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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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Blake


Blake is all about the ending. An obvious comment, but it means that the first forty five minutes, interesting as they are, feels like a very long prologue (a bit like one of those Dalek stories by Terry Nation, where you’re simply waiting for the Dalek to pop up at the first cliffhanger).

But there are plenty of compensations before the final, fatal meeting between Blake and Avon. The initial appearance of Blake – now a grizzled, embittered bounty hunter – is striking, although his later conversation with Deeva (an underused David Collings) does undercut his first few scenes.

The realisation that Blake is simply playing the role of a bounty hunter (indulging a strange whim it seems) turns out to be his downfall. Blake’s autocratic command style often led to disaster during the Liberator days, but this was his most comprehensive blunder.

There’s no reason why Blake needed to personally vet every new recruit to his latest army, and indeed it seems odd that he’s trawling amongst the dregs of the Galaxy on Guada Prime for likely suspects. Or does he now believe, after his exploits on the Liberator, that criminals are the only honest people left?

I’m not quite convinced by the shot of the model Scorpio crashing through the trees, but the destruction of the full-sized set is nicely done.

“Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?”. Paul Darrow doesn’t hold back here, but since Avon is clearly a man well past his breaking point I think we can forgive his enthusiastic delivery of the line.

I wish I could share some interesting anecdote about how shocking I found the episode to be back in 1981, but alas there’s no such memory. I certainly would have watched it, but I think I just shrugged my shoulders and moved on with my life. Possibly I was already anticipating a fifth series ….

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Warlord

Warlord has a striking opening. The inhabitants of Zondar – heavily drugged with Pylene-50 – are mown down by Federation troops whilst the following encouraging words (“You are cared for. You are loved”) seep out of the tannoy. A brief, but welcome, return to the nightmarish themes of The Way Back.

After that encouraging start, things return to normal when we start to focus on the delegates. Um, they’re an interesting bunch ….

Mind you, although they look more than a little silly they do brighten up the episode. Indeed, I was a little disappointed that Rick James’ appearance was so brief.

Avon’s desire to form an alliance with numerous interested parties, including the warlord Zukon (Roy Boyd), seems to have come out of nowhere. Although there was a vague attempt to recruit experts in their respective fields earlier in the year (along with the odd mention of Pylene-50) it’s a shame that this arc wasn’t developed a little more.

Of course this grand alliance is doomed to failure since Zukon is in cahoots with Servalan (shock, horror). Jacqueline Pearce exits the series with something of a whimper – her involvement in this story is minimal and not terribly interesting

I know that many were disappointed Servalan didn’t appear in Blake, but having her pop up at the end of the final episode would have been such a cliché, so I’m glad they didn’t go down that route. But they could have made a little more effort with her role in this one.

Poor Tarrant is unlucky in love yet again. His dalliance with Zeeona (Bobbie Brown) was obviously going to be short-lived (especially after we learnt that her daddy, Zukon. is a baddy). It’s hard to take their scenes together that seriously (mainly because of her Toyah hair-cut) but her final scene is nicely played.

Never a favourite, Warlord still chugs along quite nicely.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Orbit

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You don’t really need to see Robert Holmes’ name on the opening credits to know that Orbit is one of his. Doubtful than anybody else would have had the nerve to do a story quite like this ….

Egrorian (John Savident) is a grotesque who, despite his camp capering, still manages to come across as sinister and threatening. Savident is clearly enjoying himself, but he still reigns it in from time to time – most notably when he’s torturing the hapless Pinder (Larry Noble). “Can you feel your extensor muscle tearing? Can you feel your humerus grating against your radius? Hmm.? Just a little more… a little more… now you’re feeling it, aren’t you?”. Holmes’ dark streak is really noticeable in this story – possibly Boucher had decided that since the series had virtually run its course they might as well go for broke.

To nobody’s great surprise, Servalan is discovered to be lurking in the shadows, but on the positive side Jacqueline Pearce gets the rare opportunity to play comedy – her scenes with an amorous Egorian are wonderful (you can see a whole range of expressions flitting across her face as Egorian launches into his spiel). It seems slightly strange that Servalan has no backup at all, but if she had then the scene of her trapped with a randy Egorian wouldn’t have quite had the same impact.

The dialogue zings throughout. Egorian’s description of the qualities required by a great leader is a delight. “Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure”.

But as entertaining as all the Egorian byplay is, it’s the final ten minutes or so (as Avon and Vila find themselves in dire straits) that really stands out. A pity that Paul Darrow couldn’t make his innocent, pleading voice a little more convincing (or was it supposed to be deliberately off-kilter?). The sight of a sweating and tear-stained Vila carries a real punch (the sight of Avon attempting to shift a small Perspex box, slightly less so).

Had the show ran to a fifth series it would have been interesting to see how the Avon/Vila dynamic would have developed. Unfortunately it’s only lightly touched upon during the final two episodes.

But no matter, Orbit might be uncomfortable in many ways, but it’s still one of the series’ best episodes.

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Gold

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Avon’s old friend Keiller (Roy Kinnear), the purser of a pleasure liner called the Space Princess, has a foolproof plan to steal a fortune in gold. What could possibly go wrong?

