dicks was actively involved in commissioning was “The Krotons” by Robert Holmes.  The sixth season of Doctor Who was beset by various commissioned stories falling apart late in the day, leaving co-producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant scrambling to find usable scripts.  “The Krotons” was one such last-minute replacement.  For years afterwards Dicks would refer to the Krotons as one of Doctor Who’s silliest monsters.  At the same time, though, the scripts by Holmes were solid, and as Dicks himself was always quick to point out, Holmes would very quickly go on to become arguably the best writer to ever work on Doctor Who.

As script editor Dicks was also the uncredited co-writer of the six-part Brian Hayles serial “The Seeds of Death.”  Due to the ongoing production problems the serial was only in a draft state, needing a significant amount of work before it could go in front of the cameras.

Doctor Who The KrotonsBut it was the final serial of the 1969 season that truly saw Dicks’ baptism of fire.  Those aforementioned production problems led to the simultaneous collapse of the four-part and six-part serials that were to end the season.  In desperation Sherwin instructed Dicks to write a single 10-part serial to close out the year, with the provisos that series regulars Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines & Wendy Padbury all be written out at the end, that the Doctor’s previously-unrevealed people the Time Lords be introduced, and that the Doctor be exiled to present-day Earth.  Oh, yes, and Sherwin needed Dicks to write those 10 scripts ASAP.

An understandably frantic Dicks corralled Malcolm Hulke, the writer who several years earlier had helped him get his foot in the television door, and with whom he had co-written several episodes of The Avengers. Working at a furious pace, the two of them somehow managed to crank out the scripts for all 10 episodes in less than a month.  Despite the absolutely insane circumstances under which “The War Games” came to be written, it went on to become a well-regarded serial.

The seventh season of Doctor Who saw even more changes and challenges for Dicks.  Sherwin and Bryant both departed, but not before making the aforementioned decision to exile the Doctor to Earth to become the scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart and the UNIT organization.  This was Sherwin’s desperate cost-saving measure for a show with declining ratings that the BBC was seriously considering canceling.

Fortunately several things took place that would guarantee Doctor Who’s future.  Jon Pertwee was cast as the new Doctor, the show switched from black & white to color, Barry Letts came onboard as the new producer, and Dicks became the full-time script editor.  Pertwee was a perfect fit for the Doctor, the color production also brought new attention to the series, and Dicks & Letts instantly clicked, becoming not just close collaborators but lifelong friends.

Doctor Who RobotIt was Dicks & Letts who devised the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master.  Dicks observed to Letts that the Doctor was very much like Sherlock Holmes, and the Brigadier was like Watson.  So why not introduce a Moriarty for the Doctor?  Letts immediately took to the suggestion, and right away suggested actor Roger Delgado, who he had worked with in the past, for the role.  Delgado was indeed a brilliant casting decision.  Pertwee and Delgado had immediate chemistry as the rival Time Lords, which further energized the show.

Dicks was the script editor for Pertwee’s entire five year stint on Doctor Who.  In that capacity Dicks was basically the uncredited co-writer for the entire Third Doctor era of the series.  In 1974 when Pertwee decided to depart, Dicks and Letts also made the decision to move on, but not before casting Tom Baker as the new Doctor, a decision that would eventually result in the show becoming even more popular.

Dicks also finagled the job of writing Baker’s debut story “Robot,” crafting a four part serial that was simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.  It contains one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue from the series, with the Doctor attempting to stop a computer from triggering the simultaneous launch of the world’s nuclear weapons while breezily observing:

“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order, but… not impossible.”

Dicks would write several more television stories for Doctor Who.  Robert Holmes became the new script editor, and commissioned Dicks to write “The Brain of Morbius.” Regrettably, due to technical issues Holmes had to do significant rewrites.  As Dicks later recounted:

 “I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for ‘The Brain of Morbius’. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanction! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’ I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slammed the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was ‘The Brain of Morbius’ by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.”

