Terrance Dicks

In a very real sense Dicks invented the Doctor as we know him today, writes Jon Arnold.

“Thanks to Terrance we know that TARDISes wheeze and groan, that the Doctor’s never cruel or cowardly and that the colour of monsters is green. Some of us were lucky enough to thank him for it, having him sign that battered first Target we ever bought that’s now the first thing we’d save from a fire.”

To listen to Terrance Dicks himself, you’d never know how remarkable he was, or what he meant to so many. He was always a humble, self-deprecating presence, someone who saw himself as more artisan than artist, with his main job to prevent the test card being shown for half an hour at 5.30 on a Saturday evening. Yet one of the most common sights at Doctor Who conventions over the last two decades was grown adults, mostly tongue-tied, saying a thank you for the impact he had on their lives. And every time it was accepted with gratitude and not a little self-deprecation.

In truth, behind the humble nature there lurked a sharp mind: Dicks was a Cambridge graduate who studied under F R Leavis, though he didn’t get on with Leavis and later described him as a ‘mad old paranoid’ who’d ‘completely lost it’ by Dicks’s time. Louis Marks would later recall that, along with Barry Letts, Dicks was a man of huge culture, widely read not only in storytelling but in science and philosophy. After five years as an advertising copywriter his big television break came via his landlord and friend Malcolm Hulke, who asked him for help with The Mauritius Penny, an episode of the second season of The Avengers. With its story of fascistic philatelists, it’s one of the show’s early leanings toward the eccentricity and surrealism that would eventually become its hallmark. Dicks would go on to co-write another four scripts for the series. He gained further experience by writing for Crossroads, where the notorious lack of time and money would stand him in good stead for his next job.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the appointment of Dicks as script editor in 1968 is the difference between Doctor Who being an eccentric, well-remembered Sixties children’s show and it becoming one of the most significant shows produced by British television. Yet this wasn’t how it seemed at the time. Doctor Who under Peter Bryant was a chaotic production, sometimes recalled as being run from the BBC bar. Brought in to eventually replace Derrick Sherwin, Dicks found himself as a self-described ‘spare part’ when the job Sherwin was supposed to be leaving for fell through. He didn’t have the power to correct the errors he could see being made, and much of his first year of the show was spent firefighting with an unhappy star and numerous scripts including the notorious The Prison In Space falling through.

Dicks would make it a point of pride on not letting scripts fall through when he became script editor, undoubtedly influenced by how badly the show was run at this point in its history. Yet the second half of the season would not only see him rescue The Seeds of Death with a significant but uncredited rewrite on the second half of the story, but discover Robert Holmes and, with Hulke, essentially create a background for the series with the introduction of the Time Lords while providing a ten part story to fill the hole left by two scripts falling through.

The War Games is a significant demonstration of Dicks’s lack of ego and practicality: he was wise enough to know he lacked the experience to write ten episodes on his own, and he added a beginning to the Doctor’s story and gave a motivation and purpose to the Doctor’s jackdaw meanderings. It gave the show a structure it hadn’t truly had since the quest to return Ian and Barbara to their own time had ended, yet tied in with the other titbits of information we knew. The show had made its reputation as a mystery, but sooner or later an audience demands answers. Dicks’s solutions gave those answers but added the narrative impetus for it to continue.

Dicks was not a fan of Sherwin’s decision to confine the Doctor to Earth. His analysis was that it left two types of story: alien invasions or mad scientists. In a rare instance of his error, Hulke would subvert this by coming up with the third variation of the monsters always having been here. Although the exile story wasn’t officially resolved until Dicks’s fourth full season as script editor the device of missions for the Time Lords allowed him to flout the narrative limitations he had been placed under. With the arrival of Barry Letts as producer Doctor Who became a far more organized production, with virtually no scripts being written off. Dicks modestly attributed it to his working method of discussing with the writer what sort of story they were after: giving writers two drafts to get the story right, then performing any necessary rewrites and edits himself.

This wasn’t a dictatorial regime: Dicks would always try and work with what the writers gave him and make it work. Dicks notably established something of a stable of trusted writers, commissioning only eleven different writers during his five years as script editor. The show also underwent something of a revival in the ratings, popular enough to make five appearances on the cover of the Radio Times, something the show would only achieve once more in its original run (and that for the Dicks-scripted The Five Doctors).

Dicks may have had a hard earned grasp of structure, but in conjunction with Letts also had a good grasp on what might be popular: a more high-minded creative team might have shied away from creating an equal and opposite adversary for the Doctor, but on the sound logic of how well Professor Moriarty played as an equal and opposite to Sherlock Holmes, they indulged in the pulp luxury of a black hearted Time Lord counterpart. The Master was so successful a creation it outlived the original actor and has been an integral part of the series for all but one production team since.