Gold works as well as it does mainly because of Kinnear’s performance. He plays perfectly to type – a shifty, ingratiating sort of person – and it’s the way that Keiller interacts with his “old friend” Avon as well as his vain attempts to flatter the ice-cold Soolin which provides the episode with pretty much all of its comic highlights.

Interesting that Vila largely sits the story out, was this because it was felt that the characters of Keiller and Vila were too similar? It’s a slight pity, but the little that Michael Keating has to do is impressive – I particularly like Vila’s first meeting with Keiller (which sees Vila in a faintly sinister and threatening mood).

To be honest, the plotline of cross, double-cross and triple-cross isn’t totally engaging, so it’s the smaller moments which make the story a rewarding one. The terrible lift music which haunts the Space Princess, Tarrant’s glassy-eyed and toothsome fake drugged persona and the orgasmic sound of the doors, to name but three.

The late arrival of Servalan is one of those totally unsurprising plot-twists. This does allow her to have a little natter with Avon though (which they didn’t do often throughout S4). Avon’s hysterical guffawing after he realises that Servalan’s totally outplayed him is either a further example of his fractured mental state or it demonstrates what a good sport he is. I know which I favour ….

Not a bad yarn, but I do find my attention drifting every so often. Slightly tarnished gold then.

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Sand

“I know a land beyond the heart of time. The sun never comes there. No moon ever shines. And man, a grain of sand, nameless and lost, blows with the dust”.

This monologue is an early warning that, as befits a Tanith Lee script, this will be an unusual episode. But unlike Sarcophagus we don’t get an oblique opening – instead the first five minutes are spent with Servalan and her mismatched crew.

Investigator Reeve (Stephen Yardley) is the alpha-male of the party. Reeve, hands on hips, appears to be brim-full of testosterone (although maybe the sand felt otherwise since his services were fairly quickly dispensed with). It’s hard to maintain any credibility when you’re dressed in silver, but Yardley does his best.

The episode is really Servalan’s show – it’s easily the story which delves deepest into her personal life (even though certain threads remain a little nebulous – if Don Keller was that important to her, why did she wait so long before travelling to Virn to discover his fate?).

Minor quibbles apart, there’s so much to enjoy in Jacqueline Pearce’s performance – especially the small non-verbal moments of distress, highly uncharacteristic for the former Supreme Commander. After a run of stories in which she seems to have been crowbarred into the action somewhat, Sarcophagus makes for a pleasant change.

The opening modelwork shots of Virn are very nice and the film work on the planet’s surface is also decent (just a pity that a few studio shots are dropped in, as these are inevitably jarring).

There are plenty of good dialogue moments. The way Servalan rebuilt her life after Don Keller, for one. “He left me. I grew up. Power became my lover. Power is like a drug. It is beautiful. Shining. I could destroy a planet by pressing a button”.

Orac’s bizarre declaration of love and Avon’s rejoinder to Soolin’s comment that Vila’s pulse is weak (“well that should go very nicely with the rest of him”) are a few other highlights. I also like Avon’s cock of the walk strutting and the reaction of Dayna and Soolin when they realise what they’ve been saved for ….

The obvious move would have been to lock Avon and Servalan together. I’m glad they resisted the obvious since it was about time Tarrant was given something to do. Steven Pacey holds his own against Jacqueline Pearce and the scenes between them flow nicely.

I assume it was Chris Boucher who dropped in the explanation about how Servalan escaped from the Liberator (“The teleport. A malfunction. A power surge. Suddenly I was back on a Federation world”). This doesn’t make much sense – surely the only planet close to the Liberator was Terminal, and she didn’t end up there. Or had the dying Liberator suddenly developed the power to teleport somebody over a vast distance?

Although not as memorable as Sarcophagus, Sand is still several cuts above the B7 norm.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Games

Stratford Johns really is the saving grace of Games, without him it would be a much less interesting affair. Belkov may not be a very developed character – he’s a devious games player and that’s about it – but Johns is wonderfully watchable. Belkov’s face-off with Servalan about ten minutes in is a definite highlight (for once, Servalan is on the back foot).

Speaking of Servalan, not for the first time she’s pretty much surplus to requirements – this episode does smack of an attempt to fill Jacqueline Pearce’s episode allocation and little else. Her part in the plot (interrogating Belkov) could easily have been filled by any middle-ranking Federation officer.

There’s an awful lot of info-dumping early on as Avon expounds at length about the wonders of Feldon crystals. This isn’t the most effective part of the episode and neither is the sudden appearance of Gerren (David Neal). His fake beard doesn’t help, but Gerren isn’t a very memorable sort (although he’s useful as a demonstration about how ruthless Avon can be. A little light blackmail before breakfast …)

Positives? Virtually every scene with Stratford Johns, especially the byplay between Belkov and his computer Gambit (Rosalind Bailey). Vila gets a generous number of good one-liners and also demonstrates his resourcefulness on more than one occasion.

Not a bad episode, but it’s not really much more than a fairly diverting runaround.