Dicks also wrote ”The Horror of Fang Rock” for Holmes in 1977, and “State of Decay,” which was broadcast in 1980 during Tom Baker’s final season.  “State of Decay” was somewhat revised by the then-current script editor Christopher H. Bidmead.  In that case I personally feel the blending of Dicks’ and Bidmead’s very disparate approaches to the show actually resulted in a much stronger story, one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Dicks’ final contribution to the television series was in 1983, writing the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.”

Doctor Who Auton InvasionAlthough he was no longer working of the TV show itself, Dicks remained a key part of the world of Doctor Who via his prose writing.  Back during his time as script editor he had been commissioned by Target Books to write novelizations of the show’s various serials.  The first one Dicks wrote was Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, adapted from Robert Holmes’ scripts for Pertwee’s debut story “Spearhead in Space” and published in January 1974.

Dicks was the unofficial editor of the Doctor Who book line.  He would attempt to get the original writers to adapt their own scripts.  Malcolm Hulke and former script editor Gerry Davis each wrote several of the novelizations, as did actor-turned-writer Ian Marter.  However, due to the low pay, most of the time Dicks ended up to writing them himself, and eventually he would pen over 60 of them.

To truly appreciate the impact of these novelizations on Doctor Who fandom, you need to understand the time period in which they were published.  In the 1960s and 70s the BBC would typically air Doctor Who episodes once, with perhaps an occasional repeat of a serial at the end of the season or during the holidays.  If you missed seeing an episode when it first aired, chances were good that you were never going to see it.  There was no home video or DVDs or DVRs or streaming or anything like that.

On top of that, due to videotape being expensive, and film taking up a great deal of space, the BBC routinely wiped videos of older shows, and junked the film copies they made to sell their programs to foreign countries.  Doctor Who was one of many series to be affected by this policy.  By the end of the 1970s nearly all of the Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s were missing from the BBC archives.  A decent-sized chunk of Pertwee’s five year tenure was also absent.

Doctor Who Carnival of MonstersSo, if you were a fan in the early 1980s, between the paucity of reruns, the non-existence of home media, and the seeming destruction of many of the episodes from the first 12 years of the show, the novelizations by Terrance Dicks & Co were literally the only way you could experience older stories.  If you wanted to discover the show’s past, the novelizations were absolutely invaluable.

Fortunately a lot of those missing stories have since been recovered, and a handful of the still-missing episodes have been recreated via animation.  Nevertheless, there are still certain serials that are partly or completely missing where the novelization is a way in which you can experience the story.

I well remember exactly how much the novelizations affected me as a Doctor Who fan.  I started watching reruns on the PBS station WLIW in 1984, when I was eight years old.  I came in at the tail end of Tom Baker’s run, and then saw the Peter Davidson stories.  The stories sometimes referenced the show’s past, and these were tantalizing hints of an exciting history that I had no way of experiencing.

Then one evening at the Galleria shopping mall in White Plains NY, at the Waldenbooks, I came across an entire display of Doctor Who novels.  To my young, excited eyes there were dozens of them, with colorful, exciting covers, featuring aliens and giant monsters and dinosaurs and spaceships and other weird, exciting sights.  (The covers to The Auton Invasion and The Carnival of Monsters by artist Chris Achilleos seen above are good examples of the sort of covers that appeared on the Target novelizations.)  I immediately wanted to buy one… but my father wouldn’t let me.  I don’t know why, but he seemed convinced that I wasn’t going to actually read it.  But over the next week or so, I begged & pleaded.  My father finally gave in, and the next time we went to Waldenbooks he let me buy one.  I finished that book in just a few days, and was soon asking my parents to let me buy another.

Doctor Who Power of KrollNow here’s the humorous part of the story.  That first novelization I got was Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll, written by Terrance Dicks, based on Robert Holmes’ script.  I had never seen the TV story, and I bought it because it had Tom Baker’s Doctor with a really weird gigantic monster on the cover.  Reading the book by Dicks, I became convinced that “The Power of Kroll” had to be an absolutely amazing TV story. A few years later I was certainly in for a rude awakening!