Upon leaving the role Dicks would subsequently become a reliable writer for the series, turning in immaculate scripts even when faced with filling in for scripts falling through (Horror of Fang Rock, State of Decay) or the ever changing jigsaw puzzle of the show’s history that was The Five Doctors. Dicks would end up being directly associated with Doctor Who for over fifty years: it stretched from his appointment in 1968 to his final work: a posthumously published short story in The Target Storybook. It’s a record rivalled only by William Russell’s onscreen appearances, and Russell was never as consistently associated with the show as Dicks across the years. When the show celebrated it’s fiftieth anniversary, the episode’s key scene revolved around a mantra Dicks put at the heart of the character: ‘never cruel or cowardly’. By the time Dicks left in 1974 Doctor Who had gone from a mysterious wanderer to becoming the Time Lord from Gallifrey with two hearts we take for granted now. In a very real sense Dicks invented the Doctor as we know him today.

Dicks’s editing experience and skill would stand him in good stead for the body of work for which he is perhaps best remembered. In the age where every Doctor Who story still in existence is available with a few clicks of a mouse it’s almost impossible to overstate how important the Target books were to a generation of fans who might wait years for a story to be repeated. In the last two days I’ve lost count of the number of fans of my generation and the generation before who recalled a love of reading instilled almost solely by the Target novelisations, of those who took up writing and storytelling because of their addiction to those books. Dicks was the backbone of the range, writing sixty-four of the 156 books and acting as unofficial editor in recruiting writers.

While his initial efforts on books such as Day of the Daleks and The Auton Invasion are rightly praised, the sheer number of novelisations he wrote often meant familiarity induced a certain contempt for his straightforward style. In fact, his novelisations are often masterpieces of adapting one medium to another and often quietly filling in plotholes that TV might get past with a joke or simply tapdancing quickly on before the audience realizes it’s been hoodwinked. Matthew Sweet recounted on Twitter of a teacher refusing to write down Dicks’ name when he gave it as his favourite author. It’s an excellent example of misguided snobbery: Dick’s books are masterclasses in good writing, heavily influenced by his oft-expressed love of Raymond Chandler: each opening line is designed to hook the reader and from there you get well-structured storied told in clear, lucid prose.

His fondness for a stock phrase was also a gift: wheezing groaning sounds and pleasant, open faces told you what or who you were reading about in the most economic way. A generation of fans absorbed the lessons about structure and style through repeated reading, and they were there to pick up the baton to turn Doctor Who into a literary and audio character after the show left the air, holding the fort until its return. Terrance, of course, would be there as the elder statesmen of the book range. Coupled with his and Hulke’s demystification of the process of making television in The Making of Doctor Who and you begin to have an idea of why so many fans became successful writers: they’d had free lessons from a master craftsman.

Yet this still doesn’t begin to cover the breadth of his career: quite apart from long forgotten radio plays, co-creating Moonbase 3 and writing an episode of Space: 1999 there’s his script editing of the BBC’s Classic Serial, and he holds the distinction of being that strand’s final producer. Among several Dickens adaptations, he cited the 1985 production of Oliver Twist as a career highlight. He would also write over 140 non-Doctor Who books, including series such as Star Quest, The Mounties, David and Goliath, T R Bear and Sally Ann. His prolific nature was in line with his self-image as a jobbing professional writer.

 

When asked how he’d like to be remembered Dicks straightforwardly said that he’d like to be remembered as professional. Given instances such as the hurry in which Horror of Fang Rock was needed or taking on the constantly changing jigsaw puzzle of The Five Doctors, that’s undeniable. But on the day of his death two more words kept recurring: kindness and generosity. The likes of Gary Russell, Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke and many others recalled how generous he was with his time and advice, always gently encouraging and never belittling dreams. As much as his work, Terrance’s personal generosity helped several creative forces get their start: even Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand was moved to recall his own inspiring meeting with Terrance.

Thanks to him we know that TARDISes wheeze and groan, that the Doctor’s never cruel or cowardly and that the colour of monsters is green. Some of us were lucky enough to thank him for it, having him sign that battered first Target we ever bought that’s now the first thing we’d save from a fire. And yet, even in the face of much adulation he remained eternally modest, eternally the jobbing professional writer. Fan David Whittam recalls his own meeting:

“ I never told him how much he meant to me until the 50th anniversary celebration though, where I let him know that the name ‘Uncle Terry’ wasn’t just a nickname for me – his books got me through my childhood, he was always there as a comforting presence, teaching me to read and making my life immeasurably better. He looked at me over his glasses as I was saying this, he patted my arm and said: “The number of people who have told me stories like this… I thought I was just doing it for the money, but it appears I wasn’t.”

Sometimes, the artisan doesn’t realise that somewhere along the line, they’ve quietly turned into an artist. He remained the ultimate professional to the end. And the BBC never did have to put the Test Card out at 5.30 on a Saturday.

Thanks Uncle Terry. For everything.


❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and co-editor of David Bowie charity anthology ‘Me And The Starman’ (Chinbeard Books, 2019).

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