Terrance Dicks (1935 – 2019)

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Growing up, Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who novelisations were my staple reading diet. The Target range had other writers of course, but some of their books (like the two by David Whitaker) seemed a bit intimidating (especially the dense Crusaders).

Terrance may sometimes have been criticised for being a plain, straight-ahead sort of writer, but it’s undeniable that his books were perfectly pitched for his young readership. When I was slightly older I had the confidence to tackle The Crusaders, but had Terrance not been there first then maybe I wouldn’t have made the leap.

It’s a common refrain to hear people say that Terrance Dicks taught them to read, but it’s also true in so many cases ….

His contribution to Doctor Who in general was immense.  He wrote and co-wrote some excellent stories, but his work as possibly the series’ most efficient script editor really stands out. Having witnessed the script chaos which bedevilled the series during the late Troughton era, Dicks (with Barry Letts as a strong and supportive producer) brought stability back to the production office.

Dicks’ formula was simple – find a small group of writers you could depend on (Robert Holmes, Brian Hayles, Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker & Dave Martin) and then keep on recommissioning them. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Outside of Doctor Who, his work as first script editor and then later producer on the Classic Serials is worthy of further investigation. Like Doctor Who they had to get by on fairly small budgets and this might be one of the reasons why eventually they fell out of favour. By the mid eighties, glossy all-film productions of classic novels were the way forward and the humbler Classic Serial began to look second best by comparison. But many have stood the test of time well and still entertain today (such as the 1984 Invisible Man).

I’m also prepared to fight the corner of Moonbase 3, a series which I have a great deal of love for. It’s far from perfect (indeed Letts and Dicks’ series opener is especially stodgy) but it’s something I find myself drawn back to again and again. Although I’m not quite sure why ….

This evening I’ll be spinning Horror of Fang Rock in tribute. Not only is it a great story, it’s also a perfect example of Dicks’ no-nonsense style. Forced at the eleventh hour to cobble together a new story (after his previous submission was vetoed) Dicks didn’t panic – he simply rolled up his sleeves and got on with it.

Fang Rock is archetypical Doctor Who – take a group of bickering characters, trap them in an enclosed space with no hope of escape and then kill them off one by one.  It’s hard to go wrong with such a formula and Dicks didn’t disappoint.

He was inadvertently helped by Tom Baker who was in an even more stroppier mood than usual – but his disdain for the script, his co-star, Pebble Mill studios, director Paddy Russell and just about everybody and everything else actually seemed to work in Fang Rock‘s favour. Tom’s Doctor was never more alien and foreboding than he was in this story – and even if this was something to do with the fact that Tom was missing his regular Soho drinking haunts, no matter.

The Fang Rock DVD also boasts a lovely Terrance Dicks documentary and a lively commentary track where Dicks, Louise Jameson and John Abbott swop stories (often about Tom of course).

Judging by the way Terrance is trending on Twitter at the moment I’m sure I won’t be alone in paying tribute tonight. RIP sir and thank you.

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7 thoughts on “Terrance Dicks (1935 – 2019)

  1. I hadn’t appreciated quite how consistently good Terrance Dicks was as a script editor until I watched the whole of Doctor Who in sequence. You never get a Pertwee episode that leaves you thinking, “Well, what was that supposed to be?”* (which you certainly do before and since), what’s at stake dramatically is pretty clear** and there will always be a few nice character beats. These are all virtues that stem as much from the work of the script editor as from the credited writer.

    * Not even The Time Monster!

    ** Seen also in his novelisations of what were some of Doctor Who’s most incoherent stories onscreen.

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  2. Terrance Dicks first took on the role of script editor of Doctor Who during the last Patrick Troughton series with The Invasion and remained in the position until Jon Pertwee’s last serial Planet of the Spiders.

    His first writing credit was for Patrick Troughton’s last story, The War Games, which he co-wrote with Malcolm Hulke. Too many stories are missing from the Troughton era, so we’re lucky to have all ten episodes of the War Games.

    After he stood down as script editor he invented the tradition of having the outgoing script editor write the first script for the new editor, and he wrote Tom Baker’s debut Robot.

    His next story was The Brain of Morbius which went out under the pseudonym Robin Bland, because that was how he felt about the story, although it is now regarded as one of the classics. (I’m sure it got a repeat during the summer.) In fact Terrance Dicks makes a cameo in that story, he was one of the faces in the mind battle sequence.

    While he was script editor he challenged Robert Holmes to write a story with a medieval setting (The Time Warrior), and so when Robert Holmes was script editor he challenged Terrance Dicks to write a story set on a Lighthouse, which was Horror of Fang Rock.

    Also in 1977 he wrote a vampire story for Doctor Who which was scuppered when it clashed with a BBC adaptation of Dracula. But the story was later remounted as State of Decay, part of the E-Space trilogy.

    His last Doctor Who story for television was The Five Doctors, which is one of the Doctor Who stories I’ve rewatched most often, along with An Unearthly Child and Genesis of the Daleks.

    I was hoping Terrance Dicks would be invited back to write for the recent series of Doctor Who, but like myself he preferred the serial format.

    He also wrote the 1989 stage play Doctor Who – The Ultimate Adventure for which Jon Pertwee reprised the role of the Doctor, with Colin Baker taking over for a shorter run.

    And of course he was the most prolific author of the Doctor Who novelisations, and contributed the the Virgin and BBC Books’ range of original Doctor Who novels.

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    • In the profile in one of his Doctor Who novels it states that he wrote other books apart from Doctor Who, but nobody asks him about those. And I regret that when I saw him at a convention I didn’t ask him about his other books.

      Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts’ second greatest contribution to television was the Sunday serials.

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      • And there’s another thing.

        We’ve rarely had both novels based on the tv episodes and original Doctor Who novels.

        When Target published the novelisation of An Unearthly Child (a Terrance Dicks novel) that was when they decided to do all of the Doctor Who stories. But someone wrote to Doctor Who Magazine and pointed out that eventually Target Books would have done all the old stories and would then just be doing the novels of the most recent series, and suggested that they should do some original Doctor Who novels.

        As it turned out the BBC stopped making Doctor Who before Target had adapted all the stories. But shortly afterwards Virgin launched the New Adventures range. But when Doctor Who came back the new novels were original stories, but they didn’t do the adaptations of the tv episodes.

        There were some overlaps, but mostly the novels were either all based on the tv episodes, or all original stories, but not both.

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  3. There was a nice touch at the end of the novelisation of An Unearthly Child. The tv version ends with a lead into the next story with the Tardis landing on an alien planet. But in the book it states that the planet was Skaro, and somewhere on Skaro the Daleks were waiting for him.

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