Doctor Who’s Terrance Dicks: 1935 – 2019

Without Terrance Dicks' writing, Doctor Who could now well be a thing of the past. Andrew salutes his inestimable contribution...

I met Terrance Dicks in Hamilton Library when I was eight. I was holding a copy of The Auton Invasion that I’d bought in a shop in Hereford and could not get the price sticker off. He said it was an early pressing of the first book he’d written for the Target Novelisation range, then launched into an anecdote about it. It may not have been this story’s first outing but damn it I was paying attention.

I mean, sure, he wrote Warmonger, but can any of us say they haven’t on some level “written Warmonger“?

Certainly none of us can say we introduced thousands of children to literature, and not the “Ian McEwan pretends Science Fiction doesn’t exist” sort of literature, but the kind that fires up the imagination and makes people realise there are bigger worlds to pursue, to dip into, to find refuge in.

There was a spinner full of Hardy Boys books and Target Novelisations (capital N) in my local library when I was growing up, and a few Terrance Dicks dotted about my primary school too. Growing up with the show off-air, without access to UK Gold, I too got to dabble in the Fan Experience of “The Version I Imagined Reading the Book Is Different to What the BBC Could Afford in 1979” via The Armageddon Factor. I too got to read about “That mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor”, and the TARDIS’ “wheezing, groaning sound”.

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Dicks’ contribution to reading and writing in Britain is incalculable but certainly significant. His prose style was such that even his lesser efforts were immensely readable (as has been noted, his description of the Fifth Doctor as having a “pleasant open face” is both a nostalgia rush and a horrific mental image). It’s not without reason that every iteration of Doctor Who in print, be it Virgin or BBC Books, or the post-2005 series’ regular novels, features Uncle Terrance. He contributed 13 original books and 65 adaptations of Doctor Who stories for the Target range. With Malcolm Hulke he wrote The Making Of Doctor Who, the second edition of which contains the lines “never cruel or cowardly” and “he never gives in, and he never gives up.”

This is before we even get onto what he achieved for the television series.

When asked about his plans for script editing Doctor Who, Terrance Dicks replied ‘to get the bloody show out on the air’. Considering his experience on the show in the late Sixties, this was genuinely optimistic. For its first six years Doctor Who‘s production was turbulent behind the scenes with producers and script editors usually lasting around a series before moving on. While Dicks did try to move on from Doctor Who, he ultimately stuck around as Script Editor in tandem with Producer Barry Letts.

This resulted in Doctor Who having stability for arguably the very first time, once Dicks and Letts’ efforts had kept it on the air. Both stayed on for five years, changing the way the show was made and – amongst other things – creating the Master, naming Gallifrey, and casting Tom Baker.

Using contacts from his previous writing gigs, Dicks ensured a baseline of competence that prevented the behind-the-scenes turmoil he’d experienced when he joined. He gave Robert Holmes another chance and kept Malcolm Hulke involved, and through rewrites kept the more ambitious scripts going. He also planned series to accommodate lower budgeted-stories to avoid no-money panic jobs.

Besides the nuts and bolts work, Dicks built and sustained audiences, bringing in big events and longer storylines which paid off. A lot of what made the Russell T. Davies’ era popular can be found in Dicks’ and Letts’ work, an era where any troubles rarely came to the fore because fundamentally the show worked for its audience. This competence isn’t thrilling to hear of but is hard to achieve.

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What’s clear from production stories is that Letts and Dicks were a savvy populist combo, both trusting the other and collaborating well. Any mishaps along the way are usually solved by one or the other or both just … solving it. For Inferno Dicks suggested the parallel universe plot. For The Three Doctors he rewrote the script of Part Four to minimise William Hartnell’s involvement. It’s what he did, and it gave Doctor Who a constancy it hadn’t had before, a longevity that was crucial in its becoming a British Institution. Without Dicks and Lett we might be talking about Doctor Who in the same way we talk about The Avengers or The Prisoner: much loved pop culture artefacts but also relics of the past.

Dicks cultivated an air of pragmatism which underplayed his influence on the show, saying for a good Doctor Who “you needed a good, original story, but it doesn’t have to be your good, original story.”

Doctor Who isn’t technically Terrance Dicks’ story, in that he didn’t create it, but on the other hand he shaped so very much of it, and it absolutely is.