This was the first, but certainly not the last, time this would happen to me with the novelizations.  The benefits of the prose format was that it allowed Dicks and others to work with an unlimited budget, to not worry about dodgy special effects and cheap sets and rubbish costumes.  Within the imagination of readers such as myself everything was real.

The prose format also allowed Dicks and the other adapters to get into characters’ thoughts, to expand certain scenes, to restore moments that had been left on the cutting room floor, and to fill in plot holes that came about during the series’ always-rushed production schedule.  There were several times when I read novelizations by Dicks before I got to see the actual episodes, and almost inevitably the book versions were better than the original television episodes.

As I discussed in my review of the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” in his novelization Dicks did a superb job of expanding, and improving upon, the television episodes.  Another example that comes to mind is his adaptation of the debut story of the Master, “Terror of the Autons.”  The book improves upon the broadcast version in several ways.   Certainly the cyclopean octopus-lobster hybrid form of the Nestine Consciousness described in the book is a much more formidable menace than the blob of energy we saw on TV screens.

Doctor Who Terror of the AutonsIn the early 1990s Doctor Who had been cancelled and the majority of the serials had been novelized.  The decision was made to begin publishing original novels.  Several of the writers who have worked on the revival of Doctor Who launched in 2005 got their start on these novels.  And also present was Terrence Dicks, who wrote several novels over the next two decades.

It’s interesting to contrast the approaches of the younger writers with Dicks.  Most of the younger writers were very experimental, writing books that were part of larger arcs, and having catastrophic stuff happen to the TARDIS, and making the companions the main characters who drive the plot forward, and showing the Doctor acting as this Machiavellian cosmic chess master.  Obviously this laid the groundwork for a lot of what was subsequently done in the television revival.

Having said that, sometimes it got a bit tiresome, and you wanted to read a novel where the TARDIS just landed somewhere randomly, depositing the Doctor and his friends in the middle of an exciting adventure.  That was the approach favored by Dicks, and he tried to utilize that more traditional story structure in his novels.  Occasionally his books could become too heavily referential to past continuity.  But on the whole they were fun reads.  Certainly I enjoyed his 1995 novel Blood Harvest, which was a sequel to his serial “State of Decay.” I think it contained a nice balance between the new direction of the novels and a more traditional story.

Doctor Who Blood HarvestAnother book by Dicks that really stood out in my mind was Players, which was published in April 1999.  Dicks did a great job writing the Sixth Doctor and Peri.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I feel Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant were given some underwhelming material to perform when they were on the show.  Reading the novel Players led me to wish Dicks could have worked on the show during the Sixth Doctor’s all too short tenure.  As I said, Dicks loved to reference continuity in his novels, but at the same time he was usually cognizant that you absolutely needed a strong story on which to anchor all of those tie-ins to past adventures.

Dicks continued to write Doctor Who prose fiction after the 2005 revival.  He penned Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, a pair of “Quick Read” novellas starring the Tenth Doctor & Martha Jones, and he did a novelization of “Invasion of the Bane,” the debut episode of Who spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures.  A final short story, “Save Yourself,” is scheduled to be published posthumously later this year in the anthology Doctor Who: The Target Storybook.

A gifted raconteur, Dicks was an enthusiastic participant in the Doctor Who DVD audio commentaries & behind the scenes documentaries.  He was a popular guest at conventions.  I had always wanted to meet him.  Unfortunately when he was at the Doctor Who convention on Long Island in 2014 I was unemployed & short on funds, so I was unable to go.

Everyone who knew Dicks spoke warmly of him, and the tributes that have been written over the past week have all been heartfelt.  He certainly was an important and influential figure in helping to make Doctor Who the ongoing success that it is.