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 once 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 Dick 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.